Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fourth Trip to Pavas... Feeling the !mpact

Another year has passed and once again I find myself home exactly one month after our October !mpact trip to Costa Rica.  If you've been reading the past few blogs about our trips, you may wonder what's with the word !mpact (spelled with an ! instead of I)?  Why not just say 'missions'?  Well, the concept is quite simple. We leave our homes to make an impact in the world; however, what ends up happening is that God makes an impact on us.  The exclamation point just accentuates how it feels inside, thus !MPACT.  But how is it possible that both happen at the same time? Glad you asked. Here are a few stories from the Women's !mpact Trip 2017.

Last year was the first time our women's team attended church at the Hope Center in Pavas. The service attendance was small but the people were warm and welcoming. This year we were invited not only to attend, but also to share a message and help with the children. Arriving in Pavas was like coming home. It was familiar, yet the changes are immense. For starters, the walls in front of the Hope Center have been raised higher, smoothed over, and repainted.

Smooth high walls

The courtyard now contains a concrete floor along with a playground and water station for drinking and hand washing.

New playground

The floor in the comedor (dining area) now has clean white tiles and the walls have been given a fresh coat of paint. The food preparation area has gone from a run-down home-style kitchen to an industrial professional kitchen meeting today's sanitary standards.

Women working in their new kitchen
All the classrooms have received improvements, especially the one dedicated to computers that are now up and running. The physical changes were made possible through financial donations by people who wanted to make an impact, but it was us who were impacted as we walked down the halls marveling at what was once just a vision that has now come to life. There is still more work to be done; however, the changes over the past year are just amazing.

New art in courtyard
This year the congregation has grown larger and was supported by a full youth band to lead everyone in worship. One of our team leaders shared God's word (in Spanish) while several of us helped with the children's message and activities. This moment was one of the highlights of the trip simply because it was almost inconceivable to imagine just a few years ago.

Youth band bonding with us over music
Our service project work for the week consisted of painting the inside of the outside wall of the Hope Center. It was primed and ready for us so after a light sanding, we got to work. This project was especially amusing to me because I had been on the family team trip that had painted this exact wall a few years before. As my brush made long strokes on the wall it gave me time to ponder the significance of working on the same project. It was the same wall, but it was different. This time it was taller and much smoother. It was easier to paint and looked better when finished.

Familiar walls
I thought about how some things in life are opportunities to grow and learn. But once you think you've mastered something, God shows you where you can still improve and there you are growing and learning again but not with the same results... instead the results are new and improved and the lessons are sometimes quicker to learn. Proverbs is full of advice encouraging us to never stop receiving instruction. The walls were making an impact on me.

The afternoons are often our favorite times because this is when we have an opportunity to show God's love to the women in the community. We invited them to a worship time, a message, and a craft. As you may recall, we have done arts and crafts with these women for the past two years, but this was the first time we had a worship time and a message from the Bible. One of our native Spanish speakers on the team delivered the message while several other women helped with the children.

Speaking on 2 Kings 4:1-7
I had felt lead to intercede in prayer for each of the women and did my best to ask God for his blessing on their time here, their lives, for their community, and ultimately for their salvation. By the end of each day, we noticed that some of the women were asking us to write down particular verses or request prayer. A few of them tried out some newly acquired English words (I remember "coffee" and "sugar" were particular favorites) and several of them lingered behind to talk or give us hugs.

Lydia, also known as "Coffee, coffee, coffee"
One women I will always remember is an older lady whose son was shot and killed in drug/gang violence just shortly before we came. The depth of sorrow in her eyes I will never forget. She received extra hugs from us and we can only hope that she felt the impact of God's love in some way over the time we spent with her.

The woman is in white. We couldn't hug her enough.

A significant moment I had was with a woman we had prayed for the year prior. A few of us gathered in a room with her to find out how she was doing. She broke down and told us that things with her adult son are still very difficult. It just so happened that we had someone on our team trained in addiction counseling who joined us. I sat and listened as the words were translated back and forth from Spanish to English, but this woman's concern for her son transcended all language barriers and she spoke directly to our hearts - mom to mom. She had been praying for her son but felt defeated and hopeless because she couldn't fix his problem. The details are private, but what I can tell you is that information was shared to help her understand the problem from a physical health perspective and also from a spiritual perspective. She prayed that day with power and authority. We were amazed with her transformation right in front of our eyes. Our time with her made such a huge impact on me and I hope we made an impact on her as well.

Another impact story was with a girl who has become an adopted daughter to all of us moms. She's a real sweetheart and it's easy to fall in love with her. We had such a nice time together. She is helpful, kind, curious, and affectionate. She was also patient with us gringos and our attempts at Spanish. On the final day at the Hope Center she trusted one of us with some information about her life. It was something unknown to the staff and most definitely a burden she had been carrying alone. It happened at the last possible moment literally as we were about to board the bus. With our time having run out, we left not being able to give her the love, assistance, and encouragement she would need. It was heartbreaking, yet God was already busy at work. Later that evening we found out that there was someone at the Hope Center with the resources to come along side and be a support system for her. God is so good.

The final impact story I will share is with a woman who cleans at the Hope Center. Her name is Teresa but we call her Terre. I met Terre on my first trip. She was shy, quiet, and withdrawn. I hardly ever saw her smile. It's taken a few years, but Terre has finally warmed up to us. As a matter of fact, on the last day Terre was wearing a hot pink shirt and skirt with bright pink newly decorated flip-flops courtesy of Old Navy and a big smile.

But her life is not easy. Her husband has passed away, her adult son has mental challenges, and she is raising a beautiful teenage daughter alone in a very rough area. Her current home is very small and when it rains, the water runs right through her living room. Thanks to the generosity of some people, enough money was raised to purchase a new home for her directly behind her current location. Our group was invited to see the new space that will become her home. As the bus pulled carefully through the narrow streets and stopped in front of her home we got our first look at the conditions. The doors opened and we piled into a small metal box similar in size to a railroad car.

Terre's front door
You could see the light coming in through the corners of the roof where it meets the walls. The ground consisted of dirt except for a large pile of gravel standing in the corner of the room. In the center was a twin size bed sitting on wood planks. The bed was immaculately made with a blanket and a stuffed gorilla on top.

Daughter's bedroom
It only took a second to realize that this is where her daughter sleeps at night. Looking around I could see no electricity, bathroom, kitchen, or even a chair... just this one bed and a spot to hang her laundry. Her mother and brother are currently still living behind in the original house. As Ashley (the director of the Hope Center) went on to explain all the plans they have for improving the house, it was hard to imagine what it would be like to live here. She said they work on the house when they get donations. "How much will it take to finish the house?" Ashley was asked. "5,000 dollars," she said. That's not spare change, but considering how much we pay for even the smallest of homes here, $5,000 is not that much. It's hard for something like that to not make an impact on us. And can you imagine how much of an impact that home is going to make on her life?

Terre's son, daughter, a friend, and Terre (LtoR)
These are just a few of the stories we experienced on this trip. There were eleven other women with many more stories of people whose lives they impacted as well as the moments that impacted them.

