Beloved Partners

To all my friends in and from Latin America:

May I tell you how I feel about you? You are human beings created in the image of God and loved by God. You are my friends, my neighbors, my brothers and sisters, my surrogate niece and nephews. I love you. I thank God for you, for who you are, and for placing you in my life as beautiful gifts.

To Sara, Tim, and Andrew, my surrogate family when I desperately needed one: you continue to teach me what it means to be a person of color living in the U.S., especially in a very white region. You will always hold a special place in my heart.

To the women in El Salvador who witnessed and participated in my prophetic call to missions: you helped me hear God more clearly and see God working in my life.

To the immigrants I met in Agua Prieta, who changed my life and my work: your courage and devotion to your families inspire me still.

To Carmen and your two beautiful daughters, the first family I worked with in Baby Jail: you trusted me with your horrific story of rape and gang extortion, and two years later we still call and text each other. Your tenacity for the safety and well-being of your children overwhelms me.

To Elmer and David and your lovely family: you welcomed me into your home and your lives when they were contained within a church building as you sought sanctuary. You shared your food and your lives with me, showing me true hospitality.

To my ministry partners in Guatemala: you’ve shown me what it looks like to live out one’s faith, to work for change in the face of incredible odds, to love your neighbors beyond what is safe or sensible. You fight for justice and the flourishing of all people, not just your own family members and friends. You are bringing glimpses of God’s kingdom to earth.

To Anna, Jose, Gloria, and all the other clients I’ve worked with in the immigration legal office: you’ve shown me what courage and persistence look like.

To Nayda, Luis, and all the other Dreamers: you work harder than most people I know. You’ve shown me what commitment, tenacity, and love for family look like. May all your dreams come true.

To all of you, you are created in God’s image and loved by God, and I say to you: you are beloved human beings. You are my friends, my family, my neighbors, my sisters and brothers. And I love you.

 

 

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Becoming Family

I’ve learned in my work with internationals that people from other countries are often more formal with those they perceive as being in positions of authority than most North Americans are. This actually has a name; it’s called power distance. Many North Americans are relatively uneasy with this concept of holding some people to be more important than others; we like to believe that in America everyone is equal. (Yes, I do realize that that’s a myth.)

When I first began mentoring newly-arrived refugee families, I ran into this phenomenon head-on. When you mentor refugees, you quickly become part of their family. But members of my new Nepali-Bhutanese families insisted on calling me “Ma’am”—never my first name—which made me uncomfortable. It took weeks of telling  and showing them that I was their equal, their sister, and that I wanted them to call me by my first name. They graciously explained to me that in their culture they would never call someone like me by my first name. As our relationship deepened, they eventually learned to call me Vicki and to be comfortable with it.

I’ve mentored several more families since then. Generally speaking, Asians have higher power distance than do Africans. I’ve befriended a Karen woman from Burma whom I first met in ESL class. I became her volunteer mentor, and our relationship grew closer. Yet she has always called me “Teacher,” never my first name. By the time I met her, I was seasoned enough to realize that that was a battle I didn’t need to win or even fight, so I let it go.

Today, more than four years later, my friend and I had lunch together. That’s a fairly regular occurrence, except that today was her first time to eat Mexican food! She had just finished ESL class and we were talking about that. I noticed that she called each of her other teachers and volunteers by their first names!

I decided to go for it: I asked my friend, “You call Jim, Jim; you call Carol, Carol; you call Sara, Sara. Why do you call me Teacher and not my name?”

Her answer made my heart sing.

“Because I tell you everything. Only you. You are my teacher.” She said the word in her own Karen language, which of course I don’t remember. “You know my whole family, my whole life. You are forever. Other people are temporary.” She said the Karen word again, and I put my hands over my heart. The word was more a term of endearment than a formality.

I asked, “Is it more like sister?”

“Yes,” she said. “Almost like sister.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dignity in the Slums and Garbage

“Most churches are inactive in their communities not because they don’t understand the theological call to love our neighbors. It’s because they are afraid.” (Ivan, Guatemala City)

I recently met and accompanied Doña Tita, the Mother Teresa of one of the biggest slums in the Americas, as she visited and prayed with people whose family members have been murdered by the ruling gangs.

