The Art of Being Real on the Mission Field

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This isn’t a how-to article. I promise I’m not another expert. This just happens to be something I am trying to learn myself as I make it through this missionary/expat/immigrant journey in Honduras.

The love of travel and love of missions are not always the same thing. For me, they go hand-in-hand. It is a dream come true for me to be able to live as a missionary in Latin America. I’ve seen the wholistic transformation that happens when the Church steps up to care materially and spiritually for needy brothers and sisters. – A biblical mandate I believe –

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Line of patients waiting to enter one of our medical clinics in Copán, Honduras

As a newlywed and a newly-returned-to-Honduras foreigner, this stage of life comes with a lot of transition. I’ve been traveling to Honduras (+ other Latin American countries) for exactly half of my life now and I previously lived here for a year teaching, so it’s not like this whole experience is brand new. In fact, I’ve lost the sense of novelty in a lot of aspects. I have to be intentional about seeing this country and culture with fresh eyes in order to maintain a sense of wonder and appreciation for its differences.

And let me tell you, it has its differences.

It is different from my life in the U.S. probably in more ways than you expect. (even though I bet it also has more similarities than you would expect.) I want to take the chance here in my blog to lay out a few realities in the most gracious way possible. In no way would I want to:

  1. disrespect the wonderful people of Honduras, nor their treasured traditions & customs
  2. display any type of ethnocentric arrogance
  3. “poor mouth” to receive pity as if moving to Honduras was some form of holy suffering for the Lord
  4. or, on the contrary, ignore the obvious and pretend that I am living life as a typical North American newlywed

…because I’m not. Here, I am stretched and challenged in ways that I wouldn’t be back in2017-05-07 09.16.06-2 the states. I’ve given up a few comforts and conveniences. (necessities or luxuries depending on which perspective you have.) At my worst moments, I am grouchy and whiny and look for someone to share in my misery or at least feel sorry for me. Thankfully, my Honduran husband, mostly undeterred by the little things I find  uncomfortable or inconvenient, patiently brings me back to reality and reassures me that whatever I was frustrated over is probably not that important in the grand scheme of things. (he gives great pep talks)

For example, back home I am used to complete climate control inside my home: everything from the temperature to pest control to aromas to noises – not even an ant or foul odor would sneak by without my noticing and inflicting vengeance.

Here I HAVE NO CONTROL. It is pure chaos for the five senses. There is hardly a distinction between the outside and the inside therefore I am totally exposed to whatever elements – heat, wind, critters, dust and dirt, the smell of my my neighbor’s lunch on the stove, the scent of the garbage truck passing by, the sound of my neighbor sneezing, the incessant honking of a car down the street, the party music at a ridiculous level all night long – decide to invade the house at any given moment. (a lot of this due to living in such close proximity to so many other houses)

Because we live in the city we are also in close proximity to other helpful resources like the grocery store and banks. *thumbs up*

FACT

The fine line that we walk as expat Christian workers is how to communicate our reality to those back home without sounding like grumblers. The truth is that no matter how many times I post online or call my mother to complain about how much “I am drenched in sweat and it’s not even 9:00 a.m.!” it doesn’t cool me off any more and she really isn’t going to understand what it feels like in the day-to-day unless she is here living it with me.

A more serious and difficult subject is violence and corruption. These are deep-rooted social problems that can affect the expat’s life in real ways. We often don’t know how to talk to those back home about the implications that these factors have on our daily lives. Generally it means going about daily activities with a heightened sense of caution and occasionally fear.

This brings us to the reality that many missionaries deal with battles that aren’t manifested in physical form. Emotional and psychological trials are real and can be underplayed if we aren’t careful. Loneliness and sadness can be painful parts of the missionary’s journey – but how do you casually drop that hint in a newsletter? For those back home, pray for discernment on how to best care for your missionary friend in this area.

Daily, I ask the Lord to give me patience and grace to deal with my circumstances. I voluntarily moved to this country (which I have loved for some time now) and count it an honor to have the opportunity to serve here. How can I complain about trivial discomforts when I am living in what most of the world’s population would consider luxury? I don’t make it a habit to guilt myself into feeling the awareness of my privilege. It’s important to be aware but guilt is not what drives our service or our generosity. Being caught up in the gaze of our Savior and His assignment to a hurting world is what propels us.