God is always at work. You don't have to leave the country to make an impact, but sometimes by branching outside of your comfort zone you end up finding something that really puts the exclamation point on it. I hope some of these stories might encourage you to think about the !mpact you can make in the world today.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Third !mpact Trip to Costa Rica

It's been one month since I have returned from my third !mpact trip to Costa Rica. Sometimes it feels like a life time ago and other times I close my eyes and I am instantly transported back. The memories of this trip brings a smile to my face, it warms and softens my heart, it deepens my faith, it challenges my thinking, it strengthens my witness, and it reminds me of how God works through us and in us at all times.

As with any trip of this nature, there are so many profound moments, stories to share, experiences to expound on... there is no way to write it all and do it justice. With this in mind, I'll only share a little in hopes to encourage you to consider taking a look at your own life and realize how you might be part of a greater story.

As always, our mission trips begin with extensive training and preparations. Our team comprised of eleven women - 2 leaders, 4 Spanish speakers, 8 returning, and 3 newbies. Sharing our testimonies is one of the most important things we do during training. I have never heard so many women willing to bare their souls and share their life's story - the good, the bad, the ugly, and the redemption. Some were long past the storms and others were still in the middle. It was an experience that bonded us together with a surrendering to God being the common thread throughout. We started out as individuals, but we left for this trip as sisters in Christ united to share God's love to a group of women in Costa Rica we had not yet met.

The first face we saw as we left the terminal was our tour guide's. She was not originally supposed to be with our group but was a last minute change. She is a young woman in her late twenties (but looks about 19), has a beautiful smile, a great sense of humor, and perfect English.
She welcomed us to her country and got us situated with transportation, check in at the hotel, and a walking tour of San Jose. The more we got to know her the more we liked her yet despite her sweetness, there was also something distant in her eyes. By the second day, she became part of our group and we invited her to join us for a debrief in our hotel room. During the course of conversation, she revealed something that happened in her childhood that sent a shock wave around the room. It was not unfamiliar to more than one of us and instantly our hearts ached for her. After further discussion we asked if we could pray over her. We gathered around her and one other woman and laid hands asking for God's healing. The prayer was done in Spanish so I did not know what was being said, but as the leader prayed, "Santo, Santo, Santo..." I felt the evil presence I have come to recognize in other situations. It was heavy and made it hard to breathe. It was cold and dark but I couldn't tell exactly where it was coming from. I had a moment of clarity and thought to pray in English. As more prayers were offered the tightness let up and the evil dissipated and left. What I felt at the end was warmth, joy, hopefulness, and goodness for the future. It was a powerful profound experience and it was only day two.

Our first work day at the Hope Center in Pavas brought a reunion of many faces I recognized. It's a beautiful thing to feel deeply towards someone who doesn't speak the same language and you know almost nothing about their life, yet you feel so connected to them because you love and worship the same God. I wonder if Heaven will feel this way...

Our first morning assignment was to go to the daycare across the street to paint a mural on the walls.  If you've read my previous blogs or know my story you may recall that this is the location of my first experience with a demon. And if you know me well, you also know that I am not an artist. For both of these reasons I might have been fearful, yet I know God has a purpose and plan for all things and I really felt at peace. As it turns out, the building had a completely different look and feel. It was light, bright, and airy inside. The walls had been prepared by another team whom I'm sure bathed it with prayers. Christian music played from a speaker and cans of paint were set before us. This is where we met the artist who would guide us through his vision. He was a long-haired free-spirit type of man with a warm smile and love for Christian reggae music. He handed each of us a particular type of paint bush, color of paint, and demonstrated what he wanted us to do. He spoke little English but all we became fast friends thanks to his easy going fun-loving nature and the help of our translators. The morning was filled with so much fun I found myself dancing around and truly enjoying being in the moment. I felt like an artist.

Our afternoon plans entailed a manicure session for the women of Pavas (it was a hit last time so we wanted to do it again). As they filed in we recognized a few from last year, but others were new. It was like starting all over again trying to build on some of the relationships forged the year prior but not really being able to break through. The women smiled occasionally and sometimes laughed and giggled with each other. I think they appreciated what we were doing and were very willing to allow us to love on their babies and children, but there was still a barrier with both language and culture.

That evening at the debrief each of us got to share the moments we had experienced during the day and a few us were able to get more information about some of the women and their situations. We discovered that two of the women there, one age 19 and one 22, were both on their 4th child. We learned that several were related (daughter, mother, and grandmother), and we learned that at least one of them was in such a dire situation that she could not even tell us what was going on. She said, "It's too ugly".

Our second day began with more painting. We learned that murals take time and they must be done in layers. We wanted to see the whole thing done before we left, but our resident artist said, "No, it will take several teams to complete it. You are one layer, but more people will add to it." This sounded familiar because when we first arrived Ashley, the Hope Center's director, reminded us that we are one layer God has placed here to serve in Pavas. All things would not be accomplished by any one person or team, but that it would take many teams over years and years to really build the lasting change and transformation of a community. We were beginning to understand.

At lunch we had the privilege of hearing the testimony of our talented artist. It was the kind of testimony that had you at the edge of your seat. It was done through a translator so that we would all be able to understand the weight of his story. Also in attendance was our bus driver. She was a women in her fifties who was quiet, spoke no English, but had built a connection with one of our native Spanish speakers who needed to sit up front for health reasons. It seemed to be a divine appointment. The testimony of our artist spoke so profoundly to our bus driver that she was both moved to tears and for the first time in a very long time felt hope like she had never felt before. His testimony also worked on our hearts as well as he explained a tale that can only be described as the ultimate prodigal son. Another layer was added.

Our afternoon craft for the ladies seemed to go well. It included painting clothes pins which could have a variety of uses as well as holding verses that we printed out in Spanish for them to take home. We learned a little more about them but a lot of our time was spent getting supplies and wrangling kids. Still, it was another layer.

Wednesday was supposed to be our final day at the Hope Center, but this is when we learned that hurricane Matthew might actually affect our travel plans home on Friday. Everything was up in the air. We carried on as usual wanting to be present for the task of painting the mural, serving lunch to the children, and providing an afternoon craft, but also knowing that our families might be home facing a terrible storm that we will not be able to help them get through. It was the ultimate test of our faith. To be helpful to those here meant not being helpful to our families at home. I think the one thing our whole team would agree on is that we were happy not to have to say goodbye to the women on Wednesday. By late afternoon we knew we were coming back on Thursday.

Wednesday night's debrief was short. Our leaders had been working tirelessly behind the scenes and deserved a much needed early night. Those left behind began brainstorming about what a final unplanned day might look like. What craft could we do? What message could we share? How could we break down the barriers and add a new layer to our relationship? A few women got on Pinterest searching for crafts with the hundreds of popsicles sticks we had left over and others shared ideas of a possible worship service we could do. Eventually a plan seemed to come together. The more we talked the more clear it became that we wanted to share our hearts with these women. We wanted them to know that we have been through some really difficult storms of life just like they have. We started listing out some of the things we've learned about each other through sharing our testimonies and we discovered that we might have more in common with them than they think. It would require us to be very vulnerable but we thought it might be powerful.

