Friday, 6 March 2015

Guatemala Trip

Unfortunately, I have to apologize again for the lack of updates here.  We'll get better at it!

A bit over two weeks ago, I returned from my fourth Engineering Ministries International project - this time to Guatemala.

I wish I could share my entire experience, but I'll have to stick to some of the key parts of the trip.  I'm always surprised at how unique each trip is - how many lessons can be learned every time, how well the team bonds and comes together and how inspiring the people we get to work with are.  I have yet to experience a trip that feels routine, uninspiring or like "just another trip".

This eMi team was described by some as an "all-star" team.  Most of the members had been on at least one (or ten) eMi trip(s) before, and the few who hadn't didn't seem out of place.  Everyone was amazing at their job, culturally sensitive and willing to learn, work hard and finish what we went there to do.

So...what did we go to do?

Impact Ministries is an incredible organization that operates in and around Tactic, Guatemala.  Their mission is to "Train Guatemalans for leadership by teaching Biblical principles in such a way that they become integrated in their lives and effect spiritual change in their society, and to impact North American Christians for world missions.”  They accomplish this through running Christian schools (Pre-Kindergarten to High School), a medical clinic and a church in the area, as well as facilitating short-term missions trips from North American (we know some who have served with them from Bearspaw Christian School here in Calgary).  One of their next ventures, and the reason we came down, is an orphanage that will rescue abandoned babies from the hospital and raise them until they are either adopted or (more likely) become adults.

We arrived in Guatemala City late on a Friday night, where we were taken to a local seminary to stay the night.  We were woken up early (4 am) to the sound of birthday firecrackers - unknowingly a foreshadowing of some of the fun we'd have later in the week.  After a good breakfast and a pleasant walk around the beautiful campus, we packed up and began our journey to Tactic.

As excited as we were, the trip to Tactic began in an anti-climactic fashion as it took us 3 hours to get out of the city (normally a 20 minute drive).  We eventually found out that some sort of special motorcycle-caravan event was underway, which backed up traffic along the main road out of the city.  Thankfully, that gave us lots of time
to get to know one of the ministry founders and
leaders - Les.

Les and his wife Rita began ministry in Guatemala 15 years ago.  At that point, the country was (and still is to some degree) reeling from some of the extreme hardships that came with the 36-year long civil war, which ended in 1996.  With traffic barely moving at all, Les shared some of the atrocities and pain that the Guatemalans experienced and the difficulties in facilitating healing and reconciliation.  He explained what he had seen as the key to true healing - a relationship with Jesus.

This is the difference between missions and humanitarianism.  While Impact are doing a great job meeting many of the physical needs in their community - including food, education, medical services, etc. - they are focused on the exceedingly important spiritual needs.  By the time traffic began to move, only to stop a little ways up the road again, Les had reminded us that revenge can never truly reconcile a country like Guatemala - only the love and forgiveness Jesus offers us can.

After escaping the city, we drove for a couple of hours through the mountainous areas north of Guatemala City -  with warming sunlight, winding roads and beautiful views.  However, almost suddenly, we were surrounded by a thick fog as we climbed in elevation.

Soon, we made our first stop at one of Impact's schools (currently under construction) in a small village.  I was struck immediately by the poverty - small shack houses, kids with dirty clothes and adults with more teeth missing than teeth remaining.

What became more and more apparent, however, was how respected and welcomed Les (and his ministry) was.  Everyone who drove by waved and smiled.  Les gave us a tour of the school and began to share more about their Colegio Christiano Vida program - how all of their students learned about Jesus, how for many the meal they got at school may be the only meal they got all day, and how every one of their 1600+ students were sponsored.

We continued to a second school, where we met a young Vice Principal who was a former Vida student (like many of their principals, teachers and ministry workers).  He shared his heart for the ministry, for the kids in the schools and for
the region where he grew up.

Finally, after more than 8 hours, we arrived at our site in Tactic.  After being given a quick tour of the beautiful guesthouse, we were introduced to our hosts for the week - Ugo (not sure how to spell his name), his wife Claudia and their daughter Julie.  We unloaded luggage, picked our bunks and got ready for dinner.  After a quick team meeting, we headed to get ready for bed and experienced a feeling that most of us weren't expecting to feel in Central America - cold!  The temperature that first night got down to 9 degrees Celsius (with no heating system)!  While it usually in the mid-20s through the days, each night involved layering up to keep warm (thus why most of us have the same shirts on in pictures throughout the week).

