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What traveling as a documentary filmmaker taught me about mission

Photo of Rwenzori Mountains by Itote Rubombora on Unsplash

I did not grow up attending church. It wasn’t until late high school that I first went to church on a regular basis. I never went to summer camp, youth group trips, or mission trips. My introduction to church life was unconventional to say the least.

As a result, I felt for a long time like I had missed out on common experiences that my fellow churchgoers shared. While I wonder if I would have enjoyed VBS or church camp or a mission trip, I think that my introduction in many ways gave me an advantage, I had no vision of how church should be. This is particularly helpful when it comes to thinking about mission work because I didn’t have any old patterns to fall back on. Instead, my time traveling when I worked in the film and video production industry taught me the key concepts of mutuality. As a pastor, I can now look back on this time and say that I was trained in relational mission, where one builds a relationship with people in the hope of mutual aid rather than one with more resources and power, helping the other.

In 2008, I traveled to Burundi and Uganda with my mentor as a documentary filmmaker. It sounds way more fabulous than it was — trying to make an entire documentary with a one-woman crew is near impossible. I was not ultimately satisfied with the final documentary. However, the trip was life-changing in how I learned to relate to others.

I sat in on leadership training where local folks were being trained to be leaders within their own context. Then I was off to meet the street children of Kampala, Uganda. These are children that have resorted to living on the streets. We met up and stayed with a friend whose entire ministry is caring for these children because he was once a street child himself.

One morning I awoke to discover the power had been out and my camera batteries did not charge. I would document that day in only still photography. Without the shield of my video cameras, I was able to interact with a group of young women and hear their stories. We kept in touch for a few years, just sharing about life. Through letters, they celebrated the birth of my daughter with me, and I shared in their lives while also finding financial resources for their education occasionally. Sadly, we have since lost touch with them, but I know they changed my life with their friendship.

There was also a young girl living in the home where I stayed, she was about 4 years old, struggling with sickle cell anemia. We sent letters and drawings to each other until she lost her life to the disease. Her photo hangs with my family photos, her drawings and coloring pages are in a special scrapbook. I couldn’t save her life, but I shared in it thousands of miles away. Though some 20 years apart we were friends, our lives and our stories intertwined. We learned to laugh together. I am not sure what I may have taught her, but I know she taught me more about love than I ever imagined I could know. Even today, some ten years since her death when she should be coming of age into womanhood, sharing this piece of her story brings tears to my eyes and a smile to my face.

When we center relationships, rather than giving and receiving, at the heart of what the church calls mission, we get to experience God. Mission can be a tender place that allows us to encounter one another in new ways. That is the beauty of mutuality, even if it occasionally looks awkward.

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