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Inside a concrete church filled with stacks of children and thick, humid air, an old fan in the corner was my only source of comfort. I watched as a microphone was being passed around, frightfully heading my way like a pistol in a game of Russian roulette. “OK, this time I’m going to make a good impression,” I thought to myself. Finally, the mic landed in my hand. I nervously cleared my throat, but before I could speak, shouts broke out from the crowd. “James!” Three dozen children affectionately echoed my name as I stood there dumbfounded and overjoyed.
Wistfully, I must admit that the children ministries from previous summers weren’t as successful as this. Despite the blazing sun, disconnection from civilization, and discomforting surroundings, I was somewhat optimistic. Our mission group had vaguely believed everything would flow smoothly and according to schedule after being welcomed by the villagers. But during our time in Indonesia, the children were apprehensive, alerted by the presence of foreigners. The ministry turned out to be a complete failure.
The next year, members of our mission trip focused on the quality of our activities to compensate. Every week leading up to our trip, we exhaustively prepared eye-catching performances to entertain the villagers and overcome the language barrier. But this time too, our plan did not succeed as we fell short of our goal to interact and sincerely touch the hearts of the children on Nias Island.
So when I went back a third time, I knew I needed a different approach. The first day of lunch, I noticed a boy shyly looking me from the corner. I asked for a translation, “How do I say ‘What is your name in Indonesian?’” Siapa namamu. Forthwith, I approached the boy and hesitantly asked “Siapa namamu?” His eyes lit up, and he put his hand gently to his chest and said “Nama saya Tian.” Tian, what a nice name. In response, I said with a smile “Nama saya James.” He wildly shook his head, and we exchanged laughter.
Twenty minutes later when dividing children into group activities, I saw Tian plowing his way through the crowd, determined to be the first in my line. When he arrived front of me, I enthusiastically called his name and patted him on the head. Tian grinned as others looked on with surprise and curiosity about our acquaintance. Other kids then jostled and jockeyed for position to join Tian and my group. Suddenly, we were the center of attention of everyone. My church members looked at me jealous and perplexed. Surprised myself, I shrugged and whispered ‘Use their names.’
I had never seen kids smiling and laughing this loud before that day. Each time we spoke their name in broken Indonesian, they giggled uncontrollably. Regardless of the activities, they seemed to have the time of their lives. For the rest of the week, we became closer each day. Kids followed us everywhere, constantly pleading for hugs or to hold their hands. On the last day, kids were reluctant to let us go. While leaving our team was crowded with flocks of kids to send us off.
On the return flight home, I realized all the dances, dramas, and music that aimed at making us closer to children fell on deaf ears without a way to relate. The purpose of our ministry is building personal connections. Language barriers and cultural differences were excuses for our failures from previous trips. I had neglected the small details that are crucial to any relationship. My encounter with Tian started a small revolution in my life. Before, Tian was just one of many kids in Nias; however, when I spoke his name, he became more than a kid, he became Tian. My time on Nias taught me that namamu (name) is more than just a word, it’s an identity.
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