Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Day Six (Thursday, July 10)

Today was perhaps the hardest day. Today we said goodbye to the villagers. The village of El Quebrachal has 400 people in about 90 families Most of them came out to a party-a fiesta-we held for them. There were speeches by village leaders and our leaders. They sang their national anthem to us and we then tried not to squeak during the high part of our national anthem that we sang back to them. We even had a mini-worship service in which the pastor of the village was supposed to speak and I had an on-the-spot message to deliver. And then it was time for the party.

We exchanged gifts with them. We gave each of the families in the village a first aid kits, gloves and candles. We gave the teacher hygiene kits to give the children. We also gave about eight suitcases full of school books and supplies for the school. I wish you could have been there to see the joy on their faces as they gave gifts to us. Their gifts were a labor of love given out of their scarcity. This is a poor village and it was overwhelming to be given something from them. I was given a clay bowl made by a girl named Yoselin Romero. She is a student at the school. A young girl name Carolina Isabel stitched a beautiful linen cloth with her name on it. It is such a humble and beautiful gift of love.

The party...ahh, the party. We had two pinatas. One for the boys and one for the girls. They were a big hit. You should have seen the bodies diving in as the goodies spilled out. What fun! These were pinata professionals. We also bought 35 watermelons and served them while the music played and the dancing began. Several of us grabbed partners and began to dance with young and old alike. One woman, Greta, from Grace church pulled an elderly man onto the dance area. He must have been a popular man in the village because everybody yelled and laughed with approval. This happened several times, including the time when, upon request, I asked a woman named Norma to dance. Much laughter.

One of the village leaders told us that the annual visit by mission teams is like Christmas and Easter combined for the villagers. Think about that. Think about how much attention and effort and anticipation goes into Christmas and Easter. Our visit meant much to them. The leader said that for many this is the happiest week of their year. Some even take off work for it. Amazing. We feel like we didn't do enough to relieve their lives and yet they feel like our presence and work gives them help, joy, and more importantly, hope.

This afternoon we went to the Olancho's district's main city of San Esteban. They call it the "wild west" of Honduras because it is like the old west of the U.S. In a previous email, I said this place feels like Little House on the Prairie. The wild west of the 1800s is a better metaphor. Today, however, we didn't experience the rugged part of this district; we went to a 7-12th grade school where the award-winning dancers of that school danced for us. Seven pairs of boys and girls danced traditional Honduran dances wearing bright and colorful costumes. I felt like an honored guest in their country getting a command performance. The music was upbeat, the children beamed as they danced and we were all grinning the whole time.

This will be my last update. Tomorrow we leave for the capital city of Tegucigalpa. Then on Saturday we fly home. We will be home Saturday evening and I will be back with you on Sunday morning. You should know that all are well and the most we have dealt with for health issues has been stomach problems, none of which were serious. That is an answer to prayers.

Remember that God loves you and so do I.

Buenas noches.

Day Five (Wednesday, July 9)

There is something very familiar about this place... like the distant smell of a mother's perfume from childhood. Even though this is the first time I have been to this Olancho district in eastern Honduras, all day today I've felt strangely connected to this place. It feels like I've been here before. On the ride home, I placed the connection. The boys and girls we have seen around us for the past few days were me as a child living in Puerto Rico. I lived there from age 5 to age 10. I saw myself years ago in these children. Brown-skinned, dark-haired, barefoot and running free through the neighborhood. Adventurous. Excited about new things. Tropical foliage everywhere. Warm weather with winds blowing constantly. It was a good feeling.

I also pondered the smell of the land today. One needs to be here to fully appreciate the smells. I mentioned this today to a few others and their first reaction was to laugh. Let's just say that horses and cows leave a special odor of their own on the streets of the village and ranch. It makes me think again about how nasty foot-washing was in Jesus' day. But the smell is more than the smell of manure. Much more, in fact. It smells like an old land. Ancient. It is a pervasive, pungent, dank smell. Like a primeval forest with rich soil, innumerable trees, decaying foliage, and a moist, heavy air. The smell opens a memory of the garden God planted in the beginning of all things.

