Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Day Seven (Goodbye, Chichi)

Friday, October 5, 2012

It's our last day in Chichicastenango. I'm up at the prayer chapel at Monte Flor. Most of the others are hiking.

Dustin is feeling much better, thank God. He woke up this morning a new man. Darren is all better, too. We have a little more time here, and then it's back downtown to treat our favorite kitchen ladies to some ice cream.


Dustin and I started talking to Mark inside the chapel, so I stopped writing. Mark has a lot of wisdom to offer. We haven't even left Chichi yet, and Dustin and I are worried about returning to work in Charlotte. We've both struggled at times to find meaning in our jobs. We both work for large media corporations and spend our days riding around the streets of the Queen City shooting video of car wrecks, fires, political conventions and E. coli outbreaks. Some days we actually get to help people; many days we just wish we could do more.

I told Mark I was worried about finding a balance between work and life outside of it. I want to succeed and stand out at my job, but my priorities have shifted over the last couple of years. Before I'm a reporter, I'm Dustin's wife. Mark had some great advice. He suggested pouring everything we have into work when we're there. For those eight hours, we need to stand out by being totally focused on the task at hand. But once we walk out that door at the end of the day, the work has to stop. That's hard to do when we're both tethered to station-owned iPhones, but it's the only way we'll find true balance.

After some much-needed time at the chapel, our group headed back down the hill into the center of Chichi to finish packing and say goodbye to Gloria, Manuela, and Juanita. It's customary for each visiting group to treat the ladies before heading home. Buying them some ice cream was the least we could do after the way they fed and took care of us. The ice cream shop is conveniently located directly across the street from the mission house, so it only took a few minutes. I had the Guatemalan equivalent of cookies and cream, and it was delicious.

We dispersed a few minutes later to pack our bags. The van to Guatemala City was arriving shortly to take us away.

I had a really sweet moment with Gloria (she's the one on the far left) a few minutes before we left.

She came into our room to exchange contact information and gave me a big hug. She said "I'll miss you. I love you," in her thickly accented English. She said Dustin and I were a beautiful family. I think that's about when Dustin walked in and told Gloria she was our favorite. Just as sweet as can be, she smiled and blushed and said, "I'm everybody's favorite. I don't understand it. Only God knows why."

We tried not to crack up laughing, because she was so sincere when she said it. We proceeded to tell her exactly why everyone loves her so much: she's joyful, affectionate, and funny. She's the ring-leader of all kinds of singing that can be heard coming from the kitchen each day, and she takes a genuine interest in the crazy Gringos who come and go every other week.

We left behind quite a few items in Chichi. Don't worry, it was on purpose. Manos de Jesus will take just about anything...clothes, books, suitcases, you name it. I left some clothing and toiletries behind, and so did Dustin. He also gave his old sneakers to one of the local guys who couldn't believe they were "real Pumas."

After saying our goodbyes to Tammy and Ron and all of our new friends, we boarded a van to our hotel in Guatemala City. I was disappointed we couldn't ride there via pickup truck bed, but I suppose all good things must come to an end.

(continued Saturday morning)

I'm out on the balcony of our hotel in Guatemala City. It's like a different world. This is a luxury hotel. I think we stay here because it's one of the safer places for us to be. Plus, Manos has sent groups here so often that I hear the room rate is less than $65 a night. Good luck getting that kind of price in the U.S. for a place as nice as this. We have large, clean rooms, a huge outdoor pool and hot tub, and all kinds of other amenities. It feels so weird to be here.

Chichi is so remote; it's like going back in time. Here in Guatemala City, the people wear jeans and business suits, and everything is built up. I guess it looks about the same as any other big Central American city. Chichi is like a hidden gem that hasn't been corrupted by the global culture.

Last night we checked into the hotel around 5pm. I shaved my legs for the first time in a week. I didn't trust the water  in Chichi. Drinking it was forbidden. We couldn't even brush our teeth with it, so shaving and potentially getting a little cut didn't seem like a smart plan. This hotel supposedly has its own water filtration system to suit our delicate American bodies.

We ate dinner at Pizza Hut at 6 and then came back for our daily debrief. For the last week, our evening meetings always took place in the living room at the house. This time, we sat in the dark by the pool.

