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Posted on April 11, 2014 by

A Failure In Your Midst

“Class, who can read this sentence on the chalkboard for me?” I ask.

“Oh! Oh! Me! Me! Me!”  At least seven of my eleven third-grade students yell out, squirming in their seats.

“Okay, Misael, what does it say?”

“Ummmmm.”  An embarrassed smile races across his face, then as he glances out of the corner of his eye mischievously, “Ba-do-dee-choo.”

“No.  No it doesn’t say that.  Try again.”

“Ding-ling-bow-bah.”

“Okay are you trying to speak Chinese?”  A fit of giggles erupts throughout the class and Misael realizes he has me exactly where he wants me.

“Yes, Chinese,” he says, and stretches his eyes sideways as the class explodes with laughter.

“Well, this is English class,” I say, as calmly as possible, “so who else can try reading this sentence?  In… En…glish.”

“Teacher!” Misael shouts out.

“Yes?”

“I get a star for reading the sentence, right?”  We give out stars for good behavior in class and checks for poor behavior.  Three checks and you get a detention.

“Well, you didn’t actually read the sentence, Misael.”

“Yes I did.”

“No.  No, I was listening, and you didn’t.  You said ‘Ding-ling-bow-bah’ and…”  The class is bowled over laughing now and I realize I’ve made an enormous mistake.  ”You don’t get a star.  End of discussion.”

“Teacher!”  Shouts out Jenni.

Yes, what does the sentence say?”

“I had four stars yesterday, and now I only have three.  You erased one of them.”

“I didn’t erase – I just want someone to read the sentence on the – why would I erase your star Jenni?  And I don’t remember you having four.  You can earn more today if you want.  Who…”  I feel a tug on the ankle of my pants and look down.  Andres is curled up in a ball behind me, grinning.  I have no idea how he got there.

“May I help you?”  I ask.

“Charlie is thirsty,” he says.

“Well he can… wait who is Charlie?”

Andres points to a small, young fern planted in an empty three liter Coke bottle sitting next to him on the ground.

“That’s Charlie?”   Eleven heads nod sincerely at me.

“Well, we can water Charlie later,” I say.

“You’re killing him,” a voice says quietly and indistinguishable from the group.  Somewhere in back.

“I… wait, no.  I’m not killing him.  I’m just saying now is not the time.  We need to read the sentence on the board.  Andres, go back to your seat.  Now.  Get up.  Stop touching my foot and go back to your seat please.  Thank you.  Okay sit down in your seat, don’t just stand by it.  Thank you.  Sit…  Thank you.”

“Teacher?”  Another asks.

“Yes, Leo.”

“Can I borrow a pencil?”

“No.”

“But I can’t find mine!”

“You should be more responsible.”

“But it was right here and now it’s gone!”

“Have you looked under your seat?

“No.”

“You should look under your seat then.”

“But why can’t I borrow one from you?”

“Okay! Who can read the sentence on the board please?”

“Me! Me! Me!” Ten more hands shoot into the air.  I noticed in the back Juan isn’t raising his hand, or apparently, even listening as he stares out of the classroom.

“Juan, please read this sentence for me,”  I say.  He looks at me confused at first, then frustrated, then looks at the board, squints his eyes and takes a deep breath.  Finally.

Can I go to the bathroom?” He asks.

“No!  Okay, I am going to give checks to every single one of you if the next person I call on does not read the sentence on the board!”

“No! No teacher!  That’s not fair!”  They all cry out.

“I know, I know.  But it’s what I am going to do.  So who will read for me?”

A hand raises up from the middle of the class.

“Okay, thank you, Carlos.  Please, what does it say?”

“I… waaant…  good… God, God… tooooo… I want God to… No way teacher!  This isn’t Theology class!  I won’t read it.”

I have several jobs at the Finca.  Some big.  Some small.  I am an English teacher for third and fourth grade, as well as our house tías.  I’m the financial administrator – that title still embarrasses me every time I have to say it.  I’m involved in hospitality and the personnel committee.  I’m special friend to our middle-aged boys.  The list goes on.  I suppose I imagined that when I came down here those jobs would be important.  Naturally, I would excel at them and have a big impact on the kids and various aspects of life at the Finca.  The kids would always run up and give me hugs and the adults would find in me a confidant and kindred spirit.  Community members would, no doubt, be grateful I am there and the place just wouldn’t feel the same without me.  What I did not expect was for the word failure to be quietly whispered by my conscience so often.  Nor so explicitly by those around me.

When I first realized I wasn’t meeting the expectations I had for myself or that others had for me, I re-wrote my imagined story of how these next couple years would play out.  I may not be that impressive now, but what a fantastic turn-around it will be!  From nobody to somebody essential!  Never quite consciously, but somewhere deep down, I am sure I told myself that I needed to start getting my act together and get the long march toward impressing people going.  I came down here to serve these kids, but how can I do that if they don’t think I can really help them?  It was time to get to work.

