Friday, July 22, 2011

Day 7 - Time to Reflect

Friday, July 22, 2011

Today we travelled. It was about a seven hour trip from the ranch to Tegucigalpa including a lunch break.

Before we left, the staff of the ranch gathered around us, led us in song, shared their thanks for our presence and mission, and sent us on our way home with prayer.

The trip itself was rather uneventful. The roads were the roads.... the same bumpy roads. You never get used to it, but you do adjust. When we finally hit paved roads again, the first time we were on them in a week, the entire van erupted in applause.

We had lunch at a Menonnite bakery owned by an American couple. There was a buffet with fish and chicken that was all tasty. Some tried vegetables again for the first time since being here. I did not. We met another mission team having lunch there as well. It was a bit surprising to hear American English being spoken around us for the first time in a week. After lunch, we picked up a few souvenirs for friends and family and then made the final hour and a half drive to the capital city.

We are staying at The Maya hotel and the contrast of plush living with the view out of the window (see photo insert) is sharp. Poverty is all around here in the city just like in the villages. I don't know the current standings, but this country has been consistently rated as one of the worst economies in the western hemisphere. Mission is not a luxury or an add-on to the life of a Christian. We are to help the poor. It is what we do. It is how we participate in God's mission to this world. Coming here is a stark reminder of the need and the importance of being involved in mission wherever you are.

Tonight, we had dinner at the hotel next to the pool. The food was good and the company even better. Heather was still not feeling well and after dinner went to bed to try to recover. The rest of us went upstairs to a ninth floor conference room for devotions and final thoughts on the trip.

The Scripture focus of the devotion was Acts 20:24. This was Paul saying goodbye to the Christians in the city of Ephesus. He reminded them of his calling and told them, "I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the good news of God's grace." We spent some time talking about what it means to testify to the good news of God's grace in our lives, and particularly how we each have done that here in Honduras.

We also talked about a few things regarding going back home. To experience this level of poverty and then return to the affluence and abundance of the U.S. is hard for many to handle. We suggested four things:
  1. Don't feel guilty. Rather than feeling guilty about the abundance of our lives, let this trip inspire us to be more giving.
  2. Be thankful for what we have. We could not flush the toilet paper down the toilets here. It had to go in a trash can next to the toilet. Be thankful and don't take for granted the big and small things of our life.
  3. Don't overdo it in telling about this trip. The fact is it is hard for others to fully grasp the experience, much in the same way it is hard to explain to people any experience of great joy or sorrow. It is really something that you have to experience for yourself. Along with that, we talked about the importance of not saying, "You have to go on this trip" to everyone you meet. Not all can, not all will, and not all should. If God calls, go. If not, don't go.
  4. Tell stories of people. We could talk about bumpy roads and stomach problems, but the real reason people keep coming back and the real affirmation of the present work of God is in the stories of people.
It is good to be able to get under clean sheets in a comfortable bed. Sleep now and then the trip home tomorrow.

God loves you... and so do I.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Day 6 - Time to Play

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Today was a day to play. We played at the village and at a waterfall near the ranch.

This is a fairly remote village. It is off of a dirt and gravel road which is a main road through the district, but it is still considered by many here to be far out there. We might think of places like northern Maine the same way. When something like a mission team comes to the village, it is special for them. They communicated that to us in many ways throughout the week and in speeches today. They also communicated it by the crowd that showed up.

The fiesta was a celebration of many things. It was a celebration of completing the work projects. It was a celebration of new and renewed friendships. And though it was held at a school and several village leaders spoke at the event, it was a celebration of faith.

The work projects went well. Sometime later, I will need to get a tally of all of the work we completed. I say "we" completed and by that I mean we assisted them in completing the work. That is our role here. We are here to assist, not to take over or try to show them the "right way" to do these projects.

Many on our team were at this village last year. Friendships were formed then and strengthened by this return trip. You could tell from the words spoken today that the villagers appreciated the fact that we would return. They understood that we traveled long and hard just to get to Honduras and then each day drove over harsh roads to get to their village. They kept saying, "gracious, gracious, y muchas gracious!" Others on the team like me were at this village for the first time. We got to know people as we worked alongside them on the projects or at the school. As a result, the people of the village will personally know people from this country who care about them and we will know people from the village who care about us. That personal connection with the people is second only to the spiritual purpose of sharing Christ in deeds and words.

