Throughout my life I’ve been an actor, director, producer, student, teacher, missionary, pastor, husband, father and friend. I’ve taken on a lot of rolls and received a number of “calls” to different types of work, ministry and activity. But strangely, almost all of those “calls” have revolved around the same two themes in my life—living a mission and telling stories. And in a similar fashion, the calls have often cycled me back to the same places over and over. Below are a few stories of call and place that I’ve experienced in my life as I’ve revolved through a cycle of mission and story. We’ll start pretty early on…
As a missionary: Pierre Payen, Haiti
When I was seven years old my parents decided to take my four brothers and me to Haiti for a month to work in a small clinic in the village of Pierre Payen. The clinic was staffed by expats from the US and Canada and my folks were covering for another family for a month. The adventure was extreme. From the moment we stepped off the plane onto the sweltering heat and humidity of the tarmac, to the customs line where officials were distracted enough by our He-Man figures to ignore the medications my parents had packed in the luggage, the newness was overwhelming. I remember my mother asking me to take a look outside to see if I saw the missionary who would be picking us up, and when I peered through the glass door all I could see was an ocean of people that, from my seven year-old perspective, went on for miles. On the drive from the airport to the clinic compound we came upon a motorcycle fatality, and within a few days all of us suffered from stomach ailments, ant bites and the newfound dread of opening the shower curtain to find a tarantula.
Luckily, within a week or so we settled in to a routine and started to feel at home. But something was off. My parents were serving in the clinic, my older brothers were engaged with high school aged kids in the village, and my younger brothers were just 3 and 4, so they mostly just hung around. But I couldn’t figure out how to contribute. I finally asked, my folks, “When do I get to be a missionary?” That’s when a saint of a nurse, Aunt Martha, stepped in and introduced me to Sister Rosie, a little old lady down the road who lived alone in a mud hut with a tin roof, a tiny bed and a wheelchair. Every couple of days it was my job to take her rice and ice, and on Sundays I would wheel her to and from church.
I was scared the first time I walked down the road, over the wooden planks that spanned the creek, and up the little dirt rise to her home. I still can smell the cool of the mud hut, the smoke from the fire, the must of her belongings, and the soft, distinct odor of her skin. Just remembering it now still transports me.
I sat with her. Sang to her. Read the Bible to her in English (she couldn’t understand a word). Listened to her tell me stories (I couldn’t understand a word). But Sundays were different. Her hair was pulled up in a bright satin scarf. She wore her one “church” dress. My brother, Bill, helped me navigate the wooden planks with Rosie and the chair, and then we strolled to church.
I sat next to her and listened to her sing in her tinny, nasal cry. Her whole being sang out. Her arms were raised. She was deeply alive and brimming with joy and love.
Afterward, she would talk with her friends and I would try to wait patiently. Finally, after the pastor greeted her and sent her off with a blessing, we would roll back down the road to her hut.
I felt important. I felt needed. I felt good. Not just happy, but I felt that I was good—a good person. A giver. A seven year-old boy who brought value to others. And Sister Rosie couldn’t keep her chocolate colored, papery skinned hands off of my hands and my face and my toe-headed noggin. So I knew she liked me, too. I was a missionary.
Storytelling on stage: Huntington, Indiana
I also started acting when I was 7. One day my Sunday school teacher called and asked if I would play the role of Micah in an upcoming play for church. I enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Then my ma gave me the script and I saw all the lines I had to memorize and I enthusiastically tried to back out. But my mom encouraged me to try, and rode patiently with me in the van while I read and reread the lines from home to church, and practiced with me at home, all the while reminding me that I could do it and I would enjoy it.
She was right of course, but I don’t think she knew what kind of impact it would have in the long run. I don’t remember much about the play except for the itchy robe and the terror of forgetting my lines. But I DO remember the feeling of being on stage—the adrenaline, the joy, the anxiety and the excitement all bubbling to the surface like a spring of fearsome magic.
That adrenaline carried me a long way and I’m grateful. Because one night, 12 years later, while onstage performing Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at Huntington University, I experienced God in a wholly new way. The lights were blinding. The other actors were mesmerizing. The audience was alive and filling the room with vitality and engagement with the story played out in front of them. And something suddenly exploded in my soul. I don’t know how quite to describe it, but in that moment I was closer to God then I had ever been in my life. The Holy Spirit was awakening in me something voracious, and I realized that theatre was my act of worship. Somehow, this shared experience between the audience and the performers—the indwelling of character, the imbibing of truth telling, and the surrender to the suspension of disbelief—was a holy space and the Spirit was at work. It was my first understanding that God is at work outside of the church and inside of people, and for a moment I was lost in the magic—fully present, fully outside of myself. It was the holy moment that made sacred my call to tell stories.
As a missionary again: St. Ard, Haiti
At the end of college I wanted to find a way to engage both my call to theatre and my call to mission, so I co-wrote and produced a 45-show US tour with my brother and some college buddies, then used the money raised to work in Haiti for the next six months. I ended up living there for almost three years. While in Haiti I worked in community development, taught theatre at an international school, and dated, married and lived with my astounding wife, Eva. But the story that most connects me to my call to mission is also a story that connects me to my call as a filmmaker/storyteller.