Today was another day of pouring concrete and VBS, but two powerful experiences were part of the day. The first involved a villager. For several days, we have heard about a woman who is dying in the village. Today our entire team went with the local pastor, Antonio, to her home to pray for her. Her name sounded like Felicity with a Spanish accent. She is in her 20s and has throat cancer. Her large eyes stared up through a gaunt face and seemed truly glad we were there. We sang Amazing Grace. Antonio read from John 3 and reminded her that her suffering was not a test or punishment from God. He reminded her that Christ himself suffered and as we suffer in this life, even in our dying days, we are participating in the life of Christ which makes us fit for heaven. We prayed the Lord's Prayer with the locals. They prayed it in Spanish and we prayed in English. Our unity in Christ was as visible as our broken hearts for this woman and her family.

The second experience involved a project. Later in the day, we went to the top of the village. The view of the mountains from this high point in the valley was spectacular. There, we worked on a water project that has been years in the making. The lack of clean water is a constant health problem for the villagers. What we found at the top of the village was a new 10,000 gallon water tank for the village. The source of the water is a mountain 17 miles away. For years, volunteers from the village have been digging trenches by hand and laying pipe up to the tank. They are half way through the pipeline. We filled in the trenches where pipe had been laid leading up to the water tank. This project is a labor of love that will serve the villagers well and we got to be a part of it.

We travel to and from the village for an hour and fifteen minutes each way. We travel in Toyota Land Cruisers. We need this type of vehicle because of the rugged terrain. There is even one point where we cross a river with water about two feet deep. Mostly, we drive over potholes on the gravel roads. We decided today that if any of us was constipated, had kidney or gall stones, or needed to deliver a baby, one of these twice-a-day trips would take care of business. Yes, we've gotten to the point of such conversations. It didn't take long since we are all living together. Just like family.

The team members range in age from 14 (a girl who reminds me of my daughter, Madison) to 83. Our 83 year-old is amazing. Her name is Shirley. She is one of our translators, went to Haiti on another mission trip in April, keeps up with everyone else on the team and is an inspiration to all of us. So all of you who say you are too old for this, take note!

Enough for now. It takes me 30 minutes to log on to the internet, bring up the web page and send this email. And that is not counting writing this update. I'm off to do that, then take a shower and hit the hay.

Today and always, you are much in my thoughts and prayers.

Buenas noches.

Day Four (Tuesday, July 8)

We just finished evening devotions. The key question of the night was, What is our mission here all about? We have come here to pour concrete and lead a vacation Bible school program, but that, we agreed, is not our mission. One person said our mission is to bring people hope. She was right. The villagers have what is in many ways a desperate life. Basic medical and economic opportunities are scarce. We come and they are reminded that they are not alone in this world and that people, who can help, care about them.

Someone else said our mission is to build relationships with God, with the mission team, and with the villagers. He was right. The concrete and week-long VBS is secondary to building those relationships. Many on this team have been here before and they are reunited in mission with friends here in Honduras. They truly care about each other. Those of us who are new to this village are forging relationships as well. Those relationships are what this mission is about.I suspect it will take some time for us to process what this trip is all about. For now, we simply pour concrete, do VBS, and get to know the villagers. There is great need here. We will figure out the rest later.

I was searching for a metaphor to describe what this place is like and think I found one. Life here is what I imagine life was like on the U.S. prairie in the late 1800s. We have entered the Spanish speaking version of the Little House on the Prairie series. Rustic and self-contained. Homes are all hand-made with sticks and mud. Food is animals or crops grown in or around the village. Clothing is often homemade (although I did see one person with a Buckeyes shirt on today). No electricity, no running water. Roads in the village are all dirt, have ruts and are covered with trash, manure, rocks and standing water. Bathrooms are outhouses, stoves are wood burning, mothers nurse their babies openly, and small children run around barely clothed. Travel is mostly by foot or horseback. Pigs and chickens and dogs run wild. Animals go in and out of houses. Kids are largely unsupervised and are put to work for the family's gain early in life. School is a one-room school house. We have entered prairie living in the modern age.

There are modern additions. Cars and trucks with good suspension systems travel the roads as well. A few well-to-do people have cell phones. A few well-to-do people have generators that power appliances and televisions.The ranch is the exception to prairie living. I am, after all, able to send you this email.

