When you commit to a mission trip, you have to know that things may not go quite as initially planned. But choosing to go on a mission trip is not usually just a whim. It is usually because you feel a call to help others. So in truth, maybe it just didn’t go quite as YOU planned.
God showed us over and over this week that our presence was needed here.We started with no real idea how we would fill the week, and ended feeling like we had really gotten something done.Perhaps we might have been happier if we had worked 8 hour days or if we saw completed projects, but we were told before we came that we should not expect that. Just as others before us had begun the projects, others after us will finish them. But we were a necessary piece of the completed whole and proud to have done our part.
If we arrived here with a printed schedule for the week, today’s view of that same schedule would be difficult to read with all of the changes, red lines and redirections along the way.But with an understanding of who we are and why we are here, we were unfazed.The “why we came” was never dictated by the what we do – but by who we do it for.There may have been considerably more down time than any of us expected – and than many of us would have preferred.But without that down time, there would have been far less time to truly appreciate the magnificence of the beauty around us that was put there by the one who directed us here.And maybe that, too, was part of the plan.
There were so many more than just the 14 of us involved this week.With no showers here in the church, there were families in the community who every night opened their homes to us to shower – some even offering appetizers and sharing their lives with us.One couple in the church graciously paid for us all to enjoy dinner at a restaurant.Steve, JP and Steve from UMCOR and the people from Habitat all worked patiently with our skill levels and tirelessly to give us what we wanted, a full week of work.One church member, Chris, coordinated all that we needed for our living arrangements and she, and a small army of her friends, prepared a delicious dinner for us and spent that mealtime getting to know us just a bit.
We came here as a group held together by our love of God and desire to serve Him. As we got to know each other, we could tell when a team member needed some help – and someone jumped right in. We learned of our strengths and weaknesses – some cook, some write, some are great with a hammer – and accepted and valued each equally.We recognized who may need a little extra care and when someone just needed to be left alone. We learned who liked raucous laughter as evening entertainment, and who preferred a quiet card game. We shared laughter, tears, sweat and prayers and we leave here as friends.
So perhaps this trip went just exactly how it was planned.So many times this week people have expressed their gratitude; from the homeowners, to the Habitat workers, to the people from the church.But truly it is we who are grateful for the opportunity to answer God’s call to serve – we know that we are blessed to have been able to do so – and for this chance to fulfill our church’s mission to Make God’s Love Real.
Sometimes when you are the only on in the group who possesses a particular skill, you wind up on a job site by yourself. That’s what dictated Fred’s day today. On Monday, as we worked painting the house on Plantation Island, someone noticed that the floor in the kitchen wasn’t laid quite correctly. Since Fred has experience with laying vinyl plank flooring, he was tasked with returning there today to assist JP in correcting the issue. Working around the kitchen island it soon became clear that this problem could not be remedied by adjusting the current flooring. It seems that an entire new floor is required. As tomorrow is our final day here and we will be working with Habitat, this is another project that will have to be completed by some other team.
The rest of our team headed to yet another Habitat build site – Vincent Acres.The land for this new community belonged to a man named – you guessed it – Vincent and was generously donated to Habitat by his sister when he passed on. It is donations like this that continue to assist Habitat in helping families in need of affordable housing.
There will be 79 two-story homes (no, there was no room for number 80) with two baths and a garage. Many of the families who will eventually occupy these homes are currently living in just one or two rooms, so one can just imagine the joy they must feel as they anticipate moving into these spacious accommodations. It makes you really appreciate how much their “sweat equity” costs them. Imagine that you are working two jobs to support your family and just barely getting by on your paycheck. Now imagine that in addition to your job(s), you still had to find time to work on your future home. How many of us would be willing to work that hard to earn the opportunity to own a home?
Of course the first thing one must do on the construction site is get your hard hat. This alone led to a most amusing moment. Vicki, in the interest of ensuring that all of her team members were taken care of, was distracted with trying to obtain two additional hats. At the same time we were given paint pans to use for our waterproofing paint. As we lined up to get our paint, Vicki, distracted as she was, offered up her hard hat to be filled! Fortunately even she realized her error prior to the inside of a hard hat receiving an unexpected new lining! Aren’t days always better when they start with a laugh?
Almost all of the work today would contribute to sealing the house from moisture. Most of us painted the inner and outer edges of all the windows with the aforementioned waterproofing paint. Some spent their time caulking while the remaining members of the team, the duo of experienced nailers, Don and Gary, spent the morning wrapping the house in a thin, styrofoam water seal. This required nailing the sheet, top to bottom, around the entire house. While yesterday’s nailing job gave them lots of practice, there was no nail gun available today. Each nail was pounded in by hand, but there was a small complication. The nails they had were for a (non-existent!) nail gun. This meant that they were strung together and had to be cut apart before they could be used, adding one more step and just a bit of tedium to their manual labor.
