August 7, 2005 Newsletter

July was a very busy month, so I'm a little late with this edition.  It's also a little longer than usual, since I'm trying to cover the events of that very full month.  I hope reading it is as inspirational for you as living it was for me.

Rainbows

 by: Rhonda Jones

The two mission trips I had the pleasure to make in July 2005, one to Managua, Nicaragua, through the joint efforts of Love 89 radio station in Knoxville and Partners in Christ, and the other to Guatemala City and multiple surrounding towns and villages in Guatemala with a group composed largely of members of Meridian Baptist Church, have made this past month one that I will never forget.  Each time I engage in one of these humanitarian missions, I’m reminded of something another short-term missionary said to me before my first trip.  A nurse, who had made several medical missions to Costa Rica, she said, “Rhonda, you think you’re going to help them.  And you will.  But you will find that you are the one who gets the greatest benefit.”  Those prophetic words have been proven true over and over again with each trip I make and each volunteer project I undertake.  Somehow this simple act of stepping outside my comfort zone, armed only with the faith that I will be used to help others, creates the opportunity for more learning and personal growth than anything else I’ve ever done.  I have been immensely blessed by the places I’ve visited, the people I’ve encountered there, and the team members who accompanied me.

We’ve even had visible proof of that blessing.  When our flight left Nashville, enroute for Nicaragua via Houston following a three hour bus ride from Knoxville, a spectacular rainbow shined brightly for a large portion of our flight.  Unbelievably, another brilliant rainbow guided our descent into Managua.  Then after a glorious week there and the long, double-leg flight back, we drove into Knoxville underneath the glow of yet another miraculous rainbow.

On an intellectual level, I know the scientific explanation for rainbows.  We learned in elementary school science class that rainbows are visible in the sky when sunlight is spread out into its spectrum of colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—and diverted to the eye by water droplets.  According to scientific fact, the sky is actually brighter inside a rainbow than outside it, and because the rainbow is a special distribution of colors around the reference point of the observer’s eye, technically no two observers see the same rainbow.  I know and understand all that on the cognitive level.  But on an emotional and spiritual level, I still believe that he who created the heavens has control even of the rainbows in the sky.  So we were all convinced that our rainbows were visible evidence that God and all the heavens were smiling on our efforts.  It was a fitting culmination to a life-changing week.

These missions are life-changing in part because of the places you have to see to believe.  Visiting Central America during rainy season is an adventure unto itself.  Almost every afternoon the wind kicked up, blowing in black, ominous clouds to cover the previously clear blue sky.  The clouds loomed so heavily it seemed that even in the deepest canyon you could reach up and touch them.  Lightning cracked and thunder boomed a frightening warning that the goat path they called a road would soon be converted into a raging river.

At least, in Nicaragua the late afternoon and evening storms brought a welcome respite from the sweltering heat and humidity and the accompanying swarms of mosquitoes.  Air conditioning was rare if not unheard of in Nicaragua, where instead every building was equipped with open air ventilation aided by a few fans to circulate the steamy air.  With all this tropical exposure, the smell of insect repellant soon became a persistent aroma in the mission house where we bedded down at night.  But we easily forgave the unpleasant conditions as soon as we saw the beautiful flora and fauna resulting from the tropical conditions.

Nicaragua is a country of lush, rolling, green pastures, dotted only on the distant horizon by the peaks of volcanic mountain ranges—part of the famous ring of fire—which thousands of years ago cut off Lake Nicaragua from the ocean creating a freshwater sea, the only lake in the world to contain sharks.  Hiking through the rain forest up one side of Mombacho volcano and riding a zip line through the tree tops down the other side, provided not only an up close experience with the organic beauty, but also a breathtaking view into the crater, to the colonial city of Granada located a few kilometers southeast of the volcano’s base, and beyond to the ‘las Isletas de Granada and the nearby Peninsula de Aseses—a 354 island archipelago sort of resembling the Florida keys—produced by fast moving avalanches of rock and debris during the periods of eruption from Mombacho, now dormant for over 500 years ago.

We wound on foot through coffee groves famous for the beans grown in the dark soil enriched by the prehistoric lava flows.  We rested in the shade of the towering mahogany, madrono, and ficus trees.  We warmed ourselves at the peak elevations around the volcano’s famous steam vents.  A few of our group were entertained by the endangered Mono Congo howler monkeys.  And we bathed our senses in the overwhelming aroma of honeysuckle blooms measuring several inches in diameter.  Nicaragua is a magical country.

Nevertheless, Guatemala is not to be outdone by its southern Central American cousin.  Despite this trip being my second to the region, I was once again captivated by the awe-inspiring landscape.  Guatemala proudly showcases its own unique beauty.  Located atop some of the most rugged peaks of the Sierra Madre mountain range, the entire country seemed to be one steep climb and descent after another.  Guatemala possesses some of the most extreme elevation diversity in Central America, ranging from 0 feet at the Pacific coast to over 14,000 feet at its highest.  Narrow roads, cut precariously into the mountainsides, wound through 45- and 90-degree switchback turns overlooking deep, green gorges that seemed to go on forever.  The normal mode of transportation, aptly named “chicken buses,” either due to the use of the buses by locals to transport chickens to market, or due to the manner in which the bus drivers turn two lane roads into three and four lanes with only a mere horn blast of warning.  I’m not sure which explanation is most accurate, but a chicken bus ride in the driving rain of a dark, Guatemalan winter night, up and down the steep volcanic peaks at breakneck speed, is an experience I’m thankful to have survived (more than once).

The tropical rains produce equally lush vegetation as that found in Nicaragua.  But in Guatemala the harsher landscape and higher elevations produce additional challenges.  Life spans are shortened, both by the colder temps found in the 7,000 to 14,000 feet elevations, as well as the physical toll suffered from farming the rugged landscape—a survival necessity in Guatemala.  Women are routinely seen balancing huge bundles atop their heads—larger it seems than any three people could manage by hand.  And the men have perfected a method of carrying unbelievably large loads on their back, secured only by a strap around their forehead and supported only by the tense muscles of their weather-beaten necks.

Amidst all this struggle to survive, the sparsely distributed towns and villages are dotted with ruins produced by centuries of volcanic eruptions and the routine earthquakes that continue to plague the region.  A constant reminder of the impact of this instability was the fact that nowhere in Guatemala could we flush used toilet tissue.  It soon became apparent what the strategically placed cans beside the commode were for.  (I was so happy to get back on American soil and flush the paper!)  Unavoidable cracks in the nation’s plumbing and sewage systems are too numerous to repair and the regularity of the quakes make them too prevalent to prevent.  And so the company and all its visitors must adapt.  That is, those who enjoy plumbing adapt.  Most do not have such luxuries.

In Nicaragua, we spent our days and a few of our evenings in an area called El Canon, Spanish for The Canyon.  Located only minutes outside Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, it might as well have been the ends of the earth.  Each day our bus slowly made its way deeper and deeper into the canyon on the muddy path, carefully crossing the huge gulleys and exposed boulders, and stopping occasionally to remove debris on the road that fell during the night from the surrounding jungle, which seemed to be engaged in a continual battle with the canyon inhabitants to retake this their only ingress and egress to and from the rugged canyon they call home.

Home is an interesting word for it, for I was appalled by their living conditions.  No amount of verbal explanation or photographs could have prepared me for what I saw.  People were literally living right on the muddy ground, sheltered only by whatever rudimentary materials they could find—scrap pieces of rusty tin that leaks when it rains, rotting planks and split bamboo for walls through which the wind as well as insects, snakes, and other vermin enter with ease—and when the rains came they roared down the steep canyon walls and washed through these so-called homes.  These floods, if they occurred where we live, would result in government-declared disaster areas and an outpouring of aid to the afflicted.  But in El Canon such tragedies are daily occurrences, and there is no government support or aid.  The resilient people of El Canon simply pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and carry on.

That is what I will always carry with me henceforth from my experiences in Nicaragua and Guatemala . . . the people.  Yes, it’s a gloriously diverse and beautiful landscape, but its greatest diversity and its greatest treasure is found in its people.  Prominent among the people in my memories of Nicaragua is the pastor of the church in El Canon, Pastor Josue.

We had traveled to Nicaragua on July 9, two short days after the terrorist bombings in London, just in time to attend church services on Sunday morning, July 10.  To a crowded church gathered in the open-air building in the sweltering heat, the pastor spoke of the bombings to a group of residents with no electricity or television to follow the happenings of the outside world.  With our team of 25 Americans noticeably occupying the back rows, some standing to make room for the regular church members to sit, the pastor spoke of love to his congregation.  “The Islamic terrorists,” he explained, “want the world to believe that the Americans are cruel people who are incapable of loving any in the world who are not American.  But, he proclaimed as he pointed to us, our presence proved the terrorists wrong.  He explained to his congregation that the American missionaries had come out of love without prejudice, proving that regardless of the color of our skin or our living conditions, we are all the same in the eyes of God.  He encouraged us to see one another with the same eyes through which Christ sees us, without judgment or skepticism, but with love and acceptance.  Pastor Josue, without a doubt, opened the minds and hearts of the inhabitants of El Canon to receive us.  At the same time, he succinctly summed up in one word the very reason for our trip . . . love.

There are many more people I will remember in El Canon.  Among them is Gladys, a squat little woman, barely five feet tall if that, with a face that looked oddly similar to the frogs inhabiting the surrounding jungle, whose silvery hair marked her as one of the very few to reach a ripe old age in the canyon.  I was repeatedly amused by the way she plowed her way to the front of any line or crowd, a right obviously deserved from her elder status in the village.  Gladys made sure she received her fair share, but she also made sure we didn’t miss a single one of the remote homesteads often times hidden from our view when we trekked through the canyon on foot lugging our backpacks loaded with supplies to be distributed.

Then there was the cook at the orphanage, which was located in front of the church.  Tina, a short, rotund woman, she appeared almost as old as Gladys, but instead of bulling her way around like Gladys, she stooped and labored over the wood-burning cook stove preparing three meals a day for the children of the orphanage.  It didn’t take long for the nurse practitioner on our team to recognize her symptoms.  She was laboring through not only the primitive conditions of the orphanage but also the pneumonia that ravaged her lungs.  Three days of much needed medication provided by our team brought the first smile to her face.

For the most part, that was the most reliable characteristic of the men, women, and children of El Canon.  No matter how dire their situation, they smiled and welcomed us into their meager homes.  Despite being located squarely in the dirt of El Canon, they were as meticulous as possible.  Multiple times throughout the day they could be seen sweeping the dirt with homemade brooms cobbled from the surrounding plant life.  The debris of fallen leaves and twigs was kept carefully removed from around their humble abode.  The early morning hours found them cooking over open fires and scrubbing laundry by hand.  Lines and lines of fresh laundry surrounded their homes, struggling to dry in the humid air, providing visible proof of how diligent they were about personal cleanliness, despite what appeared on the surface to be squalid conditions.

We walked for what seemed like miles through the canyon, visited tens of homes, and found only one woman who lacked the industriousness that characterized her neighbors, and the image of her and her five small children is burned into my memory.  It wasn’t uncommon to find a household made up of a mother and several children.  Our question regarding whether there was a man of the house was most often met with an embarrassed, “no”.  Nevertheless, with the exception of this one woman, there were always signs of a persistent yet relatively fruitful struggle to survive.  This woman, on the other hand, seemed to lack those survival skills inherent in her neighbors.  No cook fires burned at her home, and there didn’t appear to be any food available to cook anyway.  No freshly-scrubbed clothes hung from the trees around her log shelter.  And she sadly explained through our interpreter that five other children had been taken from her by the courts, due to her inability to provide for them, our hearts broke for the remaining five, clothed in rags, caked in mud . . . malnourished waifs . . . who still smiled . . . smiled at us as though they had no worries.

I lost count of how many families we visited who insisted we come inside their home.  Stooping to enter through the low doorways, we entered the dark, dank interiors, lit only by the sunlight peeking between the planks and sticks on the walls, giving us an up close view of how they lived.  What they called home was worse than any shelter we would even house an animal in back home.  If they were fortunate, a couple cobbled-up wooden stools were available for seating, and they insisted that we use them.  They had virtually nothing.  Yet they wanted to give us their best.  Even the family inhabiting the one home we visited that actually had a tile floor apologized to us that the floor was dusty.  And miraculously when we asked them what we could pray for, each household hesitated, as though they had no needs at all.  They would pause, gazing into the sky, as if waiting for some idea, while I felt foolish for even having posed the question.  Their needs were obvious to me, threatening to reduce my prayers to nothing more than a futile plea, “Lord, help them, and help us, and help us help them!”  There seemed to be little more to say.  Their needs were so immense.  And still they smiled.  They welcomed us in, shook our hands, hugged us tight, and showed us their children, their grandchildren, and the crops they tended with homemade implements on the straight-up hillsides behind their homes.  Whole families, boys and girls, men and women, who lived in the one or two room structures, gathered round, held our hands and prayed with us, quietly whispering their own earnest prayers even as ours were being translated for them.

I’ll always remember Christina, the young girl who sheepishly stood in front of her classmates, when we visited the local school, to offer a tearful thank-you and to tell us how grateful she was that we had come, sparking an outpouring of humbling gratitude as each child, in a class numbering more than 30, stood to do the same.  I’m still overcome with the same deep emotional reaction, even as I write this.  I was touched by all the children in the school, especially those who persevered to attend, despite the embarrassment of not being able to afford a school uniform.  This poverty, more often than not, prevents the children of El Canon from ever acquiring any education, further complicating their difficult situation.

I remember a girl from the village, Mary Belle, with an angelic face, who wore a blue dress, smiled, and reached her small fingers through the fence around the orphanage for the piece of butterscotch candy I offered.  I remember the little boy who sat beside me in church, insisted on holding my backpack in his lap, and used my Spanish translation book to tell me I was beautiful.  I remember the old man, tiny and frail, who, since losing his wife, had found work living alone in a barn feeding and guarding hogs.  After multiple calls of “Hola” and “Buenas” from our group, he finally crept out to meet us, opened the gate to allow us to enter, talked of his wife, held our hands as we prayed, and hugged us before we moved on.

The memory of those images, the faces, the smiles, and the embraces are forever imprinted upon me.  It’s no wonder Garland started the Partners in Christ ministry with the single aim of helping these wonderful people of Nicaragua.  Garland is a successful businessman in Knoxville, who ran all our pre-trip meetings with a characteristic businesslike manner.  But, in El Canon, the true Garland was revealed as the great, compassionate man he is.  I’ll always remember the children’s cries of “Gar-land, Gar-land” sounding a bit like “Carlos” in their thick Spanish accent.  And I’ll always remember the trust and respect that Garland had obviously gained from the men and women in the community, and the patience he exhibited with them and with our team.

The administrator of the orphanage, Maria, spoke to us of the plight of her country that causes her to receive more children almost every day.  “I don’t know what’s happening to my country.” Maria explained. “There’s something wrong with the men in my country.  They are losing their sense of responsibility to care for the children they father.  Pray for the men and try to influence the boys of my country.” Maria pleaded.

I noticed this obvious lack of male presence in most households, and yet I still saw rays of hope.  For instance, one night a planned church service—the finale of our work in the canyon—ran well into the night.  It was the darkest, most stormy night we’d endured since arriving.  Our bus couldn’t even make it into the canyon, leaving us to walk in and out.  When we finally gathered at the church to make the hike out, an obvious look of concern appeared on Garland’s face.  Instructing us to stay in a tight group and move quickly, it was clear he feared the worst.  We had already heard during the week about the gang that harassed the village, and we had caught glimpses off them lurking around in their trademark bandana head coverings.  The few flashlights we carried barely made a dent in the darkness, and we tripped and fell into ditches, over tree roots, and through the debris littering the dirt road.  It was so quiet, you could have heard a leaf fall in the jungle, and I felt sure that watchful eyes trailed our every step.  We knew where the most seedy hangouts were, because we had passed them on our way in and out on the bus each day.  And when we soon found ourselves approaching the first of these spots, I mentally prepared myself for what I believed to be an inevitably bad situation.  Sure enough, the faint beam of our flashlights gradually began to illuminate the men who lined the roadway up ahead.  “This is it.” I thought, and I steeled myself for what might happen next.  Then the unexpected happened.  A man stepped from the shadows to shake Garland’s hand.  They were not would-be attackers.  They were self-appointed sentries, stationed along our way to assure safe passage.  As we passed around each treacherous bend in the road, men stepped from the shadows to shake our hands and guide us out of the dark canyon.  Regardless of what issues may exist among the men of El Canon, I shall never forget those men who guarded our safety on that stormy night.