Now I’m not so sure.  It is easy to look at the Finca as being just another social program.  Us volunteers one more peg in the giant wheel of the Church’s charity.  There is a problem – kids without parents – and here is the solution – family-style homes run in a community setting.  I had come down to Honduras because I wanted to be a part of that solution.  But what I found was I wasn’t actually solving anything.

There’s a whole host of explanations I could come up with.  A lack of funds.  A crazy and inept local government.  Machismo.  Poor management.  Childhood abuse.  Poverty.  Malnutrition.  Lack of leadership.  Constant change in the kids’ lives.  Cultural differences.  Lack of training and experience.

All I know is at the level of the volunteer – the one I occupy – the things I set out daily to accomplish often feel woefully unaccomplished.  My kids aren’t learning English as well as I think they should.  The finances, well, you can teach a chimp to use a calculator, but that doesn’t mean he’ll understand what he’s doing.  I don’t spend the time with the kids that I should, and when I do, it often feels so superficial that I know the bigger issues in their lives aren’t getting addressed.  And as far as community life goes, it’s enough to say the gap between who I wish I was and who I am is immense.

When I stop and look out at the solution I thought I came down here to be, I realize I’m farther from it than ever.  If my goal was to change lives and really be someone important, then it is time to accept that isn’t happening.  And it was a shitty goal to begin with.

The world needs its social programs.  The world needs its solutions.  It’s non-profits and NGO’s.  But what I’ve decided after a whole lot of failure here, is that I don’t have to save the world.

I just have to be a friend.

In some senses, this makes life easier.  I’m no longer on the hook if the best I got leaves me with a class that is still struggling to learn English.  But in another sense it makes life harder.  To be someone’s friend, truly, means to place yourself in their mess.  To live it with them.  To let their hurts sting your heart and feel the – at times – hopelessness of their problems.

We’ve got kids down here that have been through a hell of a lot.  My gut reaction – and I don’t know that it is a wrong one – is to think, how can we fix their lives?  It’s great to try.  But what if after all our trying – our counseling, our discipline, our intentionality and sacrifices – we can’t fix it.  At least I can’t.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my purpose in being here.  Just that I need to reevaluate what I think being here is all about.  To be with our kids as much – if not more – as we are for them.  To be someone they laugh with.  Play soccer with.  Struggle through English with.  Pray with.  Yell with.  Wait for God with.

Those aren’t solutions.  But they are the stuff of friendship.  There are waters that only love knows how to navigate, even if you feel like you’re not actually going anywhere.  And at the end of the day, it’s what I’ve realized is all I really have to offer to our kids.  A chance to feel loved in the the midst of a life that might otherwise feel unlovable.  They may not feel fixed, but by God, they’re not alone.

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Posted on February 23, 2014 by

Adventures in Spanish

Okay, let’s begin this by saying my Spanish has improved immensely.  Most people understand me very well and I the same with them.  But every now and then a conversation comes along that just really merits a good head-shake and a share.

Today, while on my way to run a few errands for the Finca and go to the bank, our head of maintenance asked me if I could pick up a new deadbolt lock for a door that broke.  ”Sure, no problem,” I replied.

In town, I went to the hardware store where two men were standing at the counter waiting.  The woman behind it asked me, “Que desea?”

“I need a llavin cerrojo,” I said.

“Que?” she responded.

“Un llavin cerrojo.”

“Que?” She said again, exasperated.

“Un llavin.”

“For the toilet?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“To close a toilet?” She asked.

“No… why would I even… Not for a toilet.  For a door.”

“Que?” She said again.

At this point one of the guys standing at the counter turned to me and said, in near-perfect English, “what do you need?”

“A deadbolt,” I said.

“What?” he said.

“A deadbolt…”

“What?”

“A lock!”

“Ohhh,” he said, and turned to the woman behind the counter.  “He wants a doorknob.”

“No, no, I don’t…” but she already walked away.  Quickly she came back with a normal door handle.

“Okay, you know what, that’s great.  We’re close,”  I told the man at the counter.  “But do you know how most doors have a handle like that, and then above it, they have a part that locks but doesn’t turn?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” he said and turned and fired off something in rapid-fire Spanish I couldn’t understand.

The woman came back with a type of deadbolt, but with a little handle on one side that you could pull to release the door lock.

I took a deep breath.

“Very similar.  But one that you can only open with a key on both sides.  Not with that little thing there,” I said.

“Ohhhh,” she smiled, relieved, “you mean a llavin cerrojo!”

She came back with a normal, everyday deadbolt and I told her that was exactly what I needed.

“You should learn to speak Spanish,” she said, in a friendly, conversational way, “I bet it would really help you in situations like this.”

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Posted on February 4, 2014 by

Never Trust a Girl Who Won’t Make You Fake Coffee

Because I haven’t had much time to write reflections – this past week was probably the busiest and craziest I’ve had yet down here – I thought I’d just share a handful of random stories .  The following are just a couple glimpses into everyday life down here at the Finca.

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The other night, two of our security guards – or watchis as they’re called – came by the missionary house at 10:30pm, as giddy as two very grown men could be.  Asked what was up, one of them held up a possum by the tail high in the air and grinned like he had just gotten caught stealing a piece of cake before it was ready to be served.  They both laughed again and walked off into the dark with a machete.  That’s about as classic a Honduras moment as you can get right there.

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The new school year began down here this week and I can say I am officially an English teacher for 3rd and 4th grade.  They are a mix of kids from the Finca and from the neighboring villages.  I’m sure I will have many stories from the classes to come, but for the moment, let me focus on the teacher in-service we had the week before.  The second day, one of the teachers, a young Honduran guy quick to smile and make jokes came in with a brand new, black leather briefcase.  Something like that, while as common as the white collar back in the States, sticks out rather strongly down here.  Especially in our rural department of the country.  While never thinking it actually important, I have to admit, a little part of me was impressed at the small symbol of professionalism amidst a normally very casual working environment here.

As he walked into the library for our meeting, he was holding the briefcase in his hands, so new the strap was still cinched up tight and the leather still supple.  We began our morning discussions, he set it down next to his seat and took out a binder, a pencil, and a pen-knife to sharpen the pencil.  I lost focus on him until about halfway through the morning when he took the shoulder strap, loosened it slightly, fastened it around his waist, and rested the briefcase itself on his lap.  And then went right on taking notes and listening to our speaker.  My first reaction, to be completely honest, was, what the hell is he doing?!  When I realized he wasn’t doing it to be funny, that he never even looked around for a reaction from anyone, I was even more perplexed and maybe even a little bit frustrated.  You can’t do that!  It’s a briefcase.  It goes over the shoulder not around the wast like a belt  You’ll never be a real professional if you put it like that!

But really, why?  I can’t tell you how strange it looked to see a grown man with a professional job do something that seemed so childish with such a symbol of adulthood.  But… so?  Who cares if he is different.  Why should it bother me how he wears his briefcase, of all mundane things.

Because it did.  I realized as I sat there that I was getting worked up over the nerve to tweak such a standard Western value.  But it also dawned on me quickly how much I am still stuck in my presumptions and prejudices against the simplest of things that are merely different from what I’m used to.  The small customs and ways of life down here that I find important or silly are still the ones that take the longest time for me to get over.  I want very much to be able to look at the world and see what is different as beautiful and necessary.  To let go of the way I want everyone else to act just to make me happy.  To love who they are precisely for who they are.  A briefcase is a strange place to start with that, but it’s as good a place as any.

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The other day, another missionary named Tiffany and I were eating lunch at the house of our youngest child, Yadi, and her tia, Ercilia.  At one point Yadi was at her little play stove and we asked her to make us a cafesito.  She through her head back and laughed like she had never heard anything so funny.  When I told her I wanted sugar but no milk in mine, she clapped her hands and stumbled around the room like she was drunk as though it were simply too much to take in.  Her little three-year-old shoulders bounced up and down as she silently laughed, tears streaming down her face and gasping for her next breath.  I was dying laughing at this point, watching her crack up like an old woman in such a child’s body.  Finally she slapped her little plastic table and sighed, bring herself slowly back down to a responsible level.

After a while, I started to make a castle out of her Duplo Legos.  It had bridges and towers and windows.  She mainly watched me indifferently while she made her own row of blocks stacked one of top of another.  When seven were stacked, she put them on my head and said it was a hat for me.  “Thank you!  Do I look handsome?” I asked.  “No,” she said, matter-of-factly and waddled off.  Eventually she came back and started playing with the castle I had built, adding a block or two and touching every crevice.  When Ercilia saw, she kept on saying how beautiful it was, and winking at me, asked who made it.

“I did,” Yadi said, just as to the point as before.

“You did?” Ercilia exclaimed half puzzled and half laughing, looking at me.  I just shrugged my shoulders.

“Yes,” Yadi said without looking up.  “My fingers are inside the window.  I made it.”

Now I’m not sure if she meant that as an if-then statement, but it seemed to me like pretty flawless three-year-old logic.  Her fingers were indeed firmly jammed inside a tiny window for absolutely no reason and she had also added, by my count, two whole Duplo blocks to the medieval venture.  I’m not saying I’m bitter about her taking all the credit, I’m just saying all three-year-olds are lying liars.

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On Sunday after we got back from Mass in town, one of the other missionaries named Harrison got a call from a friend of the Finca’s in one of the neighboring villages that his grandmother had died.  She was 86 and quite sick so it wasn’t an enormous surprise, but for the family and the tight knit community, it was of course a big deal.  He called to ask if we could lend a couple cars to help carry everyone who had gathered, along with the body, to the cemetery.  The town they lived in was up in the mountain that is the immediate and stunning backdrop to the Finca, and they were going to bury her down by the sea.  Harrison asked if I could help drive and I immediately said yes.

