This past fall, I helped lead a young adult group at my church as we read Radical by David Platt. As its subtitle suggests, the book challenges its readers to take back their faith from the “American Dream” and pursue radical obedience to the Gospel and Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. What would it look like if we stepped out of our comfort zone, our cushiony American lives, and into a context unlike our own in order to make the grace and glory of God known to the world?
The last chapter of the book is The Radical Experiment: “a year-long commitment to five specific challenges: to pray for the entire world, to read through the entire Word, to commit our lives to multiplying community, to sacrifice our money for a specific purpose, and to give our time in another context.” As I read through the explanation of this experiment, it all seemed relatively easy to accomplish – except for the last one. Surely I can pray, read my Bible, be a part of my church, and donate money. But spending time in another context? Where would I find the time? And the money? How do I find the opportunity to do that?
A few weeks later, I received an email from my boss. Our company was thinking of sponsoring a four-day mission trip to Guatemala, and the company would be covering the expenses. The trip would begin on a Saturday, so I would only miss two days of work. All my questions were answered.
Radical really helped shape my perspective on the trip as I prepared to go to Guatemala. As others wondered why we couldn’t just send money instead of going, I thought about all the people there who appreciate the financial support but desire our time and love. It reminded me of a single mom who is grateful for the child support but would rather have her child’s father be a part of his son’s or daughter’s life. As others researched the statistics on crime and violence in Guatemala, I was reminded that death is the worst thing that could happen. If I happened to die in Guatemala, at least I will then be rewarded with eternity in heaven. I had no fear or hesitations about going.
The purpose of our trip was to see what is being accomplished by Gifts of Love International, a charitable organization our company has supported for many years with donations and silent auction fundraisers. We would have the opportunity to visit a few churches as well as an orphanage that Gifts of Love built. Other than that, we didn’t know what else to expect.
Last Saturday, I departed for Guatemala with two other people from my office. Don, the founder of Gifts of Love International, would meet us in Guatemala while his wife, Barb, would join us in Houston for the last leg of our trip. As we touched down in Guatemala City, I was struck by the apparent poverty. I’m used to airports being surrounded by metropolitan areas, not far from sports arenas and famous landmarks. I looked at the sheet metal housing and rusted out hangars and thought, “Is this as good as it gets?” For the most part, yes.
The heat and humidity was overwhelming. So were the sights and sounds. “Sensory overload,” my coworker said, as we made our way through the airport and the crowds of people asking us en español if we needed help with our bags – in exchange for tips, of course. Outside, there were even more people – especially children – selling stickers and other small items to the tourists who are likely to give a dollar (which is about 6% of the average daily wage in Guatemala).
Daniel, the director of the orphanage, drove us from the airport to the hotel where we would be staying. On the way to the hotel, he told us about the kids at the orphanage and their tragic circumstances. Some had been abandoned by their parents. The government had taken others away from their parents because of neglect or abuse. Some had even been sold into prostitution by their own parents or relatives, and sadly that wasn’t uncommon. You know what’s even worse? The oldest child at the orphanage is only 12 years old.
The good news is that the orphanage is doing wonderful things to care for the children. When we and others support Gifts of Love International, the orphanage has the funds to provide food, housing, schooling, medical care, and much needed psychological care. When we arrived at the hotel, Daniel expressed how appreciative he was of our support, which allows him and the rest of the staff to care for the children at the orphanage.
Our first day consisted mostly of travel, but when we got to Guatemala, our agenda was already pretty full. Our whole group met in the hotel to discuss what the next few days would hold, and after dinner, we went to one of the churches that Gifts of Love supports. This church was in “Los Lobos” or “The Wolves,” one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Guatemala City. Despite being a dangerous area where gangs and violence were common, I didn’t feel unsafe. Don said he wouldn’t have gone to Los Lobos if he weren’t certain that God was with us.
What was interesting about this particular church was that the congregation members were all indigenous Mayan people. They considered having American visitors a rare and special privilege, so they treated us like guests of honor. It was so humbling to join this church for worship. I’m used to going to church on a Sunday morning without any concern, but this congregation worshiped God with such passion despite the constant danger they face, including the death threats the pastor and his family receive on a regular basis.
The next morning, we attended a church in Palín, Escuintla. The children of the orphanage joined us there, and they were so eager to see their Abuelito Don y Abuelita Barb (Grandpa Don and Grandma Barb). The kids were so friendly and introduced themselves to us with such joy and excitement. Despite us being complete strangers to them, they literally embraced us with so much love.
