I had started another post some days back and had gotten a few pages into it. I thought it sensible to progress my journey, as a new Christian, into the events of my education at the New Hope School of Ministries, and perhaps I shall return to that someday. What became quite evident though was that the Holy Spirit knew all too well what needed to be said. After a lot of mental doubt and the mysterious disappearance of the word file from my hard drive this past morning, I knew that nagging thought in the back of my mind needed to become an expression of my heart instead. And so here I go.
Operation Shoebox – Guatemala – December 2009
Pastor Dwight, Kathryn, I, and a new friend, Dollea Herron, stepped through the doors of the La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, and into a bright sun and the kind presence and care of Dany Mejia, director of operations for this mission trip. Dany was a past student at the Living Water Teaching school in Xela, as well as a once-small child who benefited profoundly from just such a mission trip as we were about to embark upon. December was here and a crisp wind marked the coming of cold evenings and warm afternoons for the next week.
Along with some forty other volunteer missionaries, we stayed the night at a local motel before taking the four-hour bus ride into the central highlands of Guatemala. Quetzaltenango, or Xela, is a bustling and dirty city, and our destination spread out across a plateau; surrounded entirely by a mountain ridge replete with active volcanoes that belched smoke on a routine basis. The bus ride was a venture back into a time of the Mayan culture, and quite surreal as we found ourselves surrounded both by a world of simple ways and means and a modern society embracing all that is material. Donkeys and motorcycles were parked side-by-side at the traveler’s restaurant where we ate breakfast that morning, and a wonderful breakfast it was. The tortillas were handmade before our eyes by a young woman stationed at a wood-fired comal. The food was ‘typica’: a few salsas, tortillas, mashed beans, scrambled eggs, and fresh-squeezed juices, as well as a cafe dark and intense.
I had my first real opportunity to look deeply into the eyes of the people; something I felt had been the real purpose of my trip to Guatemala. Anyone could have come to do the work I was about to do, but only I could experience and learn what God wanted me to find out for myself. Submission had become my mission this past year, since the birth of my spirit, and God’s plan was for me to get in amongst these peoples; to discern their beings, sense their feelings and needs, and to become one with their spirits. Having had a relatively emotionless, or certainly an emotionally-controlled life, it was time to take the next step in putting an end to all of that.
And here is the crux of this whole post…..
It is most important that you go into the world that God has created and take a hard look at it for yourself. You need to see both the real character and humanity of God’s children and the damage that sin has done to the world. The understanding of God’s call to you for service unto the world, and the depth of passion and transformation of your life to His purpose, can never be accomplished on your knees in church. It can only happen out there; beyond the four walls of your safety.
Loaded back on the bus, we arrived at the Living Water Teaching compound around noon, and spent the remains of Saturday and Sunday in preparation for our mission trips that coming week. Kathryn and I were assigned a small cabin, along with two other couples; a thirty-something couple from Ohio who had recently started their own non-denominational church, and a retired farmer and his wife from Iowa who take their vacation time each year and give it over to mission trips around the world. I felt quite humble and interested in what motivated such missionaries. We had good conversations each evening, while the fireplace – the only source of heat – kept us toasty warm when huddled nearby. A hot tea, a few cookies, and we listened to each one’s experiences and dedications to their faiths.
Monday came; our first day for our much anticipated mission trips into the highlands surrounding Xela. This morning trip is to a school for the mentally-handicapped; Fundabiem School.
This is a facility the works with and educates Ameridian and Mayan children. Upon our arrival, we were immediately moved by the sheer numbers of children and parents. They seemed to cover the full range of cultural alliances. Some were dressed in what we as Americans would quickly recognize; Disney-logo tee-shirts, NFL athletic jerseys, and the ubiquitous blue jeans and running shoes. Many others though came from a culture that I could only reference to from a National Geographic magazine; mother’s dressed in brightly-colored, hand-woven and embroidered blouses and long plaid skirts, aprons, knitted caps & gloves, and the frequent patterned-blankets wrapped gently around an infant and then slung across their chests and tied. The adult faces and hands, their skin, was leathered and creased by the strong sun and gusting plateau winds; those creases deepening with each year of their destined lives. The children were the contra-position; soft, radiant skin that showed promise of life and vitality of purpose and hope.
Our evangelization would take place in the courtyard of the school; a small yard further cramped by the rows of chairs for the children and their parents. Pastor Wilson, of the LWT local church, was a passionate performer, who had orchestrated our student group into a production of clownish activities to captivate the children, songs of good faith, and a finale showing the trials of Mary & Joseph and the birth of Christ in the manger. I felt the immediate need to plunge myself into the middle of the people during these performances, and so I did; slowly walking about, speaking the little bit of Spanish that I knew, and snapping photographs where I could without being too forward.
