Thursday, June 06, 2013
As you walk down the concrete-cracked steps to The Hole many things pass through your mind, especially if it's your first time there. The houses are brimmed with rusted, tin roofs and the children are missing shoes. Stray dogs scurry from drain to drain hoping a good second-hand meal might make its way to them. Old men sit in groups, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking rum through missing teeth. Not exactly the place you'd go to find hope, or even a friendly handshake.
Every time I make my way to the bottom of those unending stairs I can almost feel the weight of this place burdened heavy on my back. Like, even if I came feeling light and free, I'd take on cargo just by walking this first stretch. Fortunately, like in every good drama or iconic story, there's a turn, a fork in the road that changes the seemingly dark, presumed ending.
At the first left-turn, the view changes. Kids that were previously sitting on the concrete bench in the alley, light up at their first glimpse of you. Running into your arms, giving you high fives, hugging you with a force beyond their own strength...it's magical. And I have to fight back tears almost every time, not understanding how they could love so much with receiving so little in their own worlds.
As you drag your posse of kids along with you, curious neighbors step out of their homes. The woman dressed scantily, lots of piercings and tattoos, lots of emotional scars. The man with half-opened eyes, perched at his doorstep, trying to sleep off the night before. The teenager with the severely baggy pants, wearing his mask of "street cred" covering up the scared little boy behind it. Each of them with their own hang-ups, still wishing they were a kid so they, too, could jump into someone's arms and feel loved again.
Just ahead you see the steps to the Cuerpo de Cristo church that was built next to a roaring river of trash, sewage and debris. Hardly visible is a man sitting there with a swarm of kids around him. As you move closer he raises his head and you see him clearly. Gentle eyes, warm smile, good heart. His name is Rafael.
A place like The Hole hardens people. Some may say it's a good way to protect yourself, to not let yourself feel. The horrible things that happen daily there would leave one in a coma if they allowed themselves to be vulnerable to it. But where so many others have gained hard lines on their faces from years of life leaving them, Rafael exudes grace. His face remains untainted by the remnants of despair all around him.
He's become a brother, a friend, a place of refuge for the kids who have no father figure to turn to. He hugs and twirls and bends down low if he has something important to say. He talks with worried mothers and lost teenagers and questioning toddlers...and to me, when I'm all fired up about another young girl in the community who's gotten pregnant.
I imagine that Rafael carries some of the same burdens the rest of the people in The Hole do but somehow he transforms it into a smile. Not a forced one, or a fake one, but a real, genuine smile that puts people at ease, kids and adults alike. His job is not an easy one, and some days he looks rugged with exhaustion, but he chooses joy. He chooses grace. He chooses kindness. He may not have chosen this path that he is on but there is one thing that is very clear to me...
...God chose him for it.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
My perspective was different than most everyone else. From the front of the room I saw neutral-hued hands lifted high, the glory of God filling the place. Four countries represented, one hundred and eighty chairs filled with people unified by international partnership. Voices of every tone, many tongues, one language -- worship.
I believe with all my heart that God knew exactly what He was doing when He placed sound in our voice boxes, music in our souls. He knew that for most, just words preached or hands clenched or eyes closed wouldn't be enough. That song would bring Heaven to Earth, washing unending love and grace over His people.
I could hardly make out my own words as tears streamed from the corners of my eyes, down my reddened cheeks. "How Great Thou Art" echoed into our ears, strengthened our cause, unified our hearts. In that moment, as some sang in English, others in Spanish and Creole, I could feel a glimpse of the Eternal Home so many of us long for.
Some wept and some smiled, while others swayed their burdens away. You could feel His peace, sweeping through a chilled conference room that has perhaps previously hosted weddings or business meetings. But this night, at this hour, it was God's Temple. A place where people gathered and were reminded of God's awesome power spanning into our troubled world. If only for a moment, all pain, sorrow, troubles -- vanished. If our souls could carry us, we may have lifted from the ground.
There is something indescribable about community, regardless of race, language or background. As this broken world continues to struggle, emerge by its lonesome, we found something that night that binds and bonds. God's ultimate redemption plan laid out for all to see through the thankful words of adoration to a Father who adores His children.
How Great Thou Art, those words have healing power.