I apologize if I’ve ever made unfair generalizations about the country of Honduras or taken advantage of someone’s unfamiliarity with the culture to exaggerate a situation in my favor. This is not the work of missionaries. We should try harder to communicate with respect and truth and pure motives. We should try to be more open and direct with those who offer help, not playing the role of “poor pitiful me” nor that of a superhero.

We are human and we have weaknesses. I thank God for a husband, an ideal partner, who is strong when I am weak, and for a Heavenly Father who is stronger than both of us.

“…how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” Matthew 7:11

I choose to count my blessings right before I turn to share them with someone else. I might not have all the earthly comforts I sometimes want so badly but I’m called and equipped for an assignment bigger than my desires.

Dear Younger Me: First Mission Trip

This is a letter to my almost 15-year-old self on that very first exhilarating mission trip to Honduras in February 2004. Note: mission trip (STM) refers to evangelical Christian humanitarian work typically in another country. My teenage self would probably roll her eyes at this letter, but… Little Idealist, these are lessons you will eventually learn.

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In a medical clinic during one of my first trips. El Jardín, Copán, HN.

Dear Younger Me,

Finally! You’ve been waiting and praying about the chance to go on a mission trip and it’s finally here. So much expectation and anticipation (and let’s face it… drama, because well, you’re 14.) It really will prove to be more life-changing than you can even understand in this phase of life. I know you have done so much preparation and feel like everything in life has been leading up to this big, glorious moment. It will actually prove to be just one of many gloriously small moments that will ultimately string together in a beautiful way that only God can orchestrate. Just wait.

Journal this experience. I know you do this anyway because you’ve always been the weirdo kid who documents EVERY. THING. Good for you. One day, you’ll be 27 and a more experienced, slightly wiser version of yourself and you’ll be going through your old things and come across your old mission trip journal and you will sit in your room and cry over the pages because of how faithful God has been. And you’ll laugh at how cute and naive you once were.

LEARN. That is your first responsibility as a team member on a mission trip: to learn. Learn the language. Learn the culture. If you are serious about opening your mind and heart up to this new part of the world and want to effectively serve in some capacity with these people then there is only one option that makes sense… LEARN TO COMMUNICATE WITH THEM. You can’t build a ministry in another country through hand gestures and handouts while thinking like an American (read: United States-ean). Relationships are key and the foundation is communication and understanding. Do the hard work: learn the language.

Being a learner means you realize that you actually don’t know best. Do you know who does know best? The natives, and usually, the missionaries. The ones who live there day-in and day-out. They know what is appropriate and what is not. They know which situations are dangerous and which are not. As a team member, an outsider (no matter your age), it is not your place to question their leadership or decisions. Like, if they tell you to stop laughing obnoxiously loud in a public restaurant because you are being disrespectful of the country’s social norms don’t roll your eyes because “ugh, what a party pooper.” (Other than already attracting probably more unwanted attention than necessary, you are reinforcing a negative stereotype of North Americans – being disrespectfully loud and dominating of public spaces). You are also part of a team of people who is representing a local ministry or organization. LIVE BY THEIR RULES. It might seem super stuffy or strict compared to your church back home but… you are not at home. Respect the hosts’ rules.

Once you get to truly know the people and the culture you’ll find that they aren’t that different from you. You’ll get past the point of identifying all the differences and will start to celebrate and relish in the similarities of your common humanity. You’ll see dignity in each person and will be less likely to make blanket statements about their culture or race. As time goes on and you start having more conversations with the natives you’ll realize you stop talking so much about the natives. You’ll probably start out quoting faulty statistics about the country to friends back home or making wild generalizations about the local people as a whole… (Yeah, you’re gonna think you’re an expert on the entire Honduran population within your first trip or two. You’re kind of annoying.) Then you will get to know their hearts and will feel silly for making all those ethnocentric assumptions. (Thankfully, your Honduran friends are gracious people. Most will forgive you.) 😉

You’ll undoubtedly come home from this first trip with excitement and tears and pictures, sharing stories of what you saw and felt. Who wouldn’t? You might encourage a couple other friends or family members to join you on following trips. Some will listen intently, some will get bored from your stories pretty quickly because they didn’t experience it with you. They’re not going to understand. They don’t get why you cry because you have such a nice house and so many don’t, and why suddenly you are borderline taking a vow of poverty. You just went though a real emotional journey over the last seven days and those who didn’t experience it can’t exactly relate.

