We arrived in Guatemala late Saturday night (Jan. 20) in Guatemala City. As soon as we stepped out of the airport, I was immediately satisfied with the air of warmth I felt having flown from Missouri. After many months of hearing about the two American missionaries we’d be working with, we finally got to meet Kevin and the main driver for the ministry, Manuel who is a Guatemalan, as well as meeting Kevin’s wife, Ginny. Saturday night was a night of introductions, and we started our work the following day. In this entry, I want to first briefly tell you a little about what we’ve been doing and then focus more on how the Spirit has been moving in me personally throughout the trip so far.
On the right you see me sitting with Sandra, a Guatemalan missionary. The team and I began making our preparations for our mission trip back in September, and I was tasked with writing up the adult Bible study on Mark 1:14-20, which is our selected message to teach to the adults, youth, and children we will teach throughout the week. Although I am obviously Hispanic, I don’t speak any Spanish, so in this photo I am working with Sandra who was my translator for the adult Bible study, which I firsttaught yesterday (Jan. 23). We talked through the study as I gave her my thoughts on how to approach the audience, which was mostly filled with women.
The rest of the team were equally busy with preparing their lessons and crafts for the children and teenagers. In the photo on the left, you can see some of our team preparing the craft for the children, and you can also see me staring intensely at the sermon for the adults I was rewriting (the outline I had prepared was garbage). The craft for the children was using circular construction paper and fins we had cut out as well as googly eyes so the children could make them into a fish and design them. On the back of each fish is the children’s memory/theme verse when they finish their craft, Mark 1:17, “Follow Me and I will make you become fishers of men.” The theme verse was the same for the teenagers as well as the adults.
We also had the opportunity to visit a ministry called Only A Child. Only A Child “maintains a shelter and a carpentry shop for youth in Guatemala City, but the shelter is far more than just a place to sleep. George Leger says it provides a surrogate family in which the kids are taught accountability and responsibility. They must contribute time and effort daily toward meeting the needs of the family. In return, it gives them something to belong to, a place where they are respected and cared for, a place where they can grow and develop an identity complete with confidence and self-esteem.”
George Leger is the man who runs the ministry. He’s originally from Boston, and after reading a tragic story in a magazine of a boy name Giovanni who was murdered, George felt a strong calling from the Lord to go to Guatemala and help the children on the streets. I won’t retell George’s whole story here for brevity’s sake, but I will give you background about Giovanni’s murder. (If you want to hear his whole story, you should plan a mission trip with Groundwork Guatemala!)
Guatemala was in a brutal, bloody civil war for many years during the Vietnam War era. The end of the war was the first time the Guatemalan people had freedom, and having freedom for the first time, they have no idea how to use their freedom. So, crime is high and gangs are ubiquitous throughout Guatemala. Also as a result, families suffer tremendously. Women will get pregnant around 11 years of age and typically have about three kids by the time they’re 16-years-old. When they get pregnant, it is common for the father to either a) leave and never see them again, or b) get drunk every day and practically all day, never working, passing out drunk, waking up, and starting the cycle all over again.
So, a lot of kids are put out on the street. To deal with this overpopulation of street kids, there was a Death Squad that would round up street kids and either imprison them or kill them. That’s what had happened to Giovanni; he was rounded up and murdered. When George read this story, and when he went to Guatemala several times to help children on the streets, his heart was convicted—he had to do something. So, by the Lord’s will, he moved to Guatemala and eventually began his ministry, Only A Child.
Now to move on to the deep, personal stuff.
Yesterday morning, I was sitting on the roof of the mission house looking out onto the horizon as I admired the majesty of Volcan Agua (Volcano Water) as smoke hovered around it. I was sitting on the roof writing in my journal for my daily devotion, and the day’s verse was Romans 15:1, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” As I reflected on the verse atop the mission house roof, staring at Volcan Agua, I couldn’t help but think of the Guatemalan people and why I’m here. I came here with the foolish assumption that because of their poverty and suffering, they were weak in their faith, which is why they need us (at least those who have faith).
Just the day before this reflection, as we visited people in their homes, I learnt otherwise. A man with his wife and six daughters talked of how a boy was murdered—shot in the head—just inches from where we were standing, yet he talked about how God was with him and protected him and his family in spite of that murder. We subsequently visited a single mother with two sons and two daughters who talked of God’s faithfulness to provide care for her family, and on top of that her desire to be a nurse, which her inspiration comes from her care of her neighbours for their medical needs.
