Alone for the first time, in a strange city, in the middle of nowhere, I sat waiting to board a bus. It was a hot Midwestern summer day in southern South Dakota, and I had just flown from Chicago and was waiting for the Greyhound that was to take me from the smallest city I had ever seen to Sisseton, South Dakota, to do something I had no training for other than about a 15 minute explanation. More than that, the description of the job was simple, you have $X.XX and we would like you to set up our adult mission that will be out later in the summer, but really you just need to be open to what God is calling you to do.
Sitting in the bus terminal preparing to meet people I did not know and heading off to a place as foreign as any other, my mind was full of images and fantasies about what I was going to encounter. I remember the nervous excitement, as I sat there. Looking back, I realize how wrong those images and fantasies were. I also realize how the people of Sisseton were far greater missionaries to me than I was to them.
As an 18-year-old, I thought that I was going to bring something new and powerful to the “Indians,” but what happened was that the Dakota people taught me what it really meant to be a Christian. Karl Barth spoke of the Missio Dei, something that has become a standard understanding for our relationship with God in the contemporary church. This understanding says that as the church God invites us into mission with him and everything we do, as a church or individually, is Mission. As some know, this was my Master’s Thesis. But I did not first learn about the Missio Dei from studying Barth; I learned it from the Dakota people.
After staying with an elderly woman one evening, we sat down for a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and bacon. She started to tell me stories, ancient stories from the Dakota tradition, and then she showed me how they also taught what Christ taught. These stories taught that for the Dakota people, stewardship and hospitality were central to their very being. But then she did something very interesting; she went and found stories in the Bible that taught the same lessons.
She said “the problem with the church is that we have lost our role. We go to church like it was Wal-mart, looking for what we want and only paying for what we get. But that is not church, faith, or community; as a Dakota woman and a Christian, my job is to care for the world and be a friend to others. You see, it is not what I get, it is what I give.”
I then joked with her about me being a good missionary because I was letting her give me so much; while we laughed, she said that basically I was. I cannot say that my stint as a missionary was successful; I doubt many would even remember that I was ever there. However, the mission that the Dakota people did on me changed the way I look at the world and how I understand my role with God.
Going into that time I could have never guessed what was going to happen, but there you have it, God had a bigger plan and the truth was, I needed to be missioned to more than they did. But this gets back to the basics of being in mission with God. You never know how God is going to use you or even what God’s plan is, and to be honest, that really does not matter. What matters is that you recognize that God is using you and be constantly listening for the ways in which God is calling you.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen