When I think of what a typical missionary does, Ted Ruiz (M.Div. ’84) and his wife, Viv, come to mind. Family friends, they have selflessly dedicated their lives to share the love of Christ in Asia for 25 years. Their e-mail updates are filled with stories of church plants, baptisms and recreational mountain hikes, reminding us of God’s enduring faithfulness in a country where the electricity and government do not always work so well.
I truly thank God for people like Ted and Viv, but I could never do what they do. Giving up my comfortable life to minister to a foreign culture cut off from the truth and love of Jesus sounds rewarding for other people, but just not for me.
I teach history at a smaller, suburban, public high school in Southern California. My job responsibilities are far from those of a pastor. I spend my days talking about the Big Three leaders of World War II, not the Holy Trinity. I share with my students much more about Plato or Napoleon than Moses or Jesus.
But I recently realized that while I graduated from Talbot nearly a decade ago unsure of where I would serve in vocational ministry, God had a plan. I did not plan to go to the mission field, but he brought the mission field to me. I am, for all intents and purposes, an accidental missionary.
While I don’t spend my entire day interjecting God or Christianity into every lecture, I am not afraid to talk about how people and groups have been influenced by their faith throughout history. Beyond the class content, my primary job is to build healthy relationships with lost, hurting teens who all too often are seeking solace and safety in the only “normal” part of their lives.
In the process I learn things I never wished I knew about what they do outside of school. My heart breaks a little every time I hear about a student having made poor decisions that have begun to cause irrevocable damage. I have had former students become teenage parents and others die a couple of years after graduation. One young man reminded me about the importance of living my life to the fullest shortly before cancer took his own.
On the lighter side, for anyone who does not consider high school a foreign culture, I challenge you to spend every day with 170 teenagers. I constantly see behavior that downshifts from intelligent to silly in mere seconds. And then there are times they will say something so profound I am rendered speechless. I have developed the superhuman ability to hear illicit conversations from halfway across a room, and I know more about the Jonas Brothers and the Twilight series than any thirtysomething without kids should.
Amid the hormones and hectic schedules that seem to define high school life, there are moments when a student will confide in me about their questions regarding God and faith, excitedly show me a new Bible they just received or reveal hidden struggles they are too afraid to share with anyone else. I advise one of the three Christian clubs on campus at it is growing exponentially each year. Students may think the weekly speaker is only talking to them, but I often find God whispering to my soul as well.
I am not the sole “missionary” at my school. There are Christians sprinkled throughout every department on campus. We all seek to show love and compassion to this unique “people group” and we covet your prayers as we attempt to live lives of integrity in a culture where hypocrisy is the coin of the realm.
If you think me noble, be aware I have spent years searching for his purpose for my life’s work. My church attendance has not been perfect and my prayer life needs a definite B-12 shot. Yet, the less I complain and the more I pray, the easier it is to realize how much I love my students and have been placed where I am for God’s reason, not mine.
All of this to say I am an infant in this mission field. The more I think about what God wants of me, the more I realize I need to invert the ratio of time spent on prayer and Scripture versus updating my Facebook status.
Micah 6:8 is the guiding verse of my life. Of its three-fold admonition, I think I understand how to “do justice” and “love kindness” decently well. My sticking point has always been learning how to “walk humbly” with him. Perhaps once I get the hang of that, then I might truly become the missionary he always “accidentally” intended me to be.
Dave Milbrandt (M.A. ‘00) lives in Southern California with Lynn, his wife of 12 years.