Sunday, March 22, 2015

Oyacachi: Stuck in the Muck.

As the shouts of joy died down, I will never forget the sound of all of the little voices yelling, ‘Noooo!!!’

Thirty five of us pulled into Oyacachi on a bus just two days earlier, with about five of us having visited the town previously. The group I was with is from Camp-Of-The-Woods, a camp located in Speculator, NY. They have a discipleship program (called LIFT) for young adults who want to spend a semester or two to intentionally grow in their relationship with the Lord, be mentored and discipled, experience outdoor adventure and God’s creation, grow in their understanding and experience of missions, all the while serving at the camp. We have hosted this group at El Refugio every year for about the past five years.

Part of their time here is always spent connecting with two of our ministry partnership sites: the towns of Chaco and Oyacachi. On the day mentioned at the start of this blog, we were less than an hour away from leaving Oyacachi to head back to El Refugio. What had happened was that during our three days in Oyacachi an excavator had come through and dug a trench between 5 - 6 feet deep between the road and the parking area where the bus had been sitting. The bus driver had finally gone to turn the bus around, after having sat in the spot for 3 days. When he went to pull out, the two front tires sank deeply into the loose dirt (that had turned to mud from all of the rain) where the trench had been dug. The nose of the bus sat squarely on the ground while the wheels were halfway submerged in mud. It appeared we might be staying a little longer than we had anticipated.

It was lunchtime when all of this happened, and our group had several tables end-to-end located right alongside two rows of other tables end-to-end. The difference was that our tables were normal height, while the other two rows were built for children— very low to the ground. Their tables were filled to the gills with little kids who are part of the Compassion program in Oyacachi. Ranging from three years old up to around ten or so, these were all children we had been playing with ever since we had arrived. The first night we held a service at the church where special music was shared as well as many testimonies. We began all together in the sanctuary, but split up halfway through the service with the second half catering more specifically to each group: young adults in one location and the adults remaining in the sanctuary.

The following two days were structured similarly as we had an hour at the public school each day to play games, share skits, and give simple english lessons, followed by partnering with the Compassion program hosted at the church. Students helped pass out the food to all of the kiddos, and the second day we were given time to teach the children. Following the meal the team put on a skit that connected to a Bible lesson and then all of the children made a craft alongside the team that related to the Bible story. Once the craft was done, everyone ran up to the community volleyball court for games that we had prepared, and many of the kids stuck around getting piggyback rides, laughing, and running around until we had to leave to eat dinner. We held another service the second night, and I practically had to beg a few of the young girls from the town to head home at the end of the night, as all of the team members were going to bed.

One thing I so appreciated about the LIFT team was their intentionality in deciding to make the gospel message central to all of the interactions and opportunities they had. Whether we were at the school, with the Compassion kids, or in an evening service, every chunk of time we spent with members of the community a clearly thought-through presentation of the gospel was plainly laid out. I should know, as I translated half of the testimonies, a sermon, and multiple drama presentations.

The Church in Oyacachi
In the short spurts of 'free time' that we had, I visited with the Pastor of the church and other members of the congregation. I even had a chance to ask a few questions and videotape the Pastor and another member of the community on our final day. When I asked the Pastor about the benefits he saw of teams like ours coming to do the types of things we had done, he enthusiastically responded by saying how clear it was to see the impact. He mentioned that when groups like ours come in we have access to a much wider base of individuals in the community. He even went so far as to say that those on the fringes of society are willing to come out and interact with us, and they're often harder for the church to draw in. It was obvious how dearly the children loved being with us, and he ended by pointing out the fact that when people from a different walk of life and place in this world come to visit, it opens up opportunities simply because locals have an interest in finding out who these people are and what their experiences are like.

We did finally get the bus out of the mud. Though the excavator tried pulling it out with a metal cable, we watched it snap twice and finally Rick jumped into action. He called us all outside and half of the team got into the back end of the bus while the rest of us pushed as once again the excavator pulled using the metal cable. It heaved, heaved, and finally lurched forward out of the muck! We all went back inside to finish lunch, and just a minute or two later heard the bus get ready to drive fully across the trench. As it plunged forward, it cleared the muck fully without getting stuck and came to a halt on the other side of the trench. All of the LIFT students cheered! And as their cheers died down, there were just as many of the Compassion children yelling, 'NNoooooooo!!' knowing that this meant we were, in fact, leaving. And it struck me.

Although we weren't even there for three full days, a connection had been made. Those kids loved being with the team, and simply didn't want us to go. I have never in my life experienced such a long goodbye as I did that day. Kids running, spinning, gifts being given, hugs everywhere, pictures being taken-- and neither side could easily say goodbye. Guillermo had found me at every turn throughout those three days and I was happy to be able to at least give him our family's prayer card and truthfully tell him that we as a family would be back again to visit in the coming months. Even still, that didn't make it easier.