On Thursday morning Ashley came in and spoke to us giving us encouragement by sharing a story of perspective she gained through a difficult experience in the Sudan. It was helpful to be reminded that God is always at work even when our plans change, we don't understand them, they are difficult to accept, or we end up with no plan at all.

After our meeting we went about feverishly glueing popsicle sticks together to make a plaque that they could paint and hang on the wall. To our surprise, it came out fairly well.

After the children were fed the women began arriving. By this time the word had gotten out and more and more women showed up. We kept adding tables and chairs and thankfully we had just enough supplies. It was amazing because it was raining hard and the women really had to make an effort to get there.

After some time painting, we invited the women to come and sit up front in the chairs we had arranged before they arrived. They sat patiently, arms folded as our team came up to the front and stood before them. Many of us were holding their babies in our arms. For three days we were the ones staring at them, taking their pictures, and whispering about them. This was the first time we stood in front of them and allowed ourselves to be the ones being watched.

We had one of our native Spanish speakers translate while someone on our team spoke. She was someone who they had not heard talk before so the minute she started speaking something happened... they all leaned forward to listen closely. She opened with comments about how we are so happy to be here and how we loved spending time with them. Then she went on to tell them that everyone on our team has had some kind of struggle in life. She began listing several of the things. As each item was translated into Spanish, you could visibly see the heads starting to nod. You could both see and feel something shift in the room. These women were looking at us, staring at our faces, understanding exactly what we were saying. I think most of us standing up front were crying too. It was such an emotional moment because we knew the Holy Spirit was at work in the room. We went on to explain to them that we all have a strong faith in God and we know that He is with us, so no matter what has happened in our past or what we are going through now, God will always be there helping us through it and that He will be with them helping them through whatever they are going through right now. And if the point couldn't be more clear, we told them about the hurricane that is getting ready to hit our families and friends back home and that we have to trust God that he is working through all things. Then the pastor of the Hope Center came up to speak for a few moments to tell them about worship services that are held on Sundays and to ask any of them if they want to pray.

To our surprise, the oldest woman there stood up and started to pray for us. She prayed and prayed so powerfully. It was all in Spanish yet in the middle of her prayer my heart stirred like never before and I felt power. It was intense and moving but this time there was no evil feeling; it was all glorious.  When she was done I opened my eyes and a single full tear ran down my face. I had not felt like crying so it caught me off guard. Then another lady who works in the kitchen prayed. Again, somewhere in the midst she got more and more insistent and again I felt that intensity that I knew something powerful was going on in the room. When she was finished my eyes were filled with tears that I know I didn't produce. When the meeting was over we offered to pray individually for anyone who wanted prayer. A few women took us up on the offer and again we learned more about their lives. Layer upon layer was added that day.

That night we got word that the storm was reaching an all time high in intensity and strength and it looked like it would be a direct hit to our area. There was nothing left to do but pray. I remember that night asking God to give it the smallest nudge away from our area so that no one would get the brunt of it. The next morning we woke up to the best possible news. Sometime during the night the storm moved ever so slightly enough to not cause major damage to life or property. It was nothing short of a miracle.

A few months before this trip I purchased a verse to put on my wall. It is Romans 8:28.  "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose." If I had to think up a verse that embodies this trip I think this would be the one. God works in each of our lives, placing layer after layer (like the mural I can't wait to see finished.) Some things we go through aren't pleasant, but he still can use it for good. He weaves an amazing tapestry by using each one of us in our own unique way. Sometimes we understand what is going on but many times we do not. Our lives intersect and intertwine to make up a beautiful story. I am honored to have been allowed to serve along side such a united group of sisters in Christ. I am honored to be a small part of a layer that was placed in Pavas during the first week of October 2016.  My prayer is to remember daily that each person has a story that is being written and it can be used by God for His good purpose. So what is your story?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Time In Between (Part 2)

I've debated whether to write this second installment to my last post.  A part of me would rather keep it to myself.  Writing about supernatural things is bound to put me in danger of being considered a possible loon, even amongst my dearest Christian friends. However, I will point out [again] that unseen things were not uncommon when Jesus walked on the Earth. Is life really so different now or have the rules of engagement changed? If demonic activity has been eradicated from our daily experience, why does the Bible speak of it so frequently and give us clear instruction on how to address it. I'm pretty sure I've spent the past 40+ years not giving it much thought, but I can tell you it never leaves my mind now. So here it goes...

A few weeks after I got back from Costa Rica, I had this strong desire to pray over our home. I hadn't really pursued an understanding of spiritual warfare yet; however, I was fresh off an experience that led me to believe that it is very real and that evil spirits/demons can inhabit places. I was certain it would lead to nothing, but I did it anyway. I waited for a day when my husband and kids were not around. I prayed in my room first asking for the Holy Spirit's guidance. Then I put on some worship music and went into my daughter's bedroom. I started in this particular room because there were some things going on with her that made me feel like it was the most urgent place to start. I began in the center of her room asking God to bless the space that is hers. Then I went to her bed and prayed over it asking God to give her rest and refreshment. I went to her closet asking God to bless her clothing choices. While in prayer something happened to me. I felt cold and got the chills. The hair on my arms stood up. I had a bad feeling. It was nothing like Costa Rica, but it wasn't good either. I left the closet and went to her desk. I prayed there but nothing happened. I felt warm again. I continued around the room. I headed back to the closet and had the same chilling experience. I decided to leave her room.  After a while I returned. Every time I got into the closet the same thing happened. I started touching things and praying out loud. I wasn't scared, but rather determined. I felt like something unpleasant was in there and I wanted to know what it was. I touched many things but nothing stood out. Then I spotted a shell necklace hanging on the edge of the shelf. I put it in my hands and my body grew cold. "This is it! I don't like you," I yelled forcefully. I opened the garage door and threw it out. I came back to pray in the closet and the cold feeling was gone. Later I asked my daughter where she got the necklace. She said it was a gift from her grandparents when they were on vacation in Mexico. I know we've had the necklace for many years. I'm guessing it wasn't the kind purchased at the airport but rather something handmade by someone. I'm not even sure if it was the necklace itself that had a spirit attached to it or if something came in and was hiding in the necklace. I really couldn't say but several months later I read book after book that warns about bringing trinkets home from foreign countries. And to advance the story further, we ended up repainting my daughter's room from very dark purple to a bright white and added verses to the wall as well as other pleasant decorations. It's now a space that sets a very different tone, and I think it's made a huge difference.

