Jason and Julie Mason had the chance to spend some time in Zambia last December. Here, they share their candid thoughts on what God taught them about life, ministry, discipleship, relationships, getting out of your comfort zone, and facing fear.
JP: Tell me about your interest in missions. When did that start?
Jason: Initially, I had no interest in missions and didn’t understand why people needed to go overseas. I thought, Why can’t we just do things here at home in the US, right here in our own communities? A good friend of mine that has a nonprofit in Africa asked me to go with him to do some CPR instruction and medical work last yar, and I laughed. I came home and jokingly told my wife what he had said, and she said, “Why don’t you go with him?” I was completely taken aback. I had wanted her to say, “Yeah you shouldn’t go there.” She told me to sit down and make a list of all the reasons to go, and all the reasons not to go over the next several weeks. I did, and all the reasons not to go were so weak and selfish. I realized I couldn’t run from it. For some reason, God was pushing me to go.
I approached Pastor Mike, still hoping it somehow wouldn’t work out, and learned that he was good friends with Jeff Smith, the missionary that my buddy was going to see in the first place. Another push from God. It was like the Jonah story, minus a fish. So I went last year with a small team from Willow Creek, to build a well and various other small projects, and was blown away. When I got back, it took me about a month to mentally decompress and take it all in, realizing I have a lot to do here in my own community and workplace. I have witnessed to more people in the last year than I have in my entire life, just from the life experiences that I took away from that trip. I used to view missions as a “traveling thing,” but missions is really just about being a missionary wherever you are—in your own neighborhood or elsewhere. Regardless of where you live, we are all part of the same human race and need God’s love.
Julie: My interest in missions began in college. During my sophomore year, I was introduced to Elizabeth Elliot. I read her book, The Savage, My Kinsman, and it put a fire in my heart to reach people for Christ. I had the chance to visit an orphanage in Mexico during my sophomore year, and another in Brazil my junior year. My senior year, I was asked to lead a team of my peers to Swaziland, Africa. That was my favorite. I loved each of these experiences. They all felt very purposeful, and I always saw God in a new light from different cultures, seeing people worship the Lord in their church services, in their own language—it gave me a fuller picture of Christianity and showed me that there is more to see beyond our own American experience. These people were more desperate for God in other ways—as a Provider, for example. Seeing them seek after God was challenging to me. Connecting with people, forming relationships with them—all of that was precious.
After those trips, some close friends and I had lots of conversations about short term missions. Our attitudes toward what that should look like were changing. It was hard to see people left behind and not discipled. As an adult, you develop a clearer understanding of the value of money and time, and you see more of the big picture. If I am investing in people, is it just something to make me feel good? What’s the lasting impact? I definitely learned a lot from those missions trips. But, with a different perspective now, I had sort of settled into my new role as a wife and mother and focused on things here at home. I still had a real desire to disciple others, but I wasn’t sure how that would intersect with this stage of life.
JP: How did this trip to Zambia come about?
Jason: When I got back from Africa last year, I immediately told Julie, “We have to go back.” She was completely on board, and we started looking into when we could go back. My friend that I work with, Mickey, was planning to go back in December of 2015, so we decided to go with him. Some good friends of ours who live in Texas, Ben and Naomi, expressed interest in going with us, and we recruited them to tag along.
JP: What were the key goals?
Jason: My buddy, Mickey, is big into agriculture, and his nonprofit, AgriHope, teaches farming God’s way. It is a program that teaches people how to farm as a good steward of the things that God has given to you and reusing the things that God has given to you. The husks from last season’s harvest, for example, can be used as a blanket for the next year, and composting can make the soil more bountiful. When we learned that Mickey was going back, we said, we’ll go and help you with the farming nonprofit and to invest in the Smiths. We wanted to work alongside him, teaching the locals, showing them how to farm this way themselves, so that they could continue it in the future. We also wanted to spend some time with Jeff and Heidi and their family, just encouraging them, because living in Africa is a huge adjustment, and their family has endured some hardships living there the last two years.
Julie: Yes, we wanted to help with the farming and encourage the Smiths.
AgriHope’s philosophy is that people deserve more than just a handout. They use growing programs in rural schools to train and develop the lives of locals, partnering with churches, schools and other organizations and sharing the gospel as they meet long-term physical needs, equipping Africans to sustain life and live off the land. Mickey founded AgriHope and employs Chimbaza Mbewe, a native Zambian. He had made all the contacts in advance, and we helped him with the demonstration plots. This was the season for growing corn, so we showed them how to grow corn to make “nsima”—a staple food in their diet, made from cornmeal and water, molded and dipped in other foods. For so long, most of the Zambians have plowed the whole field, scattered seeds, reaped whatever crop came along, and burned the stalks at the end of the season. We got to help Chimbaza teach them a new and sustainable farming method: measuring, digging, fertilizing, correcting the pH balance in the soil, adding more soil, planting individual seeds, covering the soil with grass to protect the tiny seedlings against the sun’s harsh rays, plucking the weakest seedling, to eventually grow only the strongest plant in each group. The people worked alongside us, so they would know how to do this again. Chimbaza will check in with them, and send updates to Mickey, as these farms are established.
We also chose to involve our Willow Creek AWANA Sparks. This awesome group of kingergarten through second graders raised money and bought Christmas gifts for each of the children in the Smith family. We showed the Sparks the gifts they bought, brought the gifts to Africa, gave them to the children, saw their reactions, and then brought back letters from those kids and read them to the Sparks. We wanted our Sparkies to see that you really can do things like that—you can pack up and go help people in Africa. You can come alongside others, no matter where they are. You just have to be willing.
JP: What stood out to you about the people you met?