As we visited these people, I couldn’t help but think, “Why am I here?” I came here with the intention to teach and encourage their faith, but instead they are teaching me about faith and their example is encouraging and inspiring. O, the things I take for granted as an American! My large home, certainty of water and electricity, safety from gangs, etc. I came here thinking their faith is weak and needs encouragement, but my faith is weak in comparison! So, yesterday I could do nothing but pray for strength and courage to preach to the adults I would be teaching that afternoon.
Fortunately, by God’s grace, the sermon I preached to this first group of adults went very well. In between my speaking and Sandra’s translating, there were numerous “Amens” from the audience, so I used that as my measurement of good preaching. I also received good feedback from Sandra and the rest of the team who had the chance to hear me preach. I’ll save the message I preached to them for another post once I return from the trip.
After I finished the sermon, I was able to play with the kids for a few minutes, which is not something I normally do. Paul once said he is the Pharisee of Pharisees, and similarly I say I am the introvert of introverts. I do not get my energy from people by any means, especially little kids. Normally, kids annoy me easily, but something told me to go over to the kids and spend time with them, so I did (perhaps it was the Holy Spirit). There’s no great way to explain my experience with them other than that they brought me immense joy. All they wanted to do was play, chasing me around with the paper fish they had just made after their lesson on Mark 1:17, and giving me big hugs out of the blue. They were filled with so much love for me, a stranger and a foreigner.
As we reflected on that day that night, Noks, in her admirable brutal honesty and Christian love, mentioned how these kids softened my heart of stone. And I was not offended, because she was right. I’ve always known I’ve had a heart of stone, so to hear that was no surprise to me. I’ve experienced a lot of hurt in my life from bullies almost all the way through high school, from friends and family betraying me, and from my ex-fiancé cheating on me by marrying another man and becoming pregnant with him while I was at basic training in the Army. So, sick and tired of people hurting me all the time, I decided not to be vulnerable to people anymore and built this wall of stone around my heart. As a result, I’ve become emotionally stunted, afraid to share my emotions with people and be vulnerable with them with the fear that they’ll just use my vulnerability to betray me.
But these little, wonderful, beautiful kids—by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit—tore that wall down. It’s certainly not a religious song, but I couldn’t help but think of Pink Floyd’s song, The Trial, from their album The Wall. The song is about Pink’s descent into insanity. The pressure of who he is begins to cave in on him, and he is held on trial for his past; this trial is being held internally. We don’t know what happens to Pink at the end of the song, but the last lyrics of the judge are key, “Since, my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear, I sentence you to be exposed before your peers. Tear down the wall!” And the crowd witnessing his internal judgement begins to chant, “Tear down the wall!” while the song plays noises of the wall being destroyed.
Now, I haven’t been approaching insanity in my emotional seclusion, or maybe I have. I’m fairly certain that if I’ve continued on this path of emotional isolation, I would be driven to insanity. In my pastoral formation, I’ve been acutely aware of my emotional seclusion, and I’ve been praying frequently that God would create in me a new heart—I’ve been praying Psalm 51 constantly. God has always known this deep fear of mine of being emotionally vulnerable to people when I open up to them, but for the first time this past fall, I confessed this fear to Him and have been praying for a soft heart. Consequently and unexpectedly on this trip, He has exposed my emotions before my peers—my team on the trip—and, of course, the little children. I thought it would be terrifying to share my emotions with people, but it was just the opposite—it was liberating.
If there’s any wisdom I can pass on to you who are reading this, it’s that relationships require vulnerability. Relationships are all about being vulnerable. Whether it’s with our family or our friends, a good relationship will last if you are vulnerable with one another when the relationship is founded on trust. Ultimately, as Christians, we are most vulnerable to God. God already knows our thoughts and the things that are laying on our hearts, but to actually confess them to God changes things. At least that is what I have found. And we can be vulnerable to God without fear of being hurt because we can trust Him entirely through Jesus Christ our Lord. If you open up to God about your fears, it is more than likely that He is going to work wonders in your life in unexpected ways and at an unexpected time.