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.
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.
Facing construction projects that turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated, there were times when we wondered if we would complete them. This thought was unsettling to all of us, especially since we know that there are no more teams coming to Pura Vida this year. Not to be discouraged, the men continued digging through mud so thick that it dried like cement on the bottom of their boots. The other team, having left the house on the first day with one side totally exposed and looking like a child’s doll house, worked feverishly to ensure that the only thing undone at week’s end was the installation of windows. Not only was the work at both homes completed, but additional indoor painting was done at one and a last minute plumbing issue was resolved at the other. As the team of the smaller house departed on the last day, Jennifer said farewell through tears telling them that this had just been a dream come true. For us, it was an answer to prayer.
On our final day, we saw the kids of Volio in the field and were delighted that the small group of challenging boys returned for our Bible study. As a matter of fact, they were among the first to arrive. Did they get rambunctious at times? Yes. Did we have to speak to them a bit more perhaps than some other kids? Maybe. But as two of the boys did their coloring while quite literally laying in Vicki’s lap, it was so clear that they just wanted to be loved. And isn’t that what we are here for?
So our week of work has come to an end. We came with all kinds of emotions — anxious, unsettled, excited, anticipating — yet also grieving and hurting for our friends at El Ayudante. We saw from the beginning that things here would be different from what we were used to, and it was a challenge for us to break the mold that we had so comfortably settled into. For me, I thought back to the moment when the decision was made that we would definitely not be returning to Nicaragua this year. Perhaps there were some who decided not to come with us for just that reason — because the destination had changed. My reaction at the time was that if I only wanted to serve at the destination of my choosing, then perhaps I should reexamine what my motives were for going on a mission trip. Was I just going because I wanted to go? Or was I going because God had called me? Clearly, I had to remind myself of that this week.
Sometimes it’s easy to let our own thoughts crowd our mind making it too noisy for us to hear what God is saying. He speaks in the silences — if we are never silent, how can we hear Him? So after a rocky beginning, I made a conscious effort to stop and ask God to show me what he wanted me to see this week. God has already drawn the outline, I just needed to listen to him and follow His direction to fill in the picture.
What we found was that this was not a destination but a journey, one we took together as a team. And that what made it work was not the place you served, but the team with whom you served. And the first thing we had to learn was to “Latin up!” Having learned this expression, meaning to just go with the flow, we used it many times this week as, time and again, we had to adjust, be flexible and accept the differences.
Working as a team didn’t just happen on the job sites. We were always there to help one another. We were assigned to groups to wash dishes after each meal, but if someone was unable to help their team, someone else stepped in. Preparing for VBS each day took time, but it took a team to do so — each of us ensuring that we all had whatever was needed for that day. The mountainous topography here made for some steep walks, but there was always someone by your side to lend a hand. And although we might sneak off somewhere for some solitary time, we were never alone.
We can see God all around us, from the majesty of the pounding waterfall, to the beauty of the lush mountainsides. As we depart the mission house on roads that could rival any first-rate roller coaster with their twists and turns, we end our journey in a hotel on the side of a volcano. The landscaping that God has carved all around us is breathtakingly beautiful. As you walk the grounds, you can see for many miles. Facing toward the north we can see a ridge of mountains, on the other side of which is Nicaragua. We will continue to pray for our friends there and the country that so many of us love. But we now also know the beauty on this side of that string of mountains, and whether we return there or here is not up to us. Where He calls, we will follow.
More Than Just Food
All of our time here is not spent in work. We spend a lot of time talking, laughing and getting to know each other and the many talents that we each possess. While playing games, we have discovered who among us can give the most creative clues and I’m sure none of us will ever think of the Grand Tetons the same way again. A trip to town for some of us meant ice cream and strolling through souvenir shops, while one of us found his way to a store — well, actually, four stores — to buy supplies to share his talents at making fruit cobblers with us. At the end of many long days, some of us were treated to a yoga class while on others nights there was a dance lesson. All of this helped to bond us together as a team, one made of 15 missionaries who love and care for each other — as Jesus required.
The value of fixing a home so that the mold is gone or the water doesn’t enter has a long-lasting value that you can see. And in teaching young children, even if they only internalize a small portion of our lesson, we know we are planting seeds of faith in them that, through their family, the local church, and other mission groups, will continue to grow. But there was one more piece to our work this week — distributing food bags to local families. These bags consisted of such basics as flour, sugar, eggs and milk — things we all take for granted in our homes. On mission trips in the past, we have done this as well, but I often wonder if it’s enough — are we really making a difference? A bag of food is good for today — but what about tomorrow and the next day? This question was answered last night.
Pura Vida does so much more than just repair homes — it repairs lives. Food bags are just one small part of this mission. Their sponsorship program gives children, and by extension, their families, a chance to succeed in life. Through this program, children receive all the supplies they need in order to remain in school past the sixth grade. The families are provided with financial guidance and are also expected to participate in a bi-weekly discipleship program. The families whose homes we worked on this week are part of this discipleship program as are the families with whom we shared food.
