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Reflections on a life-long journey of faith and work
among the world’s poor

by Jerry Aaker


Table of Contents

Part One: The Journey

My Life: A Short History of the Unexpected 2
A Spirituality of Service 6
Journaling the Journey 11
Perseverance 17

Part Two: Spiritual Practices

Discernment 24
Patience 31
Self-Examination 36
Conversation 41
Worship 45
Silence 52
Pray—Without Ceasing? 60
Spontaneous Contemplation 67
Spiritual Direction 74
The Desert 82
Lenten Journeys 87

Part Three: Spirituality in Action

Passing the Peace 96
Presence—Vietnam Revisited 102
Service in the Name of Christ 112
A Spirituality of Service Accompaniment 120
Good News for the Poor 127
Peacemaking 134
Other Faith Traditions 142
Evaluation 150
Returning—Gracias! 157

Part Four: Encounters on the Journey

Waiting for the Will of God 166
After Easter 170
Faithful Servants 176
Irritations 184
Doubt in Albania 192
Celebration 198
Hospitality 202
Mirth 206

Part Five: Developing a Rule of Life

Legacy 214
Vision 220
Cornerstones of Spirituality 224

Closing Challenge: And What About You?


Glossary of Organizations 232
Bibliography 234
Appreciation 239

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By Art Simon
Founder and President Emeritus
Bread for the World

“No one should spend so much time in contemplation that they ignore the needs of a
neighbor, nor be so absorbed in action that they feel no need for contemplation of God.”

So wrote St. Augustine in The City of God.

The strength of this book is the way in which Jerry Aaker captures the heart of what St. Augustine espoused. He does this by dipping into his journals from several decades abroad with humanitarian agencies and giving us deeply personal impressions from his own journeys. He shares with us his partnership with people struggling against the odds to overcome some of the worst features of poverty in developing countries. He does this as a man of faith, who understands his work as a fruit of
faith, and his walk with God as a foundation of strength for his work.

Aaker’s love for people and his faith in Christ are palpable and interconnected. In short, his spirituality does not retreat from the harshness and joys of life, but emerges from this milieu and is all the more necessary because of it.

Spirituality is a maddeningly elusive term, one that can mean almost anything. So it is refreshing that Aaker anchors his spirituality in the faith confessed and nurtured by the church—and practiced in the world. That connection comes through consistently on these pages. Unlike most books on spirituality, this one was not written by a theologian or by someone who has practiced and taught spirituality in quiet surroundings—though such guides are not to be despised.

A Spirituality of Service was written by a layman who felt called by God to live and work among the poor and who also felt a need to undergird that work by learning to draw strength from God. As a result, the product is authentic. It is, as he admits, a “spirituality of imperfection,” therefore easy for us imperfect folks to relate to. I say that with some conviction because my wife Shirley and I read the 35 chapters aloud together, a chapter each evening.

We felt drawn to the people Aaker met, enriched by his own journey and grateful for the mutual reflection that it spawned.

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Sample Chapter

 Waiting for the Will of God

They also serve who only stand and wait.
John Milton

Huehuetenango, Guatemala, December, 1995

High on the Cuchumatane plateau, I trekked on a trail up the steep mountainside and through pastures and fields to visit farms and homes of the Indian families who participate in a sheep project that has been of much benefit in this area.

Walking along a path through a small meadow, I came upon an old woman sitting on a stone wall. Her deeply wrinkled and leathery brown face displayed the effects of many years exposure to the direct sun of this high altitude.

“Buenas días, Señora, Como está usted?” “Good morning, madam, how are you?” I asked.

She smiled, showing her few remaining teeth. “Buenas días, señor! Estoy esperando la voluntad de Dios!” “Good morning, sir. I am waiting for the will of God,” she replied.

I was curious about this greeting and stopped to chat. She told me that she lives alone. “My husband died three years ago, and I have no one to take care of me now.”

“What about your children?”

“I have none,” she said. “I live up there,” as she pointed up the steep slope behind me, “on the other side of that crest.”

She carried a piece of kindling wood and a small bag of food. She told me that she was out looking for food, and I supposed that this old widow went around to her neighbors each day asking for help in her old age.

As she spoke about herself and her life, tears welled up in her eyes. “I am 83 years old, and I’m waiting for the will of God,” she repeated. In Spanish the word esperar means both to wait and to expect. I wondered for a moment if she was actually expecting to be called by God that very day—or perhaps was just sitting there in the sunshine wanting to go to heaven soon. Then she looked right at me and said, “Dios es Grande!”

I agreed—“Yes, God is Great.” I felt comforted and assured that the Spirit was right there hearing her real and sincere supplication to God—to take her to be at God’s side—or just waiting to see what was God’s will for her that day.

