Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My Most Amazing Day of This Mission Trip

When I woke up the other day, I thought it was going to be a typical day of dramas, skits, puppets, dancing, testimonials and sermons. Well, the day initially started out that way, but after lunch, my world was turned around.

I had met a young girl who was sitting, somewhat uncomfortably on a plastic green chair by the entrance of a building that we were going to be speaking to pastors and leaders that afternoon. She was greeting everyone that entered the Center. I'll be sharing more about her in just a bit.

The Center had cinder blocks cemented together like old legos to form thick walls. The holes where windows would have been were bare allowing the wind to flow through, yet covered with metal bars for protection. It had a soil floor and no door with the exception of more long oxidized metal bars to control the flow in and out of the Center. Even though the Center appeared a bit rustic, it was called the Center because it was a centralized location for gatherings of all people in the community. This Center was started by Hermana Ruth and the help of local and international folks. Ruth is a woman that has an imminent heart and passion for children and the elderly in far-out communities that lie in the hills and mountains. Ruth had invited us to the Center to connect with the local community. So here we were. Ready for action.

The girl sitting by the entrance on the chair met my gaze with beautiful large eyes and a sad, yet forced smile. "Hola, buenos días" she said to me as I walked past her. I turned and said hello in Spanish and kept walking into the building, as if she was unimportant to me at that moment. I was too busy rationalizing the long bus drive to this remote area and my intense hunger for lunch.

The next day, our team was given the instruction that we would be trekking up a steep mountain. Throughout that journey, we would be stopping by and visiting some of the locals that lived on the mountain. Our mission was to deliver food and pray for them.

The dirt floors underneath my feet had gotten my shoes and pants all dusty and dirty. I had forgotten to pack tennis shoes for such a trek so I was wearing my brown leather work shoes. As we started to walk down this dusty path full of rocks and debris, we finally approached the bottom of the mountain where we were going to start the ascent. The view of the valley and trees was amazing. It was never-ending greenery every where you looked.

I could hear the musical performance of birds chirping in the air. It was surreal to see such untouched beauty of the land. Although the land was arid due to the dry season, you could still see the menagerie of green life reaching out of the ground searching to be seen by our eyes.

The cool cloudy weather was refreshing as we followed the path up the mountain. Our ankles and calves were tightening with fatigue as the path started to incline drastically. We headed up the side of the mountain through thick brush towards the first home.

When we arrived at the footsteps of the first home, what we saw was not what you would typically consider a home. It was a crooked box made out of lanky sticks, wood planks and thick adobe with black plastic tarps as a rooftop. This home was no larger than ten feet in diameter. A small wooden bed with no mattress and a blue mesh laid inside. This mesh reminded me of the African mosquito meshes you would typically see in a National Geographic magazine photo. No electricity or running water. The home was distilled down to its basics.

A frail man, sitting on a red plastic chair, wearing a stars and stripes bandana and a plaid shirt rolled up to his elbows, greeted us in unintelligible Spanish. His daughter quickly appeared from the side of the entrance and also greeted us with a big smile and open arms. We were there to bring him food but our attention was focused at his health that was deteriorating. Our team gathered around him and prayed for him. This was such a powerful visual I had to take pictures to document such sadness in the man's face.

When the prayers from different members of our team were done, they all mobilized themselves to another room that had a tin roof metal sheet that separated the sleeping area from the obscure kitchen that still had burning embers glowing in the corner. In this other room, the man's daughter sat there with large open sores on her foot.

I stayed with the man and asked him in a quiet reverend voice if I could take his picture so that we could take his image back with us and continue to pray for him. He agreed with a big smile, showing only three frail teeth he had left in his mouth. As I got the camera ready to take a close-up photo of his face, he promptly grabbed his bandana off his head and hid it under his leg, fixed his tousled hair with his fingers that had cracked groves and dirty fingernails. He gave me a deep stare.