Sunday, May 05, 2013
You can trace the lines on her face to the years of hardship she has endured. Day after day, harvesting and sorting beans to sell in order to provide what little she can for her family. In the early morning she sits below a sparcely-leaved tree, protecting herself from the already blazing sun. It's her spot, hardly comfortable but its familiarity somehow comforting.
On every trip I've taken to Phaeton, I have wanted to take her picture. But in Haiti, because of Voodoo, there are many adults who believe that by taking their photo you can steal their soul. Other Haitians won't allow it because of the vast amount of "good-intentioned people" who come to Haiti, take photos of their living conditions and make promises to bring help, but then never do. Something in me that day felt bold and I took a chance. I'm glad I did.
There is something about her presence that completely captivated me. Quiet and focused, yet her eyes soft and full of life. A couple of little ones would often interrupt her diligent work by sitting on her lap and she never once seemed bothered or discontent with their continuous disruptions.
By the end of our trip she had made her way to where our group would gather at Pastor Lucner's house. We had conjured up some good 'ol fashioned competition and were having races against each other. She laughed heartily when we asked her to join in the fun.
There are just times in this season of my life where I am taken back by something seemingly ordinary that appears extraordinary to something deep in my soul. And when I took the time to stop and gaze upon her aging face I saw grace, dignity and peace; all things I can only hope to aquire someday.
Tuesday, April 09, 2013
I was walking through The Hole with one of the short-term mission teams and as I passed by a little alleyway, I saw her. I am rarely taken back by anything in The Hole anymore but for some reason she made me stop. She hardly noticed me at first but I don't like to take pictures of people without their permission so I quietly greeted her in creole and asked if I could take her picture. I snapped a shot of her and her son and then asked in Spanish how old he was. No response. She didn't speak Spanish. I pointed to him and then held up a number one, then two, then three. She shook her head and held up the number one. One month old.
I am not sure why she struck me so. I've seen a Haitian woman before. I've seen a Haitian baby before. I've even seen a Haitian woman bathing a Haitian baby before. But she caught me unexpectedly.
One of the biggest commonalities our two cultures share is motherhood. And I can't even tell you how much my eyes have been opened since I've become a mother myself. And although I only stood at her doorstep for twenty seconds, I couldn't keep her out of my mind for hours after.
I wondered about her life and the things she did daily. A simple task like bathing a newborn can be a little more challenging in a washbasin with cold water. Her son clearly was not enjoying himself. I thought of my own babies during bath time in a comfortable baby bath shaped like a cradle with warm water and lavender-smelling suds. Neither of my kids ever made a peep during their baths. In fact, I would suffice to say it may have been their favorite time of day.
I wondered if she had a husband that cared for her like mine does. Someone who supports her dreams and encourages her in all aspects of her life. Do they lie in bed at night talking about the funny things their other kids say or the new noise the baby is making now? Do they go through the next days' agenda, planning out who is going to do what and where help is going to be needed? Do they even have a bed? Or an agenda?
Does she have a mother that adores her and who sacrificed everything so that she could go to school, play sports, indulge in creativity and art? Or a father who taught her how to shoot a perfect free-throw or who played catch in the front yard as the sun was setting on the day? Or sisters who fought with her, like all sisters do, but when push came to shove would drop everything to be there for her? Did she even have a mom? or a dad? or sisters? Were they there when the Earthquake hit? Did they make it through? Did they only come to Santiago because everything they had in Haiti was destroyed?
I know nothing about her and I have never walked a mile in her shoes -- or an inch, for that matter. But for all I know she is happy. Basking in the glow of being the new mom of a healthy baby boy. Going about her day, checking things off her mental list of things to do, taking one moment at a time. Something as simple as bathing her baby; him, exercising his voice box -- her calm and peaceful, reminded me of how many bath times I've rushed my kids through. Sometimes raising my voice at them because they wanted to play longer than I wanted them too. In no time at all, her little newborn will be walking and talking and in no time at all I will be sending mine off to college.
I think it's time I stop and smell the lavender suds.
Monday, March 18, 2013
If you hop in a van and take a short ride from our neighborhood you enter a small community just on the outskirts of town. Structured buildings and street vendors turn to cow pastures and wooden shacks. The road is chaotic with potholes and loose pieces of concrete -- a reminder of its out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere status.
