“Our dusty fifteen-passenger van bounced its way through the guarded gate and into the dirt parking lot, allowing Susan to ease its cumbersome body into an imaginary parking space. She cut the engine, and in the silence that followed I could hear traffic whizzing by on the other side of the fence, the hum of a nearby electrical plant, and my own heart trying to beat its way out of my chest. “Just kidding, God!” I silently prayed, “I can’t do this!”
There comes a time in everyone’s life where we must make the decision of a lifetime: to stay safe inside of our cushioned shell, or to break past the walls of our comfort zone and pursue the alternative ending for our lives- an ending that goes far beyond anything we could ever imagine for ourselves.
My alternative ending began in February 2011
That winter, I made the decision to jut my toes past comfort zone lines and travel with a church I had never attended to the bustling city of Ensenada, Mexico, on a mission trip. A girl whom I had detasseled with a few summers before had been on this trip with her church two years prior, and we had discussed what an awesome experience it had been. My mom could not believe that someone as shy as I would go to another country with a group of people I barely knew, yet I did–and going to Mexico proved to be an amazing experience. We camped at Rancho el Refugio, our temporary home nestled among the rocky, dry Mexican hills, beautiful in their own way, as yellow wildflowers danced on the hillsides in the afternoon breeze and absorbed splashes of the sun setting behind majestic mountain tops.
That week we hosted two Vacation Bible Schools in the grueling summer heat, went into the men’s and women’s decrepit prisons, participated in dynamic street ministry, and formed countless new friendships– both American and cross-cultural. In the months preceding the trip, I had thought that God was calling me to go into a missions-related career, and being in Mexico had confirmed that calling as legitimate. (Update: still working to figure out what that call is, five years later!) Upon returning home, I decided I needed to challenge myself and go on a longer mission trip for the next summer, so I started searching for opportunities. At the time I found myself disappointed that essentially no ministry organizations would accept my application until I turned eighteen,
so I reverted to my fall-back plan of returning to Mexico in the summer of 2012.
In the months leading up to the trip, we had periodic team meetings to make sure everything was coming together. Roughly a month before we were scheduled to leave, Susan hobbled over to the round plastic table where I sat chatting with several other girls. Despite numerous hip and knee surgeries, Susan had continued going back to Mexico several times a year, and the spunky sixty-something-year-old had been deemed the Mexico “Mom” to all of the other team members due to her leadership, organization, and maternal qualities. “Girls,” she began, “we’ll be going into the prison two days this year, and I’m sharing a devotion on one of those days. If any of you are interested in speaking as well, let me know!” Taylor, one of the girls I had shared a tent with the previous year (and now a dear friend who happened to take most of the pictures I use on this blog!), zealously jumped at the opportunity to become more involved in her favorite ministry. I on the other hand, remained hesitant and doubtful; however, I assured Susan that I would pray about sharing and respond to her if I thought of something to share.
I tried forgetting about it–
I really did–but I just couldn’t seem to shake the foreboding force pulling at me to leave my comfort zone. So, I reluctantly emailed Susan and asked her what she had in mind for someone to speak about in the prison. She replied by explaining that she planned to speak about prayer, Taylor wanted to give
her testimony, and I had the choice of either giving my testimony as well, or sharing
on a different topic.
To be completely honest, I have never felt as if I had an exciting or interesting testimony since I had grown up in a Christian home, so I opted to share some of the things God had been teaching me about prayer. I grudgingly wrote down everything I wanted to say and sent a copy to Susan for approval. Thrilled that God had laid something on my heart to speak about, she loved my outline, and I felt encouraged and almost excited about this opportunity to share with women inmates in Mexico.
The remaining weeks whirled by in a blur, and before long we were back in one of my favorite places on Earth–Rancho el Refugio–sleeping in tents under a breathtaking canopy of stars.
Waking up at 6:00 A.M. on Tuesday morning, half of our team travelled with Javier and Sylvia–a married couple who ran a men’s rehabilitation center–into the streets of Ensenada to help with serving soup and evangelism. Unbeknownst to me, this was merely the warm-up to God stretching my comfort zone as we invited homeless men and women over for a cup of warm tortilla soup and were able to start up conversations with prostitutes desperate to provide for their children, former Mafia hit-men who had brutally killed dozens of people, drug addicts searching for other addicted family members, and countless others, each with a different, heart-wrenching story. I was humbled to have the opportunity to share with them God’s love and pray for them. While our half of the team helped with street ministry, the other half went into the prisons.
On Wednesday we switched ministries.
Wednesday morning dawned like every other day that week, cool and bright with the rising sun peeking over the silent mountains to chase away the hovering fog. Prison visitation hours did not begin until 10:00 A.M., but I felt no apprehension all morning, and I did not worry about what loomed before me as we loaded our supplies and piled into the vans. However, the moment we pulled into the prison parking lot my heart slammed into overtime, beating against my chest like a caged gorilla.
“Just kidding, God!” I silently prayed, “I can’t do this!”
In that moment I questioned my very existence. Who was I–a young, timid, naive girl from Small Town, Nebraska–to encourage guilty and innocent women alike to seek and wait on God and tell them that he wanted to bless them?
What did I know about being unfairly treated?
Would they even listen to what I had to say?
What in the world was I doing here?
Thoughts ferociously swirled in my mind like a tornado, but just as my consternation nearly overwhelmed me from ever leaving the security of my comfort zone, I heard God whisper to my conflicted heart.
“Make up your mind!” He lovingly demanded. “You ask to be used, but then you run from opportunities! I am with you–let me use you how I want.”
So, taking a deep and not-so-calming breath, I exited the van and stepped into the cluster of women and girls from our team.
Susan introduced us to Happy–a bubbly, older American woman with a slight frame, thinning hair, and a smile that foreshadowed her name, who lived in Mexico and had deeply involved herself with the women’s prison ministry–and she quickly briefed us on standard prison procedure.
Then, before we headed for the barred entrance, we had a time of group prayer in that crowded, dusty parking lot, and several of the women prayed a blessing over Taylor’s and my messages.
Encouraged yet still anxious, I made my way through the intimidating security checkpoints before walking through the male inmates, provocatively jeering from the other side of their fenced off courtyard, and into the primitive women’s quarters.
Just like the previous year, the women greeted us with enthusiastic hugs and kisses on the cheek. They told us what a blessing we were to them, and we had the privilege of joining them in a passionate praise and worship service–complete with rattling tambourines, clapping hands, and dancing feet. Taylor and I had agreed beforehand that I would share first, so once we finished singing, I stood on shaky legs and approached the podium.
One of our seven interpreters, Evelyn, translated for me, and with her help and a confidence that could only be from God, I was able to share with the women two key verses: Isaiah 30:18–which says that the Lord is a God of justice who longs to be gracious–and Psalm 27:14–which says to take heart and wait on the Lord. To my surprise, the women were very attentive and accepting to both my simple message and Taylor’s moving testimony, nodding empathetically and shouting out “Amen!” or “Alleluia!” at appropriate times.
Once we were finished speaking, Susan went forward and, after everyone bowed their head, asked those women who had felt God tugging on their heart to raise their hand if they wanted to accept him into their life. About ten hands of various shades of brown reached skyward, and Susan led these women in a prayer of repentance. We concluded our time at the prison by serving the women sandwiches and Oreos, helping them with a craft, and joining them for a competitive game of volleyball.
As we left the prison that day, we were amazed that the women prisoners viewed our visit as a blessing to themselves, but in reality they were the ones who had blessed us.
On our last night in Mexico, the entire Nebraska team gathered together in an amoeba of lawn chairs, clutching our dirty sweatshirts close as we shivered in the crisp night air, to debrief about the week so quickly behind us. Nearly everyone shared something that had impacted them personally throughout the week, and I was no exception.
I realized in that moment that whether the women in the prison had absorbed a single word that I had said or not truly did not matter, but rather, the point of the entire experience was for me to trust God enough to let him use me how HE wanted.
Evelyn spoke up after I sat down to say that Taylor and I had done an awesome job, and the woman did indeed listen to us. Susan added that Happy mentioned never hearing such mature young women speak. (Seriously, friends. This is only added to show how powerfully God is able to work through us if we are willing. In 2012, I could barely keep eye contact with adults for more than five seconds…I was shy and so very unconfident in myself.)
Knowing that God had succeeded in using me in a relatively tiny way felt amazing, and yet he still has dreams for my life that far exceed any I could ever imagine.
After returning from my second trip to Mexico, I am convinced that God has an incredible alternative ending for my life, I only need to trust him as he leads me beyond my comfort zone walls. . .”
These words are pulled directly from an English Comp. paper I wrote my senior year of high school titled, “God’s Alternative Ending,” and, if I’m being completely honest with you, my eyes welled up and my heart ached with longing remembering this moment.
Mission trips make it so easy to feel and respond to God’s nudge to take that leap of faith off the high dive.
But in my normal, everyday life? Forget it. I fake leaps of faith when I absolutely have to take them (fake it til you make it…right?) and I’m constantly trying to remember which frequency I last heard God’s voice on so I can tune back in. Yet when I finally do hear from Him, more often than not, I don’t like what He has to say.
“Really, God? You want me to do that? That can’t be right. Try again!”
How He doesn’t run out of patience with me is beyond my mental capacity (but that’s just one of the beautiful things about Him!) I was never one to argue back to my parents, but my Heavenly Father is a whole different ballgame. We go round and round–
I reject that answer and ask again.
Sometimes I think like I probably make God feel like one of those magic 8 balls we played with as kids: ask a question, press a button, get a randomized answer, try again if you don’t like it.
But God isn’t a magic 8 ball. (and thankfully so!)
Because, you see, God actually can see the future, and He does know what’s best for us–even if it doesn’t seem like it from our tunnel-visioned perspective.
So what’s a girl to do?
Well, if you came to this post hoping for an easy fix, I hate to disappoint you (especially considering we’re now 2,226 words in…) but there isn’t a one-and-done-cure-all for this. It’s kind of like a diet, actually.
I know, I know, bleh. Diets are no fun. At all. But they require discipline. They call for action and dedication and acceptance that something has to change in order for you to change. They aren’t easy, but they’re worth it in the end.
That’s how God’s will and call are. We may not always like it. We may fight it or ignore it or run from it faster than the fish swallowed Jonah, but, in the end, that thing we don’t want to hear is exactly the thing that will create our alternative ending.
And, let’s be honest, alternative endings are always way cooler, anyway.