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.

 

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#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.

#detailsdeHonduras

Photo collection from my travels in Honduras and some interesting things I learned about the country in the process. This is an ongoing photojournalism project.

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|| Nature || Honduras has numerous plant varieties (630 out of 6,000 are orchids) and animal species (250 reptiles, 700 birds and 110 mammals — half of them bats. The tropical-to-temperate climate permeates its mountains, plains, jungles, coasts and islands — as well as its cloud forests, which can rise up to above 9,800 feet. http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/centralamerica/honduras/index.htm

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|| Security || Crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country. The Government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and police often lack vehicles or fuel to respond to calls for assistance. The police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime or may not respond at all. Members of the Honduran National Police have been arrested, tried, and convicted for criminal activities. Many more are under investigation. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras. The Honduran government is still in the early stages of substantial reforms to its criminal justice institutions. http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/alertswarnings/honduras-travel-warning.html Most houses are surrounded by security walls with locked gates. Businesses and restaurants contract armed guards to stand at the entrances. Many car windows are tinted to 100% for the safety of those inside.

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|| People || The latest population census has shown that, for the first time in Honduran history, more Hondurans now live in cities than in rural areas. This is a reflection of the working conditions outside urban areas are much less than ideal, which should be of concern to governments of a country that does not yet have a strong industrial sector. Honduras is a young country, with just over 50% of the population under 19 years old (only 3% of the population is 65 or over). The population is split approximately evenly between men and women. http://www.thisishonduras.com/People_and_Culture.htm 64.5% of population live at or below poverty line. (World Bank)

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|| Water || In 1998, Honduras was hit by Hurricane Mitch which left 75% of the country without safe drinking water, and the country has not yet recovered from the damage to the infrastructure it has caused. Currently, infrastructure and basic healthcare is lacking and repair works are still ongoing. Today, 1.2 million people in Honduras have no access to improved water sources. Coupled with the lack of infrastructure, the health standards in Honduras are dire. A severe lack of water has led to much hardship amongst the locals, especially in the rural areas. Diarrhea and hepatitis are some of the illnesses which are rampant, especially among the young which can be fatal in some cases. (Wikipedia)

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!

November update

It has been a while, dear old blog! I thought I would give a personal update on my life…

First of all, this is the first U.S. Fall that I have been able to experience in two years! I have literally been left breathless by the sight of some of these gorgeous trees with their colorful leaves and have thought several times that I was going to cause a wreck while driving and trying to look out the window. I wouldn’t trade anything for a late October / early November in the good ol’ USA. 🙂

I have been officially moved back to the states for almost 4 months now. I love the comforts of my U.S. lifestyle and I hate that I love it all at once. Sometimes I get so comfortable I feel miserable. I think only those who have traveled out of the country are really able to understand that kind of misery caused by too much comfortThings are so easy here. And becoming accustomed to the convenience and comfort again causes me to take for granted what I just spent a year learning to appreciate so deeply.

I had a tough couple of weeks adjusting back to the U.S. after I returned this past July. I can’t really pinpoint why but a comment that a friend recently made in reference to coming back after a trip abroad hit home with me. He mentioned that after a trip to Mexico when he came back to the states, it felt like everyone around him was just talking and worrying about the most stupid and trivial things. Whether that is just psychological or not, I understand the feeling! (not to say that Central Americans can’t be shallow too… whew.)

I am so thankful that God has proven Himself my Provider over and over. I am thankful for some incredible opportunities doing things that I love and earning enough money from that to pay off my school loans. <– my main goal! I am thankful for my sacrificial family, especially my grandparents for offering me a place to stay and allowing me to dedicate all of my income to paying off my debt so I can get back to the mission field ASAP. I am thankful for my understanding and faithful and patient boyfriend so many miles away. (and I’m SUPER thankful for Skype!) I am so at peace with the way things are and I trust God’s plan for the future. Distance, nor time, nor money could intimidate me. God’s got this under control.

Currently I am working part time at an elementary school teaching adult English classes to parents as part of the school’s Family Literacy Program. I love it! I am also doing on-call independent Spanish interpreting work and am waiting to begin another more consistent interpreting job. These past few months I have been able to spend more time with my family than I have in the last few years and I know that is so important especially since I am planning to move out of the country more permanently. I am doing photography and video projects on the side and am taking every opportunity to visit churches and events to speak about missions in Honduras and our organization’s current projects that are in need of funding.

I have a lot on my plate but I deeply believe in a divine plan and I just put my faith in the fact that the Lord has mapped this all out. Even about me and all the silly details about my life – He cares.

I recently mailed out my first missions newsletter with a more detailed update. I will occasionally do that. If you didn’t get on the mailing list and are interested please send me your mailing address! It includes more details that I don’t publish online.