Then there were my team members.  Carmen, a young woman who lost her mother to cancer at a very young age, but rather than closing herself off and feeling sorry for herself, has opened her heart and freely gives of her time and talents in order to show love for others.  Carmen was accompanied by her friend, Lindsay, who is quiet and unassuming, but tireless in her efforts to serve the people of Nicaragua through her repeated trips there.  Shaun, the Love 89 radio DJ accompanying our team, immediately fell in love with one little girl at the orphanage who had been severely abused by her father and brother, played with her until he was dripping with sweat, became deathly ill when he shared his drinking water with her, yet never failed to show up and do his part on the team.  In fact, it was Shaun, Carmen, and Lindsay who dressed as clowns, complete with costume, wig and makeup, on what seemed like the hottest day ever, to make animal balloons for the children on the day we threw a Gran Fiesta for the whole community.  For three straight hours they labored under the broiling sun and crush of children’s bodies, making balloons as fast as they could, until they were on the verge of exhaustion—all because we promised the children clowns when we visited their classrooms on the previous day.  There wasn’t a dry thread on them and even the long curls of Shaun’s multi-colored wig were drenched in sweat.  Finally rescuing them by cutting off the line, which by then was filled with kids coming back through for their fourth and fifth balloon, I couldn’t help but giggle at the fact that it was a good thing I’d painted big red smiles on their faces to hide their exhausted, blank stares.

Dean, a member of the PIC ministry who previously lived full time in the PIC mission house, and his wife, Virginia, who he met in Nicaragua, were both welcomed back with open arms by the residents of El Canon who obviously held a special place for the two of them in their hearts.  I shall never forget Dean, Gayle and I making 500 individual Polaroid photographs of the men, women and children of El Canon during the Gran Fiesta.  I can still see their smiling, meek faces.  You would have thought we’d just handed them a free Olan Mills portrait.  For some I imagine it might have been the first time they’d ever even seen their own reflection.

I will always remember Dean’s wife, Virginia, for a special reason.  It was amazing how, after a few days, we could actually begin to distinguish in our minds between one family or another.  Our initial shock at the generally poor conditions was replaced with thoughts that, for instance, one family was less needy or deserving of our help simply because they had a floor in their house.  It is indeed odd how our mind plays tricks on us when it comes to our interactions with other humans.  But Virginia was our conscience.  She quickly gave us the mental adjustment we needed.

There was Gayle, an OB nurse, who had the insight to bring her daughter, Rachel, to Nicaragua.  Rachel celebrated her sixteenth birthday in Nicaragua and, I must say, she amazed me more than anyone else on the team.  In our meetings leading up to our departure, she displayed the attitude of a typical teenager.  From behind light makeup and darkly lined eyes, she appeared withdrawn, and I surmised she didn’t even want to make this trip.  Her arms were lined with bracelets, her fingernails painted black, her clothes the typical grunge attire of the day, and her hair was a unique color residing somewhere between red and purple on the color spectrum.  But in Nicaragua, Rachel blossomed into a woman.  Gone was the hair color and makeup, revealing her own beautiful, light auburn hair and gorgeous, soulful eyes.  Rachel fell in love with the children, laughed and cried with them, worked hard right alongside everyone else, kept her teenage teammates in stitches, and even displayed a gift for design when she came up with a special shirt commemorating their experience together on the trip.  I won’t soon forget Rachel nor the special, unconditional love her mother, Gayle, exhibited for her and the children of El Canon.

In fact, all the teenagers on the trip were impressive.  In addition to Rachel, Kelsey, Clair, Katie, and Garland’s daughter, Stephanie, displayed a maturity well beyond their young age.  Aside from keeping the whole mission house awake a couple of nights when their giggle box was turned over, they pulled their weight, participated admirably in the team’s projects, sang angelic solos at church, and showered unselfish love on the children in the orphanage.

I was impressed by Mike and Tracy, who made the sacrifice to bring their daughter, Katie, to Nicaragua so the family could for the first time meet face to face with the young Nicaraguan girl they sponsor.  Their testimony of how they came to make the trip at all warmed my heart and reinforced my belief in divine destiny and purpose.

I’ll remember Tina, whose mission was almost finished before she ever arrived in Nicaragua, for Tina was an idea generator and planner.  It was she who led the team to plan dramas for the kids and gathered the necessary props.  And when Tina sang, it was the voice of an angel.

Brad and Lindsay were a young married couple on their first mission trip.  Kindness oozed out of their pores, causing me to be so impressed that two such deserving people had actually managed to find one another in such a crazy world.  The boys in the orphanage adopted 6’4” Brad into their ranks and quickly had him trained to join in their play with small handmade wooden tops typical in Nicaragua.  Learning to launch the tops from the cotton cord wound tightly around the top’s pointy base, then deftly plucking it from the ground in this palm while it still spinned, afforded Brad great admiration and led to subsequent special adventures with the boys like climbing the high hill behind the church to their special place from which the entire city of Managua could be seen stretching to Lake Managua and the volcano Momotombo in the distance.