When we arrived, several dozen people were standing around, some well into a bottle of clear liquor that was being passed around.  We shook hands and did our best to try and figure out what is appropriate behavior for gringos at a funeral high up in a remote Honduran village.  I had driven our Tundra pick-up truck and Harrison one of our boxy old Land Cruisers.  The road up to the town is twisty and steep through absolutely lush jungle palms and vines.  When they brought out the casket, it was a simple wooden box, painted a light blue but only able to afford one coat, just looked a pale grey.  They put it in the back of the Tundra and it didn’t quite fit with the ability to close the tailgate but they assured me everything would be fine.  They called out for family to hop in the back with the casket, put flowers all on top, and then yelled for the bottle of liquor to be passed up for the ride down.  As I eased across a creek and up into the dirt road, I struggled nervously to find a balance between the truck sliding and the casket sliding.  Harrison drove behind me, packed more full than you can imagine with family and friends.  They had also convinced a local friend who was a police officer to make a very coincidental and providential trip in a municipal pick-up to that very spot.  And, well, who could blame him if he gave a ride to fifteen more people on the ride down?  Motorcycles of cousins and friends whizzed around me in exactly the same manner as a police cavalcade in a funeral procession in the States.  At some point as I bounced down the mountain I laughed pretty hard to myself, realizing I had found myself not only very far from home, but driving a hearse.

When we arrived at the simply and overgrown cemetery on the beach, emotions began to flow in earnest.  Tears poured and tempers flared.  An extended – and hilarious in any other moment but the actual one – argument ensued over which direction to place the head of the body.  I swear, they must have spun that poor old woman ten times around.  When she was securely in her place, everyone crowded around to gather fistfuls of dirt and toss it down into the sandy grave.  Little children flung little handfuls with an impressive earnestness.  I noticed the woman’s daughter – an old woman herself, and regular worker in the Finca – was standing back several paces, firm and watching unblinkingly.  When we had arrived only a few hours earlier to pick them up, she had grasped my hand in two of hears and cracked a wrinkled smile with a laugh and shrugged her shoulders, and if to say isn’t this just the way life goes?

Men took up shovels and began to finish the burial.  One, a local man who had simply come to help – probably looking for a tip from the family – found a bulb in the dirt of his shovel and drunkenly said, “Hey look – yuca!  That’ll go good in a soup,”  and tossed it in the grave.  Everyone chuckled and the pressure began to relieve.  He found another and mumbled loudly to himself, “now that one would go good with some coconut.”

As I rumbled back up the mountain, people tapping the roof of the Tundra when they were ready to be let off, I was genuinely happy, loving every bit of this crazy, different, struggling, and strong country I find myself in.

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Posted on January 26, 2014 by

Not Alone Tonight

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written.  More than I ever intended to let pass.  But to tell the truth, this place is changing me and some changes are better left to simply be rather than narrated weekly for all the world to see.  Every time I’ve grabbed my pen to write an update, I would put it behind my ear, close my eyes, and think of these kids and their laughs and their tears and their long, soulful gazes, and realize I should stop while I’m ahead and I even have some sort of grasp on it in my mind.  Some things cannot be communicated but only experienced with dirty feet and tired eyes.  That’s where I’ve found them and it’s hard to imagine I could share them with you any other way.  But they are indeed worth sharing, so I’ll try.

I suppose as four months have passed in the Finca, I’ve been surprised just how much life here wears you down.  Not necessarily to a breaking point, but certainly sanding away the beliefs and desires and fears that are unessential in life.  Never did I think it might be easy working with kids abandoned and with no one else in the world to turn to.  But neither did I realize how I might be pushed day in and out to the edges of my grip on understanding this world and my place in it.  When you serve kids who have had everything taken from them – the most foundational of stones holding up their dignity and self-worth – you feel your own balance slipping and teetering the deeper you enter into their lives.  They struggle with more strength than you or I have ever possessed to etch out lives at the very bottom of the world’s bullshit ladder of self-importance.  Their long days before coming to this hogar indelibly shaping their youthful ability to make meaning of an uncertain future.  And they yell because they were yelled at.  And they abuse because they were abused.  And they cry because no one ever cried with them.

I am not very good at it, but to chose to live with these children, not just for them, you cannot help but let their demons pierce your heart too.  And it hurts.  And it confuses you.  And it makes you cry out to God like an orphan, scared and wondering just how alone we are in this world.  I’m not saying we are, but in the darker places of the world, it’s simply so very hard to see.

I would like to tell myself that at least I could be a light in the darkness for them.  But I know I’m not.  I am stumbling in the dark myself.  But, please, may they know they’re not alone on this night.

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Several days ago I was covering the youngest boys’ house while their tia was away.  As I put them to bed, told them I loved them, and turned out the lights, they called out in the dark for me to tell them a story.  My Spanish isn’t quite at make-up-a-fairy-tale-on-the-fly level, so I read one instead.  They giggled at all the right places and slowly drifted off into a gentler land as I voiced through the pages and told of princes and animals that talked and knights who rescued the weak.