As I reflect on those days today, a verse from John comes to my mind. In John 13:35 it says, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” There was no shortage of love during those days in Oyacachi. And it wasn't simply all action/service-- there was a healthy helping of truth given with it. And as the team stopped at an overlook on the way out of town to look back, pray over the town, and sing a blessing upon it, I was reminded of what a beautiful picture it is to be in the family of God, carrying each others' burdens, lifting one another up in prayer, and being willing to give all of yourself through love in the name of Christ. Needless to say, it was a wonderful three days.

The town of Oyacachi, nestled in the valley of the neighboring mountains

Monday, March 16, 2015

What Does Love Demand?

As I took in the stares of about 30 onlookers and felt their hatred towards me, I believe that I experienced a glimpse of the way our Heavenly Father sees us in our brokenness and sin.

It hasn't been a fear of mine, per se, but I've really wanted to avoid becoming known as or referred to as the 'missionaries with all of the car problems.' But it might be time to lay that down and let it be what it's going to be. The irony is that we've really been the victims every time. The first time there was perhaps a level of misjudgment or naïveté after the initial breakdown of the car-- but the last instance and this one were simply outside of our control. Perhaps that's why I don't want to have this 'car trouble' reputation.

 I digress. Our car is still in the shop. On Saturday night we hosted a dinner for our latin american interns along with another missionary family. The dinner took place at their house. When it was time to go home, we were given the opportunity to drive their car back to our house in place of walking through town late at night. We would return their car to them at church in the morning. 

It rained after church. So, we got lunch, ran the errands we needed to, and the plan was to drop off Suzy and the kids at our house, bring the car back to them, and walk home after returning the car. 

I should mention that drunkennes is a problem in our town. I had commented to Suzy several times that morning how I had never seen so many people so drunk, wandering around and congregating in the streets of our town. We were a distance of about two blocks from our house when there was an impasse in the road. Several cars parked on the right side of the road, 2-3 cars parked on the left, and about 15 people clearly inebriated huddled right in the middle of the road. I give two short beeps of the horn, as is customary here, and the group started moving off to the side of the road, hugging the parked cars. I crawled forward, driving between a mile and two miles per hour.

Our neighborhood, where the incident took place
And then we heard the noise. What noise, you ask? Well, a drunken individual who owned one of one of the parked cars on the right side of the road decided to get into his car. As we drove by. He threw his door open, directly into the side of our friends' car as we drove by. When it made contact, his car lurched forward about a foot or so and rolled onto the foot/ankle of one of the inebriated women that was hugging his car.

I was greeted by many, many drunk individuals saying things like, "Nothing happened," "be on your way," "Keep going." I should mention that this was a brand new car our friends had bought just about a year ago. It's in pristine condition. Also, the husband of the family was actually in the US, as his grandmother had passed away just days before. After calling the wife of the family, her/their desire was that we take pictures of both vehicles and write down names, phone numbers, and license plate numbers. 

Let's return to where I started: the angry, drunken mob. After getting Suzy and the kids home, calling a couple of our Ecuadorian co-workers, and getting the police involved, tensions continued to rise and opinions on whose fault it was became more and more engrained. That, and if you've ever interacted with very drunk people, they're not the most reasonable to deal with. The owner of the other car took a running start with fists flying at me numerous times, every time getting restrained by the police. Many drunken rants, aggressive fingers being pointed, and very offensive accusations as well as comments about skin color were thrown about, willy nilly. I chose the very few words I used carefully, kept incredibly calm, and tried to maintain a controlled, neutral demeanor.

The panel that was damaged on our friends car will probably cost a few hundred dollars to replace at their dealership. If we take it to a local place, it could potentially be repaired for $100 or less. So that was the suggestion-- they pay $100 and we all walk away. Someone suggested a 50/50 split, meaning they contribute $50 and we all walk away. They were unwilling to try and gather this amount, saying that they had mouths to feed and didn't have $50 to their name-- which could have been true. I should mention that here in Ecuador it is customary and even expected for the parties involved to bring things to an agreement without getting insurance involved. With police present, they even stress and push for money to be exchanged on the scene for damages incurred rather than going to court or taking things to insurance.

As I looked at my neighborhood, all gathered around, drunk, I couldn't help but think of all of these individuals and this being where we live. These were our neighbors. Their relatives. Was my reputation worth the $50 (or less) that I would receive as compensation? The police sided with me, and wanted to help reach an amicable agreement, or we'd all go to court in a month-- incurring lawyer fees, fines, and more. I reached a moment of clarity where I really feel God was prompting me to do what I did. So I tried as hard as I could to get everyone to quiet down in order to speak and address everyone.