Jason: The people of Zambia really are amazing for many reasons. Most people over there have absolutely nothing and could not be happier. It really makes you look at your own life and see what is making you happy and what your actual needs are. They care genuinely about each other, take care of each other and family, and love the Lord with such a wholehearted innocence that is pretty amazing. Over the past couple years Jeff and I have also developed a friendship, and I was very excited to go back and see him. We had a really great time talking and hanging out and just being an encouragement to him by having some American interaction. We had a couple of guys nights where we just hung out, talked, and showed him some great YouTube videos that he’s missed out on.
Julie: One thing we noticed was that, in Africa, many of the Christians there did not seem to take ownership in their relationship with God. They definitely understood how to depend on Him, but they didn’t understand their identity in Him. They were reluctant to share their testimony when we went to the villages to share the gospel, preferring that we share ours instead. It was really cool to explain to them, “He’s your heavenly Father, too. He’s not our religion that we brought to you. We aren’t somehow above you. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and you can really know Him and share Him with others.” Before we left, we washed their feet, to demonstrate the reality of this fact with them. We talked to them again about how we belong to Christ and are part of His family. That was a real highlight for me.
As for Mickey and the Smiths, I saw their hearts for the people of Zambia. Every night while we were there, we all stayed up talking, digging into each other’s hearts, uplifting, affirming, encouraging one another. Many Africans have a learned dependency on charity. One of the main goals in this type of work is changing that mentality, requiring people to participate, and educating them on the next step. People need Christ, and they also need physical things. They are able to see Jesus more clearly through this kind of lasting investment. Jeff and Heidi are doing anything and everything they can to invest in people’s lives with the intent of discipleship. Heidi does many Bible studies, teaches baking classes, invites everyone over for tea, and has lead many women’s conferences focusing a lot on marriage. One of her Bible studies is basically a survey of the whole Bible. Some village women had no idea about any of it, and asked her to go through the whole Bible; of course she agreed! Jeff is systematically going through the village, making contact with each home, building lists of people’ names in his journal and Google maps, and is always discipling others. Jeff and Heidi have also been an amazing example to the people of Zambia with their marriage, as many marriages look very different there, because of some old traditions that they still hold to. So the married couples in the church are learning a lot from them about what marriage should look like in light of the gospel.
JP: Describe the outcome of this trip as well as how it has impacted you. How has God used this trip to grow you or to shape your thinking and your daily life in the various roles God has given you?
Jason: It was great to be able to help Jeff and Heidi. We were able to send them out for a date night in the city, to stay in a hotel and eat at a nice restaurant. It was the first time they had been on a date in two years, and they really appreciated the time away. There were some other odds and ends that we were able to help with while we were there, like patching up the floor in the preschool. Jeff has been working with some guys on a chicken coop roof, and we were able to get that done. But, more than anything, we focused on discipling people and just spent some quality time cultivating relationships.
I’m still trying to figure out exactly how this trip changed me, but it has had a huge effect on my life in multiple ways. I think my biggest priority, as far as a take-away, is that I want spend more time cultivating relationships within the church family and with people that are close to me. There is so much missions work we can do with the ones closest to us that may be hurting the most, and we have no idea. I want to take time to go out to lunch or coffee with good friends for no particular reason. Too many times we only meet someone for lunch or call them up if we need a favor, and we should be meeting with people just to see how their work is going. It was amazing to serve the Lord with my wife in a capacity where we were both doing the same thing, and not just in a ministry that we were involved in separately. It has also encouraged me to know my Bible thoroughly inside and out. I know the basics and the stories that I grew up with, and I can find things if I need to, but I can’t quote it like I want to. So many times the people in Africa can turn to a certain verse or passage because instead of being involved in social media, television, and all the other distractions that we have, they spend their time focusing on reading Scripture. It was really an eye opener to me, because often we will get involved or busy with the stupidest things and prioritize them over our own personal relationship with Christ.
Julie: We were thankful for the chance to invest in the Smith family and encourage them. We truly did just live with them. Heidi homeschools their children. In Africa, you stop everything if someone stops by to visit. One day that happened, and Naomi and I got to homeschool the kids. We got to know them as they are growing up in another culture and facing those challenges. We got to tell them, “Hey, you can do this,” and grew to have a heart for them by spending that time together. Sending Jeff and Heidi on a date was another highlight, and their daughters pampered us. Those kids are just like their parents, with hearts to serve.
Before we went, I had a lot of fear about leaving my children for so long and going overseas. God was faithful and removed that anxiety. We didn’t have time to worry. I just felt very purposeful the whole time we were there. It made me think, When the fear is there, what is missing? God has called us all to disciple others. My whole life can get wrapped up in my family. I thought my biggest struggle was fear, but God let me be in a place where all those responsibilities were stripped away. There, He showed me that being able to serve and disciple others is more important than freaking out over homemaking or creating the most comfortable life or the perfect schedule for my kids. Sometimes we young moms selfishly crave a smooth schedule, optimal circumstances, and the very best outcomes all the time. It’s hard for us to make sacrifices in order to minister to someone. I have more of a motivation for that now, and I’m learning to be mindful of others. I also realized that had pigeon-holed myself in my mothering role and sort of set aside my love for others and for discipleship, as though I had to postpone all of that indefinitely. Realizing that they can work together, and even seeing that discipleship role in my mothering, has been helpful. I’m thankful that Jason and I have been challenged to have our minds more bent on serving God in different ways, to recognize how full He is and how He manifests Himself in different ways in people’s lives. And I’m thankful for the reminder not to let fear stop me from being involved in other people’s lives or pursuing opportunities to serve and learn and grow.