Thursday, April 28, 2016

This Common Ground

"Oh my captain, Oh my captain
I've remembered every song
And now I've learned to sing them all
Tell me now what is going on
See the ground that I'm standing on
How it crumbles at my feet"
 - Oh My Captain, by Rayland Baxter 


We drove all night. It was safer that way, we were told. In the chaos after the earthquake, looting had broken out. Vehicles bringing supplies to people in need had been stopped and robbed along the road. My roommate was so worried she offered me a knife and a machete. I took the knife. 

Phil arrived at midnight, pulling a trailer full of bottled water, food, hygiene items, clothes, and other supplies which had all been donated by people in our missions community of Youth World. I got in the car along with two Casa Gabriel boys - Paulo, who is new, and Jesus, who graduated nearly two years ago - plus Phil's dog, a Boxer named Hatchet, and two other men and a woman who were going. They are the brothers and sister-in-law of Evelyn, an Ecuadorian friend who works in the Youth World office. Most of her family lives along the coast where the earthquake struck, so we had gathered supplies to bring them as well as to assess the possibility of future teams going to help. 

"Okay," Phil said. "Jesus and Paulo, you both have baseball bats. I have a taser. We have Hatchet. If anything happens, we're ready."

I fingered the long, heavy knife in my pocket. All day I had been telling myself, "It's okay, we're going to be fine," even as concern for the very real danger gnawed at me. Yet in that moment, I suddenly felt at peace that everything really would be fine. I felt certain that we weren't simply prepared, we were protected. This proved to be so.

Close to 1:00 am we met up with three other vehicles carrying supplies. The police were waiting there to take down Phil's name and our destination. The authorities had made it so that anyone traveling to the coast must have a permit, so we had partnered with another organization which provides global disaster relief, traveling together as a caravan. 

When we stopped to get gas at 4:00 am, Hatchet began panting in the seat beside me. I couldn't find a bowl for him so I poured water into my palm. He lapped it up so I kept pouring until he had drunk enough. Eventually he lay down with his head in my lap.

The sun rose around 6:30 am as we drove through the jungle. At 8:00 we stopped to get breakfast at a tiny family-owned restaurant. We stretched and drank instant coffee and ate balones - balls of plantain with cheese or meat. Along the road, other vehicles filled with supplies whizzed by.

As we continued on, we began to see more and more destruction. I snapped a photo of a family sitting on the steps of a home which had completely collapsed.

Finally we arrived at Evelyn's family's home. The roof of their bamboo home had completely collapsed. Located along a stretch of road still in the jungle but nearing the coast, it was one of many homes which had probably been built on a shoe-string budget; concrete with too much sand, bamboo lacking the best foundation. I met people with fresh cuts and bruises from walls collapsing on them. People with so little, and now even less. They had a small property which they had opened up to neighbors who had lost even more than they, helping them build temporary plastic-tarp structures where they could sleep. With permission, I photographed the destruction, documenting the loss.

Later that day we drove to Canoa, a small beach town. Phil has taken the boys camping there many times, and I’ve had weekend trips there with friends. The drive there had an eerie feel: there had been landslides everywhere, barely cleared, and fissures of varying sizes had appeared in the road. A couple of fissures ran on and on and on along the yellow line of the street, threatening to split open completely and pull everything down with them in the event of another quake. 

The town was destroyed. Canoa, the once friendly, colorful beach town with its hostels, surf classes, and artisans, was a wasteland. Driving slowly down the street, there’d be a building with a collapsed roof, one with large cracks running all through it, and finally a huge pile of rubble that had likely claimed several lives. Before we got to the town, we saw people standing alongside the road, waving white flags and empty water bottles, shouting, “Help us, help us!”  In Canoa, people barely looked our way. They could have run up to us and tapped on our windows, but no. They walked among the destruction like zombies. Even the Red Cross workers seemed to be operating in shock. 

Driving back, we handed out water and food to people along the road. It was impossible to tell, in such limited time, who truly needed it, and who was simply there trying to cash in on free stuff. Some families would hold out their hands for more, more, more, grumbling that maybe we weren’t being as generous to them as they’d like. Some people received a single jug of water with huge smiles of appreciation, calling, “Gracias! Bendiciones!” after us. 