Speaking of poverty… YOU ARE NOT A POVERTY TOURIST. You did not pay $1,200 to travel all the way to Central America so you could “experience poverty.” (Which you never actually did. Seeing poverty is not experiencing poverty.) The thousands of people who live in rural Honduras and are trying to survive off a dollar a day are not staged for your entertainment or learning exploit. This is their real life. I know you’re excited about all the pictures you get to show to everyone back home but count the cost of that photo you just snapped with your iPhone* in that family’s private space while gawking at their extreme lack. Be sensitive and consider each person’s dignity before doing anything.

*I went through 3 entire disposable cameras on my first trip 12 years ago

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Apparently all I did on my first trip was hold other people’s babies.

Now, let’s talk about your clothes for a second. This isn’t a pertinent issue necessarily but it reflects your attitude toward those you are serving. If you show up uncharacteristically dressed like a bum in cut-off capris and cut-off ratty t-shirts, the message you are conveying is: you aren’t worth my best… or at least, you aren’t worth my average. I’m telling you now, there is no need to raid the thrift store for the nastiest items before your trip because “you don’t want to ruin your good clothes.” This is a fine excuse if you are helping with hard labor or a messy job like painting but consider your activity… washing hair for lice? Giving worm medicine at the entrance of the pop-up clinic? Dress appropriately and show respect in that.

Ok, I know you most likely will not receive this well right now because you are high on enthusiasm and naive idealism but you will come to learn this with time and it needs to be said… you are not the hero. Like, it is not about you at all. Take your piece of humble pie and swallow it well because no one likes an arrogant team member. You are one of many team members and unity is key. First of all, you are doing the humbling job of serving other human beings, so esteem them higher than yourself. Secondly, you are working with other volunteers as a unit and any individualism on the job has to go. Thirdly, you nor your team are the first nor the only ones to do this kind of work. It is valuable and needed! But it is not exclusive to your group. You don’t have a monopoly on “free medical clinics in Honduras”and you certainly didn’t invent the idea. Celebrate the fact that you are joining so many others in the effort to share Christ’s love in a tangible way!

It all feels glamorous right now but it won’t always be. You will experience more fear and pain than you even imagined but you will find more love than you even imagined also.

Let this experience move you to inward and outward change. You will slowly start to see the world completely differently. You’ll probably have a slightly different perspective on success, faith, politics, and current events than others. Let it move you to make a difference at home as you dream about going abroad again. You didn’t have this awakening inside your soul just to apathetically return to abundance and self-indulgence. Your eyes will be open to hurting people all around you. DO SOMETHING. Don’t sit casually waiting on your annual mission trip to come around again. You have a bigger purpose and there is too much at stake for you to put on your missionary hat for only one week out of the year.

So, in conclusion, little 14-year-old going on 15, your years ahead have so much in store. Don’t worry about learning all these lessons at once. It will happen in its time. Just you wait,

27-year-old You

(who still anticipates more lessons in the future)

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Then in college I wrote this poem in an attempt to express the love affair I have with the country & people to which I don’t belong.

A Call to Love

Broken streets and broken souls call
I am compelled to answer, answer them all
Your small hands have taught me more than textbooks could contain
Your selfless joy is like my heart’s refrain
I’d choose you over a city of gold – all of you, every inch
I’d choose you first and I’d choose you again
I am a jealous lover, it’s my heart you win
You’re more than a memory, more than a friend
More than beauty and dirt and land
More than a good story to tell, more than I can stand
I am who I am because of you
It’s taken years to express, but for years it’s been true
My commitment to you runs deeper than a flutter in my chest
You have all of me, my worst and my best
I love you longer than seven days
Beyond borders and languages, my love stays
I love you stronger than a smile or a tear
Because I choose to love in the face of pain and fear
I’ve felt welcomed, accepted, rejected and betrayed
I was close to giving in and letting apprehension have its way
But I am led to you by a greater Hand
And my trivial emotions are irrelevant to His plan
I haven’t forgotten you, I never could
You are my first love, and my love is for good

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Oh yeah, 27-year-old me still likes holding other people’s babies. 🙂 Nueva Alianza, Copán, HN.