We woke up the next day to a delicious pancake breakfast and headed off to church, which was held in one of the schools while they build a new church building on our site.  The room (small gymnasium-sized) was packed with people dancing and worshipping.  We were given wireless headphone packs so that Les could translate the sermon and some of the worship for us.  During one of the songs, he walked around and told us some of the heartbreaking stories of some of the members of the congregation.  It was so powerful to hear these stories while simultaneously seeing the people involved worshipping and praising God for His blessings.

"This family beside me right now, " Les began, "lost their first child in a car accident.  Recently, they also lost their newborn baby." We watched as the father sang at the top of his lungs and lifted his hands in worship.

"This woman spent years trapped in prostitution," Les continued, walking slowly amoung the people.

He came and stopped beside the man dancing in front of me.

"We met this man when he was 15 years old and began attending one of our schools.  At that time, he was heavily into witchcraft.  Now, he is going to bible school to become a pastor, and will be preaching here this morning."

Many of the people living in the Tactic region do not personally know Jesus.  While the official religion is Catholicism, many locals practice it in combination with Mayan religions.  One of the Catholic temples has an altar where they offer sacrifices to the Mayan corn god every year.  Impact has been making a huge difference in this regard - teaching kids in schools about Jesus and starting the Rio de Vida church (almost 500 members between 3 congregations).

After church we mingled with some of the congregation, went for lunch and returned to the site.  At this point, we finally got to hear Rita (Les' wife and the chair of their orphanage committee) share some of her vision for the orphanage.  Les and Rita gave us a tour of the beautiful site and some of the ideas they had for building the orphanage on their steep, hilly site.  They talked as much as they could (Rita had just had surgery on her throat, so her voice became fatigued quickly).  The team began to have discussions amoung themselves about possibilities, logistics and plan of action for the rest of the week.

Monday morning provided one of my favourite eMi trip experiences so far..

We were back at the school that church was held in.  The elementary-aged kids were having a time of worship and prayer.  Our team stood in the back row and observed these kids singing louder than anyone I've ever heard.  Some were practically yelling the words, most were lifting their hands and all seemed to have a genuine, mature sense of what it means to worship God - far beyond their years.

To be fair, many of the kids had experienced challenges far beyond their years.  During the worship, the Principal was praying with the kids - helping them pray for their parents, even when they suffer the effects of alcoholism, abuse and abandonment, as well as other challenges that most North American kids don't have to deal with.
Towards the end, the Principal explained to the kids what our eMi team was doing there.  He asked each of the Grade 2 kids to find a member of our team.  Within a few seconds, I had two boys hugging me while the Principal led them all in a prayer for us.  I stood with my arms around them, praying for them as well...

The Bible talks about storing up our treasure in heaven, rather than in material possessions on earth.  I'm coming to realize that it never specifies that we have to wait until we get there to experience some of the benefits of that treasure.  God rewards our faithfulness in moments like these -  in relationships, in connections with others, in experiencing His presence.  In allowing us to see Jesus in both those we serve and those who serve us.

Les' words about discipleship and the peoples' need for the love and forgiveness of Jesus became more and more real to us.  After the service with the kids, we listened intently as the Principal shared with us.  He told us a few heartbreaking but inspiring stories of the difference the gospel has made in
the live of the students.  One stuck me more than the others...

One day, the Principal saw that one of the elementary students' eyes were red.  He asked him if he was sick.  He wasn't - he had been crying for most of the morning.  The Principal pulled him aside to ask what was wrong.

"Please pray for my father," the student asked.  He went on to tell the Principal that earlier that morning, his father had kicked him out of the house and threatened to beat him with a stick if he returned - simply because he couldn't afford to feed him.

It struck me that the boy's reaction was not immediately anger, resentment or to feel sorry for himself.  His first request to his Principal was for prayer for his father.  It was clear that Jesus was making a real difference in the lives of these kids, through Impact - and ideally, through us as well.

