I travel to other countries about four times a year, usually at the invitation of an international publisher of my books. This year, for example, I’ve flown to Japan, Brazil, and Argentina, and have trips planned to Ireland and Eastern Europe (Hungary, Belarus, and Ukraine). The trips are exhausting and expensive, and on return I happily settle back into the solitary writing life.
“Why do you keep traveling?” my friends ask. “You live in the beautiful state of Colorado. Why not just stay home?” It’s a good question, one I ask myself after a grueling trip. Why does anyone travel overseas? We expand our horizons, and in the process gain a new perspective on the world. I have watched the first rays of sun hit the Taj Mahal, and an endless line of wildebeest snaking across the Serengeti; I’ve jogged through Moscow’s Red Square in winter’s biting cold, and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. Colorado has much to offer, but not these sights.
On the road, I also get to test what I write about. My travels have taken me to places where Christians face a refiner’s fire of hardship and oppression. Can grace really transform women who have spent their lives as victims of sexual trafficking? Can “the God of all comfort” truly bring solace after an earthquake or other natural disaster? Can we tribal humans ever overcome the tragic consequences of racism?
Almost always I return from my trips encouraged, my faith buoyed. Only 30 percent of the world’s Christians now hail from the West, and I have been privileged to see remarkable evidence of God at work elsewhere: the miracle of reconciliation in South Africa, the greatest spiritual awakening in history taking place under an atheistic Chinese regime, Indian Christians turning their attention to the most outcast group on the planet (Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables). As a writer I seek to bring that good news to the jaded West, for such stories rarely make the headlines here. Instead, secular media often portray Christians as bearers of bad news.
Ask a villager in India, “What is a Christian?” and although she may not know any theology she may reply, “I’m not sure, but once a week a van arrives with a cross on the side, and doctors and nurses treat all our wounds and sicknesses, free of charge.”
Christians run the best schools in many countries, operate childcare and feeding programs for prisoners’ families, make available micro-loans to help the poor start tiny businesses, provide lawyers to help free women and children caught in sexual slavery—and they do so with little fanfare and not much money because they believe that’s what Jesus expects from his followers.
To witness such activities, of course, one must endure the inconveniences of modern travel. They begin at the airport: long security lines; the hassle of removing shoes, belt, and change from clothing; and extracting phone, laptop, and liquids from hand luggage. On plane trips beyond twelve hours I can actually feel a sore throat progressing cell by cell. Unable to sleep on flights, I try to read or sit quietly as film grows over my teeth and my eyes dry out. Just as I’m feeling sorry for myself, I land and meet someone like my host in the Philippines who rides a motorcycle on muddy roads four to five hours every day to supervise 157 pastors in remote villages. I come away with that new perspective on the world.
I have learned that churches in developing countries often magnify the flaws and quirks of the U.S. church. Missionaries, God bless them, may import a legalism that makes Southern Baptists look like liberals, and church divisions that make U.S. denominations seem harmonious. Sermons fall into two types, either stiff and formulaic or a rollicking Prosperity Gospel message.
I enjoy speaking in “post-Christian” societies such as Europe and Australia, where a scant minority still believe and few worship regularly, although tokens of a religious past abound. Consider the doubters as divorcées, not virgins, cautioned C. S. Lewis: they tried the faith and felt disappointed in or betrayed by it—a pattern I know well.
Even so, Christians in such places seem more serious about their faith than their counterparts in the U.S. When only a small percentage of the population attends, church offers no social advantages. Those who show up do so out of a hunger for spiritual content, whereas in America entertainment rules.
Nothing, however, beats speaking in a place where the audience hangs on every word. On one of my visits to the Philippines, the owner of a shopping mall made available a vacant corner of the mall adjacent to a twelve-screen movie complex. Organizers rented 2,000 chairs and hung some lights in the cavernous concrete area. “Have you advertised this meeting?” I asked. “No, no, we don’t need to. Just start speaking about Jesus, and the shoppers and moviegoers will change their plans and come listen to you.” Yeah, right—I prepared myself for a humiliating debacle. Oh, ye of little faith: as I spoke, row after row of the seats filled with people, and by the end of the evening listeners were standing in the back.
I must admit, my own faith would be much shakier if I knew only the U.S. church, where we tend to hire professionals to do the work. In May of this year I spoke at a conference of church leaders in Brazil. Some forty years ago, a Christian teenager became concerned about the large homeless population in his home town. After a few attempts at charity, he saw that they needed more than food handouts and a place to sleep.
Over time he developed a program that became the country’s largest agency working among the homeless. Missão Vida (Life Mission) gives them a new start, in a lovely camp setting where they receive addiction counseling, education, and training for employment.
At the camp, I listened to a 220-man choir of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts boisterously singing about their newfound faith. I heard story after story from men and women who had once lived in makeshift cardboard beds on the street, now leaders in their communities. Unlike the U.S., the Brazilian church was not relying on government programs or interim rescue missions. Instead, this conference was teaching pastors how to mobilize their congregations in a coordinated effort to wipe out homelessness in their cities.
I felt fortunate even to make it to the conference. Brazil was undergoing a truckers’ strike that nearly shut down the country. Trucks blocked major highways. Airlines had to cancel flights because of a fuel shortage, and 90 percent of all gas stations were closed. A billion chickens died from lack of food. Somehow, the conference went on as scheduled, with only a few conferees unable to attend.
To transport me to the airport for my departure from Brazil, my hosts found an Uber car that ran on propane. When I returned home, I got an abrupt reminder of how isolated we are in this country. The lead story on every news channel was “Rosanne Barr’s TV show canceled by ABC!”
And we think we have problems…