Please pray for Day Five (Wed). I will be meeting with Antonio the Christian leader of this village. He and I and a few others will be going to visit a woman who is dying of throat cancer. According to our village contact, there are no medical options available for her here and our ministry will be to pray for her and speak to her about her faith. Tomorrow, we will also continue to pour concrete and do VBS with the children. I must tell you about the impressive, dedicated and faith-filled teacher, Anna. Another time. Time for bed.

I am glad I am here and serving. I also look forward to returning home to you.

Day Three (Monday, July 7)

Today we got to work. After the cattle on the ranch gave us our 5:00 a.m. wake up call, we had breakfast and loaded into the vans. We went to a village called El Quebrachal which was about an hour's drive from the ranch. When we arrived, we pulled up to the school for the village. About 80 children dressed in white shirts met us in front of the gate to the school. It was a moment the village had been looking forward to for some time. They had a large banner the children painted with drawings from the village and words "Welcome to El Quebrachal."

Once there, the children presented us with paper doves they had made and sang us several songs with great enthusiasm. Even many of the parents and grandparents behind them sang the songs. We got to sing the song, "Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Allelujah, Glorias a Dios." Then they echoed us. Scriptures of being one in Christ Jesus came to mind. Most of these villagers are Christ-followers like you and me.

The weather today was merciful. Overcast, a bit of a haze and in the mid-80s. Those of us who worked pouring concrete floors were hot to be sure, but it could have been much worse. In fact, this evening the haze has lifted and the lush green hills surrounding the camp are even more breathtaking.

Three teams worked pouring concrete floors and one team worked at the school with the children. School is done at lunch time, so after lunch the school team joined in the flooring. The villagers don't do what we do when we need concrete. We call the concrete company and they bring a big truck and fill our sidewalks or porches. Here, they haul the sand and the water to the site and drop off 120 pound bags of cement. Then everything is mixed on the ground out in front of the work site in a process called the "crater dance." I'll have to show you the pictures. The concrete is then hauled by hand in five-gallon buckets into the room. All manual labor.

Pouring concrete floors is a labor-intensive project, but labor is in abundant supply. Not only are the missionaries there to work, but the villagers also join in the effort. Within minutes of our arrival the place was packed with villagers young and old. Many joined in the crater dance and the rest were there to visit. Building relationships with the locals is also part of the mission.

The best part of the day was the children. Children are children. Bubbles make them laugh like they make our children laugh. Seeing themselves on the camera, especially the video camera, makes them laugh like it makes our children laugh. They were so much fun today.

In this area, not only is farming big, but so is cattle ranching. The ranch on which we are staying is a working ranch. I think some will be milking cows in the morning. Some of the cattle are for milking and others, well, let's just say I was aware that the roast beef we had for dinner probably didn't travel far to get to our plates.

For devotional tonight, we all shared how God is in control, God has not abandoned any of us and how delighted God is with us and the villagers. We sang songs, then headed off for a quiet time of reading, visiting and settling down for the night.

I'm going to bed soon. Those cows are early risers and, as a result, so are we.

Buenas noches.

Day Two (Sunday, July 6)

At dinner tonight, I met an Emory University student working on a public health project in Honduras. She informed me I could use her internet service to send out messages. So it seems incredible to me that in this remote place, with pigs and chickens running wild, I hope to keep you up-to-date with emails this week. I am sitting on the front porch of the student's home being dive-bombed by beetles as I type.

Last night after dinner, we had a discussion with Clementina, a 78-year-old Honduran woman who taught first grade for many years. She noticed early in her career that the children were falling asleep during school She asked them why they could not stay awake and the children simply said, "We have not eaten." She found out they seldom got breakfast or lunch. They could not study on an empty stomach. She told us through tears that it broke her heart. For 30 years now, this woman has been cooking breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday for the children of her village. Even her translator cried in telling the story to us in English. God has placed saints throughout this world and so often we miss them. About 15 of us heard the testimony of such a saint of God last night.