We talked a little about re-entry. Then we changed and met back up at the outdoor hot tub. Darren was a vision in his shower cap and bath robe.
(First of all, the date on the photo is wrong. Secondly, be glad you don't see the full length view. Darren's swim trunks were positioned so that it looked like there was nothing under that little robe. Boy, did our group get some stares. But after a week with Darren, we were used to it :)

This morning I've got a city view with a volcano looming in the distance. It's cloudy. I'm not sure how much is fog and how much is pollution, but the air smells like exhaust. We're doing breakfast at 8 and devotion with Rob at 9. He's going to ask us for our "elevator answers" to the inevitable question, "How was your trip?" I don't know yet what I'm going to say. How do you describe this life-changing experience in twenty seconds or less?


October 23, 2012 

It's been 16 days since Dustin and I arrived back in the U.S. from our first mission trip. I'm still working on that "elevator answer." If you've read even just one entry in this blog, you managed to go beyond the canned, twenty second response and delve deeper into our experience. I sincerely thank you for that.

Short-term missions are tricky. We go because we want to have an adventure and change lives for the better, but our motivations can lead us down a slippery slope. It's not okay to show up in another culture for seven days and think you have an instant cure.

It's easy to think we know it all. Two weeks ago I learned that isn't true. The people of Chichicastenango do a lot of things right. I saw big brothers protecting their little sisters. I saw families getting together over a meal and actually talking with each other...no TV or computer in sight. Most of all, I saw hope spreading slowly but surely, and the name of that hope is Jesus.

I still can't believe we got to be part of what's happening in Chichi, a place I had never even heard of this time last year. If you're in a tough season of life, don't overlook that last line. One year ago today, a city where I can now say I left part of my heart...wasn't even on my radar. It's amazing what can happen in a year if we just get out of God's way.

This trip has given me hope for the future--not just my future, not just Chichi's future, but the future of Jesus's Kingdom. He is on the move. All we have to do is open our eyes.

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” -Jeremiah, chapter 29


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Day Six (To the Lake)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

It's about 6:30 a.m. The power went out last night. I got up a little while ago just to see what time it was, because our clock was blinking. It's a very good thing I'm not a light sleeper. Last night a loud security alarm went off across the street for quite some time. The dog on the roof was barking up a storm, and the rooster was his typical ornery self.

Have I mentioned yet that there's a dog on the roof? Not our roof, but it might as well be. He's a big, gruff mut of a dog, and he never leaves the roof of the building next door, which shares a wall with us. We can see him from our courtyard. He stands at the very edge of the roof, up on the second or third story, looking out over the city and barking at everyone and everything that passes him by. His bark is more like a deep rumble, and it's loud. Like the rooster next store (see "Day One" for my thoughts on him), the dog on the roof has no concept of time. Or sleep. No one knows how he got up on the roof or why he's never taken inside. We just know that someone cares about him enough to feed him, which is rare in Chichi. 90% of the dogs we've seen running around are stray, and they are certainly not the picture of health.

Today is a market day again. I can hear it bustling just on the other side of our front gate. I want to grab a few more postcards and some bookmarks. We're doing our devotion at 7:30, breakfast at 8, and then we're off to visit Lake Atitlan.

(continued Thursday evening)

Lake Atitlan was even more beautiful than I expected. We wound way, way down a mountain, past a huge, rushing waterfall to get to it.

As you can see, we took advantage of a perfect photo op before we made our way down to the shore. That last photo, by the way, is our group leader, Don. With Tupac in charge, how could we go wrong??

Once we reached the shore, we all climbed onto a boat to cross to the other side where the market is located. You know I love a good boat ride. We had the boat to ourselves, with the exception of the Frenchman who hopped on board at the last minute. Apparently he was having trouble getting a ride because he was by himself, and the boat captains knew carrying one person across wasn't worth their time. Kevin told him he could join us under one condition: he had to share his story.  Thus began story hour with the random Frenchman. He said he was traveling the globe for a year with his wife and daughter, who were in another village at the moment. They had already been to Australia, the U.S., and a host of other places. (He's the one all the way at the front with a floppy tourist hat.)

I was in the middle of the boat on the way there, but coming back I sat all the way up front on the bow, and it was awesome. It was just one of the many times I've felt free on this trip. On the way back, I had not only an amazing view of the mountains and volcanoes; I had a perfect view of our little team. I started praying for each of them, one by one. I prayed for Darren, Johnny, Rob, Kevin, Don, Dustin, Tammy, and Jill. I still need to pray for Caroline, Lesley, and Mark. I ran out of time when we got to the shore. I think I'll do that now, actually.


Ok, everybody's covered. It's just been such a cool experience to get to know all of these incredible people who were practically strangers one week ago. Of course, we don't know all the details of each others' lives, but we know enough to spread a little wisdom back and forth (I know I've been on the receiving end of that wisdom). We definitely know enough to send up some specific prayers for one another.

