Have you ever been part of something– some project or task– SO monumental and far-reaching that you wonder whether your efforts made any difference? Did you end up with “grunt” work– a seemingly insignificant part of the larger project that left you with lots of questions and very few (or no) answers? Something so tiny that most people would never even know if you did it?
A couple of years ago, I took a temporary job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. I was part of a vast team of workers who conducted “follow-up” visits, mostly to addresses that had not responded by April 1. I was excited, and a bit apprehensive; after all, the Census is a pretty big deal. These names and numbers will be part of our nation’s collective history. As someone who loves doing genealogy, the Census is invaluable for discovering information about my family history– names, ages, locations, occupations, origins and ethnicities, and so much more can be learned from Census records.
However, I soon discovered that most of my job consisted of traveling to out-of-the-way locations, and knocking on the doors of empty houses, or trying to find addresses that no longer existed. “Non-response follow-up” usually involves checking on rentals, second homes, vacation homes, and homes that have been vacated, condemned, or even demolished in the years since the previous census. It is a lonely and often frustrating exercise in trying to find what “isn’t,” rather than counting what “is.” Each day, I was given a new list of locations (including some I had already visited without success). But I was commissioned by the U.S. Government to trace each address on that list to the best of my ability, and, wherever possible, to get information about anyone who might have been in residence at that location on April 1.
Sometimes, I was able to get an interview, and document names and ages, or correct information that had been collected earlier. But much of what I did will never be included in the final Census report for 2020. My name will not appear and I will receive no recognition for my efforts(unless as a footnote with the thousands of others who did the same thing). I did get paid for my work, for the time I spent traveling and knocking on doors. And some interviews were not just fruitless, but bordered on abusive. Homeowners were annoyed, or even outraged when I showed up. They had sent in their Census form– for their primary address! Worse yet, there were some times when I showed up after ANOTHER enumerator had come– I had been sent to follow-up on the follow-up! But I was under strict orders about where to go, when to go, what to say (or not say), how to report on each interview (or non-interview). I was under a commission. I took an oath, and I followed orders, just like being commissioned in the military. Looking back, I feel good about the experience. I served my country, and I learned a great deal about the local geography, AND about human nature. For every cranky homeowner, there were others who were friendly and helpful. At the time, though, I often felt drained and dazed at the end of a shift.
As Christians, we are also commissioned. We are to go into all the world and preach the gospel, making disciples of every nation, teaching and baptizing, and being witnesses for Christ. (Matthew 28:16-20/Mark 16:15-18, etc.) Our commission is not to force everyone around us to become Christians, or to demand that they respect us or our message (that is the work of the Holy Spirit– our job is to go and to be witnesses, disciple-makers, teachers, encouragers, and helpers). And part of our commission is to pray–fervently and consistently– to pray for our nation and its government officials (1 Timothy 2: 1-2); to pray for believers around the world, especially for those under persecution (Hebrews 13:3), to pray for those who persecute, ridicule, or despise us (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44), to pray for, and interact with grace toward, those who have rejected Christ (Colossians 4:5-6), to pray for the healing and restoration of others (James 5:13-20).
At times, we may not feel like praying for certain people or situations. We may not understand why God allows for corruption in our government or for neighbors to mock our faith or treat us unfairly. We may not understand why some of our prayers seem to be more about what “isn’t” that about what is. We may not understand why God sends us, where God sends us, or when God sends us to go, to act, and to pray. But God IS listening. He knows our every thought, and He sees every need– not just our needs, but the broader needs of our community and our world. May we be faithful with the commission we have been given. It’s a much bigger deal than any Census!