Missionary on doing God's work: Just say, 'Here I am'

Beth Guckenberger, who co-founded an organization that helps orphans in Mexico, India, Nigeria and Haiti, spoke about her life in mission work at Chapel on Monday.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Gillian Rea

Beth Guckenberger knows a lot about living the missional life.

But reckless and rash and driven by the overconfidence of youth, she jumped into that life with her husband, Todd, with no plan, no 10-year vision, no mission statement. Because of that impetuousness, Guckenberger, co-founder of Back2Back Ministries and the mother of 10 adopted and biological children, said she found herself overwhelmed. Often.

“But here’s the deal,” she told the packed house at Chapel on Monday in Grand Canyon University Arena, “We stand in a long line of people throughout biblical history who were ill-equipped and immature and not ready for the missional life God has called us to, and we get in over our head.”

Guckenberger said how ill-equipped she was when she started mission work. She just showed up, with her heart and her mind, and listened for what God wanted her to do.

After a performance by the Worship team of Worship Arts student Amanda Riffe's "Isaiah 55" from the new Canyon Worship 2019 album, Guckenberger invited students to get in over their heads as they look toward a new year of opportunities to help people. A few of those opportunities came at Monday night’s mission fair at the Arena and Tuesday night at Antelope Gym, where 16 missional groups will helm break-out sessions after the 8:30 p.m. The Gathering to tell students about multiple trips to various countries.

“Today we’re going to talk about missional living,” Guckenberger said. “My mission took me across the border and into another country. But your mission might take you across the street or across the hall. … I have no idea where God’s mission for you is.”

But she hopes students will watch for those opportunities. Guckenberger recalled how her missional life began in 1997, when she and Todd led a summer mission trip to Mexico. It wasn’t the trip she hoped it would be. They were painting, changing the color of a church wall from blue to green -- the same wall she thought they had changed from green to blue the year before.

The second-to-last day of the trip, the Guckenbergers jumped into a cab, asked the driver to take them to an orphanage and, for the first time, realized just how ill-equipped they were. When the cab left them at an orphanage, “I looked over at my husband and I’m like, do we even know the name of the street the church is on? And do we have enough pesos to pay somebody to take us back?

“I didn’t know at the time, but when you find yourself in a storyline where you have more questions than you have answers, and you’re WAY over your head, you’re probably right in the center of God’s will.”

The couple told the man who answered the door they had three things: $200, one day and 25 able bodies. Then they asked, "What do you need?"

“That’s how missional living begins,” she said. “You figure out what you have in your hand and who you want to reach out to and how to bridge that.”

They found out the orphanage hadn’t had meat in more than a year, and the front windows were broken. So the next day, the Guckenbergers and their group of missionaries arrived with “lots of meat and some new windows.”

That visit transformed her.

They decided they would move to Mexico for a year. They loaded up their car, converted all their money to traveler’s checks and drove three days to Monterrey, Mexico, from their home in Ohio. 

Guckenberger, with her pink Bible in hand, told students that God "not only wants to use you in this community ... but He wants to love you deeply while you're here."

They would live on a diet of faith -- and get in over their heads.

Guckenberger tells the story -- one she has spoken about at Chapel before -- of simply trying to cash those checks. When she pushed them under the bank teller window, the bank teller kept pushing them back.

“She starts to give me instructions at the top of her lungs: “Ponte tu nombre en la linea por favor!” said Guckenberger, who didn't speak Spanish and didn't know the teller was asking her to sign her name on the checks.

Finally, a light bulb popped over Guckenberger’s head. She had heard the word "nombre" before and wrote it down for the teller. The relieved bank employee nodded her head in agreement, then Guckenberger wrote on all those checks, “nombre,” instead of signing her own name.

Guckenberger thought she knew what God must be thinking of her: “She’s going to be a terrible missionary. She literally can’t cash a traveler's check.”

But then she looked to Zechariah 4:10: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”

That small beginning grew into Back2Back Ministries. Since moving to Mexico  -- they lived there for, not one, but 15 years -- their work has expanded from helping orphans there to other orphans in Nigeria, Haiti and India.

“This year, our organization will transfer more than $10 million around the world,” she said. Back2Back Ministries employs more than 180 staff members, has seen 20,000 mission guests volunteering at their sites and has helped countless children.

It was a few years later that Guckenberger, the author of several books, started to use the word “hineni” in her talks. It's Hebrew for "here I am" and how God will be there for you. 

On a trip to Israel, she asked a man if she was translating the word right. He told her, yes, but he wondered if she knew of the one time in the Bible where “God says hineni to you.”

It’s in Isaiah 58: “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke. … Is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter …”

Guckenberger said if we make room at the table for those who have nowhere to sit -- if we are about God’s business -- “Then your light will break forth like the dawn ... then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer: You will cry for help, and He will say: 'Here am I.'” 

Guckenberger said, “That’s the story of my whole missionary life. Do you know how many times I’ve been in over my head? Every day. I am not enough for the things God has asked of me. There’s not enough Diet Coke in the world to make me a good mom all day long. … But here’s what happens. When you get into God’s business, and you get in over your head, and you cry out to Him, He’ll say, 'Hey, whatever it is you’re asking of Me, I’m already in agreement of it.'”

She said of missional living, “it’s an opposed life,” and recalls when her husband headed to their site in India at a high time of stress for her. She found a verse, Luke 10:19, to give her strength: “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.”

Coincidentally, not long after her husband arrived in India, a king cobra was found on their mission site. She shared a video of a snake handler showing the snake a tiny rock and how the snake got frightened and slipped back into the catcher's bag. Guckenberger didn't know the science behind it, but the snake being afraid of a tiny rock inspired her husband to remind Guckenberger that her tool might not be a stone but, “You have a tool in your tool belt, Beth. Don’t ever forget to use it. It’s called the name of Jesus.”

“When you decide you’re going to live missional and you’re going to cross the hallway and you’re going to reach out to someone in your dorm room today, or you’re going to have eyes to see what else is going on around this community outside this campus, or you’re going to go tonight and ask Jesus if he has a story for you on the other side of some border,” Guckenberger said, “when He says yes, and you’re going to get overwhelmed because you’re not enough and you’re going to have more questions than answers, you remember the tool you have in your tool belt -- that this enemy has no authority to harm you.”

That the authority is yours, and that it’s God’s. And as you choose the missions for your life, even if you're in over your head, God will say: "Here I am."

● For a replay of Chapel, click here.

Next Monday's Chapel speaker: Ron Merrell, Heights Church

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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Bible Verse

Jesus taught his disciples, saying: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

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