Today was another day of travel followed by an evening of settling in and preparing for our work week. After a breakfast that had some of the juiciest pineapple I've ever eaten, we got on a school bus and headed for the ranch we will call home this week. There are 32 of us total, not counting the in-country leadership. Ten are from Steven's Creek Church, a Church of God church in Augusta, Georgia. This is their first mission trip. The other 22 are from St. Andrews and Grace Presbyterian churches. Grace church is our team leader, Nancy Sterling's, former church in Virginia. Actually, a few on our team are from other churches, but have aligned themselves with St. Andrews or Grace.

We traveled through some of the most beautiful country on this planet today. Combine Hawaii with the Blue Ridge mountains and Scotland's hills and you get the feel. Lush green hills with low hanging clouds create what one on our team called "thin places." He was referring to one writer's description of holy places on earth where the line between heaven and earth is thin. From time to time the vista would open up and the view was spectacular.

The ride today was not nearly as harrowing as the one yesterday. The last hour of travel was on all gravel roads in desperate need of grading in places. However, aside from some potholes that could swallow a small child and the seven hours on the bus, the trip was pleasant and spirits rose higher and higher as we approached the ranch.

Every team member brought two large suitcases. That is 64 suitcases total, 44 for our team. Each was filled with 50 pounds of school supplies and building supplies. Our personal items were packed in our carry-on. The St. Andrews Presbyterian Women (PW) made 120 school bags with pockets and a note written in Spanish for children in Honduras. I was so proud of our PW as we opened the 44 suitcases. Everyone on the team was overwhelmed with the labor of love of our women. So, Presbyterian Women, you totally rock!!

After dinner tonight, we had a devotion and prayer time, briefing from our Honduran team leader, and, much to my surprise, singing "happy birthday" to me and a woman named Jan from Grace Presbyterian. I was overwhelmed when Heather Potter, Nancy Sterling's daughter, together with two members from Grace, presented me with a beautiful white preaching stole. It was handmade in Israel from which they just returned. Just amazing.

Tomorrow, a group will begin the same Rainforest Vacation Bible School (VBS) our own children just finished. Those of you who volunteered for that know what the children will get, music and all. After breakfast, the rest of us get our assignments. What we know so far: we will be pouring 13 floors in homes and doing one room expansion. Off to bed now. Remember, God loves you and so do I.

Day One (Saturday, July 5)

The mission team has made it safely and without incident (my favorite ways to travel) to Honduras We had to fly in to a city on the other side of the country from where we will be serving because the airport closest to where we will serve has no easy and safe roads and the second choice airport, originally the first choice, was shut down to a large jet service because of an accident last month.

So yesterday (Saturday) was a day of travel. We landed, went through customs, met up with two other teams with whom we will be serving this week, and got into two buses packed like sardines. If you want to get to know people in a hurry, travel for five hours in the Honduras equivalent of our church vans piled high with people and luggage and no air conditioning. And then put them on a two-lane highway that runs through beautiful mountains in a series of non-stop curves. Add to that darkness of night and rain, and you have our trip from San Pedro Sula to Tegucigalpa. In case you were wondering, the lane lines on those curvy, wet roads were more suggestions than binding road regulations. When passing on the roads, it is understood by Honduran motorists that you just scoot over a bit to allow three cars where only two belong. I was fortunate to be in one of the seats facing the rear of the van. The rest of the team was bug-eyed at times as we learned Honduran motorist protocol. Weariness helped take the edge off the road travel, though few could actually sleep.

All safely arrived. We were stiff and dog-tired. We stayed at the Honduran Maya, a very nice hotel on the side of a hill. While you were in worship this Sunday morning, I sat next to the pool and had morning devotions. On the crest of the hill was a giant statue of Jesus (similar to the one in Brazil) overlooking the capital city. It was almost perfect imagery for us as Christians. The only problem was the Hollywood style "Coca-Cola" sign just below and to the right of Jesus. As I said in my newsletter article this month, this country is a land of contrasts.

We had a great breakfast. We were told to eat well because today is another day of travel and we will not be stopping but for snacks. Dinner on the ranch is our next meal tonight. We have another seven hours of traveling ahead.

Where we are going is remote and without cell phones and internet. Pray for safety and pray that our mission uplifts, honors and bears witness to our Lord Jesus Christ.I look forward to being with you again Sunday morning.

Dios le bendiga ("God bless you" if my Spanish is correct)