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.