 

#detailsdeHonduras part 3

This is part of an ongoing photojournalism project. See part 1 and part 2.

(Kristen Bruce Photography and Multimedia)

A reflection on violence, poverty, fear, and Christian missions

Our response to violence and fear says a lot about us as individuals, as a society, and as people of faith. A lot has happened in the last few weeks. But a lot has been happening around the world and continues to happen under the radar that we don’t give a flip about.

It’s not our fault necessarily that we aren’t aware of every massacre that takes place across the world. To be honest, I know I couldn’t emotionally handle being aware of that much evil anyway. It is important to mourn when there is a catastrophe. It is important to put ourselves in solidarity with victims. It is quite curious to see which tragedies get headlines and which don’t. I certainly don’t want to add to the voices of people who think they can tell everyone which events we should be in mourning over. We all react differently. The taking of innocent life is horrific in any situation.

I try to be a relatively positive person so the purpose of this post isn’t to launch you into the depths of despair… but every now and then we need a little reality check.

Some recent world events and two great books I’ve been reading by Gary A. Haugen about the links between violence and poverty (The Locust Effect, Good News About Injustice) have prompted this reflection.

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I’m not an expert on economics or legal issues or theology. There are so many more experienced and more well-spoken people who could contribute to this discussion than me. …but well, I have a blog and I like to share my amateur opinion. 😉

I said yes to being a missionary as a child. I began that journey through short-term missions as a teenager. I admit that it started out as a largely glamorous and vaguely adventurous dream. When you travel in a secure group and stay in gated hotels and only spend a couple weeks a year in the country and don’t speak the language very well it is easy to carry out a very blissful existence more or less unaware of severe issues. Once you get a taste of the daily grit and grind, it gets way more complicated.

But I thank God that I felt Him nudge me toward missions and that I said yes in my naivety. I’m glad I committed before I knew what the heck I was getting myself into. It is a commitment that I plan to keep, even after I have since come to the realization that saying yes to sharing God’s love with hurting people means putting myself in the middle of suffering and probably coming face to face with violence. It is so messy, guys. We are all born with a natural inclination toward self-preservation. It isn’t wrong to be concerned with our own safety and that of our loved ones. But something in my heart whispers, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it; whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt. 16:25)

I saw a FB post that said, “I should have known that following a man with pierced hands and feet wouldn’t be safe.” Ditto.

I’m either in this thing 100% or not at all.

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The violence is out of hand. And not just because a group of religious radicals decided to cause horrific terror and send a twisted message to the rest of the world a couple weeks ago.

This tragic event has made me think a lot about violence, and victims of violence, and poverty, and the refugees make me think about how people have been coming for centuries to this country in search of safety and freedom. Because insecurity and oppression is a daily part of so many people’s lives in the majority world, y’all. Like, millions of people live in extreme poverty — REAL POVERTY — not oh poor things they can’t buy new shoes. I’m talking poverty of every kind of resource that you and I enjoy. No freedom to even have a fair chance in court when faced with false charges by the very people who oppressed you. Every odd stacked against you, no way out kind of poverty. The kind of vulnerability that causes psychological damage. In developing countries, money is power and those without it have no fighting chance.

“Violence significantly raises levels of depression, suicides, panic disorders, alcohol and substance abuse/dependence, and post-traumatic stress disorders -to a point that the poor endure a level of psychological damage comparable to living in a war zone. The locusts of violence do not simply destroy your financial prospects – they destroy your life.

This is perhaps the greatest catastrophe of all, for the greatest devastation of violence is invisible – it is the destruction of the person inside. For victims of slavery, forced prostitution, sexual assault, and other intensely violent forms of oppression, the psychological wounds of trauma are invisible; they receive almost no treatment in poor communities; and they do not simply heal with time.” – Gary A. Haugen

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I realize that we do not have a perfect justice system here in the U.S. And even though is it mostly fair, there are those who abuse their power. They should be held accountable. But I know that if I am done wrong I will find someone to advocate for me. I grew up with the worldview and expectations that if something is dealt unfairly to me I will get justice.

