It’s not a classroom I’m used to.
I’m seated at a long table, chairs gathered around. No orderly desks lined up facing a whiteboard. Instead, we’re set up in the middle of a community space. Toys litter the room, a kitchen opens onto our space, glass walls reveal the gymnasium next door.
I’m usually strict about the noise level in my classrooms: it’s hard to concentrate when others are talking, when chatter and movement rise to a din. But here, the sounds are out of my control. Next door, in the gymnasium, primary students shout as they run and jump and climb. In our room, preschool-aged children and infants play and cry and demand the attention of adults. Around me, at the table, a group of women sit. Some of them are quiet, looking at me as I give instruction. But usually a pair or two are turned towards each other, speaking quickly, not quietly, in Dari. Twice during our class, the beep, beep, beep of the school’s bell will sound, moving children to the next period. Often the combination of all these sounds rises in a surge, like a wave coming at me that I am unable to rise above, and I’m overwhelmed, drowned in the cacophony.
When the wave of noise ebbs and the chaos recedes, a question mark emerges. What am I doing here? In my labor to teach them English, what are we accomplishing? In these two brief, noisy hours each week, how can our conversation even begin to give them all that they need to navigate this strange Western culture they’ve found themselves in?
Our labor together is very, very slow, and if measured by the government’s checklist of employability skills, our movement is barely perceptible.
“Barely perceptible” aren’t usually the words that come to mind when describing overseas work. Instead, “m work” often brings to mind famous histories of conversions, miracles, and transformations. These are the inspiring stories, these world-changing narratives, and without them the next generation may not be stirred to leave all for the sake of the kingdom. And yet, they are not the only stories of our labor — perhaps not even the majority. Instead, labor on the field often feels as monotonous and uneventful as our labor in our home countries did – perhaps more so if we feel the pressure of sending updates and reports. The people we minister to stay the same, our churches grow by ones instead of tens, and we wonder how our daily labor fits the story of world-change that we had hoped to write.
Perhaps we ought to put down our pens.
In the story of world-change and kingdom-building, you and I play surprisingly small roles. I say surprisingly, because our perspectives have been trained to focus on ourselves. When we read the biographies of workers past, we often focus on the individual person: What did they do? How were they successful? How has their faithfulness made a permanent mark on the communities and cultures in which they served? Naturally, then, these questions dominate our own self-talk: What will we do to change the world? How many Muslim women in my English class will come to church, or even to faith, as a result of my witness? Yet these questions forget the focus of the story. In the story of the world, of the great battle between the kingdoms of Light and Darkness, the hero has already been introduced. Indeed, the hero has already won, and it is in the wake of his victory that we labor.
Of course, this victory does not always appear obvious in the places that we labor, and it can be easy to doubt its reality. In our desire for the glory and power of Jesus here and now, we easily miss the ways in which God is already at work in small, slow ways. The question is not, “What am I doing to change the world?” but “What is God doing, and how can I join in?” Our labor is participatory: neither you nor I are the hero of this story, but we are called to get in on what the hero is doing.
When I look at the faces of the women in my English class, it’s easy to become discouraged at the slow progress we are making. But if this work isn’t about me and my world-changing skills, then I am freed: freed to calm my anxious thoughts about what we are not achieving together, and freed to labor with all of my heart. In that labor of love, slow and uneventful as it may be, I’m joining God in what he has done through Jesus — and that is miraculous.
What are some of the slow and uneventful parts of your labor? What encourages you when you don’t see little, or any, fruit from your labor?