As a starry-eyed 18- year-old, I headed off to Puerto Montt, Chile for a five-month mission trip before starting college. I was eager to share the love of Jesus with the locals and also eager to hone my Spanish language skills. I had enjoyed Spanish class since the first grade, and this was a perfect opportunity to become proficient!
Once there, I soon became friends with a woman who invited me to call her “Tia Joanna,” a Spanish term of respect meaning “Auntie Joanna.” I used to wander down the street to Tia Joanna’s corner store to chat or learn to cook a new dish with her. I was very proud of my ability to carry on conversation entirely in Spanish for a whole hour. One day in the middle of our conversation, Tia Joanna told me that I spoke como una niña, “like a little girl.” In spite of all my efforts to learn Spanish, I still sounded like a child. That was humbling. And communicating in my second language still left me utterly exhausted at the end of the day.
Remembering my own humbling experience learning a new language and culture, I am in awe when I hear Mary Slessor’s story of immersing herself in a new language and culture in order to spread the Gospel of Peace (Eph 6:15). At the very same age I am now—28—Slessor set sail for modern-day Nigeria and devoted the rest of her life to working there. Though she made brief trips back to her native Scotland, Slessor made her home in modern-day Nigeria until she died at 66. She learned the local language and spoke to people in their native tongue. I imagine that she, like me, started off sounding like a small child and felt exhausted from the nature of her work. But she didn’t quit.
Twelve years into the work, Slessor traveled to Okoyong Territory. Everyone warned that the Okoyong people would kill her as they had previous missionaries. Yet Slessor said, “When you think of the woman’s power, you forget the power of the woman’s God. I shall go on.” With God’s help, Slessor managed to earn the trust of the Okoyong people, share the good news of Jesus, and help them make peace with other people groups.
Slessor’s skill in language, culture, and peacemaking in Okoyong became so strong that the British government appointed her their official agent. No longer learning a new language like a little child, Slessor became a mother to many. She adopted many children who needed a home and was called “Ma” by many more.
What I learned from my time in Chile is that mission is not a far-off location you go to, but a way of living wherever God sends you. For me that has meant seeking to serve Jesus as a pastor right here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, in the culture and language in which I grew up. For Slessor, it meant making peace, mothering many, and spreading the gospel in modern-day Nigeria her whole life long. No matter where we are, Slessor’s prayer is one we all do well to repeat, “Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow.”