A lot of people around the globe simply do not have this luxury.

“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will only be an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.” – MLK Jr.

Helping individuals who are victims of oppression and violence is a difficult task in itself… but confronting systemic injustice?? That is daunting.

I have the Law and Order: SVU mentality of justice. Like, defend the victim, find the dang perpetrator, and bring him to justice. Get detectives Benson and Stabler on it. (Don’t get me wrong, I totally pray for a change of heart on behalf of the perpetrator. God has turned terrorists into evangelists so who am I to doubt?) And if nothing is being done, raise your voice! That is our right here in the U.S. We speak up when things aren’t just. We call authority into accountability. We believe that as members of this nation we have inherent rights and power.

This is not the case in the developing world.

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>> A friend from Guatemala told me bluntly that growing up in her small village there was a known policy that if a thief was ever caught that he would be publicly beaten by members of the community. Sometimes even kids would join in. This was their kind of “justice” and it was just a way of life. You had to take care of yourself because the government surely wasn’t going to defend the poor or powerless.

>> I remember being told by a friend in Honduras that he had just witnessed a murder. Infuriated (and quite naively) I asked, “Did you give a description of the shooter to the police??” It wasn’t until years later that I learned that many gangs and drug traffickers operate under complete impunity and/or in cooperation with “public safety” officials in Honduras. And many times the murderers or “hitmen” come back for any witnesses. Their message gets through loud and clear: Keep your mouth shut. Or else.

  • Which is why I was advised not to even publicly acknowledge when a dear, young former student of mine was found brutally murdered last year. I can’t describe the suffocating feeling of hopelessness that came over me knowing that justice would likely never come for his family. (Honduras doesn’t have enough forensic scientists in the country to even investigate half of the homicides that occur. Families of victims are left knowing that their loved ones’ murderers walk free.)

>> Just last week at my Spanish interpreting job I was chatting with a lady from Michoacán, Mexico. I asked if it was a nice place and if she ever wanted to go back. She casually said, “It used to be. The delinquency is too much now. Just recently I got news that some friends of mine were found decapitated. I won’t ever go back.”

I thank God that I have not personally experienced violence in my travels. But I hate to admit that I have let fear intimidate me to the point that I have questioned my calling.

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A couple years ago on a typical trip to Honduras I was traveling by bus with Natán and we had planned on catching a taxi once we arrived at the bus terminal. As we got closer and closer to the terminal and the bus was swerving faster and faster along the twisting mountainous roads my breathing starting getting faster and more shallow. This had been an especially difficult trip because just a week earlier while I was still in the states I got news that an acquaintance from the church in Honduras had been gunned down and killed while in his car coming home from work during rush hour one evening. I was distraught. I’d never had to deal with news like this before (unlike many of my friends in Honduras who have had to face similar difficult situations) Once we got to the terminal I could barely speak and starting freaking out when Natán tried to help me into the taxi. It was the closest I have come to having a panic attack. I refused to get in the taxi. I was so irrationally fearful. We had to call a friend to come pick us up.

I just pray, God, don’t let me give in to fear.

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Author and founder of IJM, Gary Haugen, explains that most violence is hard for outsiders to see for three important reasons. 1. The perpetrator works really hard to hide it. 2. Paradoxically, the victims might even hide it due to the intensely sensitive and traumatic nature. (This means that when you are on a short-term mission trip, it is very likely that many you come in contact with are victims of horrific oppression and violence and they wouldn’t even consider letting you know it. You think their greatest problem is that they only have 2 tortillas to feed their entire family but you don’t see the underlying issues.) 3. “Finally, for many poor people, the threat of violence has become such a part of the air they breathe that they rarely speak of it as a distinct phenomenon. They simply absorb it.” (I will note that it doesn’t specifically apply to the “poor” but anyone who has grown up in a society where violence is the norm)

That last point for me has probably been the most shocking realization that I’ve had during my time spent in Honduras. I have found myself on many occasions getting outraged by some act of violence I heard about while those around me seem to be unaffected. My questions of, “What can we do??” have been met with blank stares and shrugs of shoulders.