I was too slow to capture that perfect moment. As I lifted the camera to my eye to focus on his face, the wonderful smile that I had discovered seconds ago was gone. I tried to make him smile but all I got was the same face he had when we first saw him twenty minutes earlier. I snapped a couple shots, trying to catch a real glimpse of his persona. I thanked him and he replied back by saying, "Dios le bendiga". That was Don Pastor Sanchez Perez. I chuckled a bit because his actual first name was pastor.

The prayers from our team for his daughter in the other room had already started. I quickly found a tiny hole through the tin roof metal sheet just large enough for my lens to fit through. Santa Perez, the daughter of Don Pastor, was positioned away from me but my camera caught a beautiful view of our team of students with their arms extended praying over her and her foot. I snapped a couple of photos of Santa but I could not fathom staring at her foot. It was a disturbing sight. Large gaping ulcers and sores invaded her foot. As the students finished praying for her, I could tell by looking at their faces that the tension in the room as uneasy. The staleness in the air and the unpleasant view of her foot encouraged others to quickly vacate the room after hugs and goodbyes were said.

As we got ready to leave, Tyler, one of our team members and I went back to say goodbye to Don Pastor. Tyler told him that we would be praying for him. Don Pastor looked up, smiled at Tyler and said, "I will see you in heaven." That was such a touching moment that I will never forget. I'm sure Tyler will never forget that face and those words either.

We continued our trek up the steep mountain to our next destination. The heat was now suffocating. Passing through barbed wire fences, fallen trees and walking by dogs that were just bones and skin growling in fear as we walked by…we could now see the next shack up ahead. This house was smaller than the first one. To the left side of it, coffee beans laid out to dry by the hot sun. To the right of it, a pig stye. The foul stench overwhelmed me. The snorting noise of the pigs was an imminent reminder of the unclean surroundings. As I got closer to the pig to photograph it, I could see the filth of his own feces hanging from the hairs around its snout as it made a horrible squealing noise.

I walked towards the house and we were immediately stopped by Hermana Ruth and our translator. She quickly asked the men to turn around and walk the opposite direction because they were not sure how the family would initially react to all these men. The family we were visiting had a young child who had been sexually abused. This young girl has been living in dreadful fear this past year, not being able to play like a normal child.

The women of our team went to pray for her and we remained on the other side of the house. We waited for about ten minutes while they prayed for her and her family. Finally, the men were called over for some additional prayer with the girl and her family. Our team loved on her and comforted her. I peered over the shoulders of one of our team members and I could see the girl smiling as she looked up at one of them. She seemed to be comforted by the embrace of our team members. This connection was amazing to see. Their love and embrace on her was a sight that I had to photograph.

We continued to visit a couple more houses in the surrounding mountain. My heart sank once again after I started to compare the comfort of my own life with the filth and desolate shacks that these families lived in. I was grappling with my own challenges of my comfort and security we have over here in the United States. I unconsciously and unintentionally reacted in disillusionment. I had so much, yet they had so little…and still praised God.

How quick do we complain when our food is not good, when our showers are too cold and our clothes dirty with sweat and dust. These families are so poor, that they did not have much to eat. Their homes, crudely built, shanty and with very little refuge. Enough to protect from the elements but nothing more. It felt like these people had been living in the thick jungle with no running water, electricity or any kind of technology…as if those commodities never existed…or were of no importance to them.

We continued to trek up the mountain and visited several other families and brought them food and prayer. When we reached the next home on the side of the mountain, we saw an elderly lady that we had encountered several hours earlier that day. She walked out to greet us, but immediately interrupted our welcome by telling us that she had just gotten notice that day that her son, who was in jail, might have been killed. She talked and we listened to her desperate voice. She was asking us for prayer for her son. We prayed as a group for her son and for her as well.

We reached the last home where an elderly lady and her grand daughter quietly rested on a wooden bench inside their house. Her frail sunken eyes turned toward us as the team entered her house to pray for her. She tried to stand up and give her seat to my wife Amy, but we quickly assured her that she needed to remain seated. We were here to pray for her, not for her to share her hospitality with us.