This was also a celebration of faith. Several commented how almost every time we spoke with someone from Honduras, the first words out of their mouth were words about God. It would be like beginning a conversation with someone here with "Glory be to God" or "God bless you" every time one spoke to another. At this festival, two pastors prayed - me and the woman who was the former principle was also a pastor - and another pastor gave a speech. The Roman Catholic Church members sang a goodbye song to us, sending us out with their blessing. The Assembly of God church had a group sing as well. Expressing gratitude to God or acknowledging God's presence doesn't seem to be a show for mission teams. The people here feel it. God is real and important to them.

We had three pinatas for the children. That was a violent experience. When the pinata burst open, it was mayhem. Children were in a huge dogpile. With one of the pinatas, the rope broke and the pinata fell to the ground. Sharks and feeding frenzy came to my mind. We decided that we would handle the pinata differently next time. This was too much chaos. However, the children had a blast. They loved the goodies inside and many shared them with others.

On the way home, we stopped at a waterfall near the ranch. Few of us really wanted to go because we were tired. However, once we got there it was a refreshing experience. The water was deep enough that you could jump off the rocks and still not hit bottom. A brave few jumped off the rocks into the water. I took photos. If you know me, I don't do cold water. I am cold-natured and jumping in cool water on an overcast afternoon was not my idea of fun.

The rest of the day progressed as the rest of the week. Those who were feeling well nursed their stomachs. Dinner was at 6:30 and was chicken tortillas. They were excellent! Devotions were at 7:00 pm and since all were tired, we went to bed right afterward.

On the road tomorrow. More to come...

God loves you, and so do I.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Day 5 – Finishing Well

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The work of the mission trip is over, but there is more to come.

The format of these trips is three days of working on projects—floors, roofs, walls, latrines, teaching in schools—and one day of throwing a party for the village. The final two days are travel days, one to get to the Tegucigalpa and another to get home (very late Saturday night).

This morning we went to the school sponsored by Honduras Outreach, Inc., the mission organization that helps us with these trips. After a few moments with the school principal, we got to tour the new library for the school. The library was donated by a woman from Atlanta and was impressive and promising for the children of this area. It is amazing how little money it takes to help these students get an education. The government pays for public education through sixth grade. After that, it is up to the family. Most can’t afford it. St. Andrews sponsors four children each year. You may remember the “noisy bucket” offering across two Sunday with only the loose change in our pockets covered the cost of one student for an entire year—tuition, room, and board.

Today was my favorite day of any of the Honduras trips I’ve taken. I am so thankful that I’ve had no stomach issues so far. In fact, I feel great. The visit to the school was inspiring. Then we started our two hour trek to La Balsa. On the way there, I listened to Hayden’s Creation on my iPod. It was great to be in a spectacular tropical climate with mountains and blue skies and listening to that music. Soon, however, I joined in the conversation in the Range Rover. I introduced those in the Range Rover to “Eh, Cava!” or in English, “Hey, Cow!” It’s a game I learned in Ohio and played it with the family. It is made for rides through cattle country and this district of Honduras, the Olancho district, is definitely cattle country. The game is one side of the vehicle versus the other. When you pass a field of cows on one side of the road, someone in the vehicle from that side puts his or her head out of the window and yells, “Eh, Cava!” as loud as possible. If the cow looks up, it’s one point. If the cow, runs away, 10 points. If the cow, falls over, 50 points. It’s amazing how quickly the ride to the village passed this morning. It must have been quite a sight. After making sure no people were nearby, grown men and women yelling at cows at the window.

At the village, my first job was helping put a roof on a house. It was for the new home one of the three pastors in La Balsa. Each room was about eight feet by eight feet. Actually, I didn’t do much actual work. They had their system for putting up tin roofs and I stood up on the roof for a while, and then got down and started talking with the crowd that was gathering. Jayne Dowdy ("Juanita") was with me and she had handed a small boy a tennis ball. I began to teach him how to play baseball. I put a makeshift home plate in place, taught him his stance and grip, and then pitched until he hit it. By this time, the grownups were interested and laughing the whole time. A boy I’m guessing was about 12, stepped up to bat next. The grownups really laughed when I positioned him into batting position. The grownups never caught on to team “chatter” even though I tried to get them to say, “Hey, batter, batter…” Jayne bat next and hit a home run.