“Honestly, I feel like an alien at my church. I was invited to a women’s group and they asked for prayer requests, and all the ladies were sharing things like pray for my new recipe to turn out well. Meanwhile, a woman here [in the slum] was giving birth hours after her husband had been murdered by gang members. I couldn’t even tell these women what was on my heart.”

“This work is a lonely path. The local church does not know what to do with a place like La Limonada, or with people like me.”

Tita has established four child development academies inside La Limonada, a slum with a population of 80,000, built on the slopes of a ravine or natural watershed. Ironically, the national Justice Offices overlook the slum. La Limonada is controlled by the MS-13 and Calle 18 gangs, with invisible boundaries, which if crossed, will bring you a bullet or a knife. Tita visits the families within the slum and prays with them. Her focus is on prevention, which is why she opened the child development academies. The people living in La Limonada know Tita and love her. Yet she fully expects that one day she will die from a bullet to her head inside La Limonada.

We met with one woman whose husband owes the gangs money, so he took off. One night the gangs came across the ravine to the wife’s home, demanding that she pay his debt. She suffered a stroke because of the horror of the experience.

We met another woman whose husband was killed by the gangs. Her family is in similar circumstances of poverty and danger, so they are in no position to help her. Yet she trusts fully in God, and prays that the friend who lives with her will notice her testimony during her own desperation.

Puertas de Esperanza, La Terminal

Jomara also focuses on prevention, hosting a child development center called Puertas de Esperanza (Doors of Hope). There the children can get a good meal, clean water, and showers. They even have a pet cat name Frijolito. Jomara visits families within La Terminal, the largest “popular” (flea) market, which sells everything including prostitution. The people there know her and love her. Jomara holds multiple degrees, and her friends ask her why she does what she does, when she could have an important, well-paid job. Like La Limonada, La Terminal is a dangerous place. Police and fire officials won’t go there; it’s an enormous maze of sales stalls and living quarters. There is no water or sewage, so urine and waste are everywhere.

As we wound through the maze of the market, we ended at the market’s dump. The truck that collects the garbage was broken, so the garbage had not been picked up for longer than usual. Small children were climbing on the piles, fishing out junk that could be recycled: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and cardboard.

Jomara’s ministry is located outside La Terminal, about a block away from the dump, but she’s praying to buy a lot that backs up onto the dump. As they say in the real estate business: location, location, location. We were astounded at the asking price for this particular location; who else wants property in the dump? Who else but Jomara.

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Our team with Jomara and Frijolito (little bean).

 

 

Holistic Ministry

I was moved to tears by our visit to a church in the middle of nowhere in Guatemala, serving a community of about 300 families, most of whom have 10-12 children. About five years ago the pastor and the congregation caught the vision for holistic ministry, wanting to serve the whole community (not just church members) in relevant ways that meet real needs. This is an agricultural community, where the people work fertile but rented plots of land. They never eat the produce they grow, because it all goes to the big corporation that owns the land and exports the produce. With little education and few opportunities other than farming, it was normal for people to migrate north to Canada or the U.S. The church decided to open a wood shop where the pastor teaches carpentry to anyone in the community who has an interest. Twenty people began the first training. Some dropped out. But others remained, and even cancelled their plans to migrate north.

Those trained in carpentry make furniture for their own use and for use in the wood shop. They’ve also built homes for people in the community who are in need, whether they are church members or not. The church also has recognized a need in the community for child care; two children have died while drawing water from a ditch while their parents were away at work. So the carpenters are now building an extension on the church to care for children and feed them while their parents are at work. The space is large, well-planned, and well-built. Now they only lack the funds to buy the remaining materials necessary. All the work is done by volunteers who work the fields five days per week.

I was overcome by the evidence of what God can do through a handful of faithful followers. When the church recognizes its calling to join God in reconciling and redeeming all things, amazing things are accomplished.

 

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The carpenters who are building the extension on the church.
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The kitchen and dining area on the top floor of the extension.
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Bean fields near the church.
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A carpenter busy in the workshop.
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Another carpenter at work.

 

 

 

 

Water

Water. We use it every day. We cook, clean, wash, and bathe with it. In Colorado we’re conscious of drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated. And we grow anxious when we don’t see enough of it in the forms of rain and snow. Typically in Colorado, we assume that the water from our tap is safe and healthy to drink. In fact, most of us barely think about this basic necessity of life.

