Years ago, my wife Peggy and I were heavily involved in short-term foreign ministry experiences before answering God’s call to career missions service. The missions pastor at our church is known for three things: comprehensive missions training and preparation, intensive mission schedules on the field, and an unrelenting focus of living missional lives on and off the foreign field. He frequently would shout the question to mission teams in training and on the field, “What do we do when the bus breaks down?” The answer had been drilled into us, and we would respond with a shout of anticipation and expectation, “Build a church!”
The bus never did, by the way … break down, that is. But his point was to always expect the unexpected; to never let setbacks on the field discourage you; to know that even our best plans can fall apart, and above all else, to remember that God is with us and has a plan and a purpose for us, even when the metaphorical bus breaks down.
During our six years in Sri Lanka, that metaphorical bus has lost wheels, run out of gas, gone up in smoke and even been lost a few times. It is the nature of missions. We go to a foreign country, learn the language, immerse ourselves in the culture, try not to make too many mistakes all while trying to follow God’s plan for our mission service. We come to expect the unexpected. Peggy once said to me at a particularly smooth and uneventful period in our service, “Things are going right. Something must be coming!” We laughed. But she was right.
Easter 2019, multiple churches and gathering places for Christians around the country were bombed in a coordinated attack. The country had not seen terrorist activities since the end of its own 30-year civil war in 2009. Sri Lanka is only one percent Christian, but all churches and religious gatherings on the island were immediately shut down. The images and the stories came flooding in. In one church, the Sunday school was targeted just after the children had been asked if they were willing to die for Jesus. Little hands went up around the room. Then the room went up in an explosion. Our hearts broke, and our mission of equipping leaders to reach their villages stopped abruptly. What do you do when the bus breaks down? You build a church! You remember that God has placed you where you are for a reason. You fight through your tears and fears and look to the needs of the children of God.
In 2020, the pandemic set in, and our entire country, which had not recovered economically from the Easter bombings the previous year, was locked down. This was not the kind of strongly suggested lockdown many experienced in the States, but the kind of lockdown where if you left your house for any reason, you were immediately arrested and sent to a quarantine facility. We were isolated in our homes. We had to cancel our pastor training sessions and cancel flights for leaders from the States. Our pastors, most of whom are not allowed to build churches in their villages, operate multiple home churches and were not permitted to convene them. They had no way to receive offerings that would support their family. What do you do when the bus breaks down? You build a church! You pray with those who are dying from Covid-19. You gather resources, send out dry rations, meet for Zoom prayer, and remind the people around you that this was not a surprise to God and that God still loves them.
As if the Easter bombings and a pandemic were not enough, in May 2021, a cargo ship exploded and burned off the west coast of Sri Lanka. The ecological disaster also meant that fishing for the entire west coast of the island was shut down. The little fishing community where we live was devasted. Not only did the fishermen lose their income, but communities that relied on fish as a protein staple had to do without. What do you do when the bus breaks down? Our ingrained and resounding answer is, “Build a church!” We look for ways to further the Kingdom of God in spite of setbacks, and we remember that God has a plan and a purpose for us when the metaphorical bus driving our mission is on the side of the road.