And speaking of prayers in the closet... I did have a strange one in my own closet many months later.  By this time I had researched spiritual warfare more fully and had a much better understanding of what kinds of things satan can use to access people. I was in the middle of an intense prayer about what - I can't remember - and all of the sudden I got this very real image of flies buzzing around in a circle in the top corner of my closet. The image startled me, but it did not deter me from continuing my prayer time. When I was done, I got very curious about when was up there. I had to get a step ladder because it was in such a tucked away spot. When I went through some boxes I discovered I had some miscellaneous things from the past. It's not worth mentioning what they were because it really doesn't matter. The point is that it was stuff I didn't need to hold onto anymore. Out it all went. Another thing I pitched not too long after was a patio decoration that had been hanging in my house for years. It was a metal wall sculpture of a sun with a face on it. My husband never liked it and even poked fun that I was worshiping the "sun god". I thought it was silly because I got it at a home decor store and I knew I was clearly not worshipping it. I just thought it was cute. Then one day I stumbled on a website that listed many things that a Christian home really should not have in it. Among the items were things that had a face on the sun, moon, or stars. I have to admit I thought it wasn't a big deal, but since I've grown more sensitive to things that might offend God I figured I'd get rid of it. I was cleaning the area around it and every time I walked by the sun there was this horrific smell. At first I thought it was the cat litter box, but it wasn't. Then I thought it was a nearby plant, but it wasn't. I cleaned and cleaned but couldn't find the smell. Eventually I smelled the sun decoration itself and it didn't smell either, but every time I left and came back it was there. After several hours when I was done cleaning I got a screwdriver and removed it from the wall.  I threw it in the trash (it was actually getting old anyway) and went back to the patio.  I walked by the exact same place where I first noticed the smell and the odor was gone. Completely gone.  I have no explanation.

My final two experiences were with people. The first one happened in late June when I was on vacation in Chicago with my extended family. All 16 of us took the train to the city for an afternoon of fun. My daughter and I remembered how many homeless people are downtown and wanted to have something to pass out to them. I spotted a CVS and picked up a few boxes of Kind bars which we handed out to people on the streets.  As we were walking the group got separated and I ended up walking alone with my son. The streets were so crowded with people it was hard to get by. I was deep in thought when my eyes glanced over at a sign that advertised tarot card readings. At the same time as my brain was thinking that that wasn't good I saw a lady sitting by herself under a tent. Apparently she had no customers at the moment. I looked at her as I got closer and wondered if maybe she would be able to tell that I was a Christian. She never looked at me. Instead, as I got closer I started to feel a sense of evil, doom, and darkness around her. It wasn't just close to her it was moving out towards the walkway. I got frightened and had to change my path so I could give the demons around her even wider berth. I panicked. I look at my son and said, "She's evil. She's evil." It was so surreal because people were just going about their business walking right through the spirits which I could feel as plain as day. I kept looking around to see if anyone else would notice. No one said anything. I quickly came to my senses and realized it was only me that noticed. We kept walking but they didn't follow. They stayed close to her. I was completely floored. The experience came out of nowhere and was gone shortly after we passed. It was noticeable like a cloud of darkness but it didn't take my breath away or hold me in place. I would like to tell you that the verses I had memorized came in handy, but honestly I was just dumbfounded. Despite all my studying and preparation, the event still blind-sided me.

The next time however, I would stay and fight.  This opportunity arose last month while I was attending Sunday church service. My family and I were standing up with the congregation singing. We were towards the front right side of the building. I glanced over and noticed a couple walking up the aisle and taking a place in the front row. I had seen this woman before and she was hard to forget. She looked like someone who might be comfortable at a punk rock concert or perhaps a goth event. I saw a tattoo on her neck and something about it made me concerned. It reminded me of a story I read in a book about a pastor who regularly had people coming into his church to pray against him. I didn't think that's why the woman was there but something wasn't right. I started to have the sensation that a cloud of darkness was coming off her and moving back a few rows towards me. It was the same evil feeling I recognized from previous experiences. I started to pray for her. I prayed and prayed. The music kept going, but I was intently praying for her. During this time I had the intense realization that I was in the middle of a battle. Whatever it was it was inside our church, and I was not having any of it!  I kept praying until the feeling slowly went away and the warmth came back to me. Again, I have no explanation for it. It's quite possible the woman was just there to worship, but in my humble opinion, something from her past was attached to her and it didn't want to be in church.

So none of these examples are earth-shattering and if you are a skeptic you've already come up with reasonable explanations for everything such as "the air conditioning in the closet was blowing on you" to "the cat passed gas on the patio" to "it is the power of suggestion"... and maybe that's all true. But like someone who has a medical condition that knows the onset of their symptoms, I'm beginning to see patterns develop. I don't have it all figured out but here are two observations I've made thus far. First, any physical perception I have of evil is completely at the direction of the Holy Spirit. I have no special skills or qualifications. And second, the events seem to occur when I have a sincere and deep interest in doing God's will (such as praying over our home, passing out food to homeless, getting rid of icons, worshipping at church, etc.). What I don't know is what is the end purpose. Is it to be personally protected from evil? Is it to warn others of the evil that lurks around us? Or is it in preparation for something in the future? It has definitely changed the way I live and the way I see the world around me.

Here's a final thought. The first microscope was invented around 1590. Prior to that, the smallest thing people could see was something about the thickness of a human hair. Suddenly, with the help of a  microscope people could see bacteria and micro-organisms that live in water, on skin, and on every surface. I'm sure they never considered how something that was invisible to them was actually responsible for sickness and death. The bacteria had been there all along, but with the discovery of the microscope they could now be seen and thus believed. I hope the connection is clear. Just because you can not see an evil spirit with your naked eye does not mean that it doesn't exist and isn't causing problems in your life. There are so many resources that explain this better than I can so I'll let the experts speak on this topic.

My purpose for sharing this entry is merely to continue to answer the question that I have been asked several times which is:  "How did your mission trip to Costa Rica change your life?"

"Well..." I answer. "Let me tell you..."

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Time In Between (Part 1)

It's been eight months since I've left Costa Rica and three months till I go back. I'm so thankful God has given me a long time to process my last experience... not that I'm done thinking about it.  A life changing event like that tends to stick with you daily even if you don't speak of it openly. It's often running in the background of my mind shaping my thoughts, actions and perspective. It has led me to pursue a deeper understanding of verses and passages in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, that deal with such unseen issues. I mean really, what Christian hasn't heard of angles, demons, and spiritual warfare? It's right there in black and white, yet I'm not sure why I tend to think of it in an intellectual way rather than practical advice for daily living. The Bible speaks of the seen and the unseen, but I confess I have been more willing to believe in the former. As for the latter, I just try not to think about it too much, yet we read that Jesus spent a fair amount of time dealing with the latter. Why would this be if not to instruct us on such matters?

With that question, I dove in deep.  I started reading book after book about understanding the enemy. Who is satan? [not giving him an uppercase letter] What are demons? What does an attack look like? Under what conditions is it likely to occur? So many questions. I also started studying the Bible with new vigor. With highlighter in hand, I zeroed in on all the places where it mentions demons, satan, and the Holy Spirit's role in all of this. While I know it is not right to become too overly focused in this area, I also know that for far too long I have chosen to under-accentuate it. My prayer life has also taken a place front and center. It is by communication [prayer] directly with God through Jesus that my eyes have been opened to things my brain has become dull to. It's not surprising living in a secular world that some things have become acceptable to us (speaking of Christians) even though they are really opening the door for demons to attack and oppress. Am I sounding wacky? Let me clarify.

