One Soul’s Journey of Mission
By the Rev. James M. Bimbi
When I was a young boy back in the 1950s, the Episcopal church in my hometown of Nutley, New Jersey, taught me that mission work was about putting coins in a small blue cardboard box and then bringing the box of coins to church on the appointed Sunday and putting it into the alms basin. Giving money to further God’s work was a good lesson for a child, even if I didn’t know where the money was going.
As a teenager in the 1960s, the rector of our church called one day and asked if I were busy the next Saturday. We collected donations of furniture and delivered them to a storage center in Jersey City. The center then distributed them to people from Puerto Rico who were relocating to the northern New Jersey/New York City area. Father Dan taught me that you didn’t always pay for someone else to do mission work; sometimes you had to get out there and get personally involved. I never met any of the people who received the furniture, but it felt good to know I may have helped make at least a small difference in someone’s life.
I wish I could say that mission work has been a constant factor in my life. It has not. Over the years, opportunities have come and gone. There were certainly times I could have gotten involved, but I didn’t. I have always been blessed, however, when circumstances — and a nudge from the Holy Spirit — allowed me to be at least a brief part of someone else’s journey, providing transportation for homeless people to get to a shelter in Lakewood, Colorado; cooking and washing dishes in a food kitchen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; helping to repair buildings in Navajo Land along the Utah/Arizona border; or taking middle and high school students on mission trips to mountain communities in eastern Kentucky. I was finding ways to give my time, if not my money.
Now, sixty years after first dropping a few coins into a blue box, God has prodded me into a mission project that needs both my money and my time. Over the past year I have made two trips to Nicaragua under the auspices of Food For The Poor (FFTP), one of many non-profit organizations involved in international relief efforts. I learned of the specific mission of FFTP in 2015 and 2016 when I accepted an offer to have other Episcopal priests come and speak to my congregation about its work. When I contacted FFTP for further information, I was invited to join a trip in March 2017 for clergy to learn about the variety of projects in which FFTP is involved through a partnership with the American Nicaragua Foundation (ANF). We visited an emergency feeding program for infants and small children, sustainable agricultural initiatives, housing and sanitation projects, an orphanage, a medical clinic, and a vocational training site.
Following that trip, I was put in contact with an Episcopal priest in Texas who was forming a coalition of churches and clergy willing to pool financial resources to fund a specific project identified by ANF and FFTP. By December 2017, we had collected $50,000 to build a school and community center for people who had been living in an area called El Campamento (The Camp).
This community of 37 families dwelt in shacks on land they did not own near a sugar refinery, Montelimar. In addition to unsafe shelter and lack of electricity and sanitation, the smoke and pollution from the refinery was causing illnesses in both children and adults. ANF and Montelimar found a safe place to relocate the families, and with land donated by Montelimar and funds raised through FFTP, two-bedroom concrete block homes were built for the families, complete with electricity, water, and indoor sanitation (a first for an ANF-FFTP project).
The church coalition with which I was involved visited a variety of ANF-FFTP projects in March 2018, all of which are designed to be sustainable and to empower individuals and communities to live healthier lives. The primary purpose of the trip, however, was to join the people of El Campamento in dedicating and celebrating the completion of the school and center our coalition was able to provide for their community.
The day was glorious. There were adults and children, elders in wheelchairs, and babies in parents’ arms. We gathered in the shade of a huge tent set up for the festivities which included music, brief speeches, a folk-dance presentation, food, and drinks. I was honored to be asked to offer the opening prayer, which I began and ended in my woefully inadequate Spanish. At least they didn’t laugh at me, and a translator helped with the middle part of my prayer.
As with every other experience of mission work in my life, I might have started my involvement with the thought of what I could give to persons less fortunate than myself. What God ultimately shows me, however, what touches my heart more deeply is to witness the faith of the people to whom I’ve been sent. Everywhere we went in Nicaragua, the people wanted to pray for us, for how their lives had improved, and the hopes that they had for the futures of their children.
This was no more evident than in the community that had been known as El Campamento. The people no longer wanted to associate their lives with The Camp. Upon our arrival we discovered that they had decided to rename their new home Colonia Nueva Jerusalen, the New Jerusalem Colony. I have been blessed during my life to make four trips to Jerusalem where I could walk in the footsteps of Jesus; however, nowhere have I more powerfully met Jesus than in the lives of others who, with grateful hearts, outwardly express their thanks and faith to the world than in this place.
For six decades, from Nutley to Nicaragua, I have been given opportunities to help in ways small and large. Along the way I’ve seen God’s glory in places far and wide, and also learned a little about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
I pray that I’m not yet finished, and just wonder where the Holy Spirit might send me next.