Thursday, June 14, 2018
“Trenza o cola?”
I leaned around the side of the tiny head of hair I was brushing and asked the question to the serious little Honduran face.
Braid or ponytail?
The small lips parted and the answer arrived.
Always trenza, always a braid. I had never braided hair before, but at that moment I was called to braid hair, so braid I did.
For the kids with lice, we gave a lice treatment, and then all kids got their hair washed and brushed and combed and styled. The kids were so beautiful, so well behaved. Children made in the image of God have immense value, and our job that day was to help them know that, even if poverty and other rigors of growing up in a Third World country tried to make them feel otherwise.
After finishing a shockingly adequate braid on a girl in a pink dress, with bows and pretty hair ties freshly anchored in her hair, I held up a small mirror so she could see herself and asked, “Es bueno?” She nodded. I held the mirror a beat longer and then told her, “Tu eres bonita.”
You are beautiful.
A small, shy smile crept onto her face.
In hindsight, it’s hard to say exactly how I ended up going with a group of 20 people from my church in Columbia, the Crossing, to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. I saw the notice in the church bulletin and it just seemed like the thing to do. I’d been bemoaning my lack of international travel, and I’d been craving chances to serve people in big and different ways. I’d had a few setbacks early in 2018, reminders to turn my focus back to God and find my purpose and happiness in helping and serving others. That feels like what we were meant to do, that more abundant life Christ promised.
It was fascinating on the trip hearing all the reasons our big and varied group made the trip. Wanting to deepen faith. Wanting to serve. Wanting to develop self confidence. Wanting to continue seeking God while walking life’s messy road. But sometimes it’s a beautiful road that leads you to a poor, gorgeous country in Central America.
I didn’t know any of those stories and reasons for coming when we landed, but I was already starting to like my teammates. Even for an introvert like me, the chemistry was building.
With the mountains around Tegucigalpa and the relatively short runway, the landing gets your attention. Sitting in a row with my new friends, I put on a brave face. The plane banked like it was making a turn high in the air, but rooftops zipped by just below. But the pilot leveled the plane at just the right time and made a surprisingly smooth landing. Wheels down in Honduras.
We left the plane via steps onto the tarmac and so I strode down them and away from the plane like a Kennedy.
We got lunch at the airport. I got a meal at McDonald’s, not giving a thought to what eating McDonald’s in an unfamiliar country might do to me. Paying with a U.S. $20 bill, I got a U.S. $10 and a whopping 68 Honduran Limpiras as change. I was surely wealthy. At least until I looked up the exchange rate. (One Lempira was worth about four cents.)
After the meal, we boarded a bus that would take us to the World Gospel Outreach mission house where we were staying. This was our first introduction to the ridiculous world of driving in Honduras. Our intrepid driver, Pedro, worked through the gears on the manual transmission diesel school bus, zipping through traffic in the winding, corset-snug roads of Tegucigalpa.
We eventually started winding higher and higher, seeing breathtaking views of the city below. Finally, far above the city, we went through not one, but two, security gates and were at the mission house.
We filled the remainder of the day with meetings and orientations and food. My bed was by the window, and I could look down at Tegucigalpa in the valley down below, so many lights and neighborhoods and buildings, so many people, each with their own story, each viewing their whole life and the entire world through their own experiences.
I loved this vantage point, whether from the back patio at the mission house or from my window, in the quiet of night, the big city glowing below.
Sunday was Honduran church. Hoo boy was than an experience. Latin culture often seems festive, making any activity a little more fun. The church service was hot and long… and fantastic. Song after song, beautiful even with my limited grasp of Spanish, so much power and energy. I glanced at the Hondurans, many swaying or moving their hands with the music, pouring their souls out. At one point, the woman leading the song gestured to us, their honored guests, and said they would sing a chorus in English for us. It was fantastic.
