As I embark upon my doctoral journey, finally beginning the project phase of introducing the concept of missional living to an established congregation, I have come to recognize an irony in my theological training. After all of the books read, and classroom hours spent, as a philosophy/theology major in undergrad, completing my Master of Divinity, and concentrating on missional leadership in my doctoral work, I have come to realize the blessing of my own upbringing. Better than any author or professor could possibly communicate the concepts of missional living, my parents embodied what it means to be missionaries in our own backyard.
In the 1980’s there was an influx of refugees from Southeast Asia to the United States. The town in which I grew up in Northern California, called Redding, had a lot of Mien people move in. The Mien are a hill tribe from Laos, so you can imagine the culture shock they experienced as they arrived in the US.
Through a series of circumstances that included one little old Mien lady being brought to our church by her neighbor, my parents’ hearts resonated with the Mien people. What started off as my mom deciding to help by teaching English to a handful of refugees soon developed into a Bible study that continued to grow. Through the efforts of my parents, others began to see what God was doing and decided to jump on board, as one Mien family after another turned away from their religious pasts of Animism and Daoism into a relationship with Jesus Christ. The Mien Christian community in Redding continued to blossom into a self-sustaining church with trained and ordained Mien pastors leading the congregation.
My parents began doing this about the time I was born, so I was raised in the midst of this, never really knowing how unique it was that I, a middle-class white kid with about as blonde hair as you can get, was always hanging around poor Asian refugees who had literally just arrived in America.
My parents embodied what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 9:
“Becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means some might be saved.”
And they did this in many different ways.
Though they could have used the language barrier as an excuse to say, “We don’t fit with them,” my mom was the one giving English lessons, my dad was the one who developed a passion for learning the Mien language. You should see the surprise and thrill on the face of Mien people, who don’t know that my dad can speak Mien, the moment he greets them in their own language!
And when the Mien families who had just become Christians asked my parents to help them host a ceremony to burn their idols and artifacts from their former religions, my parents could have said, “We don’t do that type of thing in our church,” but instead said, “We would be honored to help.”
When my dad would walk around the house, singing “…Aengx maaih ziex nyungc dongc yie maiv hiuv, maaih ziex norm dorngx yie mingh maiv duqv….(I had to reference him for those lyrics)” with its unique Asian melody, inevitably getting stuck in our heads for days, I could have said, “Dad, seriously. Stop it. I’m sick of that song!”—and I’m sure there were times that I did—but I also remember realizing how significant it was that there were worship songs in the Mien language in the first place, and how brave it was of my dad (who isn’t exactly a professional vocalist…) to join the Mien choir at church and sing boldly, even in a different language.
At the potluck feasts that were held on a regular basis in the apartment complexes in which they lived, when I was passed a serving bowl with a type of food that looked like nothing I had ever seen before, I could have said, “Ew, gross,” but my parents taught me to put a little on my plate, and ask what is was later…
And when my parents raided my closet on a regular basis, looking for clothes that would fit the children of a family who just arrived, I could have thrown a fit and protested—and I probably did at first—but I remember the feeling of joy I would get seeing one of my new Mien friends wearing an outfit that he didn’t know came from me.
You see, this is what it means to be missional. This is what it means to become “all things to all people so that by all means possible some might be saved.” And not just some were saved… many heard the good news of Jesus Christ and came to know the one, true God who created them.
Mission living isn’t about coordinating occasional projects of mercy. It’s a complete orientation of life, committed to justice, driven by unconditional love.
Thank you, Mom and Dad.
Some things you just can’t learn in a book or a classroom.