The Mission of the Holy Cross

We’ve left Honduras now, but I am still thinking about something we did at the end of the working day yesterday. Lee and I, along with Pete and Brendan, hired a moto-taxi to take us out to the community of Nueva Esperanza (New Hope), where we were going to meet Cruz and his family, leaders in the Episcopal church there. They named their church Mision Santa Cruz – the Mission of the Holy Cross – and it was the church we were working on when I first started going on Trinity’s mission trips.

I wrote the other day about going up to Santa Maria Virgen, remembering how we started with just a bare leveled space, and marveling at how much building is there now, even though it’s not complete. We started Santa Cruz in much the same way: there was a hillside, partly leveled, staked out with the area the churchyard was to enclose – and not much else. At first we cleared part of the area of stones, dug trenches for the foundations, laid the foundations, and carved the corner of the lot out of solid rock. I had a lot to do with that last bit. I remember very clearly hours spent with a digging bar, slamming it down and lifting it up, chipping away at the rock as a corner slowly emerged out of the slope. More skilled hands than mine finished it off to a nice right angle later on. But Ever, Cruz’s son, who was our interpreter for much of the work on Santa Cruz, still calls it “my corner.” It’s an interesting way to be remembered.

I remember on the next trip, coming back to find walls on the foundations, and a nice retaining wall holding back the corner, and even a raised platform where the altar would one day be. I remember feeling amazed and gratified that there was so much more church there on that trip – again, not unlike the experience of Santa Maria Virgen on this trip. There is something wonderful about seeing work you’ve participated in having born fruit and grown quite apart from yourself, then having the chance to contribute your work on it again and in a new way.

And all that memory welled up on our visit to Santa Cruz last evening. The church has been finished for years now, and it is a little gem of a building. The walls are painted in a soft yellow, there are lights in the ceiling and even ceiling fans, the floor is beautifully tiled in white with a dark green aisle going up the center. The altar platform is finished off with more tile, and in the middle of that elegant space stands a spare wooden table as an altar, a wonderful simplicity surrounded by caring beauty. I was enchanted the moment I saw it.

At one point I even slipped away from the group conversation and went up to the paltform, to stand behind the altar and look out at the church and get a feel for what it would be like to celebrate Holy Eucharist in that space. Sometimes spaces have a kind of resonance, a felt geometry that simultaneously opens up and yet draws in, a sense of serving as a place of Spirit and a house for prayer. I felt that resonance the first time I stood in Trinity. And I felt that resonance in Santa Cruz as well. It felt kind of amazing to think of how hours and hours of manual labor had been taken up by God and transformed into that resonant place for prayer.

In many ways I think that was a fitting conclusion for this mission trip. We come here on an adventure; we do the work that is there for us to do; we walk the fine line between mission and voluntourism; we see incremental growth in the projects we’re given, daily accomplishments like finishing a foundation, and longer-term accomplishments like seeing a roof on top of walls we helped to build. We pray in spaces-in-progress and make another kind of progress in building relationships of giving and receiving in love. But we often don’t know the full effect of the work we participate in. We only rarely see the churches we help build when they’re complete – once they’re complete, there’s work to be done elsewhere, and we’re sent on to a different site. And that’s as it should be. But that makes it an even greater gift to have the chance to stand in a finished gem of a church and see how trenches dug and rock chipped and blocks hauled have come together with so much other work from so many other people to grow into something so much more than we’d imagined when we began. It’s an object lesson that we never fully know what we’ve started in this work, and by the grace of God and with the love of many the work we contribute goes far beyond us in realized goods we only seldom see.

And of course that is true of more than just mission trips. The good that goes beyond us to do more than we know is a fact of the spiritual life, a regular occurrence in the mission of God to make communion in the world, the mission in which God invites us to share. When we act in prayer, when we offer our labors to be taken up and transformed by God, then we become part of God’s own work to heal the world. Sometimes we may catch a glimpse of that greater work of God; sometimes not; sometimes we may even be privileged to see how our own labor still remains as part of something others have brought to fulfilment. But whether we see it or not, we can believe that God is always and everywhere at work, and when we join that work a beautiful thing is made.

I saw that in Nueva Esperanza, and that is a hope I will bring home.