Well I’ve been home for two weeks now and I’ve kept myself busy this whole time with traveling and reuniting and catching up. Finally the dust is starting to settle and I am beginning to process all that has happened, little by little, day by day.
A lot happened in Argentina. I got to know people and myself and 6000+ survey takers in Buenos Aires. If anything has stuck with me through the experience, it is the importance of our stories.
In the church–at least the Evangelical church, as far as I know, we put a lot of emphasis on telling our stories, sharing our testimonies. I’ve written mine out–the long version, the short version, the one geared for believers, the one for nonbelievers, the one that’s suuuuper personal for close close friends only, etc. And I’ve helped others practice sharing their stories. I’ve led workshops and written blog posts on how to share your testimony with your friends. Bottom line: The church loves the Christian testimony.
This is a good thing. Christ himself was the greatest poet and storyteller that ever lived. He knew how to wrap a truth in a picture and make it tangible. Let’s just say the King of Kings knew his way around a good metaphor. And we are made in the image of the Divine Storyteller, so I have to believe that God likes it when we tell people what he’s done for us.
As I process the past year and a half of surveying in Argentina, of friend-making and culture shock and growing pains, I realize that, between all the workshops and missions conferences, nobody taught me to listen.
The surveys forced me to do that.
It felt so wrong at first, to go out onto the streets and meet the unfiltered, unchurched masses and NOT share my testimony or a bible story or hand out a tract. And I can still see the looks of disappointment or confusion or frustration on American volunteers’ faces as we explained to them that the goal of the surveys was not to share the gospel that day. But after a while I began to understand a truth that I’m only now fully grasping:
EVERYONE has a testimony.
The sovereign God who has written our Christian stories has also written Nonchristian ones. God is bigger than our Christianity and for every fairy tale, God-fixed-everything ending there are multiple stories that end in heartache and disillusionment. Prayers for miraculous healing go unanswered. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger. Life doesn’t always resolve itself. Some tragedies just always seem meaningless. As Christians, we need to acknowledge and honor these testimonies.
1. Because the person carrying it needs to be heard. During the research project there were people on a daily basis who explained their doubts and their reasons for them to me, a stranger and a foreigner. Sometimes they were angry with the church, angry with God, or simply afraid to acknowledge or explore the ominous unknown. For some of them it was the first time they’d ever put their beliefs (or lack thereof) into words. For others I was the anonymous stranger listening to their confession of doubt or pain. I think being that listening ear helped them. And I pray that it played a small part in healing them too.
2. We need to listen because they have something to teach us. More often than not, what has pushed a person away from Christ has been a Christian. Hypocritical or judgmental, careless or overbearing, there are more unflattering stories of Christians than there are Christians. We need to own up to that.
Whether or not we are personally responsible for what the individual has suffered is inconsequential. We’re responsible for fixing it. We have a big ole Bible that is pretty much all about God’s affinity for healing and restoration and the last bit of it talks all about how we the Church get to play a part in that.
We have centuries of damage to repair in Latin America, where Christ has been misrepresented by Christians of various denominations since the Conquest. In our own American neighborhoods, perhaps even in our own churches, there are living, breathing examples of Christians’ failure to love as He first loved us. And we’ll never know how or where to help until we start listening.
This is the importance of research.
If this all seems pretty hopeless, remember that while a person is still breathing, their story is still unfinished, and there is still time to start healing, start restoring, but 99% of the time you can’t simply start by talking. Talking is a privilege we must earn. Instead we need to learn to see the brokenness around us, hear the testimonies of the hurting, and allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable for the sake of those around us. There won’t be happily ever afters until we do.