As usual for the Habitat projects here, our day ended at noon – well, at a little after noon. As the rest of us gathered up and prepared to head out, the house wrappers indicated that they had just a few minutes work left so that they could work to a more logical stopping point. So as some of us sat and visited with some Habitat workers and spent some time trying to scrape paint off our hands, others policed the area to collect the many discarded water bottles around the job site waiting for the guys to finish up. Stopping at a small park area on the way back to enjoy our picnic lunch, we arrived at the church with just a few hours to kill before we head to the showers and then out to dinner.
Tonight’s dinner, our last evening here, will be at the Sunset Grill – aptly named for it’s view at sunset. The place has come recommended and we are hoping that the clouds will cooperate to allow us to see the view we have been waiting for all week.
We have been so fortunate with the weather this week. Everywhere we go they tell us of how beastly hot it was here last week so we have been immensely grateful that, even as the sun may be intense at times, the temperatures have been in the 80s and not at all unbearable. This morning, however, we woke up to a bleak looking rainy sky and cool temperatures. That didn’t deter us as we headed out earlier than the days prior, armed with rain gear in case the precipitation continued. Today we were to be on our worksites prior to 8 a.m.
For half of us, we would be volunteering with Habitat for Humanity of Collier County. A division of the international organization, it has been around for 42 years ago and has built more than 2200 homes. Their vision is “..a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” And their mission is “Seeking to put God’s love into action…bringing people together to build homes, community and hope.” I can’t help seeing shades of our own church’s mission here – to Make God’s Love Real. This is one place where you can see that in action.
The beneficiaries of this project, the new homeowners, must meet certain qualifications and they must agree to partner with Habitat to make the house a reality. Besides a minimal down payment, they must also contribute 500 hours of “sweat equity” – working alongside volunteers like us – to have the opportunity to carry the low monthly payment, no-interest mortgage required to make the dream of home ownership a reality.
While Habitat usually builds individual homes, today we would be working in a new townhome development called Dockside. As we approached and saw the units that have already been completed, the simple architecture with pastel colored siding gave off a definite Key West vibe – which was apparently just what they were trying to achieve. We divided ourselves into three groups – each tackling a different part of the process, either framing, siding or painting. Our choices had nothing to do with skill level for it is our willingness to work and not our particular aptitude on the job that qualified us to participate.
The three painters were assigned to apply a second coat of paint to the trim on the back porch area of the six units of one building. With careful application we followed the instructions we were given by Marco – ”Paint here, don’t paint here, hardware should not be painted over, and please don’t drip paint on the grey deck floor that I have already painted.” (That was the hardest part!) We were handy with the brushes, and handier with the wipe-up-our-mistakes cloths, and even discovered that a crumpled up piece of tape comes in handy as a make-shift scrubber to clean the bigger drips off the floor. (Shhh! Don’t tell Marco!)
Siding was the choice of three others of our group, and in short order they appeared to be old hands at it. The first rule of siding application that they learned is that you don’t “nail” siding, you “hang” siding. Translated, you do not drive the nails all the way in, giving the siding pieces the ability to flex a bit if necessary. Being one of the painters myself, I only had the opportunity to observe, never having realized that each strip of siding is nailed – excuse me…hung – individually. And I was impressed at what an amazing job they were doing keeping them all straight and parallel. Of course I just had to ask, “How do you keep them so level?” To which I got the answer, “We use a level!?!” (Silly me!)
The most experienced among us chose to do framing. While I understand the general concept of “framing”, explaining what they did while not having seen it proved to be beyond my abilities. But I do know that they spent the day surrounded by a tangle of cords to a number of power tools and put in hundreds of nails apiece.
The remaining members of our team continued work on Rebecca’s kitchen. While it is not completed, our part of the work is done. What remains to be done is above our pay grade. But the cabinets are installed, the walls are painted, and Rebecca is delighted with the mint green!
Tonight’s dinner was prepared for us by the ladies in the church. While certainly not necessary, we appreciated their gratitude for our willingness to spend our week here serving where we are needed. It was generous enough to give over their social hall for a week to a bunch of strangers – but then who doesn’t appreciate one more good meal that you didn’t have to prepare yourself! We were overwhelmed by their attempt to honor our individual food choices and limitations in both food and desserts. And it was all delicious!
In a final unexpected twist, most of us ended the night at the theater! The pastor’s wife told us at dinner that she had to leave by a certain time because she had a rehearsal for a play she would be performing in next week. Someone asked if we could come and watch and she arranged it. While it was not in it’s final form, it was very funny and certainly the most unique experience I have ever had on a mission trip.
Oh, and the rain stopped even before we began any work leaving behind cool temperatures and partly cloudy skies!
No two mission trips are the same. Starting from the people with whom you work, to the places where you serve, each has its own character. This one, however, is distinctly different from many of the Hyde Park United Methodist’s past adult mission trips. This one is not international in some tropical country – no passport or plane ticket required. It is right here in our own state taking to our host church in Marco Island to continue assisting through United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in hurricane relief recovery from the damage of Hurricane Irma in 2017. This church would be our base for the week as we traveled to our job sites.
As we arrived in staggered groups of carpools, we set up our temporary home, unpacking linens and making up our cots. We will be responsible for our own transportation to and from the job site and for preparing all of our own food. Last night was a welcome treat as one generous family in the church paid for us all to have dinner at the local Mexican restaurant. It was a great way for us to begin to bond as a group, getting to know each other and the people we will be working with this week.
