Monday, June 26, 2017

More Than Just A Trip

“We owe Christ to the world--to the least person and to the greatest person, to the richest person and to the poorest person, to the best person and to the worst person. We are in debt to the nations.” 
― David PlattRadical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream

Over the past few years, people have started questioning and re-evaluating short term mission trips. Since most things can stand evaluation, this is good. Time gives insight and new perspective, if we let it.

I've been on a number of short-term trips and now, of course, have been living overseas for the past three and a half years working full-time as part of a permanent missions community. When asked, I have to say that short-term trips, even ALL mission work, has it's pros and cons. It can be done well, creating a pathway for people to find God and receive help and hope, yet it can also be done poorly, creating habitual dependency, even jealously of the Americans who come in with their resources and supposedly better ... everything.

Two summers ago, a church from the States sent a huge group of people - mostly teens - to Ecuador on a mission outreach. They were not involved with the ministries I work with; I encountered them because someone heard about the EsperanzArt jewelry ministry and asked if jewelry could be brought to their hotel for them to purchase. (This is a good thing, because the girls at Casa Adalia are paid per piece they make, so we need avenues to sell the jewelry to pay the girls and purchase materials).

Yet as I set up the table of jewelry, I came across some personal road blocks. First of all, their hotel was one of the ritziest in Quito. I walked in and knew that even in the States, I would be hard pressed to afford a place that grand. Next, everyone on the team was participating in Wacky Hair Day, because I guess making everyone create crazy hair styles bonded them as a group? That's cool, have fun. (kids these days). They were also preparing to do street evangelism using goofy costumes and skits, which I hope can reach people for Christ yet have personal hesitations about. I rolled with everything until a woman stood and gave a long presentation. She spoke on a Bible story and gave illustrations which frankly, I don't remember. What I do recall was how she talked about her Sleep Apnea machine and how now that she can actually get a good nights sleep sleeping will become her new ministry, ha ha, and that she was a sort of traveling evangelist speaker person who was happy to come to your church if you told your pastor to hire her. Then she talked about how next year the church would be sending a team to Haiti, and by golly everyone needed to sign up for that trip right away because (and I quote), "That is the trip which is going to break you."

I stood in the back and thought, "Really? This trip isn't even over, and you're practically dismissing it by saying that the next one is the really good trip? The trip which will really make YOU grow as a disciple of God from everything YOU are able to experience and give to those poor people in need?" I may have had a problem with that woman's statement. Bless her heart.

I've seen some incredible things happen on short-term trips, including clean water wells being dug for communities drinking from the same dirty river they bathe in, churches built from the ground up, and evangelism in remote villages who have never before opened a Bible. Those things are awesome and should absolutely keep happening. But if I'm 100% honest with myself, I should admit that on those short-term trips, I usually received more than I was given.

I think this is alright, as long as we're honest about it instead of magnifying what we actually gave. Going on those trips stirred my heart to do long-term work, work which I was qualified to do. Because I went on those short-term outreaches, I clearly felt God calling me to do more, until here I am, over halfway through a five-year commitment to working with at-risk youth in Ecuador. Short-term is how most long-term mission workers end up in the field. It's an immersion into another culture meant to shape and define you; the question is what we do after the trip. That's where it often counts the most.

However I've also heard of teams which repaint the same church walls every summer, even of the church telling the congregation to purposefully dirty the walls so that the US team will have something to do, because they don't want to stop the yearly flow of actually needed donations such as shoes, clothes, school supplies and food. Painting a wall, holding babies, and returning home thinking about what a blessing it all was; in truth, shouldn't there be a better way to enable the community to be able to buy the things they need on their own, and not be reliant on a yearly team? The world doesn't need more dependency. It needs more entrepreneurs who can enter a community and say, "Let's use the resources you already have available to better your community and your way of life."

One thing I love in working with the boy's home, Casa Gabriel, is that I am one of only two North Americans here. There's Phil the Director, myself, and then the rest of the team - house-parents, tutor, psychologist, and relief house-dad - who are all Ecuadorian. Phil is careful to blend any of his American ideas with Ecuadorian culture and tradition. He hopes that if he leaves one day, the ministry would continue to thrive.

