by Jason Bruner
It isn’t that faith doesn’t exist for me now; it’s just that most of it was left behind in the places I tried to take it.
By age ten, my select cadre of heroes was decidedly masculine and eclectic: Ponch and Jon from “CHiPs”, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo from Star Wars, Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves, and Jim Elliot, an American missionary who was killed in a South American rain forest. I was so struck by the story of Jim Elliot that I wrote a fifth grade book report on a devotional account of his short life. I opened my report with a quotation evocative enough to lodge itself firmly in my young psyche: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” I admired, even envied, his clarity and conviction.
Jim Elliot, a Wheaton graduate with the distinctive wholesomeness of mid-century Americana, traveled to the Ecuadorian jungle in the mid-1950s, along with four other young white evangelical missionaries. One of them, a prodigious pilot, managed to land a plane on the sandy bank of a meandering river in an attempt to reach the “Auca Indians” (most modern anthropologists refer to them as the Huaorani). Shortly after landing, they were stabbed with spears, making Elliot in particular a household name among American evangelicals. Not technically a saint, Elliot came as close as we had to sainthood and was welcomed into the pantheon of White Missionary Heroes.
The White Missionary Hero had to forego the comforts of Western civilization and brave the forces of darkness in order to bring dark-skinned people the Word of God. This was the duty of the true Christian—the one who was really “on fire”: to sacrifice his life to bring light to the darkness. This was a faith and a masculinity defined by atonement, measured by sacrifice. Dating, sports, and “secular” music were steps along the way to being speared in a jungle.
I could be that bold. Or, at least, I should. I would give it a shot.
Gabi was 7 and lived in a Mexican border town. She was smart and somehow quietly effusive and, as I was soon to discover, creative. I’d come with a church group to bring the Good News to Mexico, but I’d run out of things to say, and my silence reflected just how little I knew of her world.
Gabi was frequently by my side for the few days we were there, even when we had nothing to talk about. We sat on a rough pew that wobbled on an uneven concrete floor. To break the uncomfortable silence, I asked Gabi about her favorite Bible story. We were leading a Vacation Bible School program at the church in her barrio, after all.
She paused for a few seconds and then launched into an animated telling of her favorite parable: “Habia una vez…” (Once upon a time…)
She had different voices ready for each of the characters, which changed with her posture as the drama unfolded. I got a little lost, more because of my limited horizons than the storyteller’s skill.
As a teenager, I had a pretty encyclical knowledge of the Bible, but I was having trouble placing this one. She was talking a lot about animals. Noah and the flood? I kept hearing tortuga. And conejo. They were … racing? And the conejo was … having lunch with a friend?
To this day, Gabi gave what is easily the best telling of the tortoise and the hare that I’ve ever heard.
Well, she is probably from a Catholic family, I thought at the time. I bet they don’t even read the Bible.
A few years later, I sat on the makeshift second deck of a motorized canoe, floating in the middle of the Milky Way. The Amazon was so wide and still that the white heavenly dust stopped only briefly at the thin forest horizon before circling back underneath us to be churned up by the outboard motor. This ring lit our way hour after hour after hour.
We were a few days’ travel from electricity, and our tiny engine was determined to push us through the humid darkness that kept everything else in its place. As missionaries, we came to tell these people how to get out of the darkness—from the things that held them there—and move into the light.
We had no idea where we were.
Back in Georgia, our mission had been clear. We felt a calling to be missionaries, a calling to the Amazon. We were placed with a team and sent through training where we learned trust falls and how to walk through obstacle courses when muddy. One of the leaders, a preacher, with his impassioned face clay-red, went hoarse yelling about how, as Christians, we needed to be like “a big Nalgene water bottle that splashed water on everyone when it was shaken.” The love of Jesus sprinkled upon the heathens.
They said that the Amazon would be an adventure in testing our faith. An adventure in bringing light to a dark place.
Or, maybe, just an adventure.
The thin canopy of the horizon grew thicker as the black Amazonian lake slowly narrowed itself into a serpentine tributary, the jungle increasingly interrupting the starry ring.
“Get your bags together. We’re almost there,” called a voice near the motor. We brought a lot of stuff.
I looked up as we came around a final bend in the river and saw a new light, then another, then a whole line of lights, flickering along the river. Not the clear white of the Milky Way but the soft dancing yellow of candles in glassless windows, moving with the silent current, welcoming the Americanos.
As I watched the candlelit shore, I drank from my Nalgene bottle, filled with iodine-infused river water. What did I really have to “shake out” onto these people—the Uraina? I had nothing to bring. Light was already here, reflected in the quiet, eternal darkness of their own water.
I realized they didn’t need a white missionary hero. The sacrifices I’d made—adopting a new diet, enduring the heat, braving the piranhas—only measured my faith; they didn’t impart it. So I went home to Georgia.
I stood at the northwest corner of the city square in Matamoros, Mexico on Wednesday afternoon, August 4th, 2004. There was a single trashcan and a couple of benches, and that’s exactly where I left it behind: the wooden popsicle stick from the ice cream bar I had just finished, along with faith, evangelicalism, whatever else that I’d been tentatively hanging on to. But I had known this was coming.