Brad and Lindsay were not the only ones in the group making their first mission trip.  There was Rebecca, Gayle’s co-worker, who, despite missing her five-year-old little boy tremendously, was the very image of love and mercy in the canyon.  There was Teri, a beautiful, middle-aged woman, who’d survived a lifetime of unfortunate circumstances to emerge as a passionate writer and devoted, unselfish servant.  Tammy was a petite, dark-haired beauty, humble and quiet, who reminded me so much of my cousin, JoAnna.  Behind Tammy’s quiet exterior beat a huge, compassionate heart, and although we were all moved by our experience in El Canon, I somehow got the feeling that Tammy might have been most affected.  Jennifer was Tammy’s friend from high school and, as a nurse practitioner, provided the medical element to our mission.  She was tireless in her never-ending efforts to provide the diagnosis of ailments they could otherwise not afford, and to run to the pharmacy for the medicine they could otherwise not purchase.  Simple ailments that we deal with at home everyday are killers in a place like El Canon, so, because of Jennifer, many will live to see another day.

A miraculous member of the team was Holli.  Not too long ago, on the way to a friend’s wedding in Knoxville, Holli's car was hit head-on by a drunk driver.  Amazingly she survived the extensive injuries, only to be told she would never walk again.  Yet, after undergoing multiple surgeries, there she stood beside me in the middle of El Canon.  Not only did Holli stand and walk, she hiked right alongside all of us, up hill and down, from door to door, and through the rain forest.  She even strapped her pinned together hip into a repelling harness and rode the zip line through the canopy of trees with us.  Sometimes we slowed down so she could keep up.  Sometimes she got a helping shoulder to lean on.  But we gave it freely, because Holli is a miracle, not only for surviving but for having the courage to not feel sorry for herself and to really live.

Of course, I can’t forget Mac.  A business owner in Knoxville, Mac was the humorist in our group.  It didn’t matter what happened or what was said, Mac found the humor in every situation.  He kept us all in stitches and relieved the tension of many an uncertain moment.  Mac was our cheerleader too.  His praise for our efforts, no matter how humble, and his encouragement was unfailing.  Mac made us believe we could do anything.

Accompanying his good friend, Mac, on the trip was Phil, a retired high school teacher and coach, who now holds a position on staff at his church.  Phil is also Shaun’s dad, and I joked with them that Shaun took one look at our rag-tag team during our first meeting and immediately begged his dad to go!  But the fact is Phil was clearly there because he has a servant’s heart.  He painted circles around the rest of us on the boy’s dorm at the orphanage and on the inside of the church.  He served as an earnest and eloquent speaker for all the services we held at the church.  And he served as an inspiration to me when his characteristically tough football coach exterior was melted by the compassion he displayed for the people of Nicaragua and for his mission teammates.  Mac and Phil were also our song leaders, since they sing together in an old-time gospel quartet—Mac the tenor and Phil the bass.  This was revealed when they delivered a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” in perfect harmony on Rachel’s birthday.  In fact, we sang “Happy Birthday" for two others that week.  Holli and Mac, himself, also celebrated birthdays in Nicaragua.

I can’t forget Kathy, who left her home in Nashville six months ago, sold out completely and came with only her small schnauzer to live full time in Nicaragua and manage the mission house through which hundreds pass on missions of mercy each year.  And, of course, none of what we experienced would have been possible without our Nicaraguan interpreters, Victor, Alfredo, and Guiermo, to name three.  Victor is a polished man, who grew up outside Boston, but returned to Nicaragua as an adult so he could “know his country” as he put it.  Likewise, Alfredo grew up in Detroit, where he excelled at football, but returned to Nicaragua to help his mother build a retirement home in her homeland.  Al epitomized what the Psalmist David referred to as “making a joyful noise.”  Encouraged by Mac, Al gave it all he had and, while I can’t say it was always on key, it was surely some of the most heartfelt attempts I’ve ever heard.

Guiermo was the interpreter I spent most of my time with, since he was assigned to me and my small group for the week.  He’s lived his whole life in Nicaragua, is working to put himself through the university in Managua with a computer technician degree, and had only learned to speak English nine months earlier by taking a course in school.  Guiermo was a kind and gentle 23-year-old young man who translated with tears in his eyes our attempts to comfort the residents of El Canon.  And it was Guiermo who helped me to realize that, while we tended to assume our interpreters somehow had better living conditions than those we were trying to help in the canyon, they, too, were struggling to have a decent life in a country lacking an economy to support a middle class.  In Nicaragua, you are either rich or you are poor, and the chasm between the two is immense.  A palatial estate stood atop the ridge above the entrance to El Canon in stark contrast to the unbelievable poverty below.  The same is true in Guatemala.  And yet out of these conditions are born amazing individuals.

One of the most inspirational to me at the orphanage in Guatemala was Delmy, a young woman of 18 who has spent the last 6 years of her life at the home where she was placed by the courts when her father, who had abused her for much of her life, killed her mother with a machete right in front of her.  After being taught continual lessons about forgiveness in the orphanage, Delmy one day proclaimed that, although her father had stolen her past, she would not allow him or her hatred for him to also steal her future.  Consequently, she asked to be taken to see him in prison, where she asked him to forgive her for hating him, forever transforming not only her own life, but also her father’s, who became a chaplain in the prison and is now over all chaplains in the Guatemalan prison system.

