We have been in Peru for 2 years now! The past 2 years have flown by! It really seems like time moves faster here. Two years ago we said goodbye to family and friends, got on an airplane and moved to Arequipa as a family of 2. It took months for me to learn the language, figure out where was the best place to go grocery shopping, where to go for certain imported products, to make friends, meet neighbors, and I think it has taken the whole two years to make it feel like home.
My name is Benji Nicholas, and I will be in Arequipa for the next year as an apprentice with Team Arequipa. To let you know a little bit about myself, I was a missionary kid in Kenya from the time I was born until I was 13, and my parents were there 18 years total. We moved in 2008 to Jackson, TN where they still live and are members of the Campbell Street Church of Christ, my home congregation that is partially supporting me this year.
In eight months on the mission field I have already been challenged in so many ways. I felt fairly well-equipped to come here and do what we set out to do. But it’s been one of those things that the more you get into it, the more you realize how inadequate you are. I heard a man once talk about his father who was a master stonemason. He recounted how his father could read the stones knowing the exact right place to put the chisel and precisely how hard to swing the hammer so that the stone would fit just right. I often feel like one of those stones. The chips are flying. It hurts, but hopefully after it all I’ll fit where the Master wants me in his house.
After over 6 years of investment in Arequipa, Peru, I can attest to this truth. I see beauty all around us. The family of faith, young though it may be, is beautiful. Their love is real, their desire to know and follow Jesus better is true, and we are better for having their unique qualities and experiences in our midst. Things have not occurred easily over the years, which is precisely why each success is so valuable, and even the struggles provide a chance for deep learning.
On the 14th of January, we officially celebrated our first year in Arequipa. What a journey we have been on and it’s only the beginning! While we do have mixed emotions about this past year—saying all those good byes along with the challenges before us for this next year—we are confident in God’s provision.
Another one of the changes and a part of our transition into life lived here in Arequipa is forming new traditions. This is somewhat difficult to do especially when it’s the holiday season and you are missing family and special time spent with them each year around this time. Sarah, my wife grew up in Italy and I grew up in the United States and now we live in Peru. There are a lot of traditions, especially holiday traditions, to mix into the pot. We genuinely want to learn and make Peruvian traditions important and meaningful to us, but also not forgetting some of our own important ones from Italy and the US.
As I scroll through my twitter feed I am keenly aware that the spiritual discipline of prayer is trending. With Tim Keller’s new book on prayer and the requests for prayers that include the Ebola outbreak, the Ferguson trial, or efforts to build wells in Africa, I am once again reminded that Christians are called to be people of prayer. I am grateful for the people of prayer that I have witnessed and ministered alongside of. They have taught me what it means to pray while challenging my own fledgling prayer life. Which begs the question, why is prayer so difficult?
On October 7th, we arrived in Arequipa. Over the last several months Jake and I have been asked if we’re ready numerous times. At times I’ve struggled to answer this. Though we have thoroughly prepared through prayer, reading, team meetings and missions conferences I struggled with doubts and feelings of inadequacy. If I read all of the theology, missions, and culture books that people have recommended I might be ready by the time I’m 83.
One Sunday each month, all of the family gathers to worship together. I can remember, six years ago, rotating between our house and the Smith house each Sunday, and it was just our two families. We prayed to experience family with Peruvians. Slowly but surely, Peruvian brothers and sisters came into the story. People come from all walks of life interested in the story of Jesus. They have different social and religious backgrounds, but all who come to the table are thirsty and hungry for the word. Sometimes it is hard to put a group of misfits together and call it “family.” But that is certainly what God calls us to do as his church.
A missionary’s dream is for the disciples to feel like family to each other and be united in Christ. But this can take time. Peruvians are very slow to trust others, so if you put a group of them together that have nothing outside of knowing the missionaries in common, it can feel a bit awkward. And believe me, in our small, informal, house-church setting, we have all experienced the awkwardness. One way you can tell that people don’t trust one another is that they don’t share with one another. Prayer time can be super awkward if no one wants to share about their lives.