I don’t know if they felt less alone that night, but I know I was trying to whisper in the dark that I was there.  And as scared as I am too of the blackness of loneliness and the dark cloud of despair, every day I try and reach out for a hand to squeeze, knowing we’ve got a better chance of making it till the light together than alone.

If you’re with us, then grab my hand, and we’ll travel the dark until the dawn comes.

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Posted on November 27, 2013 by

God With Us

At the beginning of Advent, is God really coming?

Over a plate of chicken and rice I sat across from one of the twelve year old boys at lunch today, just marveling at the way his eyes light up and those dimples race across his face.  He is one of the most radiantly joyful kids I have ever met.  But deep down, even as I soaked up the moment, there was a sense of dread as I realized that one day, I would see just how much he hurts, how little he really has, and the scars beneath his smiles.  And I won’t be able to offer what he really needs.  That in fact, one day I will leave too, and rip the bandage off anew.  I don’t know.  I saw it all sitting across the table from him and I just find myself wondering where God is.  Why a child so full of love can’t be loved back in the way he deserves.  Advent is almost upon us, this great season of preparing for Christ’s approach in Christmas.  But is the response – God is coming – enough?

There is this Psalm (130) that always fascinates me.  It talks about waiting for God because you really, truly believe he is coming.  More than the watchman waits for daybreak, I will wait for the Lord.  I always picture some soldier high in his watchtower, waiting the sun and his peace and security up over the horizon.  I like the idea that God is coming just as surely as that.  But, to be honest, I’m not always so convinced he is.

I’m looking at another one of our other boys as I write this in our chapel.  He is fairly well-known to be one of the more difficult kids, and as we sit now, he has his near constant smoldering look as he huddles against the wall, all those defenses he always has up well in place.  How much he just needs someone who believes in him.  Who thinks he is worth sticking around for.  Worth providing for and loving for more than two years at a time.  I want to do what I can as a missionary, but really, where is God?

In my darker moments I keep wanting to say to God no, but really.  This isn’t a game anymore.  People are getting hurt.  Are you trying to make some kind of point?  We’re screwed up.  We did this.  I got it.  But where are you?  If you wait much longer, doesn’t that make you some kind of accomplice?  How much longer before we can say do you not abandon children as well?  Are you indeed coming?

I try not to say it, but I know where my heart is when I look into these kids’ eyes.  It is waiting, but it is not the same as wondering where the dawn is and whether it will come.  If God had that kind of track record we’d all be watchmen.  But we’re not, are we?  We need a special season each year just to remind us, oh yeah, we’re supposed to be doing that!  O Come, O Come Emmanuel and all that stuff.  

And so we call out for the dawn.  Yes, we wait for Christmas. Yes, we wait for his second coming.  But more than anything we just need Jesus right now.  Please tell me why that boy huddled against the wall doesn’t get parents.  Why?  Why were we sent down here to almost taunt them with love and family and never be the real thing?

Maybe this is Christian hope.  To say this will be the year God comes.  And keep saying that.  For however long it takes.  Every year let those seasons pass through your heart, soaking up their rhythms and calling them deep within.  How long will it take for God to come?  Probably about as long as it takes for us to realize ourselves that these kids need more.  That tomorrow I’m going to need to try harder.  To fight through my timid Spanish and my selfish desire to spend more time alone and tell them myself they’re loved.  And don’t stop saying it with my presence and with my words and with my every gaze and laugh and tear until they believe it.  Not until I myself decide they’re worth it will they believe it.  Worth more than whatever I may be sacrificing.  I don’t know.  Maybe only when I am willing to truly be there will God be able to say I’m here.  Let it not be forgotten that when God came the first time, he asked our permission before.  If he is doing the same today, then all I can say is, indeed, Emmanuel, come.  And let this be the year I’m willing to come with you.

Posted on November 26, 2013 by

Things I’ve Learned Living In Honduras – Part 1

1. Refrigeration and good until labels are very optional.
2. There is definitely such a thing as good beans and bad beans.
3. If your rice comes with insects in the bag, get rid of what you can and the rest is for protein.
4. It’s better for morale to just refer to any parasites in your stomach as “friends.”
5. Late night showers by candlelight with music are a very magical thing. Especially when it means the electricity has gone out.
6. When living in a tropical climate, it is possible for it to be 80 degrees and feel cold.
7. If I feel self-conscious about my Spanish around our kids, it helps to remind myself that their’s is pretty much terrible as well. It’s not nice, but it is helpful.
8. Driving around in the same SUV’s the United Nations uses is not the best way to blend in to the local culture.
9. There are places in the world that rain harder than Texas.
10. Do not come to a third world country and expect your pants to fit very long.
11. You can become best friends with anyone if you make the right kind of salsa.
12. Being cut off from the world is pretty great.
13. Roosters in real life have no bloody clue what time dawn is.
14. When you live on the beach, sand will get everywhere. Everywhere.
15. The stereotypical Latino punctuality actually somehow really works when you are in a Latin American country.
16. The realization that you’ve reached a point where cows and goats and dogs blocking traffic on all the streets seems normal is a very surreal one.
17. If you just nod and pretend like you know what kids are saying in Spanish, they will quickly take advantage of that fact.
18. Hand-making tortillas over a fire is completely worth the not insignificant time and effort.
19. Down here, tacos mean soccer cleats. And that’s really going to take a long time to get used to.
20. When you wear sandals all day, everyday, no amount of showering will ever make your feet clean again.