I may sounds cynical about some things ... and I guess I am. We Americans and Europeans DO have a lot of resources, yet even with the best of intentions, the sincerest compassion, there must be evaluation. Are we helping, or hurting? Are we doing this for them, or for us? Churches, please keep going, giving, and praying. Be involved in something bigger. Just be humble. Be honest. Don't simply  be a band-aid. Take in the big picture, partner with locals, see the beauty and strength and resourcefulness of a community, and not just the poverty and sadness. If you go on a trip "that breaks you", do something with it. Be changed by it so that in turn you can make a lasting change in others, whether an overseas community, your own, or both. Don't let it just be a one-time feel-good memory. Do.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Playing Pretend

"Farther along we'll know all about it
Farther along we'll understand why
Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We'll understand this, all by and by"
 - Farther Along, by Josh Garrels

My siblings and I loved to play pretend. We would pick characters from favorite books and movies. often finding a role we liked best and sticking to it. Favorites of ours were Peter Pan and Robin Hood. My sister Teal and I would take turns playing Peter Pan and Wendy, then Robin Hood and Maid Marian. We would fight pirates and swordsmen, and also spend time locked in a turret or tied to a ship, about to walk the plank. We would take turns being the one working to save the other, swooping in at the last moment, heroically. Robin and Peter were bold and dashing. Marian and Wendy were more nurturing, singing lullabies to the imaginary lost boys, and encouraging Robin in his fight against tyranny.

Something I loved about our games is that it never mattered that Peter and Robin were male characters. They were interesting, and we played them without gender bias, as I think children should always have the freedom to do. For us, what mattered about the characters was their defining qualities: for Robin and Peter, that meant bravery, selfless sacrifice, being quick-minded so as to outsmart the bad guys, and of course impressive skills with a bow and sword. For Marian and Wendy, it meant a willingness for adventure matched with a gentle kindness. Wendy leaves her windowsill to fly into the night, looking after her younger brothers the whole time. Marian gives her heart to a rebel who is fighting for justice, risking both her regal birthright and her life in order to support him and his cause. This is why these characters are so timeless. Even in their mistakes, there is nobility, honor, and always the good of others at the heart of their adventures.

We loved to pretend in those moments that we could truly be the heroes of anything. Correction: not pretend, we believed it, the thorough faith of those who haven't experienced enough of life to know any differently. The buoyant optimists who chose to say they're flying instead of falling, every time, no matter what anyone else is shouting warningly at them.

We played these characters for years. We fashioned bows out of pliable juniper branches, and arrows out of straight yucca rods. We made swords and daggers and climbed trees as high as we dared, designating them as castles and ships and secret hideaways.

We had plenty of more traditionally girl games as well. Tea parties and families and cafes. Yet it was the adventures of good fighting against evil which I recall most fondly. We were also knights in shining armor, off to fight dragons, and explorers like Christopher Columbus, searching for new lands.We set out to do what we were convicted in our hearts must be done. Pretend or otherwise, that is all which really matters.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Paddle and Float

"River run
And brother row
And the ease between us
The calm below"
 - Riverswim, by The Decemberists

I went stand-up paddle boarding with my brothers Haven and Shepherd. They had done it with me once before and said yes immediately when I asked if they would like to go during my brief visit to the States.

We had trouble finding the place due to poor directions and it having been a while since we'd last been, so when we finally parked we had a brisk one-mile walk across a bridge and along the river to the dock.

 It had been raining off and on recently, however that Friday afternoon was perfectly clear. The sky was impossibly blue, stretching away past the tree line, past the high rises and sky scrapers of Austin, flecked with wispy white clouds which somehow looked more like a painting than real life.

 - They call it Lake Austin, but let's be honest; it's a river you paddle down one direction or the other, the dam sending power to the city and the scenic nature inviting people to walk along it's banks and dip into it's current. -

We rented our boards and glided out into the river, first on our knees and then standing, balancing carefully before planting our feet firmly apart, paddles in the water, back and forth and back and forth. We each found a rhythm, moving determinedly across the river towards the right side bank, then paddling onwards, stroke after purposeful stroke.

