When I was in missionary orientation 10 years ago (or, as I like to jokingly call it, missionary "dis-" orientation), our keynote speaker was a guy by the name of Tony Gittins. Tony wrote a book called Gifts and Strangers: Meeting the Challenge of Inculturation. He is a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and was also a missionary in Sierra Leone for many, many years. Tony came to speak to us, as fledgling missionaries, about the things we could expect as we embarked on our new adventures in the name of Christ in the world.
Tony served in Sierra Leone before the decade-long civil war that ravaged the countryside, killing thousands and turning children into soldiers during the 1990's. He spent much of his time there building much-needed infrastructure--hospital and school buildings that were eventually destroyed during the years of civil war. Tony related to us that many people, in the years following his return from the mission field, would approach him and ask him if he regretted going to Sierra Leone. He had invested so much of his time and energy there, only to see everything that he built later destroyed by war. People would look at him and ask him if he felt bad, because it was all for nothing.
"What they didn't understand," Tony told us, "and what you must understand, is that the work that we do is not about the physical things that we build. The work that we do is about the one thing that neither civil war nor anything else can ever destroy. Everything that we do as missionaries--everything--comes down to building relationships. Relationships between ourselves and others, and relationships between God and God's people. That is all that matters."
I think about this idea all the time. It seems especially pertinent to me now, as I sit looking ahead to a winter where I will be unable to be a part of something very important to me that I helped build. When Code Blue comes around this winter, someone else will be running Trinity's homeless shelter. I have to remind myself that it is not "what we built" that is important, as much as the relationships we knit together through the building of it. Those relationships will continue to exist for me, even when I am no longer a part of what is being built.
I hear school teachers talk about how you never know what effect you might have on a child's life--that years later they might remember how you changed their lives, without you even knowing that you did anything. That's how I am trying to think about the Code Blue Shelter--that lives were changed because of the relationships we formed... changed in many ways that we may never know about. It wasn't as much about "what we built," as it is about who we were... and in whose Name we came. "What we built" only facilitated the relationship-building process. When "what we built" is either gone, or we are gone from it, the relationships and the life-changing effects of those relationships remain.