The simple fact that I even have a choice as to whether I use my voice to raise awareness about violence or stay silent shows one of the great disparities between my life and those of the majority world.

God’s desire is to defend the powerless and to bring reconciliation of all creation to Himself. If He weren’t the one with the master plan it would be a hopeless situation. I am thankful that He invites me into the larger redemption story and that neither my courage nor my intelligence determines the outcome. What he wants is obedience and willingness. In my weakness, He is strong.

photoHere I am, Lord, send me.

Village: Nueva Alianza visit in photos

*PREFACE* This was the blog entry that I was working on when my computer was stolen Sunday afternoon. The saved draft was open along with my photo editing software and the couple hundred pictures that I took during our visit to the village of Nueva Alianza. One of the purposes of this trip was to document living conditions and to have a picture of each family with their last names in order to correspond with the data we had on each child. This was part of Natan’s internship. The photos saved in this blog are the only ones we have from the trip.

A couple days before my trip down here I got an unexpected large donation from a close family member that surprised me to tears. I was overwhelmed and so thankful to God. I wasn’t worried about paying for our rental truck to get up to the mountains or the even bigger issue of how I would continue to pay on my school loans for these couple of months that I’m not in the states. I had a purpose, a mission, and God was my provider. Then because of a small issue out of our control with the rental truck we almost had to pay an outrageous fee on top of the rental price. I was upset and didn’t understand. We returned to the rental place to sort out the issue the next day and it was taken care of. They didn’t mention the issue and we weren’t charged. Just in time! God is good.

Then Sunday happened. My backpack along with my prescription glasses and laptop and a few other things was stolen out of Natan’s car. And I’m almost positive that it happened in the church parking lot… while I was hearing a sermon that would prepare me to deal with the very situation: Paul said in Philippians that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstance, whether in lack or abundance.

I certainly won’t pretend that me minus my laptop equals lack or poverty but I have to admit that it felt like a heavy blow. I use it for most of my jobs and especially for photo/video editing which helps fund my mission trips. Also, I feel really uneasy about all my personal info that was on it. Recent books I have been reading are about ministering in hard places and missionaries who remain in dangerous areas and are friends with those around them even after they have been robbed by the very same ones. When I got back to my room Sunday evening I remembered the book I was reading and decided I would read a little before bed. Then I realized it was in my backpack…

Its pages are most likely being used as toilet paper in someone’s outhouse right now.

Needless to say I am asking God to help me with my attitude. He is still good, He’s my provider and I promise my pity party will be short-lived. I really have been preparing myself for something like this. I am amazed that after 10+ years of traveling/living in Latin America (especially Honduras) that this is the first incident I’ve personally faced. It really is minor compared with other things that happen here. God, help Honduras.

And, now let me introduce Nueva Alianza…

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Last year our missions team spent a day in Nueva Alianza (Copán, Honduras) pouring a cement floor for the pastor’s family. This was for the part of the house that was used as a kitchen, which was where they previously had to walk on dirt/mud.

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Natán, his brother Walter, and I were able to go back for a short visit last week. Here is a view almost a year later of the completed floor with the kitchen walls back up. The pastor’s widowed daughter and grandson stand in the doorway.

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The purpose for this particular visit was for Natán to conduct some interviews and gather research for his social ministry internship he is completing this month for seminary. This village had been chosen by the Christian Social Ministry to receive sponsorship so based on that connection and the friendships already started, we planned our visit. We just happened to get a last minute unexpected donation of children’s literature and workbooks that we were able to deliver to the school.

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Let me give you a glimpse into a day in the life of the students there. The school is only first through sixth grade and they are all grouped into one “class.” They are split into two groups depending on the subject being taught. After sixth grade (if they make it that far) is when they are expected to work and support the family. Typical work includes farming and construction.

One of their classrooms is a cinderblock room and the other is made of wood and metal scraps.

IMG_8354A government sponsored program provides the kids with a snack of beans, rice and tortillas during the school day. When the ladies walked up with the pots and pans of food all the children starting singing in unison a song about “snack time.”