I'm out on the hammock again--my favorite spot at the house. The clouds are moving in though. I think it's about to pour.

Most of the group is back at Monte Flor now. Dustin hasn't been feeling well all day, so we stayed behind. He's sleeping, thank goodness. I'm praying he feels good again when he wakes up. He has been such a good sport today, even though he's felt like crap. Think about some of the worst possible things you could do when you're feeling sick, and Dustin probably did them all. We took a long, winding bus ride to the lake. Then we spent a half hour on a boat. Then we climbed up a steep hill to visit the market. Then we got back on the boat, ate a big dinner that he couldn't possibly enjoy, and boarded the bus for another long, nausea-inducing drive. Poor guy.

It actually started last night. He was feeling queasy and sick to his stomach. He was like that for most of today. He also woke up aching all over and feeling feverish with a nasty headache. I really hope he gets better soon so he can enjoy our last full day in Guatemala. Darren has almost identical symptoms. We just don't know what's causing all of this.

Today we spent a couple hours in the market on the far side of the lake. It was much less overwhelming than the Chichi market, but there were still women and children constantly following us and being very, very persistent. Good news! This time I didn't get angry and stressed out! I bought some bracelets--some for myself and some for friends and family who helped make our trip possible.

My favorite is a golden-brown one with flowers made of beads. It's really beautiful. I bought it from a friend of Manos de Jesus named Michelle. Her real name is actually Michaela, but Ron can't pronounce (or remember) anything in Spanish, so he started calling her Michelle and it stuck. Manos supports her and helps her out. She takes care of her mom and she's putting her younger siblings through school, even though she's never had to chance to go herself.

I also bought a black and white bracelet from a young woman who seemed irked that Michelle was getting all the good Gringo business. This girl really had a bad attitude, but I felt sorry for her and finally caved in.

[Author's note added after the fact: I actually lost that black and white bracelet after one day of wearing it. It fell off my wrist and we never found it. Maybe it was better that way...]

There was also a very cute little boy selling some pretty bracelets of his own. I didn't need any more, but I did need to track down some postcards. At that point, Dustin was feeling pretty sick. While he sat at a coffee shop with Tammy and Kevin keeping an eye on him, I ventured out on my own for a few minutes. The boy followed me, trying persistently to sell me a bracelet. It felt kind of ridiculous to have him trailing me, so I slowed down and we walked down the hill side by side. I asked him a little about himself. His name was Israel. I told him my name and that I was trying to find some postcards. He brightened up and told me to follow him. The little guy led me straight to a store full of postcards. Now that's a good salesman for you. Since he had done me a favor (and he was adorable) I caved and bought five bracelets from him. I definitely want Jane to have one. She helped us so much to get here, and we're forever grateful. I want Casey to have one too. She was the first to jump on board and do a fundraiser for us without ever being asked.

Raindrops are falling and it's getting chilly out here. Time to head inside and check on my sweet husband.

(continued Thursday night)

Dustin slept through dinner. His stomach is better, but he's still aching all over and his head is pounding. Darren is still showing the same symptoms and also slept through most of the evening. Darren was in our stove-building group yesterday when we came across a sick girl and also ate some local food. We're still not sure if it's a virus or something food borne.

Tonight the ladies made fried chicken, french fries, and a delicious fruit salad for dinner. Then they made some indescribable pineapple pie for dessert. Dang, it was yummy. Those ladies are so incredibly sweet. They are cheerful when they work, and they're so loving. Yesterday was laundry day for the team, and Dustin did a load of our clothes early in the morning. They weren't quite dry by the time we had to leave for the stove builds. Dustin made a point of telling the ladies to just ignore our clothes or toss them in a basket if they needed to use the dryer. We wanted to be sure they didn't get stuck doing any of our laundry. Well, we came home to two perfectly folded piles of clothing on our bed. That's just the way they are. They are so kind, and they love Jesus too. We can learn so much for them. They truly do everything for the glory of God. They are cheerful and not grumblers. And they certainly make a joyful noise to the Lord. I just love them.

Dustin finally woke up around midnight, and he was ravenous. I knew that was a good sign. I had made him a fried chicken plate and put it in the 'fridge. He downed it in record time. He still wasn't 100% though, because he headed straight back to bed.

We'll see what tomorrow holds. I can't believe it's our last day in Chichi.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Day Five (continued)

We had just finished building the fourth stove of the day out of five. We asked the woman we built it for if she had any prayer requests. We had asked the same question at each house, and I think for the most part, nothing had surprised us or really grabbed our attention. This time it was different.

