A couple of missionary friends and I were on a hike in rural Mexico, talking about life and relishing our day off from the school where we taught children with differing abilities. As inquisitive twentysomethings, doggedly determined to find answers to our deepest theological questions, one of us inevitably asked: “What do you think heaven is like?”
As we hiked, we dreamt out loud of having lunch with C.S. Lewis and coffee with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in an abundant paradise — a stark contrast to the barren, sun-scorched desert by which we were surrounded. But the clash suited the spirit of the conversation. After all, heaven and earth — as we understood them — were at irreconcilable odds with each other.
Yet, even though we weren’t consciously aware of it, my missionary friends and I were seeking to create pieces of heaven in our tiny part of the world. It wasn’t because we had a special anointing or even exceptional skills. At barely 20 years old, I had no business teaching children with special needs. Most of my co-workers were hardly any more qualified.
What we did have was love to give, so we served the children who were slipping through the cracks. We shared our food and God’s peace with nearby migrant workers who were exploited by unscrupulous employers by day and lived among wild dogs in labor camps by night. We sought to bring beauty to the community however we could.
And then there was Julia, the charming 6-year-old girl with Down syndrome for whom I cared every day. Each morning, we’d pick her up from her home built with sticks and garbage bags that wrapped around as walls. She’d emerge with an empty belly but a face full of smiles.
Julia’s spirited personality enchanted me from the beginning. She had a playful innocence that melted away my troubles, a heart that was in no way proportionate to her physical size. Despite the physical and intellectual barriers she faced, she was eager to learn. I showed her how to ride a bike — she showed me new depths of love and joy.
Julia was my own personal glimpse of heaven, and maybe the compassion and care I gave her was a reflection of heaven for her too.
I didn’t only see heaven in service. It was all around me. I found it in the simple joys of weekend hikes with good friends through cactus forests. I saw it in the burning sun rising over the red rock mountains as we’d pick up our students from school early in the morning. I smelled it in the fragrant orange and guava trees growing outside of my bedroom window. I felt it in the richness of community, especially the nights when my co-workers and I would “splurge” on cheese for quesadillas and cram ourselves around the dining table of a mobile trailer, laughing and talking all night — moments we’d remember forever.
Partnering With God in Creating Heaven
Throughout my life, I’ve been exposed to many different versions of heaven: from endless worship songs to discussions of a metaphysical sort of afterlife in university philosophy classes to postmodern depictions in our primetime, pop-culture world. We love the peace of mind we get from imagining a whimsical, hallowed place up in the sky
Sometimes, I wonder if we talk about it more than the Bible does. The New International Version mentions heaven 422 times, but it references social justice more than 2,000 times. Perhaps the best way we can understand heaven is by pursuing God’s original intention for earth: where all lives are valued equally, where all people experience freedom and flourishing, where all of creation is united and whole.
Heaven is when hope is brought to dark places. I have friends in Amsterdam who bring steaming bowls of hearty soup to women who are forced to sell their bodies on the cold streets of the red-light district. Since many of these women are trafficked from countries outside of Holland, my friends bring them ethnic soups from their homelands to not only nourish their bodies but warm their souls as they build relationship.
I’ve seen bits of heaven all around the globe through my work with the Set Free Movement, a nonprofit under the Free Methodist Church seeking to address the root causes of human trafficking. I’ve witnessed it in Set Free leaders like Kelly, who engages in radical hospitality by feeding, clothing, loving and affirming the dignity of women in the sex trade in Portland. Our teams in Seattle, Washington, and Spring Arbor, Michigan, are creating pockets of heaven by investing in at-risk youth and intervening in the foster-care-to-human-trafficking pipeline. I’ve seen our team in Illinois be the hands and feet of Jesus while seeking to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of young, female survivors of sexual exploitation.
I’ve seen heaven radiate through our national leaders in the Philippines as they equip Free Methodist pastors to protect their congregations and communities from the billion-dollar industry of cybersex trafficking.
I’ve seen heaven in the impoverished, racially divided slum in Bulgaria where our missionary partners, Chance and Dee Dee Galloway, spend their days befriending social outcasts and serving people living at the margins — the people nobody else wants to help. They are breaking down the “dividing wall of hostility” between ethnic groups and building bridges to unite them (Ephesians 2:14).
Like my friends and I in Mexico, these are ordinary people who seek to make God’s love tangible, and this is something in which all of us can participate.
When we love our neighbor, that’s heaven. When we buy a meal for the person begging on the corner, that’s heaven. When we welcome the stranger into our churches and our homes, that’s heaven.
The reality is that no person is working from scratch here. God has not set us up for an impossible mission. God gifted each of us with unique personalities, skills, resources and opportunities to help build God’s kingdom on earth and to be a glimpse of heaven to others.
Katie Bergman serves as the director of operations and communications for the Set Free Movement. She is the author of “When Justice Just Is” (whenjusticejustis.com) and co-author of “Urban Shalom: Restoring Hope and Justice to Communities Affected by Modern Slavery” (fmchr.ch/ushalom).