The original plan had us going out to the homes to distribute these bags of food, but for a variety of reasons this plan became untenable. To ensure that this much-needed food got to the families that needed it, it was decided that the families would come to us last evening after dinner. Getting to us was not easy, but this was important to them. They didn’t live right in this neighborhood, so most of them came by bus — some needed to take more than one — with their children in tow. We each had a short time to speak with one of the families while presenting them this gift of food, after which we joined hands surrounding them in a circle of Christ’s love. We prayed for them and lifted them up into God’s care, promising to keep them in our prayers even when we leave here.
We shared a worship service and, afterwards, heard from them as they shared their gratitude for our presence, and the support that we give through Pura Vida to enhance their lives. They thanked us for putting our personal priorities aside, making whatever sacrifice it took for us to be here. One woman, moved to tears, told us how people like us and the support we give has changed her family’s life and given them a real chance at success. She also shared afterwards with some of us the plans her children have for the future, a future they would not have had without Pura Vida. It wasn’t the food in the bag so much as the food for the soul that we are sharing — the carrying on of Christ’s work in the world — that makes the difference. The food will eventually be gone, but they will know that they have sisters and brothers in Christ who will carry them in our hearts. That has to make a difference.
There was a moment today when God really made his presence known. The Bible study team was already into our lesson when a group of boys arrived on their bicycles. Older than most of the other kids, they swaggered in with a bit of an attitude wanting to join us. There was some rumbling that these kids were the “bad kids” and perhaps too old for our lesson. But it didn’t feel right to exclude them. So we welcomed them in, prepared to ask them to leave if they became disruptive.
When they arrived we were in the middle of making a piece of the Armour of God, the shield. This elementary craft included simply coloring the shield and cutting it out, and they sat right down and joined in. Once they had shields in hand, they jumped back on their bikes and departed, but a short while later they were back — fully engaged — with the oldest among them setting the example for how to behave, and leading the others. One of the boys was less than polite when trying to get my attention at one point, so I gently rebuked him, showed him my name-tag, and told him he could call me by name next time. During the last few minutes with this group he again needed assistance, came up to me and called me by name — and remembered with no prompting to thank me when we were done. Without a doubt, he was right where God wanted him to be.
The Armor of God
As has always been our custom on our adult mission trips, we come with a well-prepared week of Bible lessons for children. We are given guidelines regarding the facility in which we might be working, the number of children who will probably attend, and the approximate timeframe in which we will be working. We knew before we came that we would be doing lessons in two very different locations. In the mornings we would be doing our lesson on a soccer field while in the afternoon we would be inside the church we attended on Sunday. The pivotal point here is that we came with the knowledge that one of our lessons each day would be outside — subject to whatever the day’s weather would be (and, of course, like good travelers, we had checked the weather forecast prior to leaving home and knew rain was predicted every day we would be here). This caused us much consternation prior to arriving, however when we voiced these concerns to the staff here, we were told, “Don’t worry! You will be at the field in the morning, and it never rains in the morning!”
We were also told that, despite the fact that they had given us numbers to work with, a small fly in the ointment had developed. The teachers here have gone out on strike, leaving the potential of many more kids than anticipated. Not feeling as certain of our abilities to multiply our supplies as Jesus had been with the loaves and fishes, we added this to our list of items of concern. Nevertheless, we set out each day determined that one way or another, things would go just fine. Having armed ourselves with our own concerns, our first visit to both locations presented the same problem — one that had never entered our discussions — we did not have a key to access either location. Rest assured, we were able to do both of our lessons, but not necessarily because keys were found.
At the first location, the church, the possessor of the keys was located — we just had to wait for them to arrive. In typical “go with the flow” style, we improvised games outside until said key arrived. This was made easy by prior planning — balls for the older boys and a parachute for the smaller kids. By the time the key arrived, the kids had spent a bit of their energy making them just a bit more willing to sit and listen. There was one little boy who perhaps expended himself to capacity, as shortly after we got inside, he curled up on Janny’s lap and slept the entire time. Fortunately, he lived right next door to the church, so as we left for the day Janny simply delivered him, still sleeping, home to his mother.
At our second location, the soccer field, the possessor of the keys was also located. Unfortunately, his “location” was his work, quite a distance away. Now we had a challenge — we have prepared missionaries, a lesson plan, and children, but no place to teach. A suggestion was made that there was a nearby field — just an open field — to which we could relocate for the day. Ready to do whatever was necessary, we headed in that direction. Unfortunately, reaching the field required an uphill climb on a narrow path that didn’t look inviting to any of us. There was, however, a flat, dirt area that appeared much more easily accessible. What we hadn’t considered was that, although it was not raining (it was morning, after all), it HAD rained the night before. Unswayed by the fact that all of us were slipping and sliding on muddy ground to get there, we headed in that direction, hoping that the dirt area was a just that — dirt! It took only one wrong step to find yourself on the ground, which is just what happened to Chib. We were committed, and willing to give it a go anyway, when our interpreter informed us that one of the women in the neighborhood had seen our plight and kindly offered to open her garage for us to use. Again, knowing that we would have somehow made it work, God put a solution right in our hands, so off to the garage we went.