I was also moved by Ana, who was sold into a child prostitution ring by her mother at age 4, and subsequently sold three more times after that, her name changed each of the four times, until she didn’t even know who she was anymore.  When the prostitution ring was busted, due in large part to Ana’s testimony, and she was finally placed into the home at age 15, she immediately took up residence in the baby dorm, becoming the unofficial dorm mother for the 63 babies housed there.  Holding as many as she could on her lap and allowing them to climb all over her, Ana explained, “I don’t ever want them to feel what I felt.  I don’t ever want them to feel unloved.  I want them to always know who they are.”  What powerful words from a 17-year-old girl who’s had one of the worst childhoods I could ever imagine!  I wonder how many of us would be so strong and so unselfishly giving under like circumstances.

There will always be a special place in my heart for 11-year-old Katerin whose mother fled to Los Angeles to escape her abusive husband, who was jailed for abusing the children only to be released and resume the abuse.  To protect Katerin and her two sisters, their grandmother asked the courts three years ago to place them in the home.  When I supplied Katerin with a sketchpad and colored pencils, she drew a beautiful picture for me of sunshine and flowers under which she wrote Psalm 27:10 in Spanish.  When I translated it that night my heart broke.  It said, “Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will receive me.”

And, as long as I live, I want to remember and be inspired by the image of fifteen 6- to 10-year-old little girls decked out in their best dresses for the worship service, heads bowed, hands clasped and raised to the heavens, swaying in unison to the music, while they sang praises to the God who had saved them from the pain and suffering of their young lives.

As you can see, the week in Guatemala stands in contrast to the week in Nicaragua.  While the time in Nicaragua cultivated in me a deep appreciation for having the good fortune to be born in a little industrial town in east Tennessee, as well as a deep compassion for those less fortunate, the week in Guatemala stirs even more visceral emotions.  Hearing the stories of Delmy, Ana, and Katerin, along with her friends, Roxana, Aura, Dicla, Ana Sue, Nancy Michelle, Vilma, Yesenia, Sebastian, and Jorge causes me to challenge at the innermost core of my being the pain, hurt, and resentment that I carry with me like excess baggage.  When I’m at the children’s home in Guatemala, I experience healing.  As the children cling to me for whatever brief glimpses of love they can get during my short time there, it is their love, strength, and courage that nourishes me and makes me a better person.

That’s what missions are all about.  Yes, we go to share, to help, and to serve others, but we are the ones helped, healed, and blessed by the experience.  If you don’t believe me you can ask Robert, a man on a mission team from West Virginia that was visiting the home in Guatemala during the same week.  Robert was a short, round-faced, stocky, barrel-chested man with a thin sandy red mustache to match his buzz-cut sandy red hair.  Despite being relatively young, Robert walked with a noticeable limp and took frequent breaks from the construction project his team was completing.  During one of those breaks, Robert described to me the horrible car accident he was in, resulting from a young adulthood ruled by drugs and alcohol.  Robert’s right leg was severed above the knee in that accident, and he was actually pronounced dead on the scene.  Later, even though his heart had miraculously started beating when the EMTs prepared to put him in a body bag, his multitude of other injuries were so extensive doctors gave him no chance for survival.  They didn’t even touch his injuries for the first twelve hours following the accident as they waited to see if his heart would be strong enough to endure the surgery.  Robert’s heart was strong . . . strong enough, in fact, to endure over thirty operations in the months and years that followed.  I listened in amazement to Robert’s story and wondered what in the world this man with a prosthetic leg was doing in Guatemala working on a construction project!  He must have read my mind, because he quickly began to explain.  It was his selfishness and self-absorption that had resulted in his horrific experience, and he went on his first mission trip to finally break the inwardly-focused pattern of his life.  Robert’s first mission trip was to Africa, occurring shortly after he’d been fitted with his prosthesis.  To be honest, Robert explained, when he went on that trip he was still struggling not only with the painful adjustment to his prosthetic leg but also the residual pains of his other recently healed injuries.  “I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.” Robert said.  The tears pooled in his soft eyes as he continued, “But when I walked into the villages filled with starving, sick, dying children—literally held them in my arms and tried to keep the flies off their little faces as they drew their last breath . . . man . . .” Robert pauses, “I stopped feeling sorry for myself real fast.” Robert shakes his head. “I went on a medical mission hoping to help bring healing to those villages, but I was the one who was healed.”

While definitely the most dramatic, Robert’s message was not all that different from all the people with whom I spoke during my two weeks in Central America.  To a person, everyone I asked told me the same thing.  From Robert, to Mike and Dottie, who loaded their five children into a pickup truck and with only $2,000 to their name and a complete inability to speak Spanish came to Guatemala to start the home, to Jack and Caroline, who sold everything they owned in Connecticut and moved their two teenage children with them to the home in Guatemala to be parents to the abandoned children there, to Angie, who gave up her sixteen year career as a teacher in the states, to Tim, who sold his business to move alone to Guatemala and become a dorm parent to fifty-three 6- to 10-year-old boys . . . they all exhibit the same unselfish attitude and enlightened perspective that I also found in my mission teammate, Jeri Beth.