One of the first things I ever learned about doing mission trips is that you need to be flexible – and in our first meeting with Steve – who coordinates the UMCOR disaster recovery work in this area – we found out just how flexible we were going to have to be. We are a group of 15 people eager to answer the call to serve, so we required either one large, or a few small projects to keep us busy all week. Unfortunately, the large project that Steve had planned for us fell though at the last minute.Apparently it turned out that the recipient of the work did not pass the vetting process, so Steve will be scrambling to find work to fill the week. We have assured him that we will do whatever is needed and travel wherever is necessary – we are here to serve, so use us.
There were two small jobs that Steve had successfully lined up for us and we attacked our first this morning. Our task was to paint the ceilings of a trailer. It had actually been painted once already (and new carpeting had been laid down), but there were inconsistencies and the homeowner requested that it be redone. Once this job was completed, this house, after two years, would be almost ready again for habitation. With 14 missioners plus Steve, and the onsite construction supervisors, JP and Steve, we had 19 able bodied individuals prepared to tackle the task. Though we pondered whether that many bodies would be tripping over each other in such a confined environment, and whether, indeed, there could possibly be enough work for all of us, we willingly loaded up and headed to Plantation Island. Amazingly, there was enough work and enough supplies to divide the work. After taping down plastic to protect the new carpeting, we divided ourselves among the tasks – edging, trimming and rolling. And for those who felt painting-challenged, there was a stack of outlet and light switch covers that needed to be matched up in the appropriate place and screwed back on. With so many hands working, laughing and singing, our work was completed just in time for lunch.
Having carried a sack lunch with us, we drove a bit up the road to Chocoloskee, FL to the Smallwood Store. This store/museum in Everglades National Park, which has been run by the same family since 1906, sits right on the water, is raised up on stilts, and had two just-the-right-size-for-our-group picnic tables underneath where we broke bread together.
With our only planned activity for the day completed, a number of us headed off to take an airboat ride. I’m a roller coaster fan, but rarely have I ever had so much fun in an amusement park. No doubt we were enveloped in amazing scenery, but in addition we had informative and entertaining captains (one of whom regaled us afterwards with tales of growing up here in the swamps). The ride was first quiet – there is that pesky Coast Guard ruled no-wake zone – and then exhilarating! Spitting up spray behind us we sped thru the mangrove tunnels making sharp turns that had us within inches of the vegetation. Oh, yes – there were also animal sightings along the way. We saw three different alligators (the largest of which was about 12 feet long, and all of which we got a bit too close to for my comfort!) and one raccoon who didn’t seem the least bit bothered when one of our boats pulled right up to the branch on which he was resting. Once we were back on shore we chatted for quite some time with Captain Brian who told us that he had no fear of the alligators in these waters – that he would more greatly fear a bull shark. We were a bit surprised that sharks would be in these waters. It was just moments later that he let out a holler – “Holy Cow!What was THAT!” We had our backs to the water so all we got to see was the splash – but behind us a bull shark had jumped up out of the water and flopped onto his back.We weren’t sure if maybe the shark heard our doubts and took umbrage with it (“I’ll show you!”), or perhaps he was after some prey. We did notice that the alligator who had been trolling around in that section of water seemed to have disappeared!
We made one final stop before heading back to the church for dinner. Included with the airboat ride was admission to The Boardwalk. Like any good Disney ride, it led you through a gift shop, but once on the other side there was a rustic boardwalk through the mangroves, at the end of which was the Gator Man who offered us an up-close-and-personal visit with a trio of alligators. The smallest was about 14 inches long while the largest was over 100 pounds. We (well MOST of us) held the smaller two and petted the larger one – something I thought I would NEVER do! Then we watched as he fed some larger, caged alligators their dinners (the ones he did not offer, nor did we request, to touch!). There were vultures in the cage with them scavenging for food as well so the Gator Man threw them a thigh. It was interesting to watch as one alligator held his food hanging out of his mouth – and one brave vulture tried to grab it right out of his jaws. Final score – Alligator 1, Vulture 0!
We have surely seen God all around us today – in the skies, in the parks, in the water, in the animals, and in each other. We are not sure what the rest of the week holds for us although we do know that Steve is working hard with his contacts in the area to use us while we are here. And we trust that, having followed God’s call to be here, he will find a way for us to serve.
So our work here is done and we have headed to Managua to begin our journey home to our loved ones. We will spend one more evening enjoying, breaking bread, having devotions and recapping this week which has flown by way too fast.
We have learned so much here, about ourselves, about each other, about working as a team, and about the people here. We know that family is so much more than blood relatives. We are all part of the greater family of God and we are so grateful. We appreciate that having things is not what defines happiness and that living in a home with dirt floors doesn’t mean you don’t sweep daily. We have learned to take a good look at what we take for granted – clean water, enough healthy food for your family, access to good health care and social services, the importance of an education. And that tears can’t fix anything – only hard work and continued dedication can do that.