She went through some of the basics. Then she told us her husband drank too much and abused her. She wanted us to pray for him.

I'm really glad I wasn't the one leading the prayer that time, because I wouldn't have known what to say. Mark prayed out loud for her while Dustin and I put a hand on each of her shoulders and quietly prayed too. She was middle-aged and under five feet tall, which is typical around here. She had been nothing but kind and sweet and hospitable. The thought of someone repeatedly abusing her, to the point where she felt it important to ask a group of total strangers to pray about it, broke my heart. Tears were rolling down my cheeks, and I know I wasn't the only one who was upset.

Then I got angry. For the first time since we arrived in Guatemala, I was furious. Many members of our group have cried on this trip over the poverty they've seen. I had shed some tears of my own, but I had mostly kept my emotions in check, until that moment.  We've known that abuse is rampant in Chichicastenango. We've been told at least three out of four men here have an alcohol problem. The chances of a girl being abused before she even hits puberty are very high.  But, like most statistics, the numbers didn't hit home until I put a face on the abuse.

As we finished praying and left her with her new stove, it seemed so inadequate. The image of an abusive husband filled my mind and I felt rage bubbling up inside me. Your husband is supposed to be your protector, not a man who beats the snot out of you. I wanted to find that sorry excuse for a man and give him a taste of his own medicine. I am not a violent person, but in that moment I assessed our little group: four strong men who each towered over any of the local guys we'd met, and two young women who could hold their own. Couldn't we find this husband, take him out in the cornfield and teach him a lesson?

My thoughts got worse from there. I actually prayed that if she didn't love him, that he just wouldn't come home that night. Or ever again. I stopped short of praying for him to die, but the thought crossed my mind. I think that shows the darkness in my own heart--that I don't trust God to ultimately take care of everything. To take care of that sweet woman.

Now I'm calmer and I'm thinking about the unfortunate fact that we can't fix everything. We can build a widow a house. We can assemble a bunch of stoves. We can pray that the ministry we're part of this week continues to grow and multiply as it has done over the last couple of decades. What we can't do is take every man who abuses his wife into a cornfield and beat the pulp out of him. Aside from the obvious problem of answering violence with  more violence, this issue is too big for us to hunt down individual men. There needs to be a culture change. The amazing, God-fearing people who run Pray America/Manos de Jesus have been here long enough to start to see some positive changes in the people here. Even some of our group members from Wilmington who have been on this trip multiple times say they can see the change happening year by year. But the problems won't disappear overnight.

I can't sweep that woman out of her abusive home, but I can keep contributing to the efforts of Pray America once I'm back in the U.S., and I can keep praying for that family long after we leave this place.

Once we left our fourth stove build, we scooped up our supplies and started a long walk to the fifth and final site. My guess is that we only walked about a half a mile, but the steep terrain made it pretty tiring. I had yet to take the lead on one of the stove projects, so it was my turn to step up. It really wasn't difficult. I just followed the directions of the local guys and tried not to get in their way too much.

Since I was busy with the stove, I didn't spend too much time with the family. I just know the lady of the house was pretty old and very hard of hearing. Once the stove was finished, Darren started to pray for the family. Every time he paused to allow the translation to happen, the woman would strain to hear everything and loudly say, "HUH??" every couple of minutes. It doesn't matter what language you speak; some expressions are universal.

Darren prayed for the home, the stove, and the family, including the woman's hearing. He also said something at the end that stayed with me. He said, "I hope we will all meet again in heaven one day."

We've met so many memorable people here, and it's been tough to leave them after only a few hours or even just a few minutes together. I've been saddened to think that I'll never see any of them again. What Darren said really stuck with me. He was thinking beyond the present, beyond this world. He knew that these seemingly short-lived relationships had a chance of being renewed when our time on Earth is over. That thought makes me really happy.

Once we parted ways with the family, we had a long uphill climb back to the truck. We stopped to eat our bagged lunches along the side of the road before heading back to Chichi. We only had about a minute at the house before it was time to head to Pray America's third and final feeding center. Our stove builds had taken all day, so the other half of our team was already there waiting.

The truck ride was more harrowing than usual because it had rained recently and we needed to go up the longest, steepest mountain yet. There were a few moments when I was holding my breath, because the truck started to slide backwards down the muddy hill. Going off the hill meant going over a cliff. I could see the smallest trace of  panic in the eyes of a couple of my teammates as we exchanged glances in the back of the truck, but I think we had all grown used to the wild ride.