We passed kayakers and canoes. We paused to admire groups of turtles sunning themselves on logs, some of them craning their wrinkled necks at us before diving for safety. When we had paddled to an overpass, cars rushing overhead, we sat on our boards in the shade. Haven lay flat on his back, arms under his head. Shepherd and I followed suite. I closed my eyes: the river rocked me gently, and when I floated from under the bridge the sun warmed me to my core. I felt grounded, whole. I believed in that moment that I could float that way for hours, sleeping and waking and dreaming, the river below me, the sky above me, and my brothers nearby, ready to rise and paddle back when the time was right.

We didn't have hours, only two. So we paddled further, to a different bridge, then across the other side of the river and back, fighting the current towards the dock.

We walked back to the car, sun-kissed and thirsty. So much water, yet none to drink. My body felt taut from balancing and paddling, a kind of raw energy which both tires and awakens and ensures a deep sleep when one's head hits the pillow.

Maybe one day I'll save up and buy my own board and paddle. I'll take it out on the water as long as I like. Even now, if I lay flat on my back and close my eyes, I can conjure up the feeling of floating gently down the river, on and on to wherever the current leads.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Mother's Day For The Motherless

"One of these mornings you're gonna rise up singin'
Then you'll spread your wings and you'll fly to the sky"
 - Summer, from the musical Porgy and Bess

"Now," the pastor said, opening his arms wide, "Every mother and child, stand up."
All around the sanctuary, people stood, embracing and holding hands. Mothers with young children and with grown children who had little ones of their own, generations standing together, connected.

On my left, one of the Casa Gabriel boys, "L", leaned his shoulder briefly against mine. I leaned back and he put his arm around my shoulder. To my right, Debbie reached an arm across us to grip the shoulder of "D". We stayed that way, connected yet not standing, Debbie and I desperately wanting these boys to know that though we weren't their mothers, couldn't be, still we love them so much.

L. was physically and verbally abused by his mom. An aunt is the closest thing to a mother for D. As the pastor at the front of the church praised mothers, on and on, I knew the boys beside me must have been thinking, "If mothers are such an important role in everyone's life, a role specially created by God, what happened with mine? Why don't I have what most of the people in this church have so naturally?"

After church, Phil sat down with the boys present that morning and told them plainly and kindly how difficult this holiday is for them. They talked for quite some time, Phil validating their feelings of loss and assuring the there is nothing wrong with them.

For weeks before Mother's Day, we're all bombarded with well-meaning reminders.
"Buy a card! Chocolate! Flowers!" proclaim signs in most windows. So then, what do you do for the motherless? For those who either have no living mother, or for those who ran away from home again, and again, and again, because sleeping on the streets was better than being beaten or rejected?

Two of the boys have mothers whom they were able to go visit that day. For one, his mother is stable now that she's out of jail and living for Christ, though the situation with her husband can be tenuous, making it best for the son to live at Casa Gabriel away from his stepdad.
The other boy's mom is mentally unstable. He ran away at a young age to avoid having things thrown at him while she screamed. All these years later, he is eager to study social work in hopes of helping his mom and others.

I take for granted so often the little luxuries I grew up with. A comfortable home, a good education, basic needs met, parents who loved me. I see these boys and am amazed at how far they've come on so little. Like any group of teenagers, there is the common thread of complaining and bad attitudes about chores and house rules. Typical, yes, though on a holiday like Mother's Day I wonder; what part of them is truly annoyed over having to do the dishes, and what part of them is hurting over having been neglected? While stomping around in a mood, is it while wondering why God dealt them such a poor hand for so long? God is father, but this can be a difficult concept, when most of their own fathers abandoned them before they were born. Why? Why so unfair? Shouldn't it be a little thing to ask, that the people who conceived you and brought you into the world love you?

In church, L. grinned and poked me, knowing he can get away with it. He likes to try and press people's buttons to see how far he can push them. I hope, and believe, he realizes that even when I block him from tickling me, or tell him not to playfully punch me quite so hard in the ribs, he knows he is in a safe place full of people who love him. All these boys, motherless or abandoned, are so very loved every single day. Some days, we just have to work a little harder to remind them of it.