Upon coming to one corner of the courtyard, I leaned against a support column holding up part of the overhanging roof and slid down to blend into the more diminutive dimensions of those about me. Mayans are small people and my pale complexion and six-foot height must have appeared as a beacon to many of them. And so it did to one mother, for she soon caught my attention with her repeated “come over here” hand gestures. She spoke no English, yet I soon realized with her Spanish that she wanted me to sit with her children; she was giving up her seat for me, or perhaps God was simply putting me through my paces. In either case, I felt like the luckiest man on earth. I spent the next twenty minutes conversing, gesturing, laughing and working the camera as their natural child-like bravado emerged and poured all over us in love.
Lesson one….. Children, no matter their circumstances in life, have God’s natural purity so deeply embedded; sin has done so little to taint what God has created. It is so important to capture their hearts for Christ at the earliest moment possible. There is an insightful story about D.L. Moody, and I’ll let Wesley K. Stafford, President of Compassion International, tell it:
“Late one evening D. L. Moody, the premier American evangelist of the 1800’s, arrived at home from speaking at a meeting. Emma, his wife, was already asleep. As her exhausted husband climbed into bed, she rolled over and murmured, “So how did it go tonight?” “Pretty well,” he replied. “Two and a half converts.” His wife laid silently for a moment pondering this response, then finally smiled. “That’s sweet,” she replied. “How old was the child?” “No, no, no,” Moody answered. “It was two children and one adult!” The children have their whole lives in front of them. The adult’s life is already half gone.””
Near the end of that morning’s evangelical mission, Marion Zirkle, co-founder of Living Water Teaching with her deceased husband Jim,, called all of the children to Christ and led a prayer that they spoke together in Spanish. Then the children knew it was gift time, and they began to line up like tight sardines in a can; boy’s in one line and girls in another line.
“Shoeboxes” refer to the shape of the boxes Living Water Teaching uses to pack the small gifts given to each child at Christmas time. Throughout the country of United States there are many churches and organizations that stage drives to collect simple gifts for children; school supplies, toys, crayons & coloring books, toiletries, brushes & combs, socks, tee-shirts. These items are collected and then packed into the shoeboxes according to a child’s gender and age; either by that group or by us, the missionaries, at the LWT facility in Xela. In December, as part of our mission activities, each child receives one shoebox that matches his or her age.
Our afternoon mission was to a small town on the side of a mountain where we went to what appeared to be a concrete, half-built building; lacking doors here and there as well as some of its flooring, windows, walls and of course, most of its electrical and plumbing. Don’t bother to look for any A/C or heating. Don’t bother to look for stucco and paint either. I imagine many people build their own home, and it probably takes years. First the walls, then a roof. If they’re lucky they can move onto in-house plumbing and a few electrical lights and outlets. Many homes still have dirt floors. I had some image in my mind of a war-ravaged town, where the buildings had been bombed out. People seemed to be living amongst the rubble. I could particularly discern the energy and hesitancy of the children. They so wanted to rush to what might be happening and new, yet I found them so shy and solitary also. In fact, I could sense the whole town was in some kind of spiritual peril. This was a battleground.
After the conclusion of handling out the shoeboxes, we left this afternoon mission and headed back to the LWT compound; having made quite a few children happy about receiving gifts. Now it is up to the local Pastors to come and carry the burden and pleasures of walking these children through baptism, sanctification, and an eternal life in God’s hands.
Each day was so special. Each mission was so unique. One afternoon it was an orphanage. One morning it was an elementary school. The final day, Thursday, we held an outreach at the Living Water Teaching Church in Xela. The turnout was truly glorious and uplifting. We had over one thousand children come through the church doors to receive Christ into their lives between the morning and afternoon outreaches.
I do want to touch on one afternoon trip that I will never forget. Wednesday, we loaded the bus and headed out of town and across a broad, barren plain. That plain became more desolate as time went by, and I could see an immense, active volcano begin to loom before us; growing larger and larger before our eyes. The surrounding land seemed like it belonged to Satan himself. The earth was ragged and gray, and huge boulders were tossed about like marbles on an unseen game board; one game I knew I cared not to play. The bus advanced into a ravine and then began a long journey up a narrow, winding dirt road – no guard rail and barely a lane in width. The driver worked the gears, shifting up and down as hard turns forced the bus driver to maneuver with extreme caution. There were several times that I felt we literally hung on the edge of the road. Dust obscured our vision and a hot sun burned down in battle with a cold gusting wind. One could probably spit mud if they had a mind to do so. It surely was a land not meant for man or bus. We could only wonder where we were going, and would it be as inhospitable as this road?