March 22 is World Water Day. Most of the world does not have the same relationship with water that we have here in the U.S. Most of the world does not have clean, drinkable water readily available from the tap. In many countries, water carries deadly diseases.

For our friends in Guatemala, water brings countless possibilities. The Morales family owns a small water treatment plant where they purify water from their well. They provide safe drinking water to their community at a fraction of the price the big companies charge. In addition, they sell their water to distributors who in turn sell it to others for a profit, thus creating jobs within the community. The Morales family also teaches about clean water, sanitation, and hygiene within the local schools. After comparing river water and purified water under the microscope, students insist that their families drink only purified water.

The family uses the proceeds from Aguas de Unidad to fund personal ministries in the community. They help sick families buy needed medicines; they help neighbors improve their homes; they welcome children into their own home so they can attend school or recover from malnutrition; and they actively wage peace, promoting and facilitating redemption of broken relationships. For the Morales family, water is truly a symbol of the power of Jesus to bring abundant life.

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Aguas de Unidad is working to deepen their existing well.
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Working on expanding the water plant.
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Home delivery!

Community Engagement

While the federal government’s support for and welcome of refugees has never been lower, I’m grateful that my own community has stepped up with creative activities and services for refugees. One important community partner is Colorado College. Students at the college are teaching basic computer classes specifically for refugees. While the mother of my Congolese family was recently attending the class, I took grandmother Bibi and the girls to an art class for refugee families, also offered by the college. Both activities were run by volunteers and were free for those attending.

In the art class we made gratitude journals, small books showing people and things that we’re grateful for. The teachers demonstrated several art techniques, and offered a variety of media for the students to explore and use in their journals. At the end of the class, each student had the opportunity to share and explain their journal, describing things they’re grateful for. I’m a big fan of gratitude. I believe gratitude shapes our perspective and outlook on life, and helps foster joy. Personally, I’m grateful for this art class and for the volunteers who made it happen.

Also recently, one of the local libraries held a Celebrating Black Children event as part of Black History Month. Librarians advocated for school and local libraries to carry more books about black children and written by black authors. The library had more books about black children than I have ever seen, and they encouraged each family to take some home! What a gift for the girls to finally see themselves in books!

We continued to celebrate black children with food, art projects, decorating paper crowns, face painting, and hair wrapping. The girls loved it all. The lone face-painter had a line of children patiently waiting for her, and children played in the kids section of the library until their turns came.

When it was time to leave, the girls didn’t want to go. It’s not often that they’re celebrated, especially for the color of their skin. At school they’re often bullied and mocked for their skin color and African hair. But at this event, they were surrounded by kind, loving, encouraging black adults who did not just tolerate the girls, but celebrated them! The gratitude I felt was overwhelming.

It doesn’t take a huge budget to help people feel welcome, loved, and celebrated. What’s necessary is an awareness of others and a loving heart. Snacks and art projects always help, but even they cannot replace simple kindness.

 

 

 

Valentine’s Day

Like so many other days and events, Valentine’s Day is a blast when celebrated with my international friends.

We usually have snacks for ESL class, but not like we had last week. Cookies, candy, chocolates, brownies, cupcakes, fruit…. One volunteer even brought in a dozen red roses to share with students and teachers.

We taught language about feelings, friendship, and holidays. The intermediate students discussed a famous poem, which brought them closer together. They also sampled chocolates and practiced making sentences using “I like,” “I don’t like,” and “s/he likes.”

For the grand finale we put out a spread of crafting supplies and invited students to make valentines . . . for their family members, for a company that made a product donation, and for people around the church that hosts the classes. Students went in groups to deliver their valentines to the childcare workers, missions staff, receptionists, and security guards—people who show their love by welcoming and supporting the students and caring for their children.

Our celebration was one of friendship and gratitude—and sugar! I hope we embodied the words of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient.
Love is kind.
It does not want what belongs to others.
It does not brag.
It is not proud.
It does not dishonor other people.
It does not look out for its own interests.
It does not easily become angry.
It does not keep track of other people’s wrongs.
Love is not happy with evil.
But it is full of joy when the truth is spoken.
It always protects.
It always trusts.
It always hopes.
It never gives up.

 

(Photo credit: special thanks to Gene Cressler)