So many things have sent us into peals of laughter. When foul weather headed towards the construction site they joked that they would all be safe since they had Glenn with them – tall enough to be a human lightening rod. At one point on the Rhino Rally – our primary means of transportation with an open back and bench seating along the side – a sudden, unexpected stop meant Stephanie was thrown forward and we had a four human pile, where we remained for quite a few minutes because we were laughing too hard to recover. But that was just indicative of this entire week – we were always there to catch each other.
We have memories etched in our minds. People doing their first-ever devotional – and hitting it out of the park! Watching people step out of their comfort zone and pray aloud for the first time. The generosity of the Nicaraguan people with whom we worked who, having so little, still shared their food with us. The infectious smiles of the children and their joy in singing their hearts out. Seeing families be almost as excited for the gift of the box it came in as they were about the filters inside. The young mothers nodding their head as we shared new information. And Dr. Medina thanking us, time and time again, for the time we spend working for and with his people. The pride in the voice of the little boy who shouted out to us as we walked the barrio, “Hello, my friends. How are you.” We believe we are making a difference in Marañonal – it feels like a hand up, not a hand out.
We made rubber glove balloons and have a new appreciation for Miss Hawaiian Punch and Bozo the Clown. We know how to adapt – while one group has no basketball, they used a soccer ball instead, another had no soccer ball, and used a basketball. And we can tell you that what has been said for years is true, the chicken crossed the road just to get to the other side.
Goodbyes were sad because we know that the workers of El Ayudante are our family now. We will miss so much – we already do. The morning quiet time, the love we have felt here, the new friends we have made, both on the team and on the ground, and recapping the day together in the dim lights of the ranchero – with our quiet voices somehow always being audible even over the blaring music of the nearby Pentecostals.
Sometimes our tasks mean pushing ourselves through the uncomfortableness, doing the unfamiliar, and participating when we would rather not, because we are here not as individuals. We came as a team who help and encourage each other through the tough times. We were there to lighten each other’s load. We shed tears together – but we shed as many tears for joy as for sadness. We had crazy moments together, and we laughed when we felt moved – even if we were in the midst of praying. And we leave here as family.
Since this country has an election this Sunday, there were often times when trucks would drive through the streets, blaring music and shouting through bull horns. Each time we heard music some of us danced down the street – much to the amusement of the local residents. I would like to think they were laughing joyfully with us, and not at us, as we adopted the attitude of “Why walk when you can dance!” But there was one time when the tune was a familiar one. We were standing in the courtyard area of a home, having just delivered a filter to the homeowner. She said she is all alone and asked that we pray for her health as she is not well. Then Vicki called our attention to the song in the distance, Chris Tomlins’s “God of This City” – Greater things are yet to come, Greater things area still to be done in this city….. We believe that to be so.
I wish all of you could have been with us every night to hear our stories. This blog could have gone on daily for pages and pages, but even then it would be impossible to capture everything, and it shouldn’t try to. This is so much more than a trip – it is part of our spiritual journey, and can’t be fully captured in words. And it’s sometimes hard for us to put into words what this week has meant to, and done to, each of us. For me, the answer to “How was your trip?” is always, “Life changing”, for it affects me profoundly each year. Many of us will be back next year, and anyone who feels called can do this. Is God calling you?
Today started with the water filtration team accompanying Dr. Medina and our medical personnel on a house call – or perhaps a “community call” would be a better description. We ventured out to an area quite farther away where health problems are of great concern. Using a simple table as the intake, triage, and examining area, the medical team spent a few hours seeing, diagnosing, and treating ailments as they were able.
The water filtration team did not know until yesterday that we would be accompanying them, and that Doctor Medina had an added activity for us. You see, Dr. Medina knew that, as an ice-breaker activity this week at the clinic we had taught local women how to turn a t-shirt into a tote bag, and he thought it would be a wonderful idea for us to do the same with the 10 people in this community to whom we would be delivering the filters. While we were happy to oblige, we had not planned on this and did not quite have enough shirts. But that was no problem! So now there are some tote bags in this community that, yesterday, were missionary’s t-shirts! Oh, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that one of the families was represented by the father, not the mother as was the usual, but he eagerly joined in – and so did Omar, our bus driver, Oliver, our translator, and, not to be outdone, Dr. Medina himself!
We had two teams educating this week. One worked with the kids at the HCN, and the other, affectionately known as “Team Preggo”, taught pregnancy classes to expectant mothers in the nearby barrios. A highly abbreviated course in “What to Expect When Expecting”, we covered such things as body changes during pregnancy, how to care for oneself when pregnant, labor and delivery, and newborn care and breast feeding. Many of these women were not on their first pregnancy, yet they all seemed to appreciate the education that they had not been afforded prior to the birth of their other children.
In two days of classes we taught almost 30 women, many of whom brought their small children with them. At one point as Lissa taught some breathing exercises, one little girl stood behind her mother and imitated everything Lissa did. The conditions weren’t ideal. We taught the classes on an outdoor porch and at one point the rain was pounding so hard it made it hard to talk and almost impossible to hear. But whether it was the noise of the pounding rain, the blaring of speakers from trucks selling their wares, or the lilting of the children’s voices as the sang together while they colored, we raised our voices or took a short break and carried on.
