Teresa Ku-Borden on Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Suffering and Ministry Turmoil

The week I became a mother was the most beautiful and terrifying week of my life. On my son’s second day of life, my husband I were told that he had a rare form of jaundice, possibly caused by a congenital defect of the liver. One early morning as he was getting his blood drawn, I was shaken as I watched his tiny arms flail. Muffled by the clear incubator walls, his screams shattered my heart. All I wanted to do was hold him and take away all of his pain.

Seven years before having a child, my husband, Ryan, and I lived in a small, mostly Latino community just a few miles northwest of East Los Angeles. Neither of us would have thought that we would make East Los Angeles our home. But during an urban ministry project, our visions and plans for our lives began to shift. We were inspired by ministers and followers of Jesus who relocated from more comfortable middle- and upper-class communities into neighborhoods of poverty to live in solidarity with people who were different from them. We had the same hope and intention.

Ryan and I became part of a church-planting team in Lincoln Heights. Ryan started the high school ministry, and I started the path to becoming a physician. After some ministry mishaps and failures, the youth group began to thrive. Our youth opened their hearts and their lives to us, and we connected with them. We invited them into relationships with Jesus and did our best to nurture any spiritual hunger we encountered. We felt a sense of purpose as 20-something newlyweds who were seeking to live out what we understood of God’s calling on our lives. When it came time to move for my upcoming medical residency, it was difficult to say goodbye to this group of hungry and humble students.

After four years of residency and my fellowship, we felt called to return to East Los Angeles. I was now pregnant, and we planned to pick up where we’d left off—to raise our child in this community that we loved. I looked forward to the next chapter of my life with hopeful anticipation.

I look back now on those well-thought-out, idyllic plans, and I smile wistfully to myself. I had based all those plans on my ideals and assumptions—that our son would be healthy, that we would be able to take him along to do ministry with us, and that our lives would continue to have the same sense of calling, purpose, and fulfillment.

But our son was not healthy. Adam was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a congenital and progressive defect of the liver. We didn’t know how long he would remain healthy before his liver would fail and he’d need a transplant.

A Season of Suffering

When we returned to our community and the small urban church we had helped to start, we were warmly welcomed back. But we quickly realized we had no capacity to do any ministry. We ourselves needed significant support as parents of a medically fragile child who was hospitalized nine times in the first 18 months of his life. We had never felt more isolated and alone. We were paralyzed by the trauma of having a very sick child, and we were exhausted. Was the Lord forgetting how faithful my husband and I had been to the ministry? The sacrifices we’d made? The ideals and assumptions I had about following Jesus as a naïve 25-year-old had completely broken down.

As we began to open up about our suffering in this season, our friends—especially the youth we had invested in—began opening up about theirs. They not only shared stories of trauma from childhood and of anger about the inequality in their education and upbringing, but they also began to share their frustration and bitterness toward Ryan and me from when we had mentored them as teenagers. They felt that we had operated out of a project mentality, rather than from a genuine desire to get to know them as people, as though we were using their community and doing ministry there to feel better about ourselves. It became clear to us that even as we had earnestly tried to serve our young adult friends, there had been times when we had also hurt them deeply.

When we listened to them, we felt a mixture of emotions. To be entrusted with their honest reflections was a privilege and a devastation. Even though it was painful to hear, we also knew it was a sacred gift to be invited into these depths.

The way we’d learned how to do ministry seemed to have backfired, causing more pain and distrust. I began to question my role and calling in this ministry context. The inner turmoil, the questions, the collision and intersection of my identities as mother, physician, and Chinese American woman—was it worth the cost? Had all of our “hard work” been for nothing? Did we even belong here? How could God have been in all of this?

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Source: Christianity Today