When Jesus said to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19, NIV, emphasis added), it always stirred up in me the idea of missions trips to faraway places and cultures.
As a Foursquare pastor, I’ve been going and bringing others along for more than 25 years throughout North America and Europe. But I wonder: What if we could reach people from all nations on an everyday basis without ever leaving our hometowns?
Three years ago, a local Christian school here in Reno, Nev., was looking for a host family for one 16-year-old Chinese exchange student: Were we interested?
Nope. I wasn’t. I actually thought to myself, “I’ve never had a heart for China.” And I heard the voice of the Lord in my spirit, “Well, I do.” Taken aback, I talked and prayed it over with Joni and the two kids we still had at home (Joey, 18; Alyse, 16). It was unanimous—we were in.
From the time we first met Frank (his real name is Yuchi; Frank is his “American” name), God connected our hearts to him. He was our boy. The first question he asked us was, “Can I call you ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’?” Our hearts melted.
Soon, packages started arriving. Every day. Frank loved “stuff”; he had several pairs of Beats by Dre (different colors for his outfits,) all the latest gadgets from Apple and clothes inspired by his favorite fashion icon, Kanye West. Money was no object.
It wasn’t like the “stuff” made Frank happy—my kids noted he loved the anticipation of their arrival, but as soon as the newness of the latest purchase wore off, he would cast it off. Nothing made him content. At the same time, he was having a hard time figuring out our family, especially the part about Jesus.
In the following months we discovered much of the “why” behind Frank’s behavior. Most of what he knew of English he acquired listening to Snoop Dogg MP3s. (That explained the language.) He came from an incredibly wealthy family—a fact that led kidnappers to hold him for ransom at age 7. (He escaped through a basement window and ran for help.)
Most of his extended family’s wealth had come from high interest money lending, extortion and prostitution, all of which were “normal” activities/businesses in his world. He was a privileged child, a son who’d never been denied anything material, partially because his parents could afford it, and partially due to his status as their “golden child.”
Most telling, he’d only lived with his parents for about two years of his 16; he’d been with his grandparents until he was 10, and then had been in a series of boarding schools. As such, his main connection to the world was wireless, via phone or computer.
Our kids Joey and Alyse (and Alyse’s boyfriend, Dustin) took Frank under their wings and purposed to teach him what it meant to be in a family: drawing him out of his room and off of his phone so they could connect with one another, share meals, laughter and lots of experiences.
I never thought Matthew 28:19’s “go and make disciples of all nations” would end up like this. But I’m thankful God knew what He was doing.
This included finding out about Jesus. He was amazed to find out from his new siblings that Jesus isn’t the “American” God (like Buddha is the Chinese god,) but that Jesus is God over everybody. When it came to church “stuff,” Frank watched, listened and learned. Which brings us to Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving at our house centers on acknowledging Christ’s provision in our lives, sharing a great meal of our favorite foods (ribs and salmon, in addition to turkey) as well as a time for each person to share what they are thankful for. As we went around our family circle, I didn’t want to put Frank on the spot and make him participate, but Joey and Alyse insisted that he dig deep and come up with something.
After a moment, Frank, with more emotion than I’d ever seen him show, said: “I’m happy to be here. To have a family who really loves me, even when I’m bad. To have a brother and sister. To be a part of this. I am almost Christian.”
Throughout the year, our family bonded with Frank and vice-versa. When it came time to decide where he would attend high school the next year, he chose to stay so that he could live with us. He did this for three years—the only student in his exchange program to do so. He even served as the best man in Alyse and Dustin's wedding earlier this year.
This past June, Frank graduated from high school with his family cheering him on. He chose to attend Arizona State so that he could be within a one-hour plane trip of “home.”
Last week at about 11 p.m., my wife got a phone call—it was Frank. After catching up on life’s happenings, he shared: “I wanted to let you know: I will be home for Thanksgiving! I won’t miss it with my family.”
The first question he asked us was, “Can I call you ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’?” Our hearts melted.
I look back on this journey and see what God has done: He’s added to our family, He’s planted the seed and substance of the gospel in a young man who may never have been exposed to it if he’d stayed in China, and He prepared a place for future influence and interactions to continue: Frank’s parents are flying Joni and me to China to say thank you for showing hospitality to Frank, and also to build on our relationship. I am his dad’s “first American friend.”
I never thought Matthew 28:19’s “go and make disciples of all nations” would end up like this. But I’m thankful God knew what He was doing—and that He can (and will) use His people, right where they live, when the peoples of all nations come to our hometowns.
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