We eventually made it up the hill, thanks to determination on the part of our 22-year-old driver and four wheel drive. There was a beautiful sight waiting for us at the top of the mountain. Some kind of meeting was taking place, and a large group of women was gathered together. It was such a colorful scene, because all of the women wear bright, traditional dresses. There were also a few kids hanging out nearby. Dustin got some gorgeous shots of one little boy who liked the camera.

We walked over to the feeding center where about 200 children were already in the middle of their worship program. Once again, I saw smiles and enthusiasm like I've rarely seen elsewhere.

We helped serve the meals after their class. The vast majority of children ate only part of their meals before scraping the rest of the contents into plastic bags to take home to their families. We saw the same thing yesterday. It doesn't get any easier to watch.

One little boy who looked like he was about six or seven years old carefully helped his two little sisters scrape their food into one bag, along with his meal. It would likely feed the whole family for the next few days. Suddenly a stray dog came along and snatched the bag right out of his hand. The dog took off before anyone could do anything.  The little boy looked horrified. He burst into tears. I think all of the adults who saw what happened went into panic mode for a minute. We weren't sure if there was any food left in the kitchen, because every last grain of rice gets distributed each day.

Fortunately, there were a couple of plates left, and the local leaders at the center helped him and his sisters put it into a new bag to take home. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

After supper, the children dispersed quickly and scattered all over the mountainside, walking down dirt paths, through cornfields and woods to get back home. Older siblings looked out for their younger brothers and sisters, holding their hands or even carrying them on their backs.

Dustin found some not-so-camera-shy little boys. They wanted to have their picture taken but wouldn't smile at first. Even at a young age, they're all so serious sometimes. I started making faces behind Dustin, and they made some funny faces back.

I've mentioned before that I've seen a lot of our team members cry at different points throughout this trip. Sometimes you just can't help it. Tonight it was Dustin's turn. At the end of the day, we had a minute to ourselves back at the house. We were standing in our room and he just lost it. He couldn't get out too many words except for, "Those kids..."

I knew what he meant. There are just so many of them, and they're all so incredibly poor. We want to take them all home, but we can't. All we can do is help feed them a meal or two and shower them with the attention they seem so desperate for. That will have to do for now.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Day Five

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

This morning Jill led our 7 a.m. group devotion. She told the story of a volunteer project she worked on in Rochester, NY when she was younger. She met a boy named "Li'l Man" and gradually befriended him. He had a rough family life and always carried around a fake but very realistic looking toy gun. Long story short, he ended up leaving his gun behind and taking a handmade cross with him when he last parted ways with Jill. When she told him he forgot his gun, he just said, "I don't need it anymore."

It was a simple, beautiful story. She tied it all into a favorite verse of hers and mine in Philippians 2.

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. 

I've had that verse starred and underlined in my Bible for a long time but hadn't thought much about it lately. Don't we all want to shine? I know I do, but I usually try to do so in all the wrong ways, for all the wrong reasons. This trip is a reminder of what it means to shine in God's eyes...not the eyes of the world.

After devotion time we ate breakfast together as usual. We had french toast and fruit. Man, I love breakfast, but I think I'm gaining weight here. Who gains weight in a third world country??

Once we finished chowing down, we headed out for our third and final day of building. Today, we built stoves instead of houses. We split up into two teams so that each team could build five stoves. Dustin and I were on a team with Kevin, Jill, Mark, and Darren.

As usual, we piled into the bed of the ol' pickup truck with all the tools and supplies. These trips in the truck with the wind in my face have turned into one of my favorite parts of our time in Chichi. 

Our first stove build took us up the mountain, down a dirt road, to the edge of a huge corn field. Addresses are unheard of once you get outside the city, so our local guides are essential. That turned out to be especially true today. We unloaded our supplies and headed straight into the corn field. Somebody in the group joked that the house was "down aisle 23, row 4" or something like that. I really don't know how we found the place. It was surrounded by eight-foot tall corn stalks.

At first it seemed like no one was around, but a minute later a woman and her little girl appeared from between the stalks and greeted us. The house was actually a brand new "widow home" built by a Pray America team. We spotted the tell-tale horizontal wooden boards, tin roof, and window.

We were there to complete the home by building a wood-burning stove. The build only took about 20 minutes. I sat with the little girl most of the time. She was only two years old and very shy at first, but she warmed up. She loved putting stickers on her new coloring book...and everything else in sight.

Before I knew it, it was time to move onto the next home. We got the stove going and left the mom and her little daughter to enjoy it. We could see the smoke drifting up from the new chimney as we made our way back through the corn field. 

