We are in the final week of what has been the most action-packed Arequipa internship yet, and it was a long time in coming. The story, as I must tell it from my perspective, started thirteen years ago.
I came to preregistration at Harding University in the summer of 2000 intent on a degree in missions. At that time my home congregation, Shiloh Road Church of Christ, had just sent a couple to Jinja, Uganda. My summer missions experiences with the high school youth group in Mexico had been a major part of my decision to become a missionary, as well as my decision to engage high school Spanish more aggressively than I would have done, yet my imagination abounded with visions of tribal Africa as I pulled up to Harding's campus for preregistration. My previous tour of the missions department had already made it apparent that African missions was very influential in the program, so I was quickly forming assumptions about where I would end up in the world.
Incoming freshmen were assigned advisors in the Bible department based upon the first letter of our last names. So I came to meet my advisor, Bill Richardson. Dr. Richardson was at that time an associate professor of Bible and missions. He had spent his years in missions in Latin America. So his eyes lit up when he read my registration documents and realized I was a missions major who had tested out of basic Spanish. At that first meeting, he advised me to do a number of things that set the course of my life. First, he suggested I do a Spanish minor. Since I was granted credit for 101 and 102, it would be that much easier. Thus, we looked ahead at the courses I would need to take each semester. Second, he suggested I attend the Spanish congregation in Searcy if I really wanted to progress in the language. I ended up attending all four years; La Casita was my home church in Searcy. He also told me about the summer mission campaign in Venezuela. At the time, it was the only Latin American option. I went to Venezuela the summer after my freshmen year. Bill let me in on a secret as well: Harding was working on a new study-abroad program in Viña del Mar, Chile (HULA: Harding University in Latin America). My junior year, I did go to the pilot HULA semester. So did Megan Bills, who eventually became my wife. Finally, Bill invited me to attend the Latin American interest group that he hosted in his home. Over the course of four years, that group evolved into a mission team committed to Arequipa, Peru. In retrospect, I can describe that meeting with Bill as nothing less than providential. He and his wife, Holly, have remained our team's mentors and friends.
Those of us in the Latin American interest group at Harding swam against the African missions current. It's hard to describe exactly why that current was so strong. One of the reasons for momentum among students, though, was undoubtedly the phenomenally successful African internship. A comparable experience was lacking for Latin America, where Harding internships were essentially nonexistent and traditional "evangelistic campaigns" were the norm. This situation (in part) compelled Bill to envision a new kind of summer experience for students interested in Latin America: a research trip. He began preparing a group of about ten of us to travel to various cities the summer after my sophomore year, in order to gather logistical and strategic information on large Latin American cities that needed a missionary presence. The first trip included Trujillo and Arequipa, Peru and Cochabamba, Bolivia. A number of the participants on that trip were part of the nascent South American team that had formed out of the Latin America interest group, and on the basis of the information gathered, we chose Arequipa as our destination and became Team Arequipa. A couple of years later, another team used the research to chose Cochabamba. Members of the Cuzco mission team were on a subsequent research trip. Another group came to Arequipa with Bill after our arrival and helped us with the research that launched CUDA, and some of those researchers are now part of the second wave of Team Arequipa. Megan and I have reflected on how wonderful it has been to witness what God has done through Bill and Holly's labor.
The internship this year is the latest chapter of the story. Perhaps the last ten years of investment have had an effect similar to the African internships. Or perhaps the Lord is calling more students to Latin America. Or maybe some other factors are at play. I suspect it is all of the above. But whatever the case, this year far more Harding students sought internships in Latin America than could be placed. Altogether, they composed a highly-motivated, unusually Spanish-proficient group of seventeen students. To meet this demand, Bill conceived of a "traveling internship," which was a mixture of experiences including intensive language school, mission church plants, a national church plant, developmental ministry, and research. Two weeks were spent in Arequipa, learning about CUDA and house churches. This group crashed our regular internship, which includes four other students: two from Harding, one from Oklahoma Christian, and one from Abilene Christian. It was a tumultuous two weeks, but we were glad to get to know these students, some of whom will undoubtedly be back in Latin America as missionaries in the future. Our regular interns generously accepted the disruption a group that size naturally causes and even formed some meaningful friendships.
I realized after the traveling interns departed that I was feeling my age for the first time: not too old to keep up but old enough to realize I needed to keep up. Their energy was infectious, and when they left I missed it. But their presence was also a sign of hope that I cherished. These are students intent on serving God, many of them in Latin America. They aggressively seek understanding and wisdom, they dream and plan, and they love the people around them in the process. Likewise, our regular interns have taken these two months to learn what full-time mission is like week in and week out, persevering through ups and downs while learning language and culture. These are short-term experiences meant to be long-term investments. And that is the truly exciting thing. I pray that God will continue calling more and more students to dream missional dreams for Latin America.