A Christian can not be fully possessed by a demon because we have the Holy Spirit in us; however, we can open areas of our life up to attack because we invite them in. Here's an example from my life of something that illustrates this point. Over the course of time my thought-life became polluted. I didn't even realize it was happening until one day my kids asked me why I listened to 80's music all the time. "I don't know," I answered. "I guess it's because it reminds me of the parties I used to go to." Trust me when I tell you that nothing of God was going on at those parties worth remembering! The more I listened to it, the farther my thoughts were away from anything spiritual. Even worse, I had thoughts of guilt and shame even though I know that when I came to Christ I've been forgiven for past sins. I had thoughts of what might have been if things worked out differently. I had thoughts that tempted me to reach out to influences from the past that would be best left in the past. I was thinking constantly about stuff I hadn't thought about in years almost to the exclusion of what was going on around me in the present.  Satan found a weak spot in me yet in the beginning I dismissed it as just music on the radio. Now I see it as spiritual warfare. I innocently invited one of satan's minions (called "the demon of past sins") to mess with me by conjuring up memories of the past. What did I do? I confessed my sin to God, I demanded the 80's demon to leave me alone (I pictured it sailing away like Duran Duran in Rio), and I filled my soul with lots of Christian music. Am I saying that 80's music is evil? No of course not. But for me, it just might have been. And remarkably, since my prayer time, I have had a peace that passes all understanding with no thoughts of that decade marked with so much willful sin.

My next question is in what other areas of life have I (or my fellow Christian friends) compromised on that might carry more weight? Movies, TV, books, music... those things are obvious. But I wonder about the not so obvious things that our culture has made acceptable or "Christianish" like yoga (which promises to be a good way to stretch especially while done on the beach during sunrise), essential oils (which promise to help with many medical issues, depression, focus and concentration), taekwondo (which we did for a few years at a place with a Christian logo on the window), and karate (which my son also practiced). What are the origins of these things and can they be separated from their occult beginnings? If you are uncomfortable with me characterizing them as 'occult' I understand; I am to. But the Bible says the occult is any practice that tries to gain supernatural power, abilities, or knowledge apart from the creator God. The aforementioned practices all come from Eastern based religions.  Feel free to do some research because you will not find Jesus practicing yoga, wearing a gi, or using a diffuser (although I understand oils were common in Biblical times but not with the same promises made today). These are examples of things that are challenging my comfortable Christian suburban homeschooling way of thinking. What if these things invite unwanted spiritual warfare into my life?  What if some of the things I've pursued are actually offensive to God?  or at very least... how many things can satan take credit for? Before Costa Rica I blindly went along with the research and testimonies of success with no consideration for the source. Now I can't help but be convicted that the choices I make every day truly do make a difference in the unseen world that is all around me (and all of us!).

Speaking of the unseen world, isn't it interesting how our culture in America is just obsessed with Harry Potter, Halloween, vampires, zombies, paranormal/ghost reality shows, mediums, teenage werewolf's, etc? It's not just secular people who are partaking in these things. My kids have dressed up every year for Halloween. It's almost the most popular holiday in America. But what does it honor? Or who does it honor? Can it be separate from the real-live satan? When I was attacked by some kind of evil spirit in the nursery in Costa Rica, it was not cute and fun like some kid with a white sheet over his head dressed up like a ghost. It was dark, powerful, ugly, forceful, menacing, and evil.  It reminded me of some of the things I've seen in a Halloween shop. How must God feel when he see me dressing the kids up for some family-friendly event in honor of his biggest enemy? Have I become comfortable being double-minded, i.e. a professing Christian most of the time but sometimes, when it's convenient for me, a person who pays more attention to popular culture and wisdom than what the Bible teaches?

And on a final note, what about kids? Are they exempt from this spiritual battle until they reach 18?  To tell you the truth I hadn't thought about it much. I never considered that when a young child is abused in some way that it is open for spiritual attack through no fault of their own and this experience can haunt them (literally) for a life time if not properly addressed even if a profession of faith is made at a later time. I never considered that my own kids, who have grown up in a loving Christian home, can be open to spiritual attack from something simple like a trinket from a foreign country to something more serious like obsessive video game playing, pride, anger, or selfishness. When I hear one of my kids say they are not smart, no good, or not interested in anything, I know that those thoughts are not from God. Who's talking to them? Who told them that? It wasn't their dad or I. Why is it that a young Believer, who knows that they are a daughter or son of the King, still believe that they are worth so little? Is it possible that through an experience/music/relationship/etc. that something unseen was allowed to gain access and continues to speak lies to them even though they are Christians who show up to youth group each week? I am beginning to see the connection between daily choices and how they can open us up to thoughts and attitudes which eventually can turn into behaviors that are devastating (and quite common) like eating disorders, cutting, drug/alcohol abuse, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, sexual promiscuity, and many others. Would my kids make better choices if they could see the enemy with their own eyes? Imagine a swarm of flies buzzing around a Rated R DVD. If I told them the flies would transfer from the movie to them while they are watching it and would buzz around them mercilessly day after day, would they still watch it? The flies wouldn't kill them, but they would make life difficult and would hinder their desire to be around people who have no flies buzzing around. I know they would think twice. That's why our family has spent a great deal of time learning about spiritual warfare. I want them to understand the enemy, recognize an attack from a mile away, believe that the choices they make do make a difference, and know how both to pray for protection as well as pray for victory over past events.  Jesus has already won the war, but the battle continues in the unseen world and unfortunately no one gets to sit on the sidelines. You are in it even if you find this blog to be completely ridiculous.

My experience last year in Costa Rica was not an isolated incident. Since I've been back in the States, I have had other encounters with the unseen although none quite as intense as my first experience.  For those with a curious nature I'll share what has been going on in Part 2 of "The Time In Between". If you are interested in further study on spiritual warfare, I can provide a list of books and lectures that explain it clearly from a Christian perspective without hysterics or Hollywood drama. And finally, if you find fault with my logic or don't agree with my summation, that's okay. This entry is merely me putting words to my thoughts while I try to make sense of a super natural experience.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Second !mpact Trip to Costa Rica

As I look back at what I wrote before I left for Costa Rica, there were three things I predicted. One was that I'd miss sharing it with my family, the second is that I'd be able to use my new Spanish phrases, and the third is that I'd know what to expect.  Well, I did miss my family, but sharing the experience with other strong Christian women turned out to be far more valuable than I ever anticipated. And second,  I did use some of my Spanish and was very greatful to be able to communicate and understand more than last time; however, it was still painfully obvious that I'll need a lot more practice.  And finally, I thought I'd know what to expect - which I did in several physical ways - but I had no idea how differently God would reveal Himself to me on this trip. I am still in both shock and awe... and find myself trembling as I write this.  It is an experience that has many levels and will take me several years to sort out, if ever.  I've been trying to decide who to tell and who not to. But then again, I also feel it's not for me to determine.  What I'm about to write needs to be told. How each reader responds and proceeds is out of my hands.

For those that don't know, our CAV !mpact Missions trips all start out with 5 or 6 weeks of training. This is done to educate and prepare the hearts of its team members.  This is a time for sharing testimonies, collective prayer, and task preparation.  Our team's goal for this mission was to focus on a beautiful experience for the mothers of the children who eat at the Hope Center. They are often forgotten and are living in poverty and many times abuse. We prepared a spa manicure experience, a beaded bracelet session, and an art project where they could decorate their own canvas bag.  My projected task was to assist with the babysitting of the children while the moms got a little away time.  Looking back, our team did all three of these things and did them well. But God had something else in mind for us to do.