Shortly before our trip to Guatemala, Jeri, her husband, and two sons lost everything in a house fire.  The clothes Jeri brought with her in one suitcase were almost all the clothes she owned.  All their possessions, including the piano she got from her beloved grandmother, were reduced to powder in minutes and could never be replaced.  Even their insurance was replacing little of their worldly possessions.  Yet still Jeri came to Guatemala to serve.  She didn’t sit crying and feeling sorry for herself.  She picked herself up, dusted herself off, and came to Guatemala, where she summed it up as eloquently as I’ve ever heard, “You know, it was just stuff,” she explained through tear-filled eyes, “and stuff isn’t what matters.  I already knew that before I came here,” she smiles, “but this place just confirms it.”  Jeri made me see that what matters most is not that which surrounds us, but that which we carry inside ourselves, and no abuse or accident or catastrophe can ever destroy that, unless we let it.

Another amazing staff member at the home, whom I won’t soon forget, is Renee.  A retired caterer from the northwest side of Chicago, Renee, who is in her 70’s, has served officially for the last 8 years at the home as seamstress and home economics instructor for the children, and has served unofficially as their grandmother.  Her compassion for the children, she explained to me, stemmed from her own experiences growing up in England during World War II.  To protect the children from German bombs, in 1939 they were taken from their families and moved to homes in the countryside, where it was only possible for them to see their parents once a year.  While they were afforded safety during the war years, what they lacked, explains Renee, was love.  And when she made her first visit to the home with her son, who was working on a construction project, she saw that same need for love in the eyes of the children there.  “I was drawn to them,” Renee says, “and since I was determined not to just retire and sit down, I bought an old bus, loaded it with supplies for the children, and drove it all the way from Chicago to Guatemala City!” Renee’s eyes sparkle like a teenager as she talks.

I noticed as the week progressed that I could see that same sparkle being kindled in the eyes of my mission teammates.  There was Robin, who returned for her second trip, along with her husband, Stan, and their teenage children, Andrea and Adam—two of the most impressive teenagers I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around—because Robin wanted them to have the same life-changing growth she experienced one year earlier.  I’m sure she wasn’t disappointed by the results when, on the last day of our trip, they all held in their arms a special child who had captured their heart.

Dana is the pastor of their church.  He reminded me for all the world of the bumbling Tim Conway character on the Carol Burnette show who harassed her character, Mrs. Wiggins. (Or was it Mrs. Wiggins who harassed him?  I guess it went both ways.)  Dana, with the same dry, disarming sense of humor, who even looked a little like the Conway character with his brown hair and mustache, became the Mac of the Guatemala team.  While he was working himself ragged to complete construction of the much-needed storage building outside one of the boy’s dorms, he was joking his way right into our hearts.  The fact that the Spanish-speaking children didn’t even understand him was no deterrent to his comic routines, causing us to laugh even more.  But the fact that the children understood little he said to them didn’t stop Dana from becoming endeared to them.  They lined up each night for his hugs and kisses goodnight accompanied by a heartfelt, “I love you.”  And by the end of the week they were whispering their own little, “I love you” in return.

Accompanying Dana was the youth pastor of the church, Mike, who had been to Guatemala on several occasions, and his wife Carla, who was accompanying her husband there for the first time.  Mike, also a Love 89 DJ, had his hands full and served mightily as travel agent, tour guide, bus driver, media technician and producer, mediator, and the list goes on.  Mike and Carla came to work and work they did.  But that wasn’t the only reason for their visit.  They had traveled to Guatemala this time so Carla could meet the two little brothers they are attempting to adopt, Julian and Hector.  Mike and Carla exhibited a love for those two little boys no less strong than their love for their own two biological children.

Another member of our team, Sandy, had previously been in the same situation trying to adopt two brothers.  But $30,000 and eight years later—six months of which were actually spent living with her husband and two biological sons at the orphanage—they succumbed and declared defeat to the bureaucratic Guatemalan red tape.  Sandy’s visit, along with her youngest son, Seth, was a tearful one of love and regret.

A woman on our team named Ryan is the adoptive mother of a little Guatemalan girl named Hannah, who came home to her new mom at 6 months old.  Ryan has a heart for Guatemala and would adopt every orphaned child in the home, if she could somehow find a way.  We were surprised to learn that Ryan, who to date has lost 65 pounds, would be a cast member on this fall’s season of the reality show, The Biggest Loser, on which cash prizes are awarded to the person losing the most weight.  We were even more surprised to learn that Ryan’s dream, should she return for the show’s finale in November to learn that she is one of the winners, is to use the money to move to Guatemala and help care for the abandoned children.  By the end of the week all agreed that, no matter how the show’s producers choose to characterize Ryan in exchange for ratings, she has a heart of gold and the singing voice of an angel.  Ryan was everyone’s new best friend.

Sandy’s son, Seth, was accompanied by his friend, Jonathon, who exhibited a maturity, wisdom, and insight that reached well beyond his teenage years.  As I eavesdropped on Seth and Jonathon’s comedy routines, observed their work ethic, and admired their way with the other kids and team members, I wished that I could have known boys like them when I was a teenager.  It made me realize how much joy and fellowship I missed by spending so many years of my life with lost boys and men who were looking in all the wrong places for happiness.  Seth and Jon will both make some girl a fine husband one day.

Then there was Karol, who brought her much younger son, Caleb, with her to Guatemala so that he, too, could have the learning experiences there that would mature him into a fine young man capable of choosing his response to what happens around him and being a responsible adult.  Caleb is lucky to have a mother like Karol.  I can think of no greater gift for him to receive from his mother than this mission trip.