Like young pregnant women at home, they were attentive and interested, oohed and ahead at the pictures of babies at each stage of pregnancy, and at times blushed and giggled when discussing uncomfortable topics. But we know we made a difference. At one point Lissa consulted the doctor – who had requested this program – and asked if there was anything we should change. He adamantly said no and thanked us for what we were doing. And this was especially brought home by our translator – Yordanka. She has been our translator for 3 years, so she has heard the lessons. What she did not know when she was with us last year is that she, herself, was pregnant. Now the mom of a beautiful baby boy, Odsyll, she told us how much she appreciated what we had taught her. She assured us, “You gave — so much!”
This year at El Ayudante they have a different theme each month for the children of the HCN. This month it was compassion, so that was the theme of our education piece. All the activities tied together to culminate in a visit to a local nursing home. The meaning of compassion was reinforced in ways such as making a “hand of compassion” – an outline of a hand on a wooden stick on which they wrote one word representing compassion on each finger. The children were highly entertained when the adults did a hilarious re-enactment of The Good Samaritan. In an attempt to bring home the idea of just how important compassionate people are, the Good Samaritan was labeled a super hero and thanks to one of our faithful supporters back home, Vicki Castells, and her creative sewing talents, each child was given a cape of their own to decorate with words and picture illustrating the theme.
The culmination of the week was a visit to the local nursing home where the children could put their understanding of compassion into play. They had prepared gift bags for each of the residents and learned two songs with which to entertain them. These gift bags consisted of such things as cookies which the children had baked earlier in the week, a coloring book, beaded crosses that the children had strung and a laminated copy of the Lord’s prayer in Spanish.
As we walked in to the inner courtyard you could see some of the children were uncomfortable. Many residents, most in wheelchairs, were already seated around the perimeter of the area. The children stayed close together and then gathered on a raised area to sing. While they were happy to sing, they were apprehensive when told they would go in small groups, along with an adult, and speak to the residents. One young girl was close to tears and did not want to participate. She told me that she was scared, and I assured her that sometimes adults are, too. So she wrapped her arms tightly around my waist and we walked to a nearby resident. I told her to just say hello, tell him she had a gift for him, and that God loves him. She needed a little prompting, and she hid slightly behind me when he reached out with his deformed hand, but I grasped his hand and spoke a few words and we moved on. I suggested we walk to the back of the courtyard to one man who was sitting alone, and she was not happy when someone beat us to him. After that she grabbed my hand and aggressively looked for someone else to whom she could share a few words – and her words were few – and this small gift. We had been told to stay in the courtyard area, but she saw a gentleman in the distance with his walker. When I told her that we were to remain here, she stood still and held her ground until her reached us. Nobody was going to beat her to it this time! His smile was radiant and he grabbed me for a hug. When I told him that the gift was from the children, he smiled at her – and she beamed right back!
As we arrived back at El Ayudante we thought it would be a good idea to debrief with the children and get their reaction to their visit. With shouts of “sharing”, “compassion”, and “giving”, they talked about the infirmities of some of the residents and the long discussion some of the boys had had with a man who explained that he could only see shadows. But I think one little girl summed it up best when she told us that one of the residents had said to her group, “You children are angels sent from God”.
As anticipated, the house was completed today. It went right down to the wire as the doors were delivered, on a horse drawn cart, at the last minute. Estebana beamed as she accepted ownership of her brightly colored house and much of the community joined us, as we once again stood together with our family from Marañonal and dedicated her new home.
It was such an honor to once again be able to walk with women through the streets of Rubén Darío today and be invited into their homes so we could share with them this gift of clean water. But I cannot help but feel a deep sense of humility that in every home into which we were invited, we saw tears of joy for the gifts that we brought. We were doing what we were called her to do, and the gift itself, in the scope of our lives, is a small one. But to them it was potentially life-changing. We stood in these humble homes having the residents look at us through tears and, without exception, when asked what they wanted us to pray for them, they said they prayed for us – that we should be blessed as we have blessed them. That they would ask for blessings for US, when they themselves have so little was overwhelming to me. It showed me again that their priorities are in the right place, as they don’t quantify their blessings by the things they have. And at one home a small boy appeared at the door just as we were about to pray for the family. We invited him in to join us and, as he took our hands, he closed his eyes and tilted his head to the side with the most peaceful expression I had ever seen. I had no doubt that he was filled with the Spirit as his faced glowed like the face of God.
After delivering many filters within the community, we returned to Dr. Medina’s clinic to deliver one more. As we were standing on the porch, a bunch of children appeared in the street, clearly returning from school. They saw us standing there and came running over to say hello and we recognized them as children from the HCN at El Ayudante. They said hello and giggled and then ran off to play. A few moments later we all circled around the woman who was to receive the filter and started to hold hands. The children saw this and came running back to join in prayer with us. As we prayed in English, Oliver translated what we said into Spanish, and these sweet young children of God repeated everything he said. It was truly one of the best moments our day.