In time, the bus lifted itself onto a plateau of land where harvested and drying maize fields and bare cinder block homes clung to the dry earth. We saw near our bus some form of building – perhaps a school or meeting house – and coming in from all directions were Mayan families; mostly mothers, each with one, two or three small children in tow and seemingly always an infant wrapped in a blanket and slung across the mother’s bosom so the infant could suckle and sleep. We began the process of setting up tables in which to organize the shoeboxes, as well as establish some crude stage area with a sound system. One of the pictures I’ve posted shows our highly technical hook-up to the local electrical service, which consisted of two stiff, copper wires hooked onto the overhead power lines. That was a real new one for me.
The clash between the natural world of volcano and barren land with the cultures of the ancient Mayan and the modern Americans – with their bus, sound system and cameras – all made for a most surreal setting, and this mission had been marked by a knowledge that the local Mayan priest had no welcome for us into this village of Tierra Colorada Alta. This was his land and we were intruders.
It was all about the children, and they were everywhere. I had many opportunities to relate to them in one manner or another, a few words in Spanish – for those who spoke Spanish and not their highland Mayan dialect – or perhaps a few hand gestures mimicking animals. The camera was always a most valuable communicator, with the children quite fascinated by my digital camera’s view screen, showing them the picture I had just taken of them. Laughter came easily during those moments, and I became the butt of one such parry when giggles between a few boys brought my inquisitive reaction. The oldest of them took my hand, turned it over, and they laughed again. “Blanca, blanca!” he shouted out holding my hand up for all to see. I guess, very white people like myself are a bit of a rarity for them.
Marion Zirkle dove once again into her teachings and prayers; bringing the children the special story of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for them, and of God’s absolute and unconditional love for them. The Holy Spirit is very close to this woman, and she has given her life over to God’s will. My knowledge of just how God does His work increased every time I saw Marion swing into action. For her the mission was simple; there was always one more child to save and one more life for Christ.
The weather was getting colder late in the afternoon. Heavy clouds below us were rolling through the valley and it was time to break things down, load the bus and head back to Xela. A moment was taken by Pastor Dwight, Kathryn, Dollea and I to get a picture taken of the four of us in front of the volcano. Just amazing.
That following and final day of mission in Xela brought tears to my eyes in knowing that I would soon be leaving. There would be a lot to do today; so many children would be coming, and one last chance for each of us to look and listen for what God wanted us to learn. It was all very inspiring; mothers and children lining up around the block just to get inside. As a greeter, I was particularly touched by the many mothers who blessed me for being there.
Pastor Wilson soon got things going. The teens came in with their best efforts to send God’s message of love into the hearts of the children; who watched with joy and awe. When it came time to distribute the shoeboxes, we each did our part. We received such a blessing in seeing the anticipation, the joy, the open mouths of wonderment, the smiling faces, and the shy glances from the children.
Lesson two…. The submissive and dedicated work by so many giving missionaries lifts us all up to God’s love. These were people I will never forget, for as a missionary I quickly learned that in God’s fellowship one receives a renewed and overflowing faith; an added measure from God that will be part of all our lives forever. In the end we ministered to over six-thousand eight-hundred and twenty-five children and adults. We handed out over four-thousand seven-hundred and thirty-eight shoeboxes, and brought salvation and hope to one-thousand nine-hundred and forty-five children.
And so I am going to leave this story. I could go on and on with all of the experiences we had in Xela and the surrounding towns, but I really just want you to have the opportunity to take a small look into the purpose of mission work. It is arduous, repetitive, depriving, uncomfortable at times, and it denies all of the luxuries one accustoms themselves to in the American life of want over need. It is also uplifting, matchless, bestowing, restoring, and it illuminates all of the grace that God shines down for all of our needs so that we may clear our vision of what is truly important in this world:
Matthew 22: 34-39
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
My questions from this scripture are simple and direct. Do you show God the love that He shows you? And do you believe that measure of love you show for your fellow man is sufficient to God’s will and call upon you?
I know not the author of the following quote, but this sums up God’s pleasure in seeing us do the work that he calls us to in helping His children:
“You never stand so tall as when you stoop to help a child.”
I’ve linked this post to a video of the 2009 trip I produced for New Hope Ministries. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did in producing it.
God Bless – Reese