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Posted on November 24, 2013 by

On Stepping Up and Falling Down

So four days ago the class mine came to replace actually left.  The Finca is designed to have a two month overlap for the missionaries, where three classes actually live together and have a chance to make sure two years of wisdom gets passed on in two months.  But at 5am on Thursday morning as we said goodbye to the viejos, all of us  felt as though a gaping hole was being left that no amount of transition would fill.

It was, of course, tough to realize that I was losing some quickly and strongly made friendships.  But even more, I felt that as those white SUV’s pulled away with their class inside, that the Finca itself was losing its driving forces.  Its leadership and passion and strongest love.  I had stayed up all night with a handful of viejos, so after their departure, I went back to grab an hour-long nap before I had to start teaching class.  But when I woke up, the idea set in that the hole left behind needed to be filled, and that my class had come to do it.  We couldn’t, of course, but we must.  That so much of these kids lives and the future of the Finca, for the time-being, was now in our hands for safekeeping.  People were going to come to me with things to get done.  Like, important things.  And these amazing kids would start needing me now, too.

What’s left when they drove off is responsibility.  And that is a damn scary thing when you know you’re incapable of the task set before you.  There is a certain sense in which I didn’t realize just how great the need would be before I came.  Or maybe another way of saying that is I didn’t see how real it was until I met the people themselves with the need.

The other night we had a pijamada - sleepover – for the older boys.  It essentially consisted of dragging mattresses over to the high school and drinking Coke and watching dubbed action movies all night long.  If at any point Harrison or I started to fall asleep, the boys would wail on us with their pillows until we got the message.  This was an all or nothing affair, apparently.  It was exhausting and the movies were truly terrible, but that feeling of being a little piece of normal in their otherwise very atypical daily lives was beautiful.  They may be forced together and alone, but for at least one night they were brothers, just teenagers at a Friday night sleepover.

I suppose that really, that is all we as missionaries can provide.  Fragments of normalcy and respite amidst the otherwise difficult realities that accompany their lives.  A smile amidst a difficult day.  A sandcastle on a lonely moment.  A prayer in a desperate hour.  Whatever our intentions may have been in coming, we fix nothing down here.  Trying to jump the gap between what is needed and what we can give we will inevitably fall.  We have neither the tools nor the skills nor the time to do it.  But as the viejos have left and we place our own hands where their’s once were, holding up walls and wiping away tears and picking yourself back up after you fall, it is possible, if only for a moment to feel as if the spot fits our hands as well.

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Posted on November 17, 2013 by

Just Be You

The other day I was out working on a project with one of our girls here who just graduated high school.  We were painting and she was in a pretty exhausted/cranky mood.  Most of the time we were passing in silence, but after a while I asked her for advice on how to be a good missionary.  She just shook her head, laughed, and said, “each one is who they are.”  Puzzled, I tried another tack.  I asked who among us she thinks is good example of a missionary at the farm.  “None of them,” she replied.   “You can’t say one person should be like another.”

I was pretty surprised and caught off guard by her reply.  She is by far one of the more talkative kids and I expected for sure after all the years she has lived here, she would have an opinion on what made a good missionary.  The “oldies” – the class mine is here to replace – are leaving Thursday and I was eager to hear from her perspective what from our side has made her experience better.  Stupid question she seemed to be saying.  Don’t try and be them.  Be you and let that be enough.  

I’m still amazed at how quickly she saw through me and cut to the heart of it.  Yes she was in a bit of a mood, but at the same time, deep down, I suppose I was fishing for compliments.  Hoping maybe she’d affirm that I was already doing great, or at a minimum, that she held important the same things I was aspiring to live out.  Stop worrying about that.  It’s not important here.  Be you.  You’ll figure out where your strengths fit in here and they’ll help who they’ll help.  The rest is your ego.  Give what you have.  It’s all you have to give anyways.

I have a lot to learn down here, but these kids sure are good teachers.

Posted on October 24, 2013 by

In Between the Lines

It was there all along, I just didn’t see it.

I have this friend named Pablo who is from Spain.  He would always stop me when we were walking and just point crap out.  Look! That tree is massive!  Whoa, I’ve never seen a cloud that color before, have you?  Check out that grasshopper!  He’s just doing his own little thing there isn’t he?  That hill is the coolest shape.  Tell me if you’ve ever seen a cooler hill in all your life than that one right there.

