Beth and I recently returned from our second trip to El Salvador. As we returned from the remote mountains, one of the members on our medical team reflected that my trip resembled the Biblical story of the 99 sheep. I now understand this story a little differently.
Luke 15— Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
On our second trip to El Salvador we traveled with a medical team to a remote mountain village about 4 hours outside San Salvador. The medical team would run a three-day medical clinic in the village. However, Beth and I would present a three-day resilience seminar at a nearby Bible School to help the local pastors deal with the emotional stress of gang violence and the recent civil war. We arrived early in the morning at the local Bible School to present the seminar. No one showed up. Unfortunately, the district leaders had failed to notify the local pastors. I felt dismayed. I had traveled so far, spent so much money for the trip, and now nothing good would come from it. I felt extremely discouraged, even angry. How could they be so disorganized?
That same afternoon, the local missionary noticed several local gang members casing out the medical clinic. She closed the clinic two hours early and hurried everyone back to the safety of the hotel. She asked if Beth and I would go with them the following day to the clinic. I told Beth that I didn’t feel obligated to risk my life. If I couldn’t safely train pastors as initially planned, I simply wanted to go home. I wasn’t ready to risk becoming a martyr when gang members were actively casing the clinic. I felt scared, and mentally started to make up excuses for why I should not go. To my dismay, however, the next day we found ourselves clinging to the sides of a cattle truck as we briskly bounced across roads of boulders to the medical clinic.
Patients lined up in front of the local school to receive medical aid, dental care, and eye glasses. We set up an outside “office” too, offering counseling and prayer for emotional pain. Even in this small, remote village at the backside of nowhere, every family was directly affected by gang violence and the civil war.
My, (Nathan’s) first client was Kevin, a 12 year old boy. The local gang had murdered Kevin’s uncle just one month before we arrived, so Kevin was still in deep grief. I taught Kevin some basic self-care tips, and assured him that his grief was normal.
Then a young Christian father, Martin, asked to talk about his son, Samuel. Martin and his wife attended the local church, and raised all their children in the church. He explained that their oldest son, Samuel, was starting to get involved with the local gang. He wanted to know how to stop his son from joining it. We discussed several strategies, and he seemed encouraged that the strategies might work. I asked to talk to Samuel, but the father explained that Samuel was working at a construction site in the next town, and wouldn’t return until late that evening.
Upon finishing with Martin, I noticed a young man peeking from behind the corner of one of the buildings. He perfectly fit the description of the local gang. Every time I looked at him, he tried to hide behind the building. It looked as if he was trying to discretely case out the clinic. Over the next half hour, he sprinted from building to building, peeking around the back corners of each one. He carefully watched my every move and the activities of everyone else at the clinic. Soon, another missionary couple also noticed and pointed him out to me. We discussed our concern. I reflected on Kevin’s story, and I felt somewhat afraid.
However, I suddenly felt convicted that I should talk to him. I asked my interpreter if he was willing to risk talking to the gang member, and he agreed to serve as an interpreter between us. But just then, Beth motioned for the interpreter to help her council a mother. As he left to help Beth, I realized that my chance to talk to the gang member had vanished. Without an interpreter, I could only watch the gang member peek from behind each building, trying to case the clinic. I expected an attempt to extort money. So I made a point of intentionally catching his eye several times to let him know that I noticed him and could identify him.
After about 30 minutes, Beth motioned for me to join them. She explained that the mother’s son was the local gang leader. As I reached out to shake her hand, the gang member that I had noticed all morning suddenly appeared from behind the corner of the building. The mother said, “This is my son, Samuel.”
I swallowed hard, reached out my hand to him, and told him that I had been wanting to talk to him. He said, “Yes, I noticed you looking at me and I really want to talk to you, too.”
I asked about his construction job, and found that he was suddenly laid off that day because the local concrete truck failed to arrive. We shared similar construction experiences and laughed together about the unpredictability of construction projects. Samuel shared that he worked actively in the local gang. Knowing that the Holy Spirit had already dealt with Samuel before I even arrived, I quickly embarked on sharing the Gospel with him. I started by noting that he reminded me of Zacchaeus in the Bible.
Luke 19— Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Just like Zacchaeus ran around the edge of the crowd and climbed a tree trying to see Jesus, I told Samuel that I saw him peeking from behind each building trying to see what was happening at the clinic. And regardless that the tax collectors at the time of Jesus extorted money from others, Jesus said that He would stay at the house of Zacchaeus. I noted that likewise, the Holy Spirit was now saying that He had come today to stay with Samuel, regardless his past.