Before we left for lunch, I was able to have a conversation with the pastor about the spiritual needs of the community. His first response was problems surrounding the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Later, if possible, I want to hear more about those problems.

When we returned for lunch, I played soccer (football here) and Frisbee with a group of boys along with Barry Dowdy and Gene Ginn, both elders at St. Andrews. I enjoyed the image of the pastor and two elders being playful while at the same time creating positive memories with the children of the village. The boys kept calling out, “Barrito” (Barry), “Eugenio” (Gene), and Juan (John). Others from our group joined in as well. Suzanne got the girls out after lunch and threw the Frisbee with them. That led into more fun.

One of the most meaningful parts of this or any trip was the visits we made afterward. Ginny Ingram, Marcia Allison, and I joined two local pastors and Marta, our trip coordinator and translator, to visit people in need. We visited a man who could barely walk after he threw his back out clearing rocks out of his yard. Ginny and I prayed over him and we all laid hands on him. Next, we visited a 95 year-old woman named Camilla. We prayed for her, her husband, and her sister-in-law (I think). The third visit was to a widow with some health issues. We made a point to remind them beforehand that we were here because of the love of God. Our theme is “We love because God first loved us.” We wanted them to know that clearly. And then we prayed. All three seemed to connect well with the prayers. With Camilla, we closed the prayers with the Lord’s Prayer. They prayed it in Spanish and we prayed it in English. It was beautiful. God knows the languages just like God knows the hearts and needs of the persons.

So I felt good all day. However, my day was a contrast to a couple of our team. A few are still not feeling well, one in particular—Dawn from Wisconsin. She was feeling puny all day and was happy to get home tonight. She gets full marks for determination. In fact, the whole team gets full marks for determination. This team has had a dogged determination on this journey. The Shaken Baby Syndrome rides, travel delays, flat tires, intestinal issues, and constant living together have not slowed this team down. This team is eager to serve.

The fiesta will be at the school that has been home base for work projects. We picked up three piñatas in San Estaban on the way home. Tomorrow should be interesting. Children in the U.S. enjoy piñatas. Children here are piñata professionals. I know. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Off to try the internet service tonight. Remember, God loves you and so do I.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day 4 – Sweat

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Today we sweated. It was hot, winds were calm, and the work was steady

So far, we have poured eight concrete floors, put on one roof, and built two latrines for outhouses. Each day, we continue to go to the school and teach the children in the morning and have adult Bible study in the afternoon. And everywhere, we sweat. Today didn’t have the afternoon rain we had yesterday so relief never came. Some work sites were stifling hot. One would think that would make our two hour ride home aromatic, but we are too busy being distracted by the beautiful scenery all around as well as the heavy dust blowing in the windows.

Tonight at evening devotions, team members shared their individual highs and lows so far. For lows, several mentioned not feeling great and a few didn’t feel like they contributed meaningfully to the work of their worksite. For me, I felt like I rushed into this day’s work without taking time to properly meet the people from the village with whom I worked on the sites. For highs, almost everyone had a variation of the same thing: we connected with the people. In spite of cultural, economic, and language barriers, the best part of this trip has been connecting with people. That includes connecting with people on this team. It is Gene, Barry, Ike, Heather, and I playing Frisbee and soccer with the children. It is Barry and one of the people of the village changing hats—Barry gave up his visor in exchange for the corner of a concrete bag that would give Earle Brown’s (St. Andrews’ treasurer) hats a run for their money. It is Kitti reading stories in both English and Spanish to the people at her site which helped them learn English and her pronounce Spanish. It’s the team laughing together as we process the day’s work. So today was about sweat, but really it was about going to the next level in building relationships.

At another level, the best part of this trip is seeing Christ at work. Tonight’s devotional theme was from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi where Paul reminds them that in good times and bad, he knows he can do all things in Christ who gives him strength. We have experienced that here. Weary from long trips to and from La Balsa, sore from heavy lifting and shoveling, and not feeling well for various reasons, Christ is strengthening this group. I anticipate Christ’s strength here in our moments of need will be present beyond this trip as well. We will look back and remember it, as I hope you will look for it even now.

