FLORAL, Ark. — Eating lunch never was this hard.
Mission-minded university students lived — and shopped — like refugees at the 50th annual World Mission Workshop.
As part of the hands-on seminar at Harding University Tahkodah, the students spent an afternoon navigating a simulated Third-World market.
Harding students transformed a small patch of northern Arkansas forest into a developing nation — complete with ramshackle stores, loud, pushy vendors and camouflaged, corrupt police officers.
“I’ve been to Chinatown in New York, and I thought that was crazy,” said Bailey Burgess, who grew up in the small town of Crossville, Tenn.
The Arkansas market was even more chaotic, said Burgess, a student in the Adventures in Missions, or AIM, program at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas.
In real life, “it would have been scary,” she added.
The task — buy food and prepare a meal — seemed simple enough. Students were divided into large “families.” Each family was assigned a baby — a small balloon filled with water. Family members were responsible for procuring milk for the baby and food for the adults.
Skipping a meal was not an option, the organizers explained. Families in developing nations didn’t have bags of trail mix and granola bars back in their tents.
Before going to market, each family had to get a kit with cooking utensils, a fire permit and money.
The students soon found themselves mired in the bureaucracy that plagues many developing nations.
Volunteers — posing as bankers and guards — yelled at the students to form lines, sometimes giving them contradictory orders where to stand. Some families received cooking kits and permits, only to be told they had obtained them in the wrong order. They had to start over.
When they finally made it to the market, things didn’t get much easier.
Vendors yelled to the students in myriad languages — none of them English. They haggled endlessly over the prices of eggs, potatoes, onions and milk. Pickpockets and armed guards roamed the street, harassing the students. Beggars asked for handouts.
A small group of volunteers portrayed American tourists — talking loudly, breaking in lines and endlessly snapping photos.
Some students laughed and others looked bewildered as they attempted to buy enough food to prepare a meal. When their hands were full of vegetables — or when they ran out of the fake money they were given at the bank — they made their way to clearings across the campsite to start cooking.
In a simulated United Nations refugee camp, one family lit a fire and debated the best way to arrange cinder blocks and a steel grate to cook their rice thoroughly. Finally, they gave up and decided instead to boil their potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions into a sort of stew.
Sitting on logs under a light blue United Nations flag, the family members reflected on what they had learned in the market.
Sarah McDaniel, an AIM student from Lubbock, said the incomprehensible merchants and unhelpful public officials left her feeling hopeless.
“Just think about the people who have to do this every day,” McDaniel said.
Back in the market, the missionaries who alternated roles as salespeople, police and thieves said that the experience gave them a better sense of the people they serve in the mission field.
“You don’t feel like a real person. People just ignore you,” said Louisa Duke, who walked through the market as a blind beggar. Duke, a former missionary to the African nation of Zambia, is a physician’s assistant in Fort Worth, Texas.
Nine-year-old Connie Bunner led Duke through the crowd. A few people reached into their pockets and made a donation, Bunner said, holding up a paper cup with a few U.S. dollars and some change. (Apparently, no one donated the fake money they were given to buy food.)
“One person said, ‘God bless you,’” added Bunner, the daughter of missionaries in Togo.
Kaleb McLarty, a high school senior in Searcy, Ark., also played a beggar in the market.
“Some were generous … would look at me with kind eyes,” he said.
But most didn’t notice him.
And only one person asked him if he knew Jesus — an African named Daniel Lufiyele.
Lufiyele, a native of Zimbabwe, came to the World Mission Workshop to promote Pillar of Legacy, a mission effort that seeks to provide sustainable development to the Tonga people of his home country.
As he watched the Americans navigate the market, Lufiyele said he was surprised how quickly they went into “survival mode,” concentrating on the immediate goal of feeding their families — and ignoring the people in need around them.
Lufiyele said he has seen American Christians in foreign countries do the same.
“As missionaries, how do we live in every aspect of society?” he asked. “How often do we miss the opportunities God provides for us to minister?”