Suddenly, even as I spoke about Zacchaeus, I felt extremely convicted—What if I had refused to visit that local clinic, today? What was most important to God—for me to train 99 pastors or for Samuel to know God? Perhaps God was more concerned about Samuel than my seminar and the 99 pastors who missed it. What if I had simply gone back to my home in the USA, blaming the local church leaders for failing to advertise my training seminar? Even as I talked about Zacchaeus, I realized that perhaps God had a different purpose that centered on Samuel’s role as the lost sheep and his worth to God.
Suddenly grasping that perhaps God had cancelled my seminar just so I could meet Samuel, I explained that Jesus valued him very highly. Samuel responded, “But I’ve done horrible things to a lot of people.” I immediately recalled my conversation with Kevin, and realized that I was almost certainly talking to his uncle’s killer. I remembered a sermon illustration used by a missionary the previous evening, and decided to use it. So I asked Samuel if he would like to have a dollar bill (the local daily wage in El Salvador is only $4). He responded, “Yes.” I said, “Why would you want a dollar bill?” He responded, “Because it has value as a dollar, and I can buy something with it.” I said, “What if I crumple the dollar bill into a tight ball? Would you still want it?” He responded, “Of course.” I asked, “Why?” He responded, “Because it is still worth a dollar.” I said, “What if I throw it on the ground and grind it in the dirt with my shoe? Would you still want it? He said, “Of course.” I said, “Why?” He responded, “Because it is still worth a dollar.” I responded, “Just as this dollar will always have value as a dollar, you will always have value to God, no matter what you have done in the past. Jesus values you no matter how dirty you are or what you have done to others. He sent me here today because He wants you.” And as the words left my mouth I privately thought, “And He even cancelled my seminar with 99 pastors!”
Instead of asking him to accept Jesus, I felt led to ask if he had ever given his heart to Jesus. He admitted that he had accepted Christ as a nine year old boy, but had turned away. I asked if he would like to rededicate his life to Jesus, and he said, “Yes.” I felt the Holy Spirit prompt me, “And then were you ever called into ministry?” Samuel, admitted, that “yes” he had a call on his life but had almost forgotten about the promise he had made so long ago. That day he not only rededicated his life to God, but responded again to a call to ministry.
Instead of furtively peeking around the corner of the buildings, Samuel spent the rest of the day sitting calmly in the open courtyard with his father, Martin.
As Beth and I departed at the end of the day, the interpreter asked the local pastor about Samuel. The pastor noted that Samuel was not just the local gang leader. He was the regional leader of the gang leaders. A week previously, they tried to extort $30,000 from three local families, threatening to kidnap their children if the ransom were ignored. The families fled in the middle of the night.
Consider this—What if I had simply gone back to my home in the USA, blaming the local church leaders for failing to advertise my training seminar? And I wonder—do I ever miss carrying out God’s missionary purpose because I’m more intent on my work for God?
Beth and I have traveled to over 70 countries, many of them 10 or 12 times. Just like this trip to El Salvador, every trip has developed into a different purpose than my identified purpose. I seldom tell my Stateside churches the God ordained purpose for our trips. I tell them the trip is to teach pastors about resilience skills, conflict resolution skills, and so forth. That is, I tell them the intended purpose as I know it. However, God always crafts a different purpose that I never foresee until I’m already in the middle of it. This real purpose always centers on meeting the specific needs of a single individual. God’s purpose is that we travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to meet the needs of one person who He is seeking. For the first time, however, on this trip we didn’t even get to present our seminar. Luke 15 says, “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home.”
Some pastors value big congregations, big revivals, or at the least, big seminars with lots of attendees. In contrast to this North American success model, God searches for one person at a time. It doesn’t sound very glamorous to say that my trip resulted in one changed life. But it meant the difference between life and death for Samuel. He was the real purpose for this trip. And sometimes, He even allows us to present our seminar in spite of His purpose.
Today, I phoned Samuel in El Salvador. Yes, he is still attending his local church and planning to attend the local Bible School in preparation as a minister. As a Thanksgiving or Christmas prayer, please join us and the pastor of Samuel’s local church in asking God to give him strength to leave the gang, follow Jesus, and follow-through in his response to God’s call.