After lunch today, we handed out a suitcase full of blankets for newborns and medicines for the villagers. They will be stored in the clinic. The blankets were made by the St. Andrews and Palm Harbor Presbyterian Women. The St. Andrews Presbyterian Women also made school bags for the children this year. All were big hits with the villagers. The nurse at the clinic will hand out the layettes. Most of the school bags were handed out the first day. The children strolled proudly out of school with their new bags on their shoulders.

I mentioned that several weren’t feeling well today. Some have been a bit tenuous in the stomach. No one bad enough to be incapacitated, but several feel queasy in the stomach. Overall, the food has been good. In fact, the chicken last night was fabulous. However, we packed what amounted to two suitcases full of snacks “just in case.” Tonight was a “just in case” night for me. The ranch served spaghetti, which is one of my least favorite dish in the U.S. In 2008, I had the ranch spaghetti and it was, well, bad. So tonight I ate at The Suitcases restaurant and had the fine cuisine of beef jerky, Cheetos, Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, and a Sprite. Some said the spaghetti was good, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Other than that, the food has been good. Rice, tortillas, and refried beans are a constant staple and each is good. Lunch has been sandwiches and chips (local variety). I don’t eat much for breakfast back home and I’ve kept that up here, but I have had some of the fruit they served. We are grateful to the staff at the ranch who are working hard to accommodate our needs.

Tomorrow, we get at it again. Breakfast is at 6:30 am, morning prayer is at 7:10 am, and departure is at 7:30 am. That puts us in La Balsa at 9:30 am.

Time to go send this and hit the hay. Just so you know, sending this daily entry means walking to a far cabin on the ranch. On Monday when I walked over there, a horse was standing on the sidewalk, cows mooed about in the field as they are now, a pig walked by, several chickens clucked nearby, frogs the size of cats hopped around on the porch, and bugs saw me as a human buffet (I learned my lesson and will put on some deep woods bug spray before sending). Ahh, life on a ranch.

God loves you… and so do I. I’m looking forward to being with you this Sunday morning.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Day 3 – Starting Our Work

Monday, July 18, 2011

We started on our main work today. We traveled to the village of La Balsa, a village our church has adopted. This village is in the far from the ranch where we are staying. In poor road conditions, like the team experienced last year, it is a three and a half hour trip. One way. In better road conditions, like today, it was a two hour trip. We were all Shaken Babies again from the bumpy ride, but nothing could dampen our spirits. We were happy to be there.

The children of the school and many of the villagers turned out to welcome us. They held signs that read, “I Love the USA,” “Friends Forever,” and simply “Welcome.” Some were in Spanish, some in English. The teachers had made up letters to attach to the children and a row of children spelled the words, “St. Andrews Presbyterian TPA” (Tampa). We were then led to the school for a welcoming ceremony. The principle, teachers, and children all welcomed us. Speeches were translated, introductions of the team were made, and they sang the Honduran national anthem to us. We were then asked to sing our national anthem to then. I was so thankful for Ginny Ingram from our team. She stepped up, faced us, picked a starting note, and belted it out. We followed her and managed a rather pleasing version of the our national anthem, even in the high parts. I prepared some comments and a prayer that I translated into Spanish and spoke to them in Spanish. Our translator was at my side to bail me out if needed. I told the people that more important than the work we will do this week is the message we bear: “God loves you.” The team decided to focus on the love of God this year. Our theme verse is from 1 John about how we love because God first loved us.

After the ceremony, it was time to go to work. We split into four teams. Three of the teams were construction teams and the fourth went to the school to work with the children. I went with teammates Ginny Ingram and Kitti Ginn to the home of a man named Ernesto. He seems to be a man in his late 50s (although it is hard to tell in this country…people age quickly here). His house was built and he had not moved in yet. The floors were dirt and today we changed that by mixing, pouring, and finishing concrete floors. The two other construction teams did the same work of pouring floors. All of the construction teams finished their assigned work.

The school team taught the elementary and middle school children the story of the workers in the vineyard. This is the story about how a farmer hires people at different times of day and pays each person the same (a lot of people struggle with the concept of God’s generosity in this story). The school team had the students act out the parable. I didn’t see the drama, but I’m told that after a few moments of instruction, the children took off with the concept and loved it. Hopefully, they connected the concept of God’s generosity as well.