This Sunday morning was beautiful. Our house churches all met together for our monthly celebration meeting, and it was a beautiful testimony to see what God is doing through our Arequipa family. The kids had been sent out of the main meeting to work on some coloring sheets to be used later in the lesson. The adults had some quiet, uninterrupted time to talk about church life and share about our journeys. We rejoiced and we cried, and it felt like family. I wanted to share a few of those moments with you.
One of our members was absolutely distraught a couple of months ago. Her family had a financial crisis (having to do with one of the many of the injustices that play out here). She had no one to turn to, but she came and shared the burden with her church family. The church decided to fund an adobada. (An “adobada” is a popular type of fundraiser here in Arequipa, where a group of people get together to sell tickets for selling bowls of Adobo—a famous Arequipa dish served on Sunday mornings. Once tickets are bought, the group buys all the ingredients, and makes the dish on a chosen day for pick-up.) This morning, she was one of the first ones to share. She wanted everyone to know that her family had finally repaid their debt. Our church was so involved in the process of helping her, we were overjoyed. We applauded. We thanked God for helping her family, but we knew that we had played a role as her spiritual family.
Another member decided to express her thankfulness to everyone that her grandson would be starting at the university. You all know how much work I put into the Living Libraries project here. If you follow why we have that program, you know that good education is a luxury for so many in this nation, much less higher education. This member came from parents that didn’t receive a university education; she never attended the university; her children didn’t have the opportunity to attend the university. It is a huge deal for this young man to be the first to study something other than how to drive a taxi. As a church, we rejoiced with her. This grandmother is the first to become a Christian, and we are praying for her to affect the generations in more ways than just education (because I know she has actively supported her grandson to attain that goal). We continue to pray for her family members to know Christ, and she recognizes that we will support her in any way that we can as family.
Then someone shared out of the blue— my husband. Greg expressed our desire for prayers during the upcoming months for our transition out of Peru. I have been keeping the emotions in for quite a while around my Peruvian family. I mean, if I avoid talking about it, I won’t feel anything, right? I won’t turn into a blubbering mess. But his words were something that we needed to share with our family here, and in that moment, my heart broke. I have a feeling it will break a couple hundred more times in these final months for us. I was sitting next to a dear sister, Manuela, and all I could do was lay my head on her shoulder and cry. She is family to me.
Family in Christ is real with each other. Family rejoices and weeps together. Family holds each other up. Family loves and trusts. This group of misfits— it feels like family now. And when we get on that plane to come “home” in a few months, I am going to bawl my eyes out. Because leaving family is hard.
If you have been receiving our newsletter these past months you know that Team Arequipa is in the middle of transition. By the end of the year four new families will have arrived in Arequipa to join the work. By next summer two families will have left to return to the US and a short time later a third family will return to Australia. So, you see, change is in the air all around us.
We all know that change isn’t easy. We have a mix of families at the beginning, the middle, and the end of their time in Arequipa. People are going through the rigors of language and culture acquisition while others are selling off furniture and preparing for a move back to a (foreign) homeland. It is an interesting time for me, getting to watch new missionaries go through some of the same things that we did six years ago, helping them out where I can and letting them struggle through language deficiencies and cultural aggravations. At the same time I’m getting ready to watch the McKinzies leave the field in early January. We’ve been on a journey together for at least 10 years now, and we are about to part ways. Through it all I see God’s faithfulness to us, to all of us as a team, through long years of preparation and service.
I had a conversation the other day with a friend here, one of those hard-but-good conversations. As we talked over coffee about the work we’ve done together the last few years we lamented the mistakes (and man, have there been a lot of those), we celebrated the (often small) victories and we talked about the future. I listened while feelings were shared, sadness at the McKinzies’ upcoming departure and of ours to come not long after, sadness at the thought of missing us and our families, concern for the future of the church and NGO, and other things. I listened as stories were told of past missionaries coming and going and how the distance changes things. How promises of continued connection mean very little if not fulfilled through purposeful action. I left that conversation uplifted by a great friendship, saddened at the long road to good-bye still ahead of me, and in the end grateful for all God has done these six years in Arequipa.