We are truly made to feel like family here. This is evidenced from the comfort of El Ayudante, to the homes in the barrios, to the community in which we have built a new house. While we bring grapes to share with the children, they provided our workers with Coke and homemade sweet bread. With a slightly crispy, sugary outside, these treats are like communion between friends – made with love, by love and for love.
This year our construction team was tasked with building a home for Estebana, a grandmother in her 70’s who will share her home with her daughter and two grandchildren. One of the first lessons our team had to learn, however, was not how to dig a hole or wield a hammer, but how to pronounce the name of the community in which they will be working this week. Much to the delight of the residents (and with much amusing frustration amongst ourselves each evening), we are still not sure that any of us correctly pronounce Marañonal (and my guess is that most of you readers just made a valiant attempt to do so!)
Our first contribution to the construction involved moving dirt. With no wheel barrows available, dirt was moved one bucketful at a time until the hole created became a playground for the children. What child can resist jumping into a big hole and then climbing out just to repeat – over and over again. To the amazement of our team, not only did they enjoy climbing in and out of the hole, one boy also climbed a near-by tree. It was not the climbing that was amazing, but the fact that he used the barbed-wire fence for assistance – and he did it all bare footed!
Often the local Nicaraguan men did the house building while our missioners, in the interest of building relationships, spent time playing with the children. Kicking a ball around the street and sitting on a man’s large foot, riding along as he walks, are both universally enjoyable to kids. And like kids everywhere, they were delighted to don the baseball caps we had carried with us.
We have just one day left to finish this house, but we know it will get done, as the entire project has been accomplished so far with the barest of supplies, efficiency not being in great supply this week. Not only was there no wheelbarrow, there were only three buckets and two trowels (which are used to place the mortar between the blocks). Yesterday’s work had to end early as they didn’t have enough cinder blocks, and the roof was just delivered at the end of the day today. In a place that we affectionately say “runs on Nica-time”, we have yet to have a house not be completed on time. So we have complete faith that, by tomorrow this house, a simple 16 by 16 one-room structure with two doors and two windows, will be completed so that tomorrow afternoon we can dedicate the house and present to Estebana and her family our housewarming gift – a new Bible that bears the signature of each member of this team.
This evening we ended our day at the Pacific Ocean. Although the surf was pounding making it too risky for swimming in the waning sunlight, this was our opportunity to enjoy a meal at a Nicaraguan restaurant while also enjoying a spectacular view from a black sand beach. In such a setting, as in all the lush landscape of this country, it is easy to feel the presence of God.
Today’s forecast was for 100% chance of rain, but we awoke to sunny skies. But even with the forecast amended to indicate rain later in the day, we splintered again into various work groups – we had work to do – work that would be accomplished with or without a cooling shower.
Two members of our team, a doctor and a pharmacist, have spent their week working at Dr. Medina’s clinic in Rubén Darío. The clinic is not like anything you would see in the states. The “waiting room” is an open air porch on the back of the facility with a few wooden benches on which the patients wait their turn. The clinic serves the three surrounding barrios (neighborhoods) in which approximately 3000 people. Dr. Medina is the primary physician for all of these people and his clinic is also a teaching clinic for the local medical school. The modest brick structure includes a pharmacy – one simple room with minimal supplies. We were actually pleasantly surprised to see medicine on the shelves, as there have been years when there was none.
The examining rooms offer little privacy as they are partitioned with partial walls and to say supplies are limited would be an understatement. There is little thought to sterilization as the supplies that they do have are shared. Unlike our experience with medical services at home, there are no gloves, no clean sleeve to place over the thermometer, no sinks in the examining rooms, and no clean white paper sheet to pull up over the examining table between patients. The examining table itself is often not much more than a wooden table or metal table with little to no padding, and surely no little pillow for one’s comfort. When Dr. Medina gave us a tour of his clinic, he indicated a new intake area that has been carved out of the corner of one room, but this room has yet to be used as they have not yet figured out how to connect electricity to it. We can assume that electricity would be for lights, because it most definitely is not for computers, as those don’t exist in this clinic. All of the records are written by hand.
But that doesn’t deter Dr. Medina from taking care of this community. Somehow, regardless of the lack of supplies and resources, they get it done, and get it done well. Considering their lack of supplies and sanitation, our pharmacist was actually surprised at how healthy the people are here as compared to her expectations. Perhaps this is due to their internal constitution and fortitude, or perhaps they keep going because they have to. When you live in these conditions and need something done, you have to get up and do it. Life is not easy here, and perhaps that, by necessity, gives them strength. This is not to say that they are in good health. Kidney problems are rampant here because of the lack of clean drinking water. But they don’t lie down and complain – they keep pushing on through.
