After encountering Church Mission Society’s Mission Experiment stand at the Big Church Day Out in 2015, Eleanor May, age 19, decided to become a CMS community member and embark on six months of mission in Asia. She writes:
Why mission? As I grew up in my faith and it became my own, rather than my parents’ or church’s or something you do on a Sunday, I had a sense of wanting to save the world. To the point where I actually asked my mum one day, “Will you help me save the world please?”
I considered a gap year. I had a desire to travel, not just for the sake of it, but to be able to appreciate and understand the normal lives of people outside my tiny western bubble. I explored teaching abroad, but the further I got with that process the more disillusioned I became with the motives expressed by secular organisations. It all seemed mainly for self-development, something you can put on your CV to look better.
I started looking at missions. I’d been thinking about this idea of “saving the world” and realising that I, Ellie, can’t save the world myself. But God already has. Why not try to walk in his footsteps and serve with a love that leads people to God?
I had heard of Church Mission Society through my family and church. At the Big Church Day Out in 2015, CMS had a stand called The Mission Experiment. For me, being a science student, this made so much sense. Basically you selected your skills, passion and availability from a list of suggestions. This was a real difference from other organisations, where you applied for a specific team and had to fit yourself around them. I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do and at the CMS stand I was given the opportunity to start identifying that. And then CMS works with you to establish a way to work out your calling.
The more I read about CMS, the more I liked it; they seemed to get mission and get where I was coming from. So I became a member and then I came to the office and met with three regional managers for South America, Africa and Asia to talk about possible placements. I ended up settling on Asia. I was in Bangalore for five months, working at Chai 3:16, a student cafe ministry. Then I went to Nepal, where I spent a couple of weeks working with National Mission Commission to Nepal (NMCN) and attended the South Asian Christian Youth Network conference.
My church recently invited me to share my experiences and my curate asked me to compare the theory and practice of my recent journey. What were my expectations versus reality?
There were three things I could identify that came unexpectedly as my mission trip took shape:
1. Service is a rich blessing
One embarks on such adventures with the notion of helping people, changing lives and making a difference, when in fact I was met with such warmth, acceptance and welcome that it became a privilege to merely appear as a piece in the jigsaw of people’s lives. I remember a day when one of the truest friends I made from among the students hurried into the café with a beam and the words, “Ellie, Ellie, I need to talk to you – there’s something I want to tell you before anyone else.” It was an honour to be part of this girl’s story.
2. Service isn’t always glamorous
Many hours were lost to spreadsheets and other documents: creating schedules and structures for our staff team, writing briefing and information packs for Chai 3:16, correcting and reformatting outgoing correspondence for NMCN.
3. Service is presence
Singing and playing the guitar, chatting about music and watching film trailers, drawing pictures and illustrating names; it was this that founded friendships. Cooking, eating, sharing food; it was this that rooted relationships. Conversations, prayer, Bible studies; it was this that grew organically and budded encouragement, support and challenge.
Mission for me wasn’t development work – I did not paint a school, build a toilet, dig a hole, carry a brick or hold an orphan; I was serving the poor in spirit and so painted a new picture of an individual’s value, built a foundation for people’s worth, dug a well to the water of life, carried burdens and held hearts.
I smiled as my church, St Mary’s Andover, launched its free popup cafe in the local housing estate; its debut was met with very few customers, which brought to mind hours sat in Bangalore with no students, and days of indulging the trickle while holding out for the flood. I smiled because we’re not called to success, but faithfulness; God saw us being there available and that made him smile. That’s because love starts with presence and is nurtured by presence.
CMS encouraged me in the ministry of incarnational living despite my lack of professional qualifications, valuing stories over numbers. I have learned to focus on the individual in front of me; to love people is to love a person. CMS recently went through a rebrand, which readjusted their outlook to equipping “the call in action” – the call we each have as Christians to partake in the Father’s mission to humanity – a mission of love, an invitation to be present, whether we travel five metres or 5,000 miles. Mission is loving the person in front of you, whether that’s across an ocean or across a street.
Mma Ramotswe, from Alexander McCall Smith’s novels, beautifully crafts this into a sentence: “I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place.” I love all the people whom God has made, but I especially know how to love students who live in cities, because that’s me, that’s what I do, and that’s what I can do with people – this is my heart and my steps will follow. Before this year my heart stretched across the table to companions at school, then it got extended across the world to comrades in Asia and now the recoil takes it to university. Where is your heart?