In the morning after breakfast we loaded up the bus and prayed before we left the driveway.  I can't tell you how excited I was to see the Hope Center and everyone in it.  The director, Ashley, met us at the door and greeted us with a warm hug. It felt like home.  I saw a few faces in the kitchen I recognized and had to run over for a quick kiss on the cheek.  I then took my seat and waited for Ashley's husband, Julio, to tell us about another project they wanted us to do.  It was a painting project for one of the buildings across the way.  We had been informed before we left that this was something they were going to ask us to do and to be quite honest a few of us were grumbling about the physicality of the project. I imagined sore muscles and a sunburn, but as Julio explained to us that it was a daycare and it's the long term goal of the Hope Center to see the entire street turned into a "Street of Hope", I found myself getting more excited about the project.  I started to visualize all the buildings being painted and how people usually feel uplifted when they are surrounded by things that are beautiful. I started to think of how this might affect the whole community, not just those kids who get to eat at the Hope Center.  Julio continued to explain how they reached out to the woman who runs the government assisted daycare and how the building might possibly have a curse on it, but that they wanted to change that and make it a place of hope.  I noticed his mention of the word 'curse' but didn't dwell on it too much.

We all got together and were escorted [our safety was always a top priority] to the daycare center across the circle.

Daycare across the circle from the Hope Center

Standing outside the main entrance.

The grass was overgrown and there was a chain-link fence around the front of the building. The gate was opened for us and several of the women crowded around the front door.  The door was open and out came a woman and several young children. Our leaders, who are native Spanish speakers, made the introductions and told them that we are the women who have come to help paint the house.  I was lagging in the back and was in no hurry to get to the door since I had no idea what they were saying. Instead I was looking at the walls and imagining the amount of work ahead of us.  As I finally caught up and walked past the front door something happened.  I felt something come out of the door and reach out towards me.  I don't know what it was but it was dark and I instantly couldn't breath.  The air lacked oxygen and there was pressure on my chest. Even though I didn't know what it was and had never had an experience like this before, I instantly knew it was evil.  I kept walking past the door on the outside of the building and felt it slowly release. My breathing turned back to normal.  I continued surveying the exterior of the building with no other incident.  I didn't know what to make of it. No one else seemed to be affected. We were then invited inside.  I followed the women.  It was dark, there were no lights other than what was coming in through the windows.  Once my eyes adjusted I looked around.  There was a small TV, several cribs lined up along the wall and lots of children's books and toys. On the walls were paintings of animals and such.  I think one might have been Mickey Mouse.  It wasn't horrible, but it was kind of sad, dull, dingy, dirty, and dreary.

Inside the living room. The only light is from windows.

We all gathered around the woman and prayed for her. I didn't feel anything unusual.

The woman running the daycare is in the middle.
After our prayer we split into our teams and started to work.  I was handed some sandpaper and began sanding.  It was loud and dirty work, but it was also pleasurable and almost therapeutic.  The walls had never been touched (other than to be tagged by gangs) so it felt good to take the top layer off.  I thought about the love in the hearts of each hand touching it and how removing this ugly rough layer is going to help make the paint stick.  When the sanding was done, we started priming the walls.

Ashley is in the front, followed by Vicki, Denise and myself kneeling.
The transformation was instant.  With each stroke of the paint roller the building got brighter and lighter.  Our local handy-man who worked hard right along side us promised to bring back a weed-wacker and tidy up the front garden area.  It was taking shape right before our eyes.  I couldn't be happier to be working on the project, but never stopped thinking about what happened earlier that morning.  It sobered me. I felt myself withdrawing from the group. I wasn't frightened, but I felt different.


During breakfast I received a call from Ashley.  I couldn't imagine why she had singled me out to discuss something over the phone.  In addition, I had only allowed myself a short window to finish getting ready and get to the bus so I knew this would make me late.  I got on the phone and said, "Hello?".  She said hello back and then went on to explain that she would not be able to be at the Hope Center this morning but wanted to let someone know which colors were supposed to go on which walls of the daycare.  My first thought was how honored I felt for her to trust me to relay this information and my second thought was that of doubt and fear because I know my own flaws and figured she would have been better telling someone else. I started taking notes and prayed that my mind wouldn't fail me as it has so many times before. When I thought I was clear about the instructions I hung up and raced to the bus.  We prayed together as a team as we always do, and I filled everyone in on the plans.  Once we arrived at the daycare and I saw the building again, it quickly became clear that my brain was going to let me down. Some of the instructions made perfect sense, but there were more angles to the walls than I saw in my mind so I had a few questions left.  My plan was to the direct the team on the parts that I knew for sure and wait on the others hoping Ashley would be there soon to clarify.  It almost worked, but she was delayed.  We started on the easy walls where there was no question in my mind about what we were to do.

I was certain this wall was supposed to be blue. 
Eventually we finished those up and still no Ashley.  People kept asking what color to paint on the next walls, but I wasn't sure.  Then I turned the corner of one wall to see that two women had painted it blue, but I wasn't sure what color was supposed to be there.  I decided to make an executive decision and say 'carry on'.  After that the other colors just sort of made sense.  When Ashely finally arrived she was so enthusiastic and pleased with our progress.  She admitted that the wall that was blue was really supposed to be yellow, but I think everyone agreed that it look very good the way it was, or if not, no one said anything to the contrary.

I think the middle front wall was supposed to be yellow. 
Our painting day was a success and judging by the people who walked by and pointed and smiled, I think all agreed.  Except someone wasn't very happy.  Unbeknownst to me, they would let me know the following day.


The final day of mission work always comes too fast and with many mixed feelings.  I remember this part from last time.  Some of me was tired and ready for it to be over, but a huge part of me never wanted it to end.  At breakfast I was thinking about how the time was going by so fast and of all things, I haven't spent that much time with God.  It sounds strange because we were praying and doing God's work all three days, but that's different than spending time alone with Him.  For some reason we had a delayed start and our leaders told me to relax and not rush because we had some extra time.  I went back to my room and noticed that my roommate was not there.  I thought this would be a good time to pray.  I prayed about my heart being open to whatever God has planned for me. That I was His servant and would be happy doing anything that needed to be done.  I don't remember much else, just that I was thankful and open to the Holy Spirit.

On the bus that morning after we prayed our leaders told us that we were going to anoint the daycare today and pray a blessing on the building.  We wanted to walk around the whole building but for safety reasons that was not possible; however, we would be allow to go inside.  I hadn't had any more experiences like the first day but it was never far from my thoughts.  I had shared the story at our team debrief on Monday night but other than our two leaders, no one else seemed particularly alarmed at my experience.  As it turned out, my leaders had both been having their own experiences different than mine, but also very compelling.  One of them told me about a dream and something about the kitchen at the daycare being a place of darkness. The other had a powerful prayer experience prior to our trip.  We knew all our experiences were interconnected, but at this point, I was still unsure of the depth or meaning that they would have.