Our next two stove builds were actually on the same property. The first house was older, up on a steep dirt hill.
There were no windows, so it was pitch black inside. Each one of us had the chance to be in charge of one stove today. I'll be honest here. When Kevin asked if there were any volunteers to help with the stove inside the dark house, I pretty much wandered away in the opposite direction. I figured it was for everyone's good. I'm not exactly handy with tools and putting things together. And that's when I can see what I'm doing. Building in the dark didn't seem like something a clumsy person should be involved in, so I headed down the hill to meet the girl who lived on the property.

Her name was Marleny (Mar-LAY-nee) and she was a sweet, sweet, intelligent 12-year-old who seemed curious enough about our presence there to approach us and try to communicate a little bit. She was so smart and had so much potential, but she had already finished her schooling. It's not unusual for children here to stop going to school after the sixth grade level. It's really a shame.

Marleny was kind enough to work with Jill on writing a letter to the Sunday School students back at Port City Church in Wilmington. It took quite a few of us, but we managed to communicate what we were looking for in broken Spanish, and Marleny happily complied.

We quickly discovered that Marleny loved soccer. We pulled a new soccer ball out of our goody bag and started kicking it around. She was really good, but said she didn't own her own ball. She lit up when we told her she could keep the one we brought. I kicked it around with her for a little while, but there was someone else in our group who was much more qualified.

Darren actually coaches a girls' soccer team back in Wilmington. He took over for me and had a great time playing with Marleny. He later said he only wished she could get the chance to play on a team. Something American kids don't think twice about would have been an incredible privilege for Marleny.

Our second stove build on that property was actually inside Marleny's house. She lives in one of the homes built by Pray America with her mom and two older siblings. We could tell the home was appreciated and lived in. It was really cool to see calendars and posters of soccer stars decking out every wall. It may have been small, but it was bright and cozy.

Dustin did a lot of work on the stove at that house. The building process is pretty simple. You start with some cinder blocks on the ground. Then you add what looks like a big sink made of porcelain and concrete. Then you pour in a few gallons of lava rock and build a little house of red clay bricks on the inside, where the firewood goes. There's a black metal stovetop that gets placed on top of everything. Then the local guys climb up and cut a hold in the roof to make a chimney. Add some wood, light it up, and you've got a stove.

As cool as the stoves are, at first I wasn't sure why it was so important for us to build them. Then I saw how the Guatemalans were cooking before they received the stoves, and it instantly made sense. Picture your living room. Now imagine that's your whole house. You can't afford any more space, so you're now sleeping, cooking, and eating in that one room. Now picture it with a dirt floor. And start a bonfire. Inside. Right in the middle of the living room. Oh, and you don't have a chimney or any windows, so the smoke just hovers, and you breathe it in all day and all night. That's what we saw today. Fire pits with open flame in the middle of homes. In addition to the obvious lung issues, it's common for children to accidentally fall into the fire, since it's hard to avoid. The stoves have quite a few benefits. First of all, there's no more open flame, so the kids are safer. Secondly, there's a chimney, so the smoke finally has a path out of the house. And lastly, the design saves families 60% in firewood expenses.

Back to Marleny's stove. Once we finished it, I had a chance to pray for it and for her family. A verse popped into my head...I couldn't place it, but I knew it had to do with God having a plan for us and giving us a hope and a future. So, I prayed for Marleny to have hope and a future. Then we packed up and headed out, leaving her with her new soccer ball and likely some funny memories of those crazy Gringos who showed up at her house one day.

The drive to our third stop wasn't too bad, but the hike that ensued was pretty tiring. We parked the truck along the main road and had to walk the rest of the way, down a steep, slippery hill. We arrived at a little compound of huts, with an outdoor sink for laundry and dishes. Inside a tiny building that appeared to be the kitchen/dining room, we found a young girl who was very sick. She was shaking and coughing. We tried to brighten up her day a little, and she agreed to color for awhile, but we mostly left her alone because the poor thing looked absolutely miserable. I prayed for her to be healed. I have to trust that God knows what He's doing.

A second girl showed up, and she was a little older. She wrote a letter in Spanish with Jill and Mark and also played some Jenga with us.

There were several women around, including some town leaders. They offered each of us a meal. That put us in a bit of an awkward spot. The meal was tortillas and cheese, with some hot orange tea. (or hot Tang?) I had been warned so many times about eating food not cooked in the mission house that I was really nervous about even trying the food, but I still took a plate and a drink so I didn't appear rude. I had a tiny nibble of cheese and one bite of tortilla. I didn't venture to try the hot Tang. One drop of water in that area can make an American sick for days, so I quietly poured it out onto some plants. Kevin, who lives in Guatemala full time, happily ate the rest of my cheese and tortillas. Some of us ate the food and others silently got rid of it, but the point is the family was trying very hard (and probably spending a lot of money) to be hospitable to us. In this case, it really is the thought that counts.