I loved it when he would do this.  It was invariably something I normally would have passed – too busy swatting mosquitos or venting in my head about some stupid situation.  There is a scene in the movie Amelie where the main character takes a blind man on a tour down a crowded Paris street, pointing out all the rich colors and crazy characters he was missing.  Walking with Pablo felt like that.  He had an artistic sense for nature and loved sharing it.

What amazed me most about all those times was how I would never think to myself, what a weirdo, getting so worked up over a cloud or a branch.  Rather, without fail, how on earth did I not see that?  It was beautiful and right there in front of me and I completely missed it.

The other night I was with another missionary named Kevin helping watch one of the houses where some of the younger boys live.  The tias had a night off to go relax and watch a movie, while we came loaded with board games and decks of cards to pass the time.  About halfway through the night, we invited them to sing the happy birthday song on camera for Allison, one of the missionaries who had recently left to go live with older kids in Phase II of the Finca in the nearby city of La Ceiba.  Allison had been the “special friend” of these boys for at least a year but would soon be going back to the States in November after two years here.  I thought for sure the boys would love singing for her and be over the moon about doing it on camera.  To my surprise though, when Kevin and I asked if they wanted to make the video, one of the boys who I’ve gotten especially close with – who I’ll call David here – shouted out, “No! She’s bald!”  I had no idea what he actually said until Kevin translated the word bald for me.  David then marched off to another part of the room and began to sulk.  None of them were much interested in singing, it seemed.  Funny enough, Kevin then felt the need to clarify for me that Allison was not, in fact, bald.

We eventually talked the boys into doing a somewhat begrudged version of happy birthday, but it stuck with me as so strange that they had behaved that way.  Allison was easily one of the most instantly lovable people I had ever met – what could push them like that?

Pablo used to tell me that we had to learn to read between the lines of what God was saying to find out what he really meant.  He said those little moments when he would stop me and point out something beautiful were in between the lines moments.  That they said more about God’s tone – his desire to delight us – than we could ever grasp from Scripture or a sermon.  I don’t know if I ever really believed him, but I know I wanted to.

I recently realized that most of our lives are communicated between the lines as well.  David may have called Allison bald, but what he was really saying was, I miss you, and this hurts that you’re leaving, and I don’t want to do this anymore.

Sometimes in adoration I wonder if I believe the Eucharist is the real deal.  I mean, I say I do.  But surely it’s not, right?  That piece of bread, right there, is God?  All the gold and incense in the world can’t make it more than a wafer.

But what if is true?  What if there is more hidden there than we could ever realize?  And what does it say about a God who presents himself that you might look and never see him?  Eat and never taste him?  Flickering candles and hymns can make the ambiance wonderful, but the host remains bland as ever.  What a bizarre God we have.  But between the lines there does seem to be another story.  A deeper one.

One thing I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around is how terrible I am at asking for forgiveness.  Oh, I suppose at the act itself, I’m just as good as anyone else.  But getting up the courage to do it – willing myself to that point where I say it – I was wrong.  I’m sorry.  I’m not good.  I wasn’t right.  I need your forgiveness.  I swear I’d rather give you my arm.  Oh, it’s pride, I know.  But why?  I know I screw up.  I know I need help.  Why can’t I just let anyone else know that?  I don’t know.  I’m an idiot.

It’s a funny thing about the Eucharist.  It’s like God refuses to be great.  If only just this once.  Bread.  And it doesn’t even fall from heaven anymore.  Sometimes I wonder if the Eucharist isn’t just one beg ploy by God just to say, It’s okay not be strong.  You don’t have to constantly try to show how great you are.  Just be with people.  Forgive.  Love.  Cherish the moments you have.

All of us new missionaries received our job assignments recently.  I will be the new financial administrator – otherwise known as accountant – and a part-time English teacher.  If you know anything about me, you know how absolutely hilarious that first title is.  I hate math and pretty much have operated my entire life in an undisciplined deficit.  And now I’m basically running a non-profit.  Or… something.

Oddly enough, I was thrilled with the job when I found out.  All of the other positions they were looking to fill – social worker, sub-director of the school, etc. – all had a more professional, disciplinarian relationship with the kids.  It’s necessary, but not at all my personality.  I cherish the opportunity to be one part jungle-gym, one part shoulder to cry on; one part mentor, one part goofball.

There was a moment on the beach the other day that reminded me why I came down here.  I sat with two other missionaries, Erin and Harrison, as the sun began to set, talking about nothing in particular, when one of the boys I’ll call Jaime walked up.  We joked with him for a while and eventually the conversation somehow moved to his family.  He’s the youngest of eight kids, and the only one not living with his parents.  They simply reached a point where there was no longer room at the inn, it seemed, nor food for the every mouth.  He said it all as matter-of-factly as he could.  No tears fell.  But an undercurrent of pain and hurt was there as he explained.  At one point we asked if when he was older, would he come visit the Finca again?  Hell no, is an approximate translation of his response.  I can’t say that I blame him.  As much as the place is meant to be a loving reserve for kids like Jaime, it will still always be not-home.   Always a reminder that there’s not enough love in this world and not all of us will be preserved from the pains no kid should ever have to experience.  I wouldn’t go back to visit that either.