La Balsa seems to be in better shape than a previous village we served. Even though it is further away from the ranch and even though few teams have visited this village, many of the homes have poured concrete floors, chimneys (asthma is a problem without them as they cook with wood burning stoves), latrines, and most importantly, running water at the home. Many villages don’t have all of those luxuries and as a result, people suffer. Isn’t it strange to think that improving the lives of the people here means pouring a concrete floor? It makes one think about the differences between wants and needs in America.

Something has been nagging at me on this trip. We just came from evening devotions and I tried to express it to the team. Beneath the particulars of the work we are doing is God’s hand working on the people of this village and the team. That interests me the most. I want each person on the team to see what God is doing in this time away from home. I want the villagers to see what God is doing with them during our stay with them. In a larger sense, it’s what I want all people to do – to see God in the moments of daily living. We talked about the distractions in the life we Americans live. There is a lot of “noise” in our life. The people here don’t have the same noise as us, but they still have noise. The key is to see God in the midst of it all.

I am seeking God’s hand in the middle of these days in this eastern territory of Honduras. God is here, and God is on the move.

Now, however, it is time to see if the ranch internet is working. It wasn’t last night and I’m not sure about tonight.

God loves you… and so do I.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day 2 - A Whole Lot of Shaking

Sunday, July 17, 2011

We made it to Honduras safely.

The trip was long and relatively uneventful. Total travel time today was just over 15 hours. To give you a sense of what today was like, it would be like taking an early flight from Philadelphia to Tampa, picking up your luggage, and then driving in a minivan with a dozen people to Key West… all in one day. On dirt roads.

We left the hotel in Miami at 7 am, took forever to get through baggage check-in, and had an on-time takeoff from Miami International Airport. The two hour flight to Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, was uneventful. At least until the last 10 minutes of the flight. Tegucigalpa is a city in the mountains. To help make the landing memorable, we had a cloud cover that gave us turbulence as we were landing. About the time the turbulence began, the pilot began a series of turns while descending that was better than any rollercoaster. It seemed like we were in a constant left bank turn. At one point, I looked out of the window from my middle seat and saw mountaintops close by and at the same level as our Boeing 757. A moment later, I was looking down on power lines that seemed way too close. My favorite point was looking out of the left side of the airplane with the wing dipped and seeing trees that seemed like you could reach out and touch them going by at 150 mph. And then the pilot cut the power, the plane dropped, and we glided onto the runway. Just before touchdown, I think I could see people watching television in their homes on top of which it seemed we were going to land! It was a thrilling 10 minutes and a perfect landing! I wanted to put my hands in the air like you do on rollercoasters. The young girl next to me nearly puked.

We met three other members of our team at the airport. They are from a church in Wisconsin. We had lunch at McDonalds (pretty much the same as a U.S. McDonalds) and then we all got into two vehicles—a Range Rover and a 15-passenger van. Both vehicles were packed to the gills. The weather was pleasant and the country is beautiful. As with yesterday, the team’s attitude was positive even through the weariness and even at the end of the trip when we drove on dirt and gravel roads.

There was a whole lot of shaking going on at the end of the day. Dawn from Wisconsin said it was like being in one of those old exercise machines that had a strap that went around your backside and shook you like crazy. Sandy from Wisconsin said it was like being human milkshakes. Jayne Dowdy said of the trip last year with similar road conditions that they all arrived with Shaken Baby Syndrome. The exercise machine/milkshake/Shaken Baby Syndrome lasted for the last two hours of the trip. We were all glad to stop moving when we arrived at the ranch, especially those of us fortunate enough to spend the eight hour trip to the ranch in a jump seat.

My mind wandered quite a bit during the long trip across Honduras. This really is a beautiful land. At the same time, signs of poverty are everywhere. Our work for the week indicates the basic necessities of the people—concrete floors, latrines, solid walls for homes. I found myself wondering why someone WOULDN’T want to come here. Fear holds many back. Many fear for their personal safety. Many people will fear it will cause them to change and do things they don’t want to do. Others have a deeper fear that they will somehow feel responsible to work for economic justice in the lives of the poor here if they come. I couldn’t help but think that these are the very ones God has shown matter most to him. Maybe they should matter to us as well, no matter where we meet them.

More on that later. I’m exhausted and going to bed.

God loves you and so do I.