We made a couple home visits and saw several inoperable toilets and some stove ventilation pipes that needed to be fixed. But we also saw some new water filters in the homes and a vegetable garden that the Christian Social Ministry helped start. We are hoping to come alongside them to partner with this beautiful community as well. My heart was especially touched for the children. I hope that one day they will each realize that they are precious and loved and can achieve any dream they put their mind to.

In Light of their Suffering – Immigration

I wrote this a few years ago while I was living in Panamá and it was published on a couple different websites. In the wake of President Obama’s recent announcement about immigration reform in this country (FINALLY!), I felt I should share it again. I in no way am interested in provoking a heated political discussion or engaging in senseless cultural wars. I know that I serve a King not of this world and He has broken my heart for a forgotten and misunderstood people. IMG_5465 This was written after my home state, Alabama, passed one of the strictest immigration laws a couple years ago which has since been partly repealed/amended.

The following is in reference specifically to undocumented immigration from Latin America.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a grassroots advocate for immigrant rights. This great love and passion for the immigrant began halfway through my high school career after I had taken several mission trips to Honduras and was given a book about a boy who travels by train illegally to the U.S. to reunite with his mother. (Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, http://www.enriquesjourney.com/) I remember the first time I spoke up in defense of the immigrant was during history class in my small, Christian, southern high school. I knew the odds were against me but I felt a courage welling up inside, like this was something for which I was born. Somehow, I felt that the traditional way I had been taught to see undocumented immigration was wrong. I started questioning my old mindset that made me believe that these people were “less human,” or “undeserving.”

Now, almost seven years later, I am more dedicated to this cause and more sure than ever that Jesus Christ has compelled me to love and serve the undocumented immigrant. I have continued in my travels to Latin America and have seen unfathomable poverty. I have built relationships with immigrant families here in the U.S. and learned the richness of diversity and the beauty of God’s grace. I see the kingdom of heaven being built and it makes me wonder, “How is it that followers of Christ are more quick to identify with earthly territories than with the construction of an eternal kingdom?”

What truly baffles me is the hostility toward immigrants that can be found in circles of believers. I am amazed at how often I hear dislike being expressed toward “illegals” (a word I, personally, never use to label a human being) by the very Christians with whom I have served in third world countries. It is as if we muster up enough unconditional love and grace for the Latinos who live in their own country but when we return we treat the undocumented Latino down the road from us like our enemy. Is a person’s very presence in the U.S. without legal papers the unpardonable sin? Is it our job as believers to play the “us versus them” game?

I think Jesus accounted for the fact that we would sometimes misinterpret our neighbors for our enemies. He said, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) but just in case our neighbors really were our literal enemies or we had a temporary case of paranoia and thought that those around us were against us, he covered that by saying, “love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44) We can’t really get around that one… it pretty much covers all the bases. My hope is that our vision would not be obscured by the ugly blindfold of entitlement but that our eyes would truly be open to see others the way Christ sees. I love how Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

I have several friends and acquaintances that reside in this country without proper documentation. Their stories are all different. They are mothers, fathers, students, brothers, sisters. They preach on Sunday mornings and lead worship; they clean our hotel rooms and construct our office buildings; they pick our produce and serve our meals; they win science fairs and are awarded community service ribbons. They give, they take, they hurt, they fear, they need and they love.

The most recent legislation passed in my home state, Alabama, breaks my heart. It is already creating an atmosphere of chaos, mistrust and fear. I hope that somehow the supporters of this law may have personal encounters with those whom it affects and that their hearts may be changed. Even after years of researching this topic and following the legislative proposals, no amount of data or statistics can persuade me toward either side quite like knowing the immigrant can. You can never go wrong by cultivating human relationships.