And yet, it exists.  The Finca is a home.  And I can’t take a single child out of the reality of being abandoned, but I can put myself in it.  Try to love where others haven’t and give where others either can’t or won’t.

Pablo told me God speaks loudest between the lines.  That it is those unspoken places we never fully notice that really get etched on our hearts.  I only hope that in my time down here I’m able to speak between the lines as well.  And most likely, just like me with God, what I’ll say in between the lines won’t get seen.  But if our kids down here ever do look up, God, I pray I’ll be there.

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Posted on October 12, 2013 by

Threadbare and Faded Love

So almost two weeks have passed here at the Finca.  Routine has settled in, faces have become familiar, and passions and pleasures have guided me to a place at once familiar as an old pair of jeans and refreshing as cool Spring rain.  We don’t really have seasons down here, but I’m sure if we did that is what it would feel like.

Most of my time thus far has been spent with my fellow missionaries and I remain in awe of them.  Genuinely.  What is especially impressive once you get to know them is how much they really do, and for how terribly little they do it.  For nothing, really.  In fact, most of them pay a good deal just for the opportunity.  I realize this could sound like some form of indirect boast of myself having signed up for it, but I promise it is not.  Just finishing orientation now, I really do nothing.  I run on the beach, spend too much time in the hammock, and follow them part-time around their classes and social work and manual labor for much more than what would be full-time hours with my mouth open over how they find the patience and love and strength to do it all.

People aren’t supposed to be like that, right?  I feel at once at home and a poser in their midst.  They come to morning prayer at six AM with some used social justice-y shirt, threadbare and faded, and daily set aside their own desires simply because some kids in one of the most dangerous countries in the whole world need them.  And no one else is going to come.

I sensed that before leaving for here, but now that I look at these others actually carrying it out in my midst, I feel like I rather stumbled into it rather than ran towards it.  Like of course I would value hot showers and a paycheck and constant contact with everyone back home above these kids I didn’t even know.  But, I don’t know, somehow I’m starting to not.  Like what started out as a neat idea – I’ll go to this place I heard of! – is actually starting to wrestle most of my deepest priorities into a whole new place.  I don’t know how.  I’m certainly not doing it.  I only know I sit every day surrounded by men and women who haven’t owned a new thing in, well, quite some time, but are doing some things I suppose I really never thought possible.  Not deep down.  That others could come before me if I let them.

The other day I asked one of the other missionaries named Harrison why he was going to stay longer.  Normally we commit to stay down here for two years, but halfway he volunteered to stay for a third.  We were in the middle of moving some big, giant pieces of cement with the kids names and footprints on them.  I had soaked through my shirt in less than a minute and was moving the blocks around in a way that might best be described as, ungainly.  “I don’t know,” he said, swinging one around briskly and precisely.  “I suppose I realized God had more to teach me about love.”  I asked him to explain more what he meant.  “Some of the time… maybe most of the time, the kids aren’t always the most grateful in the world for all we do.  You get yelled at enough times and you start to wonder why you’re down here after all.  And that’s why I needed to stay.  I still don’t fully get what it means to love unconditionally.  To love even when I don’t want to, in this crazy country where nothing seems to ever get better.  To love even when I don’t see the point.  So I’m staying longer to figure it out.”

After a little while, we had a time of catechesis with the kids.  I joined a group that was leading the the youngest in the Finca – usually around the age eight or ten.  “Who are people that are a part of the Church?”  Asked one of the other missionaries.

Priests!  Yes.  Who else?  Nuns!  Yep.  Lay people!  The Pope!  The poor!  Adults!  At this point they were on a roll and trying eagerly to outdo each other as fast as possible.  Real parents one of them said quietly from the back.  What?  The leader said, asking him to repeat it.  Real parents he said again, louder, but never taking his eyes off his hands in front of them.  Yes, sure, said the leader, not quite certain how to respond and I’m sure not wanting to make a big deal out of it right then and there.  That moment stuck like a lump in my throat for the rest of the night, though.  For almost all our kids at the Finca, they are not orphans in the traditional sense, but rather can no longer live with their parents due to poverty or abuse or a dozen other reasons.

Real parents.  What a thing to say.   What a thing to have and not have at the same time.  What a thing to stop and realize are still a part of the life of the Church.  Even if you’re no longer a part of theirs.

I thought later that night in adoration how much I don’t think like Harry.  Like, ever.  How much I like my things and my way and how much I don’t like other people’s ways and usually want their things too.  But maybe that’s changing, if only just a little.  Not caring so much about whether someone deserves my love, and learning to just ask if they need it.  So I like my new companions and their used stuff and selfless love.  Maybe threadbare and faded is a good direction for me.

 

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