Then came the sermon, with the pastor saying a line of her sermon, then pausing for our interpreter, Roberto, to translate it. It was special, a picture of what heaven will be like, people of different languages and cultures all together praising God.
The congregation was so good to us, welcoming and shaking hands. I remember one person asking, “What’s your name?” in English.
Then it was on to a park with a nice view overlooking the city, along with some local Honduran handmade souvenirs for sale. We ate at a Honduran restaurant afterward, a nice mix of meat and rice and veggies and chips. I downed Pepsis from glass bottles.
I had a great conversation with the people at my table, already growing in friendship with the people from my team.
We returned to the mission house and had a few hours to kill. A few people had found a soccer ball, naturally. That was it for sporting goods, so we got a pickup soccer game going. My team was gritty and tough, but the other team featured two girls who had played soccer in high school, one of whom also played in college. We kinda got housed, but I provided good natured narration of the action and sneaked a goal or two in, audaciously proclaiming afterward we may have won 10-3.
Later, we gathered in a gradually growing circle of people, trying to keep the ball in the air with our kicks (and occasional flagrant handballs, volleyball style, because just doing something with only your feet is really hard). It was great for getting to know each other and to just have fun and be ridiculous before the main work of the week began.
When we shared why we were there, what we expected and what we feared ahead of the week, my fear was that I wouldn’t be able to contribute enough, as I didn’t possess real medical, dental, optical or construction expertise. But like my great friend Brent Foster once said, you can always carry water for the people who are providing medical services. I prayed and trusted God would put me to use. Boy did He ever. As is often the case, in hindsight my worries were nonsense.
Our days were packed and pretty fantastic. My lack of expertise meant I got to do some of almost everything, which was pretty cool.
Monday I spent the day doing evangelism, which was a little daunting just because I don’t spend a lot of time asking direct questions about people’s faith, certainly not strangers. But my job has prepared me for talking with strangers, and with some prayer and a good interpreter I was ready to go. It was really cool to talk with people about their lives, see some of them commit to Jesus.
It had its challenges. Some of the Hondurans I talked with were dealing with a lot of stress. Family disagreements, kids with alcohol problems, unemployment. It was heartbreaking when one guy said he was struggling to support his fiancee and couldn’t find work and was asking me what he should do. The people kept coming, and it was pretty draining mentally. But also really special at times and even funny. The people were so great to talk with.
Also, during my lunch break, I heard there was a soccer field on the roof of part of the church and I got to go up there and play “the beautiful game” with the kids up there. I clumsily hit a header and called out “cabeza!” The kids had skills. They asked if I was from New York.
Tuesday I got to help with the kids in the morning, telling the Gospel story and singing silly songs with them and styling their hair. That afternoon I got to help with construction. It was hard, grinding work, but sometimes it feels good to work with your hands. Of course, this work involved mixing concrete with shovels. A big concrete truck wasn’t rolling down the street anytime soon. So I shoveled away, sweating like a cartoon character caught in an obvious lie.
The locals and the people from our team who poured the concrete floors did spectacular work. As we left, we drove past horses eating from a dumpster overflowing with trash. Strange sight indeed.
Wednesday we got to go up in the mountains and tour World Gospel Outreach’s ranch where at-risk kids can stay. It was pretty cool, but my favorite part was getting to see rural Honduras, including their cows and their agriculture. I enjoyed winding through the little villages strung along the dirt road, although the ride was bumpy.
Back in Tegucigalpa, we stopped by the big Christ statue on a hill overlooking the city. We stopped at a modern gas station on the way there, enjoyed the air conditioning, observed the guard and his big gun by the door, and our interpreter/host Roberto told me about how a quote from Christopher Columbus about passing through deep water was how Honduras got its name. (Honduras means deep water or depths in Spanish.)
Thursday I got to try my hand in the medical section, with the patient nurses on our team showing me how to take blood pressures. Somehow I avoided a grisly blood pressure taking injury and things flowed pretty smoothly.