When arriving at so many barrios on this island I almost always have to take a deep breath in and prepare myself for the heartache that festers in me long after I leave. Los Perez is not one of those places. Although the signs of poverty are everywhere, a sense of peace lingers still. I don't know if it is the humble people that live in the community, the rickety path you have to take to enter it or the laid back personalities of the children...but whatever it is, it is good.
I never feel anxious or worried about what will greet me. In fact, I know there is one face that I will always look forward to seeing. I've never met anyone that smiles with their whole self like he does. He is never short on hand shakes or hugs and he always responds to a simple "how ya doin'" with "todo uva" or our version of "just peachy."
He knows every child in his nutrition center by their first and last names and knows where each of them lives. He always starts their mealtime ritual by teaching the kids scripture. I have witnessed first-hand, 70-some children re-sighting bible verses that most adults wouldn't even attempt. He excitedly points out an 11-year old girl who has memorized 34 scriptures and counting.
Pastor Nico grew up in the church and always felt a real connection to God. He watched his own father preach from the pulpit every Sunday. He recalls a woman in his father's church who would always entice him to come to sunday school with the promise of a piece of candy. It was that candy that kept him coming back. It was that candy that brought him to a place where he heard God's word. It's because of that candy that he knew God was calling him to be a pastor. Nico started his ministry in Los Perez with that very same type of candy. He knew that all he would have to do was get the kids to the church and God would do the rest.
And the kids came.
And the kids came.
Monday, February 25, 2013
I remember the smell of freshly cut grass. I remember the feel of the stadium lights shining down on me. I remember the emotions filling me up as I put my arms around my teammates for the last time. Taking in each face, each moment on the field, each touch of a soccer ball I felt on my well-worn cleats. I don't remember every game I ever played. I don't remember how many goals I scored or how many girls I kept from scoring. I don't remember every field I played on or how many miles I traveled. What I do remember are the people that poured into me. The people that shaped me into the person I am today. The relationships and bonds that formed as the result of a game.
A group of men, living in all parts of the U.S., traveled this week to the Dominican to honor a friend, a mentor and a brother who lost his battle with cancer. I never met Tommy Carter Barnes but this week I saw his legacy lived out through the lives he poured into. These men worked from early morning to early evening demonstrating batting stances, proper throwing technique, and teachings on waiting for the right pitch. They hugged and high-fived and fist-bumped a group of Dominican boys eager to learn, not only to be great baseball players, but also to be Godly men of integrity, discipline and character. This group of North Americans have committed themselves, not just to the group of young boys in our baseball academy but have also committed to our four, full-time baseball coaches as well.
For families, and especially young men in this country, good, male role models are hard to come by. That doesn’t mean they don't exist, it’s just not the cultural norm. But on a baseball field lined with apartment complexes and broken down buildings, four men reminded me of how important investing in others really is.
Gamaliel, Rojas, Franklin and Jose Luis have become fathers, brothers and mentors to 210 young men desperately seeking someone to believe in them. I have seen their dedication as they walk past my house every morning around 8:30 and don't pass by again until sometime after 5:00. They always walk by with baseball players in tow who are asking questions, playing practical jokes on each other, laughing and practicing their swing in the middle of the street. I had the unique opportunity this week to watch these four in action. They don’t just show up at the field and do their “job” and hurry home. They sit with the kids, share their lives with the kids and above all, they are building lasting relationships with them that these kids might not have elsewhere.
Each of the four men have their own stories; some growing up in the church, others growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. But the common denominators between these men are the transformations that Christ did in each of them and a group of men from the United States who have committed to pouring into their lives so that they can pour into the lives of others using baseball as a catalyst.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
I have trouble with the hard questions, just like anybody else. I serve a God that many people refuse to believe in because of the evil that wreaks havoc in our world. I've seen hurt in people's eyes I can't erase. I've heard stories that keep me up at night. I know how people feel when they want to believe but just can't.
I am no different.
I don't understand why little boys are beaten or why fathers leave their families. I don't understand why men's obsession with sex leads to prostitution and sex slavery. I don't understand why children go hungry and thousands die every day. These are all things I don't understand.
But what I have come to understand over the last decade is that my God is working ever so meticulously to restore a world he created and a people he fiercely loves. It may not be on our time table or accomplished in our agenda but he works, without growing weary and never ceasing.