The stove was built quickly, as usual. It was our fourth one of the day, so we were getting pretty speedy. It was soon time to pray with the family and head to the last stop. We had grown accustomed to asking each family if there was anything specific they wanted us to pray about. Until then, the answers had all been pretty basic and predictable...requests for good health, blessings on the home, a stove that worked well, etc.

At this home, a middle-aged woman gave a request we hadn't heard before, and the story behind it made me furious.

(to be continued)


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Day Four (Dustin's Guatemalan birthday)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 (Dustin's 29th birthday)

Last night I dug Dustin's birthday card out of my travel bag and signed it. I'm glad I waited until we were in Guatemala to write in it. I told him I was more proud than ever to be his wife after seeing how he's handled this trip. He's adjusted to our new surroundings incredibly quickly. He's been ready for adventure and also ready to buckle down and work hard. Most of all, he's been wonderful with the children.

[Sidenote from author for family and friends: No, we are not having kids yet. Hold your horses. Sheesh.]

I led our morning devotion on grace and truth, taken from our pastor's recent sermon at Meck. It was about finding a balance of grace and truth in our lives as believers. If we have all truth and no grace, we become a bunch of Bible thumpers who beat people over the head with our ideas and their sins. But if we have all grace and no truth, we fail to share the awesome news that Jesus is alive and ready to love and forgive us. We end up condoning things we shouldn't. It's really hard to find that middle ground, but Jesus did it time and again. (Read the story of the adulteress in John 8:1-11 for what may be one of the best examples.) We can start by following His lead.

This morning the kitchen ladies--Juanita, Manuela, and Gloria--sang happy birthday to Dustin. They even sang in English!

When Dustin was distracted, Kevin and I conspired about getting him a cake and a pinata. More about the pinata later. For now, let's just say I am SO glad we had a video camera on hand, because it got ridiculous.

After breakfast, we left for our second day of building houses. Each experience is different, and you never know exactly what to expect.

This build took place way up in the mountains. It was about a 45 minute ride in the back of the pickup. This time we worked with Caroline, Johnny, and Rob. We had Tony and Fausto again for building as well as translating.

As soon as we pulled up to the build site, I could tell it was going to be an awesome day. The widow we were building for, Sevastiana, was one incredible lady. She looked like she was about 80 years old, but we're told she was actually younger than that. Looks are very deceiving down here. The women don't have moisturizers and sunscreen and botox to keep them looking young, and they live very tiring, difficult lives.

Sevastiana started giving out hugs to all of us as soon as we stepped onto the site. She exuded joy and thankfulness and something else I still can't quite put into words. The best way to say it is that she had a gleam in her eye, and she struck me as being a bit unpredictable.

In many ways, she was a Guatemalan version of my Mom-Mom. She was clearly the one who ruled the roost around there, and her feisty attitude still makes me chuckle when I think about her. Dustin snapped a few photos of her that really capture her personality. Her face is so beautiful and expressive.

In addition to being a real live-wire, Sevastiana was intensely curious and also a bit possessive. Maybe it's because she owns so few possessions. I snapped a photo of where she was living before she received her new house. It was essentially a tent with a dirt floor. Four wooden posts covered with a black tarp. It shocked me to see it.

After seeing the poverty Sevastiana was accustomed to, I couldn't help but grin when she turned into, well...a bit of a clepto. It started with a beach ball. Dustin pulled one out of our goody bag and started to blow it up for some children to play with. Sevastiana was watching him closely. He was only about halfway through blowing it up when she tried to take it from him.

"Es mia!" she said. (It's mine!)

Dustin tried to explain to her that it would be even better in a few minutes when it wasn't all lumpy and half-filled with air. At first, she just wasn't having it, but she eventually backed off and let him finish. As soon as he sealed it, she grabbed it! It was so funny!

"Es mia!" She grinned and wandered off with her new beach ball. A few minutes later, I had to work very hard to convince her to let me borrow it for a few minutes to play with some of the kids. She was just so funny, and it got better from there. She would wander around the build site, snatch up anything we weren't using, and put it down her blouse. Crayons, keys, nails...those are just a few things we saw go down there. At one point, she took the whole box of roofing nails and started to wander off. Given that we needed those nails to finish her house, the guys made sure to stop her and gently take them back out of her hands.