While the team prayed with her, I made my way to the back of the house. It was dark and moist. Some time passed before my eyes got accustomed to the darkness. The wet dirt floor seeped into my jeans as I kneeled down to take a picture. The moment I took the picture, I heard a rustling sound to my left. As I glanced over to see what it was, my eyes focused on the dimly lit corner where a large rat seemed to be staring at me with a vicious glance. The rat quickly made its way across the ground in a desperate run towards the side wall of the house. Its tail disappeared through a hole between the sticks that comprised the wall. I turned around and snapped a couple more pictures of the woman and the team praying over her from a different vantage point.

Time was running out so we were told by our translators that we needed to start heading back. We gathered all of our back packs and started the descent down the mountain. We stopped at a large ravine and took a group picture. We had just experienced things that I will never forget and this group picture was a way for us to recompose and smile after an afternoon of tiring work. We laughed and nervously positioned ourselves for this picture. Standing on the edge of this ravine, looking down at the camera, our translator said, "Digan frijoles" which means, "Say beans". I'm guessing that was Nicaraguan's cultural way of smiling to a camera, just as we gringos say 'cheese' as we pose for a picture.

Past the ravine, we came across one more house. I thought we were done visiting homes, but we were told we needed to visit this home as well. I was surprised to see the same young girl that I had met hours earlier at the entrance of the Center. This time, she was not sitting on a chair, she was crawling on the ground on her knees. She was a little shy as her mother explained to us that she had contracted polio when she was young and had lost most of the mobility in her legs. Thick dark calluses had formed on her knees where she used them to crawl around. Her gangling legs danced to her side as she dragged them along when she shifted her body towards us. I was overwhelmed.

Food was delivered to them and subsequently we prayed for them. We took one last group photo with her and her family.

Hugs and goodbyes were shared as we left their dilapidated home. Exhaustion had now hit most of our team members. We still had a long tread back down the mountain. Thorns, barbs and prickles were scratching at our legs and arms. Sharp rocks were pounding underneath our shoes every step of the way. Our bodies were drained from any kind of energy--the sight of the base of the mountain was a delightful reprieve to all of us.

Great things are happening here in Nicaragua. God is undertaking amazing things through our team, but especially through the work of Hermana Ruth, the ministry of Metanoia and the awe-inspiring and life-changing work of Missionaries Eric and Shanna Ferguson. Most of all, God is performing astonishing things through the communities and people of Nicaragua.

This remarkable feat became alive in my life when at the end of the day, as I gazed down the dirt path, I saw the same girl crawling her body across terrain. She was dressed in her Sunday best; a white skirt and a tight tan top. Her thick black hair pulled and pinned back away from her face. As her large bright eyes caught mine, she must have noticed I was taking a picture of her. I could tell that embarrasment overwhelmed her as she covered her face with her hand.

I slowly walked towards her, knelt down on my knees as my eyes caught her gaze. She lowered her hand to showcase her eyes again but continued to cover her mouth. I could tell she was smiling behind her hand as the dimples on her cheeks escaped the protection of her hand. I reached over and gently grasped her hand away from her mouth. As I held her hand in mine, I spoke in my best Spanish, words that I hoped would be transforming to her. "Te ves muy bonita hoy. Para donde vas?" I said. She replied, "Para la Iglesia." She was on her way to church.

My eyes teared up, making it difficult for me to see through the moisture that had accumulated on my eyes. This girl was the symbol of hope. It was a nourishing experience to find out that she dragged herself down that mountain every day to go to the Center to greet guests or to attend one of the many weekly services in a nearby church.

I was astounded by the strength and determination of this girl. Here I was complaining about how difficult it was to go up and down this mountain and here in front of me, was a girl who traversed this mountain multiple times a week on her knees.

When I embarked on this journey to Nicaragua, I had expressed to our team that we were there to bless others, but after this experience, I was the one being blessed and transformed. Sometimes things don't always go as planned, however, I recognized that I should be having the kind of determination that this girl had. Nothing, not even her lack of mobility with her legs was going to hamper her passion and determination at achieving the ultimate goal: to be a servant leader at the Center and to praise and worship her God at church no matter what the circumstances of life brings her.

I will never forget her. I will never forget this day. I will never forget this trip.

- Steve Thurston

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