We prayed for the Principal and returned to our site to begin working, motivated by the difference we were already seeing this ministry making.  The surveyors began surveying, the architects began planning and the engineers began their first observations and calculations.  My first task was to measure all of the buildings on site, with the help of one of the civil engineers.  One of my jobs on the trip was to produce the existing site plan from the surveyors' data, including all of the buildings.

Monday evening brought an extra surprise.  Since it was my birthday, our hosts brought out a cake after dinner.  This was a pleasant surprise, but not nearly as surprising as what came next.  Ugo walked out, grinning from ear to ear, with a large paper bag.  He opened it to reveal firecrackers - one for each of us to light - as this was a Guatemalan birthday tradition.  He rushed us outside, insisting we delay doing the dinner dishes until after, and laughed at those who were a bit nervous to light theirs (there was a very short fuse which had to be lit, and the firecracker thrown before it started going off).  It was a fun (and certainly unique) experience - one we would get to repeat on Friday for Greg's birthday.

Work continued the next day with our first meeting with Impact's orphanage committee (Rita, Sandra and a few locals involved with Impact).  After introductions, we began asking questions about their ideas and vision for the orphanage.  For the first little bit, the committee was a bit hesitant to share their thoughts, but began to open up more and more - especially after we shared lunch together.  Much of Jesus' ministry involved sharing meals with those he was ministering to.  The relational advantage of this was obvious during this meeting.  The committee shared more and more of their vision with us into the afternoon, giving us a lot to consider in our designs.

Work continued on the Wednesday but was adjourned for the afternoon, as we had a soccer game planned with some high school students at another one of Impact's schools.  We spent an hour or so beforehand walking around the town square/market area in Tactic.  When we got to the school, Ugo (luckily for us) spread us between a few teams of kids - most of whom were much better than us.  We had some fun playing and tried to communicate in broken Spanish.  After, we gave out chips and pop that we had brought, and finally toured the school and the attached medical clinic.

Thursday brought a second meeting with the orphanage committee and many changes to the plans the architects had been working on.  We shared lunch again, and the orphanage committee had some great input into what was needed to transform their vision into a reality.  Our intern, Katey, took notes intently.  The meeting gave us more than enough work to do over the next 30-ish hours.

On Friday, we spent the day finishing our work for the week.  For most trips, the presentation is Friday afternoon or evening.  We were lucky to have ours scheduled for Saturday morning, so Friday was more relaxed than usual.  A few of us went on one more nice walk around the property and prayed over it, as well as enjoying a cappuccino at the cafe across the highway.

As we were finishing up some details after dinner, Ugo and Claudia brought us all into our little "office" area.  They told us they had prayed for each one of us personally throughout our week there.  Then, they presented each one of us with a handmade gift - a decorated wooden plaque with my name and a bible verse (a different one that they personally picked for me) on it, along with a pen and bracelet with my name handwoven.  They told us "it wasn't much", but we were all deeply touched by it.  They prayed for us as a group - what a perfect end to our time there!

On Saturday morning we packed up, said our goodbyes to our hosts, and made our way to Les and Rita's house for the final presentation.

As always, it was exciting to see the reactions of those we were presenting to as they saw their vision come closer to a reality.  They had seen much of the design already in the earlier meetings as it was taking shape, but they were excited to see their suggestions and overall vision showing up in the plans.

The best reaction came as we closed the presentation with some architectural renderings.  Most of the committee members had dreamt of this orphanage for years, some even since they were very young.  That puts a lot of pressure on our team in coming up with the designs, but God always leads us in the right direction and it's amazing to see their excitement as the drive and vision they have becomes more concrete.  Some became a bit watery-eyed as they realized that the people in the renderings were Vida students, teachers and Les and Rita - this plan was made for them specifically!

To close, Les said a few words.  He tried to hold back tears as he thanked us for coming and expressed his excitement to begin fundraising and working.  They left no doubt in our minds that this orphanage will come to fruition (likely fairly soon).

As we left Tactic for Antigua, to have a day to debrief, we felt encouraged and hopeful.  For me personally, it wasn't just hopeful for this specific project or ministry.  I was reminded that God is truly making a difference through eMi and the ministries we serve.  I'm so excited to be part of this work going forward, even more than I was before the trip.

If you've made it this far into the blog, good job!  Your focus and determination should be commended.  Feel free to let us know what you think, or if you have any questions.  Looking forward to the next one.  God bless!