While living in the small village of St. Ard, learning the language, getting my footing and praying that God would reveal to me some great plan for my life, I experienced the profound desire to be baptized. As a 22 year-old who grew up in the church, I had considered being baptized in the past but had put it off because I really wanted the sacrament of baptism to mean more to me than a rite of passage. I wanted it to be a commissioning. And while immersing myself in the local community of St. Ard and trying on lots of different “missionary hats” I felt called to something lasting and realized that it was indeed time to be baptized. I spoke to the pastor of our local church and let him know of my interest, but he said that they would be doing baptisms sometime later in the year. I didn’t want to wait. I couldn’t. So I prayed. And then it hit me.
I headed to the beach via public transportation, walked solemnly to the waters edge, toed into the warm Caribbean and walked in up to my waist. Then I turned to the island, to the people who had been marginalized for so long, to the land that was being stripped of its trees and soil and hope for the future, to the sun in the sky and to my God in heaven. And like Robert Duvall’s character, “Sonny Dewey”, I baptized myself into a new commissioning to go wherever I was asked to go, to do whatever I was asked to do, to help those I met along the way, and to live and love faithfully as best I could.
Lest some of the more fundamental Christ-followers out there worry for my eternal salvation, I was later publicly baptized in a church by an ordained minister before heading to LA to make movies. But honestly, that was all for others. My sacred baptism and the launch of my call to ministry took place alone with my God at the beach along Route Nationale #1.
As a storyteller missionary: The Entire USA
There are a lot of stories in the middle here that might be worth telling. Like when I heard a voice that first called me to peace amidst rejection and waiting. And the same voice (and the same words, even) that called me to California for something I swore I’d never do. Or the vision of a wave of God and my prayer to be called to ride that wave. But the story that really brings it all together is the story I’m still living out now.
In 2010 my wife Eva and I survived what we respectfully refer to as, “Year 10.” It was our hardest year of life and marriage to date, and it finished by starting marriage counseling out of deep necessity. I have to digress—if you’ve never experienced counseling please do. Even if you don’t think there’s anything wrong or unresolved, just do it. Whether it’s marriage counseling, pre-marital counseling, personal counseling, group counseling—it doesn’t really matter. Get counseling. It’s good. It’s healthy. It’s important. Now back to our regularly scheduled broadcast.
In the fall of 2011 Eva and I were finishing up our group marriage counseling and our leader asked us, “What is one dream for your family?” I immediately had a picture in my mind—One year. All 50 states. Me, Eva and the kids living on the road. This was a bit of a shock to Eva. There may or may not have been expletives. But a few weeks later she said, “Maybe we should talk about this road trip thing.” I was overjoyed and so we spent the next hour and then days and then months dreaming about what it might look like.
In the end, it looks like it’s going to start this summer. We’re developing a multi-media documentary film project about kids in all 50 states who are doing remarkable things to change the world. We’re even partnering with a psychologist friend to use the interviews for a child development study in order to learn what factors help shape young change-makers and how we can foster that sort of behavior in future generations. In fact, the road trip is just step one in a series of possibilities that could result in resources to empower kids to change the world, and tools for parents, educators and psychologists to learn how to create environments fertile for growing change-making kids. The project is called One Year Road Trip, and the long-term vision is to help usher in an entire Generation of Generosity.
I have to admit, it’s almost too fitting. It’s a trip to new lands as a family, where kids are empowered to make a difference in others’ lives. It’s a year of being on camera, being behind the camera, and storytelling. It’s a movement to inspire others to change the world, and provide help and resources for others to thrive. It’s all the most transformative stories of my life colliding together into one giant pile of lovely. And I cannot wait to see where it takes us next.
Having made a difference: Pasadena, California
Looking back on my 38 short years of life and considering place and call, I realize that God has taken me on a cyclic journey over and over again. Sometimes to the same places. Sometimes through the same lessons I somehow forgot along the way. But always with a sense that things will continue and things will come around again. So I’ll end this writing where I started, because it’s only fitting.
When I was in college I returned to Haiti with my dad. This time I was helping to lead the trip with 20 or so college students and a handful of adults, and we had the opportunity to return to Pierre Payen, the village that first welcomed me into Haiti’s arms. I had only one hope for that day: Find Sister Rosie. As soon as we arrived at the clinic I sought out anyone I could find who might know about her. It didn’t take too long and I quickly learned that I was just a few weeks too late. Sister Rosie had died of natural causes and at a ripe old age. And though it had been over 10 years since I’d seen her, I felt the loss tremendously. I remember calling home to tell my mom that Rosie had died. We both cried. That’s not uncommon.
Last Christmas my mom sent out shoe boxes to all of her kids, our spouses and grandkids. Inside were notebooks to record how God is active in our lives. The grandkids had just the notebook and a pen. The in-laws had maybe a card or a newspaper clipping from a wedding or event. My siblings and I found more. Baptism announcements. Baby memorabilia. Photos from high school and college. In mine was a letter from my ma and a photo. The letter said that when Sister Rosie died they cleaned out her meager little hut and found only a few things. Some clothing. A pot or pan. Her Bible. But inside her Bible, Aunt Martha found something she thought I should have. This photo. And, like always, I cried.
Matt Webb is a missionary and a storyteller whom God has called to a variety of places over the course of his life. His most recent adventure is with One Year Road Trip, a cross-country, family-fueled, exploration of the United States and the many good things kids are doing to make the world a better place. Follow Matt and his family on this new adventure at OneYearRoadTrip.com.