Often one has to be removed some distance from the routines of daily life in order to appreciate the fact that God works in ways that are strange and mysterious to us but are normal for God. The more time I spend outside the U.S., the more I realize that God is working in the lives of those far removed from our usual North American lifestyle and expectations. Interacting with people who exist in poverty and eke out only a subsistence living is enlightening. Through such interactions one can see what is important to other people, how they see the world, and how they understand their role in God's plan. Interacting with Christians who live in poverty in lean-to housing projects changes one's perspective. Perhaps the most important benefit is to learn about us--learning how such brothers and sisters see us and other North Americans generally.
Happiness and contentment are variable qualities that depend on many different cultural influences. We North Americans generally believe that ours is the view of life that is the standard for the rest of the world, and that all people want what we already have. Isn't that why there are so many immigrants, both legal and illegal? We tend to view indigenous Central and South Americans, or any poorer people, as people with the same desires, hopes, and wishes that we have, but without the means to reach those goals. If we could only somehow export our way of thinking and doing things, along with some money to implement that, then the world would be a better place and we would fulfill our Christian duty in benevolence. Perhaps along the way, we would have an opportunity also to share the gospel.
The desire to adopt the North American worldview suggested above and to duplicate our way of life may exist in some of the cities of Central and South America, places where our culture is imported 24/7 through media influences. But there also exists in Latin America a far more complex societal structure with roots and societal foundations that point in a different direction. People still closely connected to those roots do not think or believe as do we. This is not better or worse--just different--and the influences of their culture, their history, their governmental structures, and their origins all play a part in what they value and why. Their spiritual views are often colored not only by Christianity but also by native religions and simple (we might say primitive) understandings of the world. A missionary to Guatemala observed that "indigenous worship service in Guatemala is almost exclusively a praise service and when North Americans are not present may last up to three hours with head breaking, amplified music and preaching." We should ask if they are able to see something we no longer see.
Can God work in the lives of people who subsist in poverty? Can the gospel be spread through people with limited resources and tremendous physical needs? Can a church that exists in poverty still be an example of generous giving and sharing--blankets, firewood, clothing, and basic food needs? The answer in Scripture is "yes!" Paul describes those who gave financial gifts out of their extreme poverty (2 Corinthians 8-9).
What does it mean to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the masses of our world? In North America, it has too often been defined in exclusively physical ways--you will provide my needs if you are really a Christian. The benevolent spirit of Jesus will certainly feed the hungry, but even Jesus refused to provide food when such was the sole motivation for following him (John 6). The great need of the world is Jesus. The great need of the world is the gospel. We North Americans will be helped to recognize and meet that need when we learn that God can work through the lives of his people everywhere--even in extreme poverty.
Many North American Christians on first short-term mission trips report seeing what I have just described. Before we go and as we arrive, we may think that the people we go to help are jealous of us (and some are). As we leave, we often see the tables reversed and realize that we are in fact jealous of them--because they have learned a level of happiness and contentment in Christ that surpasses ours. God is at work among his people everywhere. Let us let God work in his ways--even when they are strange and mysterious to us!