That evening, Phil and the boys set up a tent while I sat among a group of children and answered questions of “How do you say___ in English?”. As soon as it was dark, mosquitos began to bite. It didn’t seem to matter that I was wearing bug repellent. I was too tired to think about Malaria or Zika or the rain which started to fall. I had been mostly awake for 38 hours by the time I got in the tent to sleep. As soon as I lay down, I began to sob. I was dead tired, physically and also emotionally from everything we had seen. It would take me two days before I looked at all the photos I had taken.

We left for Quito the next morning. We left Evelyn’s sweet family with food and water, candles and matches. Phil left them his tent. We left them with their plastic-tarp structures for sleeping under, with their fear that future aftershocks would cause even more destruction, and with their spirits of survival and endurance. I slept in my own bed that night, not immune from a disaster yet safer than they.
When I saw Evelyn the next week, she hugged me and thanked me for helping her family. She told me how thankful they were, and how they plan to slowly rebuild.

We’re all connected, you know. We see the news about the hurricane or tornado or flood, the train accident or the mass shooting or the planes hitting the twin towers. Sometimes we know someone who died, mourning their loss. Sometimes we stare in shock and wonder why. Sometimes we can’t do anything, not a physical thing except to remember those who are gone. Sometimes we can drive all night and know that it could have been us, we could have lost our homes or lives or people we love. It could have been us, so easily, but this time it wasn’t, so this time we give and go and pray. We drive all night.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Shaken Foundations (Ecuador Earthquake 2016)

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
 On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,
 when the morning stars sang together
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

- God speaking to Job in Job 38:4-7 

Saturday night, the tiny country of Ecuador was shaken by a highly destructive earthquake. With a 7.8 magnitude, the quake hit the coast, destroying towns and roads. Over 100 miles away in Quito, where I live, people felt their homes shake. This, however, is not an uncommon occurrence.
"Did you feel the earthquake?" a server asked my friends and I, as we sat down to eat at a restaurant. We, in fact, hadn't felt it at all: walking outside, we had been oblivious to the quake. Unless you're right on top of the quake, most earthquakes aren't like in the movies, where the ground visibly trembles. They are most noticeable indoors, where picture frames rattle and light fixtures swing and you experience a moment of vertigo. We shrugged and ordered our meal. A few minutes later all the lights flickered from an aftershock, but again, this is simply part of life in Ecuador, a country with fault lines and volcanoes galore.

That night, I looked up photos of the destruction, quickly grasping that this was not an ordinary tremor. Friends had started sending me concerned messages, so I replied that I was fine, Quito had not experienced much damage, though the death toll at the coast was 28. 

Waking up the next morning, Sunday, I was shocked to see that the death count had soared overnight to 233. Since that time, it seems that every time I refresh the news page, the count grows of lives lost and people injured and still missing. New tremors have caused further destruction. Landslides (another fairly common occurrence which blocks the winding mountain roads) are plentiful, making it difficult for aid workers to reach people in need. This morning, The New York Times listed the death count at 350. 

It's going to be a long road of rebuilding for Ecuador. One of my sisters emailed me to say how glad she was that I am safe, how frightening it can be to have a family member so far away, especially when something like this happens. It reminded me of how privileged I am, because if this country were ever in serious trouble, I could buy a plane ticket and leave. I have a way out, a family and home to return to, unlike the people on the coast who lost everything in one fell swoop and have no choice but to try and rebuild. Yet ... many of the structures were built with cement which had too much sand mixed in, making the material stretch further yet also making it weaker, more prone to utter destruction. Will buildings be more carefully constructed this time? Not if they can't afford it. The cycle of poverty goes around and around.

Many organizations are stepping forward with relief efforts. Locally, there is Extreme Response and Cruz Roja. From the States, Samaritan's Purse and others are responding. An Ecuadorian friend of mine has family living on the coast who have lost everything: the missions community I am a part of are gathering food and clothes to help them, and seeing how we can partner with the local outreaches to provide aid.