Here's more or less what I said: I've lived here for almost three years. We live in this neighborhood. I work just around the corner at El Refugio. I got the police involved because I am not the judge, and we needed a chance for both parties to present our stories and let the law act as  the judge. In my opinion, I wasn't at fault. I was simply trying to bring my family home from church. And perhaps you should be willing to admit that some of this, or all of this was, in fact, your fault. Regardless of that, here is my decision. I am a Christian. Today I am choosing to extend grace to you. I am not going to make you pay for the damages to this car. We will cover the cost of the repairs, though this doesn't seem just to me. For me, it's not worth making enemies. You are my neighbors. I want to live in peace with you and maintain a good reputation... 

At which point, the now 40 individuals gathered essentially cut me off, began embracing each other, me, shaking my hand, cheering, etc. He didn't deserve that grace. In fact, when he had to present his car registration and papers to the police, his car wasn't even insured, up-to-date, or in legal standings. They threatened to take him to the police station and lock him up several times.

Christ is love. He forgives us and extends us grace when we certainly don't deserve it. There was a whole lot involved in this terribly ugly afternoon-- and perhaps some of you reading this will think that I made the wrong decision. And perhaps I did. But Christ came to earth and extended his love to us. And sometimes choosing the loving response, even if undeserved, is best. 

I am going to pursue relationships with the individuals that were involved in this incident. I know that God was involved in all of this. And though part of me wishes it simply hadn't happened, I know that God is in the midst of all of this and that He will redeem the situation to draw people to him.

So, maybe we'll never shake the reputation of being the 'missionaries with all of the car problems.' But if people can receive the love of Christ and come into a relationship with Him through events like this, a less-than-ideal reputation is something I can deal with.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Supporting Ana Galindo

Last week we were blessed to have Ana Galindo visit and spend the week at El Refugio. We have been bringing short-term teams down to the Shell/Puyo area of Ecuador for several years now, yet I can still remember the day when we heard about Ana. I remember someone saying, “There’s an Ecuadorian woman who has picked up her life, moved down to Rio Negro, and is living there as a missionary to her own people! How great is that to have someone there year-round??” I had the blessing that same summer to head down to Rio Negro with a short-term team and met Ana for the first time. Since then we’ve had several opportunities to visit and connect, but none quite like this past week.

We visit our ministry partners throughout the year, continuing to build our relationships and seeing how we can best support them. I’ve been to several sites with other team members and the same invitation is always given: If you’re ever in Quito or want to make a special trip to come visit us at El Refugio, please come, let us know, and we’ll take care of you! To my knowledge, Ana is the first to actually take us up on this offer.
Ana has been in Rio Negro for 2 and a half years now and has done a myriad of different things. She started sewing classes with women in the community. She opened her home to youth of the community to play, use her computer, and learn about the Lord. She held informal church services in her home on Sunday mornings. She guards the famous hockey sticks of the town (donated by some Canadian mission team) and brings them out periodically for all of the kids to use and play floor hockey in the community gymnasium. She has distributed food and clothing to those in need. She washes dishes. She gives water or food to those working in the fields. She has given her life to see Christ move in this community.
Her most recent venture has been intentional discipleship with 4 boys around 13 and 14 years old. These boys have recently accepted Christ and Ana sees great potential in them. She has known about our ministry, and decided it would be a great experience to get these boys out of their normal routine, away from their parents for a week, and experience adventure in the mountains of Ecuador. So, Ana brought these boys to us and they headed out with our backpacking guides along with three other youth for a 4 day backpacking expedition.
All of our staff spent time with Ana while she was here: walking around the property, sharing a meal together, inviting her into their homes for dinner. At the end of the week I sat down with her and a videocamera, hoping to capture a glimpse of what it is she does in Rio Negro. I also interviewed the boys after they got back from the backpacking trip. It hit me when I asked Ana how she has felt about her relationship with El Refugio. She broke into tears as she quoted the scripture in Isaiah 55:8,
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
She explained how she had been praying and searching for some place to help and support what she’s doing. God connected her with El Refugio, and she shared with me,
"This has been the perfect place. The boys are happy. They have discovered a reason to enjoy this journey. And the Lord blessed me as well– allowing me to be here. I’ve had many hopes, many dreams– many things I had thought were crazy. But talking with Jim, talking with Paul; The Lord has given me His response: They’re not crazy. They’re possible.”
 This is why we partner with people like Ana. She has dreams. She has been faithful to God’s calling. She is investing in lives and making an eternal difference. It is our joy and privilege to come alongside her and others like her to provide the resources and tools we have at our disposal. That is the body of Christ.