With the exception of the fact that we have yet to have a lesson where there is not also at least one dog in the midst of things, our lessons were just as one would expect at home. These children are just like our kids — eager to learn, silly, noisy, and needing to be reined in every once in a while. But they participated with eagerness and really seemed to enjoy both the games and the crafts that we provided to share with them the importance of relying on God to keep yourself safe from the temptations of evil. We are sharing love and forming bonds with the kids and it is easy to see that saying goodbye at the end of the week will be hard. On our drive back to the mission house this evening, we saw a number of them walking home, proudly wearing their helmets and shields, made of nothing more than paper. We hope that means that we are having a positive impact on them. And so far it has not rained in the morning, and we have had more than enough supplies for all the kids who showed up.
Drying Up Houses
Day 3: Nov. 5, 2018
Our construction volunteers have been working on two projects this week, and on both of them their guidance and suggestions have led to an effective solution to the problems at hand. The first home was a 20’ by 30’ structure occupied by a young couple and their two small boys. The home with such limited square footage was divided into two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The kitchen contained a table large enough for the family to gather around, making it a tight squeeze. As is typical here, there is a front porch with a few rocking chairs, enclosed with iron bars which the homeowner securely locked just as soon as our workers were inside to guard what little they possessed. What is sorely lacking in this home, besides adequate living space was any place for storage, a role filled by one side of this porch. It was this lack of storage space that explains why their Christmas tree remained up all year long. Squeezed in the corner, it proudly stands between a piece of furniture and the wall, complete with a creche made of sand, shells and garland. If they were to take it down, they would have no place to store it, so it stays there all year. Seeing this beauty prompted Larry to observe just how wonderful it is to have nothing and yet to have something wonderful.
The job that had been planned for our volunteers was to replace the roof. One of the small boys who lives here has serious trouble with allergies and it was thought that replacing the roof might cut down on the dust, thus giving him some relief. The men were a bit perplexed as to how replacing a metal roof would minimize the dust, but began the work of moving furniture aside to begin. It was then discovered that the bottom three feet of the wall behind the couch was covered in mold. The houses here are very close together and their neighbor is in the habit of tossing his dirty water out on their side of his house. With no seal on the outside wall of the house, the dampness increased and mold thrived. Determining that the mold was most likely the allergen creating the young boy’s problem, they had just identified what really needed to be done.
Identifying the problem did not mean that the solution was going to be an easy task. What would be required was to dig a three-foot trench between the houses, scrape the mold off the outer wall, bleach it and then seal it with a waterproof paint. The real challenge was not the labor required, but the lack of permission to do so from their neighbor which he had refused to provide for more than a year. This week that all changed when our mission team leader, Glenn, posed the question. Prepared for perhaps at least a mild debate, Glenn was pleasantly surprised when the neighbor agreed. We speculated that perhaps he did so this time because Glenn is 6’6”, or more likely, because God had his hand firmly in this situation allowing us to provide the needed remedy for this family.
Our second construction team was tasked with taking down a wall. Upon arriving at the site, they asked why the wall had to come down. The problem was similar to the other home in that it involved water intrusion — only at this house the issue was not mold but flooding. The house was built on steeply sloped land and the run-off of rainwater next to the house had carved a trench in the dirt. This trench overflowed in the heavy rains and the water then seeped right into the house. After surveying the situation, our team quickly realized that tearing down the existing wall, which was placed directly on the footers, would not alleviate the problem. What was needed were concrete blocks at the base of the wall. Consideration was given to building a new wall outside the existing one, but this would require new footers — which could not be accomplished in the time allotted here. The decision was made to remove the existing wall (all 30’ of it), build the concrete base on the existing footers, and then replace the wall, hopefully reusing the existing material. This created a small problem for this house. While only four people actually live in the house, it is a daily beehive of activity as just one of three neighboring houses connecting one large extended family. When it was decided that this was the proper solution, nobody made any move to halt the demolition — so down the wall came. Now the music favored by the teenage girls in the house could be heard more clearly outside — day and night — as the entire inside of their home is left exposed until the project is finished. This became another example of finding a solution once we knew all of the circumstances causing the problem.
The day ended with a visit to the center of the town where we are staying, San Ramon, a city much like Leon in Nicaragua. We enjoyed ice cream, some sweets and coffee, and a visit to their beautiful church. Our group did not arrive together, having come from our respective work sites, and there was a discrepancy about what time we would return to the mission house. The Bible study group had asked if we could leave 30 minutes prior to the planned time, feeling like that was more than enough time to see and do all that we wanted. The bus driver was more than happy to accommodate the change. Unfortunately, we hadn’t taken into account that the construction crews were still planning to leave at the originally scheduled time, a fact that was not relayed to the bus driver. So he arrived early to pick us up only to be informed of our situation, all of us agreeing that we had to wait until the later pick-up time. This turned out to be very fortuitous. When we arrived back at the bus with the remainder of the group,our bus driver was busy helping a young lady who was having car trouble. When asked if we would mind waiting ten more minutes so he could finish, we readily agreed. Clearly, the original time allotted was more than WE needed, but EXACTLY how much God intended.