One of the things I have missed most about being retired, and now with COVID-19 limiting travel, is engaging with unreached people groups. Even though I am no longer the head of a mission organization, I can still do mission work.
Some of my best times on the mission fields have taken place while living in remote villages. I became a student of their ways and learned what happens when all of modern society is stripped away.
On my first mission trip into the Darien area of Panama, I lived with the Chocó tribe in the rainforest of Panama. There are two things you can say about the rainforest. First, it rains—every day, even on Sundays. Second, it has trees—lots of trees, all kinds of trees.
I guess someone came along and said, “It sure rains a lot in the forest.” And since that was too long a name for the place, they just called it “the rainforest.”
Living among the Chocós has taught me many things. First, when you stay with them, you have to take on tribal responsibilities. They have no word for “visitor” in their language. Everyone works. Even the oldest members of the tribe sat by the fire, fanning the flames.
Children work (when I was growing up, we called it “doing chores”) by gathering firewood, helping with the livestock, planting and a host of other things to help keep the family going. As a result, they learn a work ethic early in life. Yes, they play, as all children do, but they aren’t exempt from working. Maybe we could learn a lesson here.
When you come to live with this tribe, the people assign you a job. I was assigned as the gatherer of leaves. During the day, I went with the men into the jungle to help chop down trees and cut off the leaves. These humongous leaves are about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Then I had to haul the leaves about a mile back to the canoe, so they could be floated down to the village. The men doing this activity looked like busy ants; I made one trip to their 10.
When the leaves reached the village, the people wove them together to shingle the roofs of the tribe’s huts. During the night, I went out with the hunters to catch crocodiles for food, or we presented our drama on the life of Christ. The other team members kept busy knocking the bark off trees to make rafters and poles for a community center the tribe was building.
The Chocó also had a concept of family that included their neighbors. Everyone helped everyone else with their children, building houses, planting and more. It reminded me of the first church in Acts 2:45: “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
When my team and I moved in, some of the families gave up their homes and crowded into their relatives’ huts, so we had a roof over our head. Their fishermen fished longer, so we had food to eat. They brought their pots and pans for us to cook in and then cooked for us. We weren’t visitors; we were family, and 20 years later, I am still a part of the Chocó family.
Maybe we are in these days of turmoil because we have forgotten that, because God is our Father, the term “family” goes beyond blood relatives. He has allowed me to expand my family to include many different race, tribes and tongues.
I am called “Uncle Walker” in many languages. I asked the children of the tribes not to call me “Brother Walker” because that sounds like a title, but “uncle” makes me a part of their family.
My family sometimes laughs at me because I never meet a stranger but always feel like I have discovered a new relative. Yes, family is a lot of work. Maybe that’s why Jesus reminded us of two things before he went to the cross: We must work, and we must love.
“As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).
Yes, bridging the differences takes work, but that is what families do if they love one another.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Isn’t it time we show the world what we are made of? Let’s follow Jesus in work and love. Otherwise, I may need to get some of you on a boat and take you to live in a village.