Dominican pitcher Joaquin Andujar is credited with saying that there is one word to describe baseball (and life in America in general), and that one word is “youneverknow.” That “one word” is a good word to describe mission trips as well.
We are on our sixth mission trip to Alaska this week, and as I write this blog, I don’t know what this year’s major curveball will be, but by this point, the most surprising thing that could happen is for everything to go as planned.
The first year, the hard drive on my laptop failed two days before we left (and I left my wallet on a plane in Portland). Another year, there was a steady downpour all week long, and another our food was delivered to the wrong city. Last year, we had to completely change both our place of ministry and our project just four days before we were to set out.
None of that compares to our second trip to Kobuk in 2013.
Our first trip to the small fishing village in the Arctic bush was focused on the kids. We conducted a Vacation Bible School, which included a family night, but we only had a couple of real conversations with the adults in the village. They mostly observed from afar, and we had the impression that they were not sure they wanted us there. So our prayer for our second year was that, even though the plan was still a VBS and other kids’ programs, we would have a chance to interact with adults.
We planned that year’s trip for the last week in May, with VBS beginning the day after Memorial Day, which was much earlier than the year before. Luke, the pastor there, advised us that the river thaws in May, sometimes causing some flooding (the houses are built on stilts), but that usually happens the first week of May or so.
We thought we received that year’s major curveball when Luke’s wife Sarah called to tell us that due to a scheduling conflict, they would not be in the village while we were there. We were on our own, but the kids knew us from the previous summer, so everything should be fine.
When we arrived in the village, it was nearly eighty degrees outside, but the river was still frozen solid. Break-up was coming soon, however, which was a major village event. The first chance we got to interact with the adults was when we went out to watch the river break up the evening after our first night of VBS. They were excited to share their legends and traditions associated with the river breaking up every year. They also told us that it seemed the ice was moving down the river nicely, so they expected the flooding to be minimal.
The next morning, we woke up with three feet of water in the back yard! We boated to the church building to see if anyone would come to VBS. When no one arrived, we started to look around the flooded village. Then, we heard a crashing sound as large ice chunks came down the river, knocking down trees along the bank. Then the water started to rise again. We quickly got into our boat and went back to the house.
I called Luke to let him know about the flood. The missions house was one of the highest-built homes in the village, but the water was coming up to the top step of the back deck. I asked him what we ought to do if water starts coming into the house. “It won’t come into the house,” he said. Just then, I saw water flooding in from all directions.
“It’s coming in the house!”
He sighed. “Just let it come in, I guess.”
We moved what we could to higher counters and eventually went to bed upstairs. The water receded out of the house by bed-time, but in the middle of the night, I heard one of our men sloshing downstairs. The water was back. Soon, there was a knock on the kitchen window. Fuel had leaked out of the main fuel tank in town, and they were evacuating people to the school building. So we climbed out the window into a boat and rowed to the school. The icy water had cooled the air to near freezing temperatures. It was about five in the morning.
When we finally returned to the house, the whole trip seemed lost. There seemed to be more chance that we would be unable to fly out of the village in time to catch our outbound plane than there was of doing any meaningful ministry. We only had that day and the next in town before we were scheduled to leave. We called the airline that served the villages to see if there was a chance to fly out early. The trip seemed utterly washed out.
Then we decided to pray. We asked God to show us what ministry we could do under these circumstances. We left that prayer time with a new determination to do what we could. Then we remembered the pizza. We had brought ingredients to make pizza for family night. Now that VBS was a washout, what could we do with this pizza? Once the water had left the house again (so that we could plug in the oven), we decided to make the pizzas and deliver them to every home in the village who had a child who had participated in VBS.
And so we went by boat, house to house, bearing a pizza and a New Believer’s New Testament to share with each home. Most homes allowed us to come in, to visit with them, to share with them how to use the special features of the Bible we brought, and to pray for them. We connected with nearly every adult in the village, entering their homes, laying hands on them, and blessing them. It was an opportunity we would never have gotten without the flood.
The water rushed back into the river quickly once the huge chunks of ice cleared from the river bends. In fact, the ground was dry enough to walk on by the time we finished delivering pizzas around 11 p.m. It was the biggest flood in the village in more than thirty years, but we had not only survived but had seen God’s wisdom at work. We even held our last day of VBS as scheduled the next day.
It may be true that in missions, “youneverknow,” but God always does. His wisdom will guide all of us who are faithful to offer ourselves to be useful to him.
So what are your stories of God’s faithfulness? Let’s share stories to encourage one another about how even when things seem to go sideways in the biggest ways, God is still at work. I look forward to reading your comments.