I was warmed and touched by this brief and poignant encounter on the path that day. Was it because her tears were so authentic and not intended to solicit my pity? She was not asking anything of me—not begging or preying on my guilt and asking for sympathy. No, instead she was giving something to me—something deep within her—a simple and primitive campesina faith in the
goodness of God.

And I took even more than that gift away with me—I took an image. I asked her if I could take her picture, expecting the usual shy and embarrassed response of an indigenous woman. But no—she looked straight at me, though I was not sure her eyes could perceive my image clearly. “Bueno—Tal
vez!” she said, as if to say, “Good! Maybe that’s a good idea!” It was a strong and positive response, so we connected through the lens of the camera for a few brief seconds, and after some minutes I bid farewell.

“May God bless you,” was the only thing I could say, to which she responded— “Gracias.”

As I walked on up the path, I thought about waiting for the will of God in my own life, thankful for her testimony, a reminder to me.

The old Mayan woman had shown me her faith that morning, and I am sure I was more enriched by her than she was by me in that chance encounter on a cool December morning. After all, it is Advent—and we are, indeed, waiting for the will of God!

. . . . . . . . . . .

When I am on a trip, I am not always on the move. There are many pauses and stops along the way. Sometimes I become impatient with the pace. I found this to be especially true in Latin America with regard to time. I learned that a community meeting set for 9:00 a.m. would not necessarily begin at that hour. Arriving at the agreed upon time, often meant we could expect to wait for maybe an hour for everyone to arrive. However, that was not considered to be wasted time, but rather a time to look around, greet everyone as they showed up, and get to know something about the place and the people. Politeness and relationships are more highly valued than promptness and the achievement of an agenda.

In the same way, the spiritual journey is not one of simply ticking off a list of achievements—an activity of the mind in which I strive to know as much about God and His purposes as possible. A more constructive use of time may be to do what Jesus asked his disciples to do in the midst of a severe crisis. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked Peter, James and John to watch and wait. They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, Sit here while I pray (Mark 14:32).

This was not easy for them; nor is it for me. But the prayer of waiting for the will of God may be just that—sitting still in the presence of God, allowing the Spirit of Jesus to pray within me—watching for the will of God.


In writing about waiting prayer, Sue Monk Kidd said: [Waiting prayer] has little to do with petition and intercession and getting God to fix things. . . . We place ourselves in postures of the heart, in the stillness that enables us to become aware of what God is doing so that we can gradually say yes to it with our whole being. . . . Attentiveness is vital to waiting. The word wait comes from a root word
meaning “to watch.” Originally to wait meant to apply attentiveness or watchfulness throughout a period of time and was a highly regarded experience. To wait on God meant to watch keenly for God’s coming.
Watchers and waiters were nearly synonymous. Unfortunately, much of this meaning has been emptied out of our experience of waiting. These days, the idea of waiting doesn’t conjure up the idea of being tuned in as much as it does the idea of being turned out. We denigrate it to idling (When the Heart Waits, pp 129, 130).


I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130:5, 6

  • Generally, how do you emotionally handle an experience that involves waiting?
  • What do you think the old woman in this story meant by “waiting for the will of God?”
  • Reflect on and write about one of your own experiences of waiting and watching for the will of God for yourself or another person.

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Final Challenge

Closing Challenge:  and “What About You?”

Years ago when I was a student at Luther College, we were required to attend daily chapel. That meant I listened to about 500 chapel talks during those years. I don’t remember any specific details of those meditations, but I do recall the deep commitment to faithfulness and the passion for service expressed by those many pastors and teachers who shared their wisdom and their life stories with us students.
Memories of encounters with those and other caring and questioning mentors along the way continue to influence me to this day as I live out my life of faith and service.

At the conclusion of each of his talks, Pastor Gordon Selbo always finished with this question: “And what about you?” He wanted to bring the message and the Scripture text right back to us and challenge us to ponder its meaning for our lives.You may have come to this last page of the book having nibbled and snacked on just a few of my stories and reflections, or you may have partaken in the full course
and read it all. Either way, I hope you have been impacted by the people to whom you have been introduced, and that the stories and reflections I have shared in these pages have drawn a picture of what it has meant for me to walk with the poor in spirit and in service.

However, let’s be clear, your hearing my journey is not the most critical issue. The important question is, “What about you?” In what ways are you answering for yourself the questions at the end of each chapter? How have you worked out your own answers to the questions about life’s meaning, purpose and calling? In what ways do you continue to ask and answer, to discern and respond, as you craft your own understanding of how you are called to the dual challenges of spirituality and service—as you live out your life?

Blessings on your journey.
Jerry Aaker

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