This doctor is rather like the old time country doctor, only he covers a larger territory with far more people. There is no question that he is not only dedicated to his patients but, even if he doesn’t know each of their names, he does seem to really know each one of them. Prescription renewal here is an arduous, labor-intensive process and chronic care medicine is filled with only a one month supply. At one point there was some confusion regarding one patient’s prescription refill as it was nowhere in his chart. Dr. Medina had only to look at the patient and he immediately identified and listed each of his medications. The members of our team offered what supportive assistance they could. Clearly spending time at a clinic like this would give any of us a new appreciation for all that we have, not only in terms of sanitary conditions and modern medical technology, but the most basic of health care needs, clean water.
Four years ago while working with a local community, an idea was born in an attempt to help them to be more self-sufficient. What good does it do to provide a new home for a family if there is no food to eat or means by which to support themselves? Thus began the birth of our gardening project. The thought was that if we assisted a community with tools and supplies to plant gardens, perhaps they could not only feed their families, but potentially sell the yield to provide an income for their family.
Realizing that this would take a long-term commitment and continuous assistance and guidance, we have partnered with a church in Illinois that has had success in this area. Working through them and assisting in the financing of local support, some members of our team toured these gardens in two different communities were pleased to report that they are now beginning to see success in this endeavor. In addition to this, an opportunity was given to two communities to raise chickens – one for the eggs and one for the meat. Felix, who is raising the egg-laying chickens, now owns 114 chickens who are laying 105 eggs every day, and in less than a year he has almost reached our ultimate goal, self-sufficiency.
It is our prayer that perhaps one day these food producing families can sell their wares to the local organizations that feed hungry families. This goal cannot be reached until one huge obstacle is overcome – transportation. With no means by which to get the goods to market, there is no way to fully succeed. Felix has a son who uses his motorcycle to deliver eggs for him. But this has only limited success – not just because using a motorcycle for delivering eggs can be limiting, but because half the year here it is the rainy season, making it not only impractical much of the time, but impossible due to road conditions. We pray that with continued support, hard work, and dedication we will be able to assist with a long term solution to this not un-surmountable obstacle. We are a pretty dedicated bunch – and obstacles are slow us down, but they will not stop us from doing our best to make this dream a reality.
We splintered in many directions today, construction, medical, water filtration, kids’ education and pregnancy education and each has a story to tell. It would be impossible to share in words everything one experiences while serving here. To do so would take far too many words, and, as colorful a description as I may give it, reading this account cannot possibly embody the entire experience – as that involves all of your senses. Here every sense is alive and touched and assaulted from all directions. With our group serving in so many ways, and clearly unable to experience each firsthand, I do my best to do justice to the stories others share with me. For today, my heart has been moved by so many things that it is hard to know where to begin.
Unsafe drinking water is a grave problem here, causing serious kidney problems in both young and old. Although many homes do have water in them, it is only good for washing and not safe for drinking. At the request of Doctor Medina, the doctor in the local clinic who is primarily responsible for the care of the people in three barrios that border El Ayudante, we have included in our mission for the past few years the opportunity to distribute water filtration kits. The simple kits are comprised of a ceramic pot placed within a plastic bucket with a lid. Water is poured into the ceramic pot in the evening, slowly seeping through into the plastic bucket and by the morning clean water can be poured out through a spigot. After breakfast this morning a number of us set out on the first of four forays we will make into the barrios to share this gift with families in need.
Our first stop was at Dr. Medina’s clinic where we met 5 of the women who would receive the filters. After demonstrating how to use them, we loaded these women into our truck to drive them, and their new filters home. As we prepared to leave, the daughter of one of the recipients, a mentally challenged young woman of 24 who had the mind and exuberant enthusiasm of a child, grabbed Vicki and pulled her to the truck. It was clear that she was overjoyed at the opportunity to ride along….overjoyed and perhaps a bit scared as one would be when waiting on line for the first time for the world’s fastest roller coaster. Unable to speak in a way that any of us could understand, she made herself clear – she was going to hold on and enjoy the ride … and that she did! With squeals and utterances of joy, she giggled and glowed and held on – to the supports and to us – as we bumped along the rutted road.
Once we arrived at the home she shared with her mother, she couldn’t get off quickly enough. I then wondered if her excitement was the ride, or the fact that we were coming to her house. A small concrete structure that serves as the home she shares with her mother and a small store that struggles to support the two of them, two dogs and a cat, she excitedly welcomed each of us with a bear hug and then ran inside to grab chairs for us to sit. Her mother shared with us her joy that we had come to her home and given them such a gift, explaining that things are difficult for them as she is the only one who can communicate with her daughter so she cannot leave the house to earn any money. Her meager store is all they have, and yet she expressed gratitude to God for all of her blessings.
Hers was just the first of many houses we visited. They ranged in size from a small gathering of homes in which four generations of one family of 30 people live, to one that was two small rooms in which the ten of us were barely able to stand toe-to-toe in a tight circle to say a prayer. But they shared a commonality in that they needed the life-giving water this would enable them to have, they blessed us for having brought it to them, and they understood and acknowledged that we were but the vessels that delivered it – the source of this gift was the God who led us here.