In the afternoon I got to help in the pharmacy area. There was not much interaction with Hondurans at this post, but it was a good chance to do some behind the scenes work and have a little deeper conversation with the other members of the team.
Friday morning was more pharmacy work, plus some time to take my turn walking around the site and praying for our people. It was cool to see our whole team at work, all doing their thing, all serving and reflecting God’s image in their own way. The two areas I didn’t help with that week were optical and dental, but they crushed it, providing literally life-changing services.
I made a point to sit with Hondurans during our last lunch break, chatting in a mix of English and very remedial Spanish, at one point asking, “Te gusta Kim Kardashian?” They did not.
That afternoon was a little more time with the kids, including hair washing. I was dumping a pitcher of water to rinse out the hair. I don’t have a salon career ahead of me, but we got the job done.
And just like that, our brigade site work was done. The days had been full and fun. The evenings at the mission house had been pretty great as well. We shared meals, we played games, we told stories from life. It was great to hear the stories of the good and bad in life, dreams and dreams deferred, the experiences that shape us, the stories of making mistakes and coming back from it. The team member-led devotionals were really cool.
There were also lighter and funnier stories, games that came off the rails, and lots of snacking on Froot Loops.
I semi-roll my eyes at “technology fasts,” but I’ll admit it was cool to focus on talking with other people, learning more about them, and reflecting. Sitting in a rocking chair in the cool of a Honduran evening was something special. I loved those nights.
Friday night we took communion together, reflecting on Jesus’ sacrifice and ultimately the reason we were all there. It was a moment.
Afterward we all went back into our conference room to wash each other’s feet, following Jesus’ example of humility and service. My new friend Alyson washed my feet, and I washed my new friend Jon’s feet. It was cool to give each other encouragement and words of affirmation during the feet washing.
It was a fitting cap to our week in Honduras, as was one other experience earlier that day.
At the end of our last brigade site day, Friday, we all gathered in a circle, Hondurans and Americans, and gave gifts to the local pastor. Our leader Erin gave some comments, as did the pastor. At the end he led the Spanish speakers in a lovely rendition of “Tu Fidelidad,” a Spanish worship song. It was special. Then the pastor said through an interpreter that he didn’t speak much English, but he enjoyed hearing it and thought it was a beautiful language. He asked if any of us were musical and could lead a song in English.
Emily, a woman on our team, stepped forward. She asked Erin if they could sing the Doxology. It was a great pick, a fine showcase for the English language.
The two women stepped forward and led the singing. Spoiler alert, Emily and Erin can sing.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”
The singing rose up above our circle, higher and louder and more powerful. It was a moment, our last gift to this Honduran congregation. All the good stuff we could share and enjoy was from God anyway. And it had been a taxing week. All that was left was our praise.
“Praise Him all creatures here below…”
It had been a week for the ages, a group of very different people embracing those differences and using them to fill a wide variety of needs that week. God had stirred powerfully in our hearts, allowing us to go on the heights like the Bible says, driving ordinary, spectacularly flawed people to do sublime things.
“Praise Him above ye heavenly host…”
The problems and stress of life would be waiting when we returned to our regular lives. But the week had been a refreshing reminder of the bigger story.
“Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost…”
I have a pretty good life. But life never goes quite according to our scripts. I don’t know why I’m 31 and single, often painfully so. I don’t know why my progress as a Christian and a person isn’t linear, why I keep struggling and keep failing to meet my own ridiculous expectations for myself. But God picked me. God keeps lifting me back up. God said my narrative is bigger and more than trying to meet standards and goals. God sent His Son for me because He loved a flawed person like me. He sent the Holy Spirit to keep me company. The pain might never go away, but God definitely will not go away, and He promises to give me what I need.
More than anything, this trip showed that God is at work in our lives, that more abundant life is there, even if it looks different from what we expected. By answering the call to serve, God lifted us up, like those words being lifted up in praise.