This morning, I was reminded of the story of Job, the man who lost everything yet refused to curse God's name. In the end, God came to Job and reminded the man of His might, omnipotence, and glory. Here and now we are reminded that though we have been physically shaken, we know who laid the foundation of the earth. We put our trust in God alone, having faith that He is sovereign and loving in all circumstances. Pray for the people of Ecuador, please. Pray they can rebuild in a better way. Pray for the people who are still missing, for the rescue workers trying to find them, and for everyone who has lost loved ones and homes. Pray for hope and peace to be given to those whose sense of safety has been lost.
Juntos, amigos, oremos. (Together, friends, let us pray)

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Truth About Jenny

"And she fights for her life as she puts on her coat
And she fights for her life on the train
She looks at the rain as it pours

And she fights for her life as she goes in a store
With a thought she has caught by a thread
She pays for the bread and she goes
Nobody knows"

 - "Her Morning Elegance" by Oren Lavie

There's a scene in "Forrest Gump" when young Forrest goes looking for his friend Jenny. He finds her behind her house, and when her father starts shouting from inside, she takes Forrest's hand and runs with him into the cornfield to hide. She kneels down and begins to pray, urgently, "Dear God, make me a bird. So I could fly far. Far far away from here." She repeats this prayer over and over as the camera pans away, the viewer understanding from Forrest's innocent observation that Jenny's father is very 'affectionate' towards his children that little Jenny is being abused.

Of course, the movie follows the stories of both children as they grow into adults, sometimes crossing paths in their very different lives. Jenny is drawn to Forrest because he is safe: throughout his life he maintains his innocence, his kindness, his Anne Frank-like belief that people are all good at heart. Jenny, however, knows all too well that people can have darkness. She is abused, and from this grows both a yearning to be loved and the belief that she is not worthy. So she falls into a cycle of self-abuse, with shameful work, drugs, alcohol, and more mistreatment from men, because after all - that's all she knew since she was a child.

There are far too many Jennys in the world.

In a later scene, Jenny and Forrest return to her old childhood home. She stares at the dilapidated structure which housed her worst pain, pain from a man who was supposed to protect and nurture her. In anger and grief, she picks up stones and begins hurling them at the house. She throws and throws until she falls to the ground, weeping, her long white skirt soiled in the dirt. Slowly, Forrest sits down beside her. He says simply, "Sometimes, I guess there just aren't enough rocks."

Some of the Jennys I've known/know have found friends, family, or counselors to help with their grief. Some, though, have first turned to cutting or substance abuse to try and control the emotional pain. There's a girl at Casa Adalia* whose wrists are so lined with cuts, it looks like the pages of a book. She had one of those particularly horrible pasts that people turn into almost unbelievable lifetime movies. She is free and safe now ... and she's not. Some days she believes it, believes that her future can be paved with dreams and people who truly love her. Some days, the pain and lies of worthlessness are too much and she feels herself gasping for air, preferring to run or cut because that's how she learned to misdirect the pain, and because she still feels the hands and words which said, "You are my property, I own you, you are only worth what I say."

In many ways, the boys of Casa Gabriel* are Jennys too. They learned to fend for themselves on the streets because of poverty, abuse, and neglect. Staggeringly, not one single boy in the house has a father in their lives. Their fathers, like hovering ghosts, have either abandoned their families or are no longer alive. The wounds run deep, deep, deep. Therefore the healing must run even deeper.

The truth about Jenny is that in the end, there may not be enough rocks to crush the ugly structure of pain, or a desperate prayer which is answered in a moment by turning one into a bird and letting them fly away. The truth is, there are so many Jennys who hide in plain sight all around us. Yet the truth is, every person has great worth. Every person is uniquely valued and loved. So I believe in hope and help and semicolon tattoos and honest conversations. Bit by bit, we are built from experiences and words, and how we handle them. We are effected by the people around us, as we in turn effect others.

The Jennys of this world are many. But the truth is, we as the human race are all linked. We can hurt and be hurt, but through God's grace and guidance and goodness, we can reach out and heal as well. Only through Him. We are weighed down by the rocks of this world, until we pray to God, crying out in faith and other less pretty places, and though we may not sense it right away, He will give us wings. He will set us free.

*Casa Gabriel and Casa Adalia are the homes for at-risk youth in Ecuador I work alongside.