Since those who will not be working with our education team may not have the opportunity to see where the on-site work of El Ayudante is done, this evening we were treated to a tour of the HCN (Hogar Nicaraguense Nicaragua – The Nicaragua Children’s Home) here on the property. This mission house was originally started as a home for children who were taken out of their homes because their family either could not or did not provide a healthy environment in which for them to live. A number of years ago, the government began a program called “Project Love”, which required that, if there was a family member available, the child must return to them, regardless of what the home situation was. This caused El Ayudante, which had not only grown to love these children, but cared for their welfare as well as their futures, to rethink how they were structured. This is how it came to be as it is today, a place where these children get two meals and a snack, transportation to school, and the medical and emotional support that they need during the day while returning to their families in the evening. In addition there is a library, a computer room, and a sewing room. Ainsley, the team liaison, shared with us all about each of the children who currently benefit from the services here as well as the 6 new children they pray they will successfully to raise the funds to add to the program in January. This home, and all of the programs in it, are funded solely by the sponsorship program in which a number of us participate. And each of us who are sponsors will tell you that we have received so much more than we gave – in love, in hugs, in smiles, and in knowing that this kind of investment was what God was calling us to do.
As we leave our rooms this morning and the sound of the whirring fans which lulled us to sleep last night, we step outside and are assaulted by the sounds of God’s creation, as a myriad of crowing roosters, cooing doves, chirping birds and barking dogs greet the new day. I’d like to think they are praising God and exalting in the beauty of this place. But as our day begins, we humans don’t add our voices to the symphony, keeping our thoughts and praises silent, sharing only with our Creator, until we come together for breakfast.
The beauty of this place cannot be overstated. The landscape is a lush green, dotted with bursts of vibrant colors. The grass glistens with dew and glimmering drops of last night’s rain dangle daintily from each hanging leaf. With the blue sky peeking through the clouds and the steam rising from the volcano in the distance, one only has to take in the view to see God’s handiwork.
We headed out after breakfast to Marañonal, the community in which our construction team will serve this week, to attend worship service. Rarely have we ever received such a colorful reception at church. While their church was little more than a metal roof supported by poles on one side of a building, with dirt floors and plastic chairs, it wasn’t the simplicity of the sanctuary, but the colorful welcome that we received that struck our hearts. Entering along a walkway which was festooned with streamers and balloons, we were greeted by the community leaders with hugs and blessings and gratitude for having joined them this morning. Knowing the financial plight of this community, I could not help but recognize the sacrifice they must have made to have invested in these decorations in our honor.
Our mission teams have visited this church in years past, so many of us were familiar with this preacher and his charismatic delivery. The rookies among us were expecting an uplifting, memorable service and they were not disappointed. Beside the streamers and balloons, the altar area was also specially decorated with a hand-lettered sign of welcome – offering blessings to us, their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Seated in what was clearly considered the best seats in the house, the two front rows, we had a ring-side seat to appreciate the fervor of the pastor and talent of the young lady who led the singing. Seldom are songs sung without some level of congregational participation, so following the direction of the pastor, we stood and raised our arms, we touched our ankles, knees and shoulders, we jumped, we hugged and we praised God with all of our being. And not to be outdone, we presented a song of our own. The gathered congregation smiled as we sang the first verse of “I’ve Got That Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart”, but they beamed when we raised posters with the words in Spanish so they could sing along. It would not have mattered if they didn’t know the words, but it was meaningful to all of us to share a song in the same language.
This pastor who is also a member of, and leader in, this community began his message by telling us that his people follow what happens in our homeland and that they pray for us. To be in a place that has such need and know that they care enough to follow Jesus that they pray for us, was an overwhelming thought. He thanked us for our commitment to follow God’s call and assured us that the Spirit would be with us to do whatever it is we set out to do. We believe that he could have preached for hours – and we would all have remained spellbound with his conviction and charisma – but he promised to keep the service to the allotted time. It was a God-inspired, Jesus-affirming and Spirit-filled, 90 minutes during which he claimed the gift of grace and affirmed our bond as one body in Christ. At one point he moved forward and touched some of us – and spoke to us of concerns and prayers we carried in our hearts. His arm trembled with power as he laid his hand on my shoulder and I knew we were enveloped in the Holy Spirit. There is no doubt that, although his hand could not rest on every shoulder, he touched each of our hearts. We all left there feeling refreshed, renewed and loved – by God, and by this community of brothers and sisters in Christ.
For dinner this evening we had some special guests. On the property of El Ayudante is the Nicaraguan Children’s Home which provides food, tutoring and counseling for 30 children. The mission of El Ayudante is to bring change to this country – “One child, one family, one community at a time”. The support for these children comes solely from sponsors – most of whom have served here on a mission trip. There are a number of us on this team who have become sponsors so, this evening we invited our kids to join us for dinner. Typical kids, some were shy and others never stopped talking but for both the kids, and those of us who sponsor them, it was the one time each year when we can actually hold them in an embrace and assure them that, even though we are not here all the time, they are a part of our lives and we love them.
Our work today concluded with prepping for tomorrow by filling food bags. Including such things rice, beans, coffee and toilet paper, these will be distributed tomorrow to families in local communities. With the prep work done, we have settled in for an evening of group bonding – better known as some serious game-playing. And tomorrow the real work begins.