Every time I am on the drive to La Mosca I mentally prepare myself for what I will enter into. We pass through the bustling city with vegetable venders and cute clothing boutiques to a community where trash burns, naked children roam the streets and people pick through garbage for a meal.
The summer of 2012 a medical group went to La Mosca to do a clinic for the children in the nutrition center. We saw the usual cases of coughs and colds, skin infections and respiratory issues. But as the day was coming to a close a young boy walks in carrying his little sister. The boy looked healthy enough, although not wearing any shoes. I looked him over wondering if he just came in for a check up or if he had other business at the nutrition center.
As the blonde-headed baby he was holding turned around my heart instantly hurt and I did my best to not show it on my face. In his arms was a child that looked to be no more than a year old with sparse hair, sunken eyes and skin that was literally sloughing off. I walked over to them and holding back tears I touched the little girls' face. She didn't react. Not a smile, not a wince, nothing. Just staring blankly at me with dark eyes.
I walked them over to one of the doctors and they sat down. The horrified look on her face said more to me than if we had exchanged words. She listened to her heart, checked her nose and ears, looked at the swollen, red skin and the pieces that were flaking off. The doctor's expression changed from being horrified to being angry. Her face reddened as she said that the child was in the final stages of malnutrition. It wouldn't be long before her organs shut down.
I held a stern face as a tear began to fall from the corner of my eye. I translated to the brother in the gentlest way possible about his sister's condition. He sat stoic as if I had just told him my favorite color was green. Everything in me wanted to snatch the little girl from his tiny hands and run away with her. But I've been here, in this moment, enough times to know that me adopting every child who is mistreated is both impossible and unhelpful.
We sent for the mother, a local prostitute and mother of six, and when she arrived I burned with anger. I wanted nothing more than to give her a piece of my mind but quickly moved my thoughts to what would be best for her daughter. With the doctors' help I explained the fate of her daughter if there was no intervention. The mother sat there with an emotionless expression barely looking at the little one on her lap or any of us. She told us her daughter was almost two and a half and we all tried not to react to what seemed to be impossible.
She walked out the door carting the little girl on her hip as if she was a piece of luggage and not a fragile child. I felt the urge to rescue her, thinking to myself that when I returned to La Mosca again I would hear news of her passing.
A few months later we visited again and again the little girl came in with her siblings, no change in her condition, but at least still alive. This time there was another staff member with me who was just as enraged as I was and we started talking to Pastor Luis about options. Calling the police for child abuse? Calling social services to have her taken from the home? Asking the mom if we could adopt her? All of these options Pastor Luis said would cause a lot of problems in the community and especially for the church. People would view it as the Pastor ripping families apart and sticking his nose in business that wasn't his to be concerned with. We talked to the older siblings and told them to talk to their mom. And that was it. They were out the door.
Fast forward to this week. I saw "La Mosca" on the schedule again. My heart sank. I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable. It had been three months since I visited and I was sure the little girl was gone. Standing in the nutrition center I watched all of the kids pile in, scanning the room for a tiny little thing with sparse, blonde hair. Suddenly, I saw a familiar twelve year old boy, carrying a blond-headed baby. Her face turned toward me, just like the first day that I saw her, but this time bright eyes and chubby cheeks greeted me. She walked, yes walked, to her spot on the nutrition center floor and began to eat. I looked her over, every ounce of sloughing skin was gone. Except for a few remaining scars her skin almost glowed. I kneeled down next to her and touched her cheek and this time, she smiled. A proud smile, like she knew what she had done was something special. Like she knew she was giving this girl with her big, clunky camera...hope.
I know people wonder what they could possibly do to right what is so wrong in this world. I know people wonder how a God that is supposedly so good could sit back and watch his children suffer. But I know, as He has taken me on this intimate road of knowing Him, that His plans are so much grander than anything we could ever imagine. Even when we don't understand Him, He is still there working. And if a doctor hadn't decided to come on a missions trip and find a small way to right what is so wrong in this world, that little girl wouldn't be here with us today.
I believe whole-heartedly that God could have wiped away all of her infirmities on His own but He chose to use us, not for his benefit, but for ours.
I believe whole-heartedly that God could have wiped away all of her infirmities on His own but He chose to use us, not for his benefit, but for ours.