Six weeks prior, I arrived at a mission camp in northern Mexico, a base for American evangelical youth groups to have week-long mission trips.
My first morning in Mexico, I stood at the back of the short worship and prayer service with some of the adult chaperones. The worship leader asked everyone to pair up and pray for the other person. Next to me stood a pastor from one of the church groups. We introduced ourselves and began our generic intercessions. The worship leader called for everyone’s attention, but my prayer partner had something he needed to tell me: “This hasn’t really ever happened before, but I had a vision while we were praying.”
“You were in a tractor, out in a big field. You were doing work, driving the tractor through crops. But it was like there was just a wagon attached to the tractor. It was the wrong thing. So nothing was happening. You were working but with the wrong tools. I don’t know you. I don’t know what it means, but I thought I should tell you.”
I puzzled over the prophetic riddle as I watched the sunburnt Christian soldiers load into worn fifteen-passenger vans, which then funneled into a clunky convoy that dispatched them to their ministry sites: orphanages, churches, soccer fields. My prophet and his group left the next day. This schedule would become my rhythm for the six weeks that followed, minus additional personal prophecies.
The Mexican border town—its poverty, heat, dust, hope, and desperation—had made him want to be more like Jesus. And that was the problem.
I watched as mud dripped off her face and onto her shirt—stains of a misguided act of faith. Her: the Mexican woman who had trouble seeing. Cataracts, probably. Her need inspired him to act. Him: an American youth pastor.
Because one time Jesus saw a blind man and made mud and smeared it on the blind man’s eyes and he could see. It was a divinely-proven formula, scientific in a way. Of course, he didn’t have the saliva of the God-Man, which was an ingredient in the biblical precedent. We mumbled prayers as he made do with a decent substitute: the purified water in his bottle. He prayed and smeared the mud over her blurred vision. He prayed again. Rinsed it off—only the mud, not the cataracts. The mud dripped onto her white blouse. We watched disappointment wash over them both, though for different reasons. His miracle was deferred; her laundry wouldn’t be.
The poverty, the desperation, the heat—they make it hard to think straight. The youth minister was bewildered. He really had expected a different outcome, and he was now left with the task of locating where the formula broke down. Was it his insufficient faith? Hers?
I don’t know if he ever considered that the problem was the premise of the encounter itself—the certainty of our goodness, of our helpfulness, of our beneficence.
By the end of my time in Mexico, the square in Matamoros was one of my favorite places to visit. It had abundant shade that beckoned folks to relax and rest, making it an ideal target for visiting evangelicals looking to share the Good News.
Our small group of adults broke into pairs, each with a translator, and planned to reconvene at the northwest corner of the square in ninety minutes. I went to the ice cream shop on the west side of the square, then struck up a conversation with a man whose perceptive critiques of American religion and foreign policy eventually surpassed my ability to keep up. Both of us were frustrated: me for reaching the limits of my linguistic capabilities, him for the obstinacy of yet another gringo who was defending things he didn’t understand.
The pairs of gringos returned to the corner. I asked one man what he’d done. With the confident calculus of an evangelical abroad, he responded: “We got five and it looks like that group’s working on three. How many did y’all get?”
“Zero,” I responded, and realized I was proud of it.
So I unhitched my wagon on the northwest corner of the Matamoros city square and went home.
I never told Gabi that her story wasn’t from the Bible. Maybe she knew and was testing me—the guy who thought he knew enough to spend a week parsing right from wrong in a Mexican border town he couldn’t even find on a map. Maybe she just had a more inclusive canon.
So I sat there, not knowing how to respond to the tale of the tortoise and the hare. Thankfully, she simply returned the question I had originally asked her. I couldn’t think of the Spanish word for “prodigal,” so I just went straight into the story, which my mediocre Spanish only allowed me to tell in a faltering present tense: “There is a father who has two sons. One son says to his father, ‘I want my all money.’ The father it gives to him and son leaves. The son goes to a country really far and now has no money and is very poor. He thinks about his house and his father. He says, ‘I go to my father because there I have food.’ The father sees his son and says, ‘This is my son. We have a party.’”
All of the characters had the same voice in my version—a distinctly American voice. Gabi was intrigued and confused, but certainly not entertained, much less transformed. So I tried to drive home the point: “God is the father and we leave and do sins. But God loves us.” She preferred her story, perhaps realizing that I had told mine more for my sake than hers.
Jim Elliot had gone to a far country. I imagine his father thought of his son’s missionary career in Ecuador as a sacrifice, even before he was killed. It was too far off for his father to see him again—at least for a long time. But there would be no return. His son’s blood was spilled into a remote Ecuadorian river not so different than the thin Amazonian tributary I puttered up in a motorized canoe many decades later.
But after floating in that same beautiful darkness, mine isn’t the heroic line of the sacrifice. Mine is the defeated arc of the prodigal. Somewhere between northern Mexican border towns and the Peruvian Amazon lie the certainty and clarity that propelled me to the far country in the first place. Sometimes, the better news is that the tortoise wins. Sometimes, our water only gets other people dirty. Sometimes, the darkness is more beautiful than the lights we carried. Because, you see, the prodigal loses it all—the things he brought, perhaps even his faith—but he holds onto his life. That’s the difference between sacrifices and prodigals: prodigals come home.