The music in this service was much more familiar than it was in the Mayan service. Of course all the songs were in Spanish, but I actually knew the first song – “Eres Todopoderoso” (thanks, Messiah College chapel ministry)! I learned (and grew to love) some new songs. I was thankful that they were able to project the lyrics so that I could mentally translate the words and gain an understanding of what we were singing. Whenever I am in a non-English language context, I am so appreciative of the work of Bible translation, because I finally understand how important it is to be able to connect to the Word and to God in a language that speaks to your heart.
After the church service, my coworkers distributed candy to all the kids. The money given to the orphanage for food is not allowed to be used for candy, cakes, or other junk food – only necessities. It was a welcome treat for the kids, and the way their eyes lit up and their smiles grew showed us how much they appreciated the gift. We then went to the pastor’s house for lunch with his family and with Daniel and his wife Raquel. We were so thankful for their hospitality and the opportunity to hear more about Guatemala and the work God is doing there.
We went from the pastor’s house to the orphanage, where we met the kids, the staff, and the animals. They have a horse and two dogs to help with the kids’ emotional therapy, and they have plans to get more animals. The 26 acres of property, with its barn and ongoing construction, reflect the faithful expectation of growth and expansion that Don and Barb have for the orphanage.
I actually stayed at the orphanage Sunday night while the rest of my group returned to the hotel. Since I don’t speak much Spanish, I couldn’t really talk with any of the kids and most of the adults. Instead of attempting to carry a conversation, I sat on the couch and played with a little girl’s hair as she fell asleep on my lap. I still love when my mom plays with my hair when we sit on the couch together, so I wanted to pass along that comforting feeling to these kids. Daniel speaks the best English, so he told me stories about the kids’ histories and the work they do at the orphanage while I held sleeping babies.
I stayed with the four oldest girls, who were so excited to have me share their room. They even mopped the floor when they found out I would be staying there, because they wanted the room to smell nice for me. As we sat on our beds, they tried so hard to ask me questions and talk to me. We were all a little frustrated that we couldn’t understand each other, but some of the girls were very patient with me and tried various ways to communicate successfully. Eventually we were able to understand each other a little bit before they had to go to bed. I learned that Jessica was working on a sewing project, Dulce was 12 years old, and that they had school the next morning.
Half of the kids went to school the next morning. While the rest of the children waited for their breakfast, I went to the mill where one of the staff members brings the corn to prepare for tortillas. When we got there, a little girl had just finished milling her corn. I didn’t realize until we were leaving that she had come alone and that she was hauling her load of corn back home on her bicycle. Even the orphanage was relatively fortunate to be able to drive to the mill.
Before we left the orphanage, each child received a pillow/stuffed animal that we brought for them. As each child’s name was called for them to come and receive their gift, all the other kids cheered. There was so much joy in that room. We were able to tell the kids – through a translator – how much we loved them and how much they had blessed us despite our intentions to bless them. Those children will be the longest lasting memories of our time in Guatemala.
The rest of our brief time in Guatemala was spent visiting the leadership institute that Gifts of Love International built to raise young men to be leaders in the church. Eventually there will also be a leadership institute for young women. We also had the opportunity to visit Antiqua, an old city that had once been the capital of Guatemala and the center of Catholicism in Latin America.
While we were in Antiqua, we learned about the bombings at the Boston Marathon. We were sitting next to a Boston woman whose niece crossed the finish line one minute before the bombs went off. Her daughter is a student at Boston University and decided to study that day instead of go to the marathon. I also learned that her daughter’s dorm is the same one that I called home for two summers. We found it slightly ironic that the bombings happened in the U.S. while we were in a country people thought was too dangerous for us to visit.
We left Guatemala early Tuesday morning, just a few days after arriving. At the airport, we met an American woman who had been in Guatemala for a medical missions trip through Joyce Meyer ministries. We talked with her about why we had come to Guatemala and about her trip. When we talked about what was going on back home in the States and the timing of being out of the country, she summed it up perfectly: the safest place to be is in the will of God.
This trip will not be easily forgotten. At least I pray that God will not let me forget the things I have seen and learned while in Guatemala. I pray that my experiences over those four short days have forever changed who I am and how I serve God and all His children.
Click here to see more photos from Guatemala. Video to come!