Empty bags, Open Hands by Benjamin Grimm

Earlier this year, I planned a medical outreach with the intent to visit several of our most remote communities and demonstrate techniques for first aid and self-care. The routes had to be confirmed by our neighbors because some waterways were closed due to deadfalls. The arrangements were not a light undertaking. We had no extra clothes, no food, and only a minimum of bedding and mosquito nets. Our only plan was to go where we were welcomed and visit each place open to us. We were committed to go just as Jesus sent his disciples, empty bags and open hands.

I have been far beyond my comfort zone these past 5 years, being in a posture that makes me completely reliant on the communities I am living with. I was needy. I am still needy. Lesson #1: You have to be needy to be in community. 

It didn’t take long to understand that going with nothing meant we were entirely reliant on our hosts for our next meal, water to drink, and a place to sleep. It also didn’t take long to notice I don’t like sago, a common carb for the locals. I don’t like bony fish that are so abundant in these waters. I prefer strong spices that these new neighbors of mine have never heard of. I usually expect my coffee to be made a particular way. But now all we had was instant coffee. I do love the security of a routine and the comfort of knowing what happens next, but this wasn’t a place for personal preferences.

After treating dozens of sick people, sharing worship, and returning to our house to relax for the evening, our host came with food for us. He then sat down and ate with us in what I saw as a beautiful gesture of friendship. Dinner was sago glue, bony fish, and some cooked greens. I normally do not choose this type of dinner, but it ceased to be about the food and became something more. Lesson #2: Community happens in spaces we don’t plan and in ways we don’t expect. We shared another meal the next morning. After the host generously served tea to our team, he discovered I drank coffee. He then retrieved what I later gathered was the only serving of instant coffee in the house to offer to me. I was moved to be accommodated with such a scarce gift. Lesson #3: Hospitality is a precious gift.

Later, when I did follow up treatment for my patients from the previous day, it was particularly gratifying to see the looks on their faces when we pulled bandages off and noted marked improvements. We soon left to go upriver and began a perilous journey up a very narrow tributary choked with logs, vines, and branches. The water flowed very fast making maneuvering exceptionally difficult and we spent a labor intensive few hours working our way upstream until we came to a large tree far too thick to cut through with a machete. For all our determination, it was easy to see the clear answer of “No.  Not this time”. We all realized the target village was not in God’s plan for us and turned around. Going back down was actually harder than going up because it was difficult to check our speed, we couldn’t even use the motor, so we cut spars and poled our way down. A village in the middle that we had bypassed for later became the target for that day. Lesson #4: Community is what God puts in front of you. We sent out word to bring sick folks, and I spent another several hours cleaning and patching infected sores. No service had been scheduled so we shared testimony and talked about the festering feud with the next village.

That evening the discussion over dinner drifted to the feud again. No one offered to pray about it, but I had to excuse myself since I didn’t understand why these mature men of faith were upset. Lesson #5: Community is messy. Especially when you are in a space where there is a goal to learn from each other’s differences.

Coming back home wasn’t so much a huge relief but the sanguine feeling of a job well done. I missed my wife’s cooking. I returned to the familiar comfort of my four children’s affection. I sat in my yard and was at peace. I shook hands and told stories to my relatives and neighbors. I was back at home base, recharging for the next mission. Lesson #6: Community is an invitation, not an end.


Benjamin Grimm