Our whole team met in front of the daycare that morning.  One of our members brought anointing oil and we were each given a cotton ball full of oil to mark crosses all around and pray for God's blessings.  I took my cotton ball and began at the outside right window. This window and I had become good friends as I carefully painted the trim and removed all the rocks and broken glass pieces from the ledge.  I prayed for the window to have no more rocks thrown at it.  I prayed that the window would shine light through and be a blessed place.  Then I moved to another area outside.  I made a cross and prayed in my head about how I hoped this would be a place of hope. That the woman's business would prosper and people would want to come and bring their kids. Again I moved along the outside and prayed more blessings on it and thought about what a beautiful building this is now and how people will see it every time they walk by and that it would be a blessing to the community.  Then I thought it was time to go inside.  There were others walking around whispering prayers and making crosses.  I started by the beds and thought about the kids that would be taking naps. I prayed for them to have sweet dreams and lots of rest that would refresh their bodies.  Then I went into the kitchen.

In the kitchen I saw my leaders reading a prayer on the wall. It was in Spanish so since I didn't know what it said I moved away to another area.  I saw a counter space near a window and looked outside imagining that it would be a nice place to prepare food.  I took my cotton ball and made a cross on the wall as I had done several times before. I bowed my head and began to pray quietly in my mind.  I prayed for the women who would prepare the food here. I prayed that there would be enough food and that the food would nourish all who ate it.  And then I prayed, "the Holy Spirit is here."  As soon as the sentence was spoken in my mind, something came rushing at me from the other side of the room. It came from behind and I could feel it all around me. It was dark, heavy, and oppressive. It was exactly what I had felt on the first day.  I could barely breathe.  I said again, "the Holy Spirit is here."  It didn't let up.  I thought I could run. I knew where the door was, but I was afraid it might never leave me alone. My next thought was that I wanted to stay and fight. I wanted good to prevail. In times such as these I've heard that calling upon the name of Jesus is a powerful weapon, but for some reason I could not come up with the words. It was as if I was in the middle of a battle and wasn't able to change my weapon.  So I said "the Holy Spirit is here" again. I said it over and over and over again, but it wouldn't leave me. I wasn't winning... I was just holding it off.  Then I felt compelled to say it out loud. At first my voice cracked because I still had a sense of who I was and what was around me. I didn't want to be disruptive to the children or embarrass myself in front of the other women, but then somehow I knew this was a matter of life or death.  I said it out loud, "The Holy Spirit is here."  "The Holy Spirit is here."  "The Holy Spirit is here." I was weeping though I do not remember starting to cry.  I was breathing heavy as if I was running out of air.  I was speaking as if in tongues because although I knew what I was saying in English, I no longer felt like I was the one producing the sound.  One of my leaders heard me from across the room and rushed over. She didn't try to stop me, but laid a hand on my shoulder confirming everything I was saying. Together there was more power, or I had more confidence, or the Holy Spirit was stronger, but somehow it started to release me.  I felt it slowly dissipate and move away from me. It came on forcefully but left weakened. I don't know if it left the building, but it left me.  My breath came back to me and I knew it was over.  I praised God, then turned to the one who helped me and hugged her.  I left the kitchen immediately and went outside.  I sat on the steps and tried to catch my breath. I felt exhausted like I had gone to battle, yet I had done nothing physical that morning.  It was the most surreal moment of my entire life.  Here I was in a foreign country, having just done battle with an evil spirit, and people were walking around going about their business as if nothing unusual had happened.  I could hardly process it.  It took me a while to get my bearings, but there was one thing I knew immediately following the experience and that was that GOD HAD WON.  There would be no doubt in my mind from this minute forward that there is good and evil on this planet.  There is both and it's everywhere.  Even if we don't recognize it immediately - as I did the moment it hit me in that kitchen - it is still at work.  There are battles going on all the time.  They are real and they are not to be taken lightly.

I kept most of this to myself for the rest of the trip because to be honest, I wasn't sure what to do with it.  I felt like I had been given this amazing gift, this glimpse behind the curtain if you will, but wasn't sure if it was only meant for my eyes or if it was meant to be shared.  I knew I needed some time, prayer, and spiritual guidance before I could speak openly about what happened.  I'm still processing it and trying to figure out why I was allowed this opportunity to discern what most people do not. Then again, when I hear the joyful sounds of a song being played, or hear the beautiful words of a prayer being spoken, or listen to the wisdom of a pastor's message, I see gifts that I enjoy from the outside.  God spreads the Holy Spirit's gifts out differently to each one of His believers.  No one gift is better than the other.  Perhaps that is also why I haven't shared it until now.  Each women on our team had their own unique and wonderful experience that serves as a powerful testimony.  Mine is no more or less valuable. It has a its place, but it is not the sum total of my trip.

And speaking of that, for the purposes of this writing, I have chosen to focus on this one very powerful thing God revealed to me while serving, but this really only took up a very short amount of time.  I have so many wonderful memories of time spent with the children, conversations I had with my tiny Spanish vocabulary, and incredibly powerful testimonies I heard from some of the people living and working in the slums.  I got to know Kirk Nowery, who first spoke at our church about Costa Rica inspiring me to go there, and his beautiful wife, Violeta.  Most importantly, I can not go without mentioning the amazing group of women I had the privilege of serving along side of.  We also had a wonderful bus driver that kept us safe on the roads and a charismatic tour guide/interpreter, and so many other people who came into our lives for a short time and made us better for it.

Sweet little baby Brianna.

My new best friend Naomi. 

Our bus driver Jeffrey had great skills behind the wheel.
Children being fed.

The ladies being pampered.

I think back on the six days we spent in Costa Rica and smile at the many wonderful experiences God allowed me to have.  I have no fear of going back nor would I begin to imagine that I would encounter the same thing.... and even if I did, God always prevails.

On our final day before we went to the airport we had a chance to go back and see the daycare with the new windows, black trim, and the new sign that was lovingly painted by someone from our team.

The daycare of Hope (roughly translated).
I hope we left the place a little better than we found it. I know I'm a little better of a person by having been there. I'm excited for its future and I'm looking forward, if it's in God's will, to go back. A piece of my heart is already there.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Heading Back

It's been several months since I've been to Costa Rica.  I'm finally feeling like myself in my own life except for one thing. A piece of my heart was left behind.  I find myself wondering how things are going for each of the kids I met.  I'm thinking about the women in the kitchen and wondering what's for lunch.

I've seen the pictures from the last group that went to visit and I watched with teary eyes feeling as if I was seeing pictures of my own family.  I hardly imagine they are thinking of me, but that doesn't matter.  What matters is that God introduced me to some people whom I will always think of for the rest of my life. Even if I were to never see them again, they still live in my heart.

The good news to report is that I will get to see some of them again!  As of now I'm preparing with a team of women to go back to the Hope Center to minister to the moms and children living in Pavas.

I am so excited to see the faces I've fallen in love with.  I can't wait to hear more about their lives from my fellow teammates who speak Spanish.  I'm looking forward to reconnecting with the director of the Hope Center and hearing all about its future plans. I'm also looking forward to seeing Costa Rica at a different time year and visiting a coffee plantation on our final day.