This issue has really become much more personal for me in the few years since writing this article to the point that even engaging in a conversation about it is exhausting and can often turn hurtful – although everything I wrote then rings even more true now. If I were to sit down in front of my laptop with one of my undocumented immigrant friends and start scrolling down my Facebook news feed I would be embarrassed and saddened for them to see what many of my Christ-following friends and family members have to publicly say about “people like them.” (of course, undocumented immigrants aren’t the only subculture of people who get publicly bashed on my social media feeds by Christians)

It might be easy to assume that undocumented immigrants are here for a “handout” or a “free ride” to get an “easy way out.” Let me tell you – nothing about their lives here in the U.S. is easy. I would invite you spend just 24 hours with me as I travel to medical and school appointments every day interpreting for them – just to meet one or two personally and hear their stories of hardships and sacrifices they’ve made for their children. Or to be with me when I get a phone call from my friend who lives in another state and updates me on her process to get protection under the Violence Against Women Act – because for so long she was scared to report abuse because of her legal status.

*And if you are one of those people who has a hard time truly grasping the reality of how difficult actually obtaining a visa (permission of entry) is to the U.S. for a person in a third world country, I invite you to take a look at this info graphic that explains the process:

arizona39simmigrationlawgeniuspage2straightdope_4e60963eaf8de It isn’t new to quote scripture from the Old Testament – what God commanded Israel to do or not do regarding foreigners, and take it as a command for us today. But the other day the President referred to one of these Old Testament scriptures in front of the whole nation:

“You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” -Exodus 22:21 NLT

*For the record, I agree with the President (and the majority of America) that border protection is a priority and that we must know who is entering our country. (because not everyone is hardworking and respectful like the many immigrants I know) I have had multiple personal conversations with individuals wanting to come over illegally from Central America and never once have I encouraged any one to do so. What I want is to see a broken system get fixed. That way we all benefit.

Frijoles and Piñatas and sweet, cinnamon Horchata – That’s what I’m made of

So, I know all little girls are supposed to be made of sugar and spice and everything nice… and maybe I was at one time… but I’m really more of a frijoles and piñatas and sweet, cinnamon horchata kinda girl. You get me? 24706_1382595317586_5855294_n

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I never got a Quinceañera party so when I turned 21 I had a Veintiunañera. 😉

I feel at home in Hispanic culture. It’s obvious. I am all about the gaudy decor, cheesy romance and dramatic emotion of the Spanish-speaking cultures of the world. It’s like I was born to be a part of it. (I am also all about that bass… but that’s another post for another time…) The Americana individualist and lover of witty, sarcastic humor in me can occasionally find itself at odds with the Latino lifestyle. But for the most part I am all in.

Afternoon naps in the hammock.

Fresh green mangoes with salt and pepper.

Getting dressed up in my platform shoes for a night out. Or an afternoon at the park. You know.

So I started thinking back to when it all began. It had to start somewhere. I have no Hispanic ancestors. I didn’t even grow up with Hispanic friends. (I had a pretty boring, monocultural childhood)

I had a professor who asked me one time, “You’re part Hispanic, right?” And there have been countless others who say things like, “Oh, let me guess where you’re from! Venezuela?”

So the earliest I can remember taking interest in Latino culture as a child was due to the following two influences:

1. Josefina Montoya, American Girl doll. I read these fictional chapter books and became intrigued by the lives of early Mexican Americans. 610YSYTYY9L 2. Feature Films for Families, Friendship’s Field movie from 1995 (I still cry when I watch it) 600full-friendship's-field-poster This movie is about a daughter of a farmer in the U.S. during the 1960’s befriending a Mexican boy who came to work the fields with his family. 

Then all of this inspired me to write (I was really into creative writing as a kid. This is what happens when you don’t have cable TV as a child) my own work of fiction called “Josie” when I was in fourth grade. I didn’t understand anything about immigration at that time but I wrote an innocent little tale of a girl who came from Mexico with her family to work. (And of course it was a love story because what 4th grader doesn’t know how to perfectly write a plot about a couple romantically meeting and overcoming their cultural differences? …what??)

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the actual, original manuscript, y’all, complete with illustrations on each page and some younger sibling’s pen scribbles

It ends with the two main characters marrying and living in a pretty little house they built in Mexico – on a hill by a waterfall. The usual.

Then I started to see the world beyond our neighbors over the border when I went on my first trip to Honduras at the age of 14. The rest is history!

As humorous and maybe strange as it was to always have had such a fascination with a distinct culture… I truly have felt the hand of God over my life as I look back on each of these defining moments. Things that stuck with me and shaped me to be who I am today – I would have never known where they would lead me!