Monday, April 16, 2012

Lessons from Guatemala

I've been struggling to describe my trip to Guatemala. It's hard to condense what God showed me over ten days into five minutes. Unfortunately, I've found it overwhelmingly true that five minutes is all most people are willing to give you. This has caused a lot of frustration for me, so I've decided to lay it all out there.

This was my first time in a poverty-stricken country. I had tried to mentally prepare myself for what it would be like, but I don't ever know if you can be prepared for seeing despair.

At first, the place was overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, there was someone struggling. They were in despair with no end in sight.

 My best friend and I were staying and serving at a children's home in Villa Nueva. Each of the children had heart-wrenching stories. My heart broke. You see the faces of these children, watch them play, hear them laugh, and you can't help but wonder what kind of person could beat, abandon, sell, or neglect such precious things! I don't think there was minute when I didn't have some little hands holding mine.

We were driving through Villa Nueva one day and I could do nothing but look out and try to soak in what I saw. What's the answer for these people? I could remember every major history or economics class I'd had. Maybe they needed more industry? Maybe they needed better schools? That's not it.

How could a better job keep a father from beating his daughter? How could a better job stop a drug addicted mother from leaving her toddlers to fend for themselves? How could more programs fix the heart issues of rampant incest and alcoholism?

"Social programs have never changed hearts. God changes hearts."

It's one of the few times where I knew immediately that God had really spoken to me. I knew that was the answer, but there's nothing like seeing the despair and knowing exactly what can bring healing.

That night, I was praying for the people of Guatemala, and I asked God why I was there. Why was I in Guatemala for 10 days. It's not like I can accomplish a lot in 10 days! I prayed that he would show me something.

The next morning, my best friend, who had talked me into all this, woke up so excited. She had been wrestling with where God was calling her to do full time mission work. I had talked with her many times before the trip about several opportunities that were available. One of them was at the children's home in Guatemala. I had never told her, but that was one of the primary reasons I wanted to go with her. I had been praying for her one night before we left, and I really knew that once we got down there, he would give her clarity. Sure enough, he answered in a big way. We spent the morning talking about the peace she had about moving to Guatemala. I have never been so happy to share time with someone. She would deny it, but she inspires me more than anyone else.

Watching God work in her heart and answer prayers that we've been praying for months is indescribable.

After this conversation, I knew I wasn't in Guatemala to fix every problem. I did know that God was going to show me something that would matter.

Over the next few days though, I was still faced with despair. Within 24 hours we got bedbugs, heard two gunfights (one of which resulted in a murder on the next street) and heard multiple stories of the effects of the gangs on the community.

The children's home was like one small block of light in a sea of darkness. If you stayed in the compound, there was joy. As soon as you left the high walls and armed guards, you were just confronted with darkness.

A funny thing was happening while I was there. I slowly forgot about home. I didn't forget about my family or anything like that. The first few days I would relish the corner of the room we could manage a wi-fi signal so I could check on things at home. As the days went on however, I checked less. I thought about the activities of my small hometown less. It was hard at first, being so disconnected. I began to ask God to show me areas where I had replaced him with other people. It became painfully apparent almost immediately. Had I gotten so comfortable at home that when something bothered me or I faced a problem I immediately turned toward my friends instead of God? Oh yes! It's easy to identify these times when none of your friends are around!

So far, God's reminded me of how he still directs people who seek him and brought me back to a place of only relying on him. Honestly, that was probably enough for me to come back with, but he wasn't finished.

Our very last night in Guatemala, was spent saying multiple good-byes to the children and missionaries. Mostly, I observed thanks to my limited Spanish. However, without expecting it, God showed up to show me something.

One of the house dads spoke English. He came out to say good-bye to us. We began talking (in English!) and he began to share his testimony with us. He told us how he had lived in America, learned English, and eventually fell in with a gang. He shared how he hit rock bottom with no hope of ever coming out of despair. His story was typical of so many people in Guatemala. Then he described meeting Jesus. He talked about how his life began to change and he became a better husband and father. He got a decent job in the Guatamalan government. He was happy. God had blessed him. One day, one of the gangs slipped a note under his door threatening to kill him and his family if he did not pay. He said they had no choice. He got his wife, his son, their dog, and anything they could carry on the back of his motorcycle and left. It just so happened that his wife knew one of the women who worked at the home and found out about a position that had opened for a house parent. After one interview, they got the job and were able to live securely at the compound.

I would love to say that a story like that is rare, but most people can tell you about a time when they were extorted by the gangs. This man went on to tell us about the people of Guatemala. He told us about a local pastor who had started a church in one of the nearby slums. It just happens to be the most dangerous place in Central America. He told us about a ministry for alcoholics. The church would go around during the early morning hours, and offer breakfast to the people passed out along the side of the roads. They took this as an opportunity to share the gospel. He said some would go right back out and start drinking again, but others would stay, and several of the men who were a part of the ministry were once alcoholics themselves.

As he was talking, I began to cry. Ten days of praying and I knew this was what God had been waiting to show me. I had plenty of opportunity to see the darkness, THIS was the light for Guatemala! I knew from the beginning that God was the hope and here he is showing me how it's going to happen!

The light for Guatemala emanates from men like this house dad who spend the extra time loving the kids. It comes from the woman who walks the compound at 4 am praying for the children. It comes from the missionaries who selflessly work to spread the gospel to the people of Guatemala.

I knew before I left for this trip that I would come back impacted. I had tried to be expectant for what God was going to show me. I would like to say that I was able to serve and bring a hundred people to Jesus while I was there, but that wasn't the case. Yes, I loved on kids and was able to help make Semana Santa fun for them, but it was really God speaking to me that made this trip life changing.

It's hard adjusting to being back to my everyday life. I told my friend it's like trying to put a new me in the same routine. I can't bring myself to care about the same things that worried me before I left. God just showed me the hope for an entire country!!! I don't care about whether I look good in that dress I'm supposed to wear to a wedding! I don't care whether this friend is annoyed with me or what people will think of my job performance. I grew up in church, but I finally feel like I was able to really experience what it means for God to be the hope for the nations.

I'm so excited that my best friend will be spending five years (probably more) in Guatemala. I can't wait to go back (this time with better Spanish) and see God continue to move among the people.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.

 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!

 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
-Psalm 96:1-4