When we weren't keeping an eye on our favorite unpredictable widow, we spent time with three little girls who also lived on the property. We colored and played with the beach ball (when we could pry it out of Sevastiana's hands) and Caroline led some arts & crafts projects.

Sevastiana and her friends loved her new house. In fact, we had a hard time keeping them out of it while the guys were still finishing up construction. They were eagerly sweeping the cement floor and making preparations for move-in.

Soon, it was time to dedicate the home. Caroline was in charge of communicating with Sevastiana. She did a wonderful job, and it was especially touching because Caroline is a widow herself. She told us this trip was part of her healing process. She told Sevastiana the house was a free gift from Jesus Christ and shared the story of His life, in a nutshell. Sevastiana's friends, along with the town elders, had decorated her new house with grass and beautiful flowers. It was clear they appreciated the home and wanted to make its dedication a special event.

Normally, at the end of the dedication, we would present the widow with the lock and key to the house, but that wasn't necessary this time given that Sevastiana had spotted the key earlier and promptly dropped it down her blouse.

One of her friends (I believe a local leader or elder) said a beautiful prayer in a combination of Spanish and Quiche. It was clear she was already a follower of Jesus and wanted to share her passion for God. Johnnie also had a chance to pray for the house before we started to gather up our things and head back to downtown Chichi.

We left some very joyful people behind to enjoy their new home. I know I'll never forget them, especially Sevastiana.

We were at the house less than five minutes when it was time to pile back into the truck and head for another feeding center. We could see that rain was on the way, and it didn't take long before it started to fall. There's nothing quite like cruising the mountains of Chichicastenango in the back of a pickup truck during a rainstorm. My rain jacket kept me pretty dry from the waist up, but my jeans were soaked after about ten minutes of driving. I think we all chalked it up as part of the experience. We were each in the process of learning to be less pampered and more appreciative of our many blessings, so there wasn't a lot of complaining going on.

When we arrived at the feeding center, the kids were CRAZY. We all turned into jungle gyms. At one point, I think Don had at least four boys hanging from different parts of his body. There was one little boy in a yellow shirt who stole my heart. He was an adorable little terrorist. It didn't matter how many times we picked him up and tossed him around. He wouldn't quit until we did it just one more time. He was absolutely starved for attention, and Dustin and I were happy to love on him during the short time we were there.

Just like they did at the first feeding center we visited yesterday, the kids sang and worshiped for an hour before coming to get their meals--rice with red sauce, a hard boiled egg, beans and a few small tortillas.  I mentioned yesterday that not all the food was being eaten on site.  Today, I paid more attention, and what I saw was heartbreaking.

Almost all of the kids brought plastic grocery bags with them. They ate a few bites of food, and then 80 percent of them stopped eating and started scraping the rest of the food into the bags. The Pray America leaders told us they were taking it home to feed the rest of their families.

I've never seen children--all the way from the older kids down to the toddlers--exercise so much discipline. The meal was meager enough to begin with, and we know they were all hungry, but they forced themselves to stop eating in order to support their families. That was something I just wasn't prepared to see.

After we helped serve and clear the plates, we took our cold, damp selves back to the house in Chichi. We got there at 6:00, which is normally when we eat dinner each night, but Kevin stopped us at the door and directed us out to the courtyard. The smirk on his face told me he had bought the pinata we talked about that morning.

What a creepy looking pinata! I think it was a bear. Or a dog. I don't really know. I just know it was big and creepy.

And here's the other thing: the pinata didn't just hang there on a string. Oh, no. They have a special way of doing things at the Pray America house. The pinata was actually on a zip line. Kevin and Tony both controlled one end of the line, so they could make that big, ugly thing zip back and forth at rapid speeds.

Dustin and I both got a shot at beating the candy out of it, and we made absolute fools of ourselves trying to bat it out of the air. The zip line element was pretty incredible. Not only were you blindfolded and swiping at the air; you had to listen for the sound of this thing whipping by in order to know when to take a swing. Dustin went first, of course. I was next. We have both attempts on camera, which we'll have to share later. Darren was the final participant, and he struck the death blow that unleashed all the candy.

After our pinata fun, we headed inside to eat dinner together. Then, with the help of my favorite kitchen ladies, we all grabbed birthday hats and noisemakers and gathered in the kitchen to surprise Dustin with one last thing. Gloria, Manuela, and Juanita had made him a beautiful chocolate cake with vanilla icing and kiwi garnish. We sang to him and gave him the full birthday treatment.

 So, it's safe to say Dustin rang in 29 years with a bang, Guatemalan style.