I’ll remember Pam, who accompanied her daughter, Heather, to be our full-time cook and caretaker.  Pam surprised and delighted me with her subtle humor, and I quickly found myself admiring her easy-going manner and kind, accepting approach to everyone.  I soon realized that Pam had passed these valuable traits to her daughter, Heather.

Heather’s youthful appearance belied her thirty years of age, and she was a tireless worker.  Long after I’d had my fill of painting projects for the week, it was Heather who reminded me of the unfinished work to do, and it was she who made sure it got done.  Imagine my surprise when Heather proclaimed, “My dad won’t believe I was painting.”  I couldn’t believe it was the first time she’d ever painted.  You might expect a normal person to say, “Oh, I can’t do that; I’ve never done it before.”  But not Heather.  Heather is a courageous dynamo.

Linda was the strong-willed, independent member of our group.  She is the resilient survivor of a turbulent life out of which she has raised two beautiful, intelligent, and successful daughters.  Somehow this all culminated to lead Linda to focus on the oft-neglected young boys in the home.  Linda seemed determined to do her part to ensure those boys grow into good men who know how to love special daughters like her own.  And as I watched Linda rise early each morning to see the sun rise over the hills behind the orphanage, I also watched a new, even more powerful life dawning in Linda.  Linda is an inspiration.

Two other younger and equally marvelous female members of our team were Meghan and Ashley.  Meghan is a beautiful, red-haired, blue-eyed picture of meekness and wholesomeness.  When on the hillsides outside Galilee Jesus delivered the beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” he must surely have been thinking of Meghan.  A Spanish major in college, Meghan was initially overcome by the crush of Spanish-speaking vendors and beggars who inundated us in the marketplace.  But, ever so gradually, I watched Meghan grow into herself on this trip.  I have no doubt Meghan will go onward from this experience to use her foreign language skills to do great things for the people of Central America.

Equally meek in her demeanor and humble about her natural beauty—inside and out—was Ashley.  She displayed a quiet confidence accompanied by a genuine concern for others that went beyond anything I would ever have expected from anyone so young.  Ashley proved this to each one of us by surprising us all on day 4 of our trip with handwritten, personal notes of praise and encouragement left for us to find in our beds.  Ashley taught me that I can learn something from everyone, even those younger than me.  I was humbled by Ashley’s thoughtfulness and only hope I can live to emulate it. 

We even picked up a tagalong in our group, a twenty-year-old college student from California named Drew, who had chosen to spend his summer break from school working and living at the children’s home.  Drew was unselfish, hard-working, warm, friendly, and funny.  He was a welcome addition at mealtimes and for our daily devotions.

The grandmother of our group was Joyce who, at 69 years of age, was making her first mission trip.  I call her the grandmother, not only because she was the oldest in the group, but also because she reminded me so much of my own paternal grandmother.  Despite being out of her comfort zone, Joyce was generous, bold, level-headed, and kept a watchful eye on all of us.  I suspect when I’m 69 years old, I will be most like Joyce, and that would be fine with me.

Last, but certainly not least, was our second eldest team member, Sandy Weaver.  We joked that she was a 64-year-old, 65-pound, flying squirrel, due to the way she hoped up and down from her top bunk in our cramped sleeping quarters, where three of our team members actually had to sleep on the floor, separated from the hard concrete floor by only two thin, ragged cotton mattresses stacked on top of one another.  Joyce spent most of her time with her watchful eyes trained on Sandy, as she amused us endlessly with her antics.  Sandy approached her first mission trip and first international travel with the innocence of a child and the zeal of a bullet-proof teenager.  And like every other teenager I’ve ever known, there was no predicting what funny thing she might say or do next.  Sandy kept us awake and howling with laughter every night well past “lights out”, making the trip even more memorable than it might have been without her.  And as much as Sandy loved having adventurous fun, she loved the children more, and the children definitely loved her.  Each time I walked into the baby dorm to paint, rather than looking happy to see me, the puzzled little toddlers had only one question on their minds, “Sandy?”  It was their way of asking for the one they desired most . . . the one who made them feel most loved.  Sandy is a wonderful mother and grandmother, with the playfulness of a child and the heart of a saint.  I’m so thankful I had this opportunity to get to know her.

I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to get to know all these wonderful people— the beautiful children and resilient adults in Nicaragua, the wonderful team members who accompanied me on that mission, the amazing children of Guatemala, and the equally amazing team members who served there with me.  Now, because of these special people and our special time together, I finally know what human fellowship can be.  Now I know what heaven will be like.  My life has been forever changed in an overwhelmingly positive way as a result.  Yes, it’s true I went to Central America to try to be a blessing, but it was I who received the greatest blessing of all.

On the flight home from Guatemala City, I looked over Pam’s shoulder at her Woman’s World magazine and saw this quote from Mohammed, “A person’s true wealth is the good he or she does in the world.”  I immediately realized that quote most aptly summed up my mission experiences during July 2005.  I am truly wealthier than I ever imagined.

And, lo and behold, right before our plane made its descent into Atlanta, Karol punched me and pointed to the rainbow outside her window.  As we stood on the curb with our luggage waiting for the bus, Heather smiled at me.   “Rhonda, did you see the rainbow?” she asked.

“I sure did, Heather.”  I replied.  “I sure did.”

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Rainbows are people whose lives are bright shining examples for others.

Shine on, shine on.

The world needs more people like you.

- - Maya Angelou

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