This trip will be different in many ways. First, I won't be traveling with the comfort and security of my family.  I have a feeling I'll be spending many moments wishing my husband and kids were with me to share the experience.  I'm excited about our team of godly women, but there's nothing like sharing it with family.  Second, I've been trying to learn a little Spanish and hope that I can communicate a little more than last time.  Our church has provided us with several weeks of language geared specifically for missions trips.  And finally, I know what to expect.  I not only know what things will look like and where we'll stay and what we'll eat, but I also hope to see a few familiar faces.  I long to see and recognize some of the kids from the last trip.  I know there will be plenty of new faces, but there's nothing like seeing a child grow and change in just a few short months.

We are just a day away from leaving for Pavas, but in many ways my heart is already there.  If you are a praying person, please lift up our team as we travel, serve, and continue building relationships. I know there are many suffering and in need, but there's nothing like serving where God leads your heart.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Well, how was it??

I've been asked quite a few times how our !mpact trip to Costa Rica went.  I usually come up with some lame dis-jointed comment about how wonderful it was and how much I enjoyed it.  Truthfully, I'd like to say a lot more, but some things are hard to express on the spot so I've written them down and although this is quite lengthy, it really only hits a few of the highlights of the trip.  - Andrea

I never expected to go on a missions trip. Ever. It really isn’t my thing. Physical discomfort, potential danger, and food dissidence doesn’t sound like a good time. No thank you.  Except that’s not how God works.  He doesn’t let you sit and be comfortable. Instead He plants teeny tiny seeds and watches them grow.  He places little reminders and random thoughts over time until you become uncomfortable in the very place that you feel comfortable.  At least that’s how it was for me.  I’ve grown uncomfortable being comfortable.  How long am I going to say no? How long will I insists that it’s someone else’s calling?  How long can I remain blissfully unaware while at the same time being made aware. That’s the road I took to the mission field.  I was kicking and screaming at one point, then listening and considering, and then seeking and running towards.  By the time our church presented the idea of a family !mpact trip to Costa Rica my heart was ready.


In some ways I felt prepared to see the poverty.  As a child in the 70’s I remember the slums and ghettos that weren’t too far from where I lived.  In Costa Rica the slums start out towards the middle of the hill and then deteriorates the further you drive down.  Our team had spent the previous day sightseeing and that morning at an upscale church in another part of town before we took the tour of Pavas.   As our taxi van descended down the hill it felt comfortable to look out the window and take in the surroundings.  I made eye contact with several of the locals as our van passed comfortably by carrying us rich Americans with all our valuables placed nonchalantly in our laps.  I didn’t mind looking at the poverty of their houses. I wasn’t affected by the trash littering nearly every inch of road.  The stray dogs digging through garbage bags didn’t move me.  The toddlers and preschoolers playing in a blow-up swimming pool on the side of the road didn’t make me feel sorry for them.  The three drug dealers on the side of the road didn’t especially scare me. But then it happened.  I looked into the eyes of a woman walking on the side of the road and God got a hold of me. Something in her eyes made me feel shame for who I was sitting in that van touring an area where they call home.  It happened so fast and yet it was so profound. I didn’t feel superior to her, if anything I felt lower than her.  Is that how God see me?  Shielded by my Goodwill clothes that are still designer-labeled, my body cleanly showered and hair pulled back neatly, with my iPhone 6 tucked in my Nike bag and old Croc sandals?  I didn’t feel that I deserved better than this woman yet I’m offered opportunities and options that this woman can’t even dream of. How do you make peace with that?  Why am I in the van and her on the street?  I felt this wave of uneasiness that didn’t let up.  Our van turned the corner and we could see La Carpio in the distance, a place worse than the one we were in. All of a sudden it got very real.  This place was sobering not just because of the way it looked or smelled, it was also the way it felt. I felt something deep in my bones that I still can’t describe.  Even from a distance it was hard to look at and imagine what life is like there.  

La Carpio
The ride back to the hotel was nearly silent.  How do you ever feel comfortable again surrounded by luxury?


I dreaded the first day at the Hope Center. Up until Monday the whole thing felt more like a vacation than a mission trip. Now it was time to work, and I didn’t know if I was up to the task.  I felt like someone holier or more loving should be there in my place.  I was an imposter. I was someone who liked the idea of a mission trip more than the reality of it.

We entered the building and looked around.  Not so bad I thought.  

Inside Hope Center
We found out what needed to be done and we were left to tackle it anyway we saw fit.  I immediately gravitated toward sorting clothes that people had donated.  It was an easy job that allowed my mind to wonder.  Who donated these clothes? Who will end up with them? Is that why it’s hard to tell who the poor kids are? They are dressed in Justice and Tommy Hilfiger clothes?  As I continued to work, I noticed that my kids were working too. James was moving furniture and mopping, the girls were wiping walls and then came and joined me, and Dennis was starting a painting project.  Humph… nobody works that willingly at our house I noted to myself.  

Emily and Kat sorting clothes by size and gender.

Eventually the kids started trickling in and it was time to serve lunch.  Because of the jobs that needed to get done in the morning, no one was helping the women in the kitchen and they had prepared the meal as they have done every day for the past 20 years.  The three of us moms were tasked with placing the food on the plates and the kids were asked to bring the trays out and serve the children.  The Hope Center serves about 200 children a day so as you can imagine it’s no small task.  I stood in front of a large vat of freshly made spaghetti and green bean concoction while my fellow moms served rice, beans, and salad.  

Rice and spaghetti

First one plate was filled, then another, and another… tears welled up in my eyes.  It was unexpected and unexplainable.  Somehow the meaning of this trip flooded through me.  We are here to serve, and I was literally serving one scoop of spaghetti at a time.   How can such a mundane task bring so much joy, so much meaning, and so much pleasure?  Plate after plate, with tired arms and an aching back, the pleasure never stopped.  When lunch was over the clean up commenced immediately.  I was stationed in front of a make-shift sink with a dirty sponge, solid soap container, and cold water.  I washed for an hour.  It was not fun but the appreciation I had for what these women accomplish every day went through the roof.  How can they do it? Why do they do it?  Unanswered questions. 

Around 2:00 pm the children started to come back for our quasi-VBS experience.  It was the first time I got to intermingle with them.  Prior to this I had been in the kitchen.  I was nervous to interact with the kids as I spoke no Spanish, had little heart for entertaining children, and wasn’t sure if I might “catch” some childhood annoyance such as lice or who knows what else.   I hung back as the group started singing.

Singing kid songs in Spanish and English.
I noticed a girl in the back sitting alone. She had the most gorgeous long hair.  She seemed a little older and perhaps more sophisticated.  I went down and sat next to her, saying nothing at first.  A few minutes later I asked her name (the one Spanish sentence I learned).  She said, “Carla”.  I touched her hair and said, “bonita”.  As I sat there stealing glances at her beauty, especially her pristine hair that fell to her lower back, it occurred to me that this was not a good thing.  How long will it be?        I thought.  How many years does she have before her fate will be decided?  Will she have a say in it?  Is she already being groomed?  In plain terms, will this girl become a child prostitute, or is she perhaps already one?”  My heart sank.  I don’t know her story. I may never know her story. But in that moment, what I could do is be someone who wants nothing from her. I could be someone with a warm smile who can sit next to her and keep her company so she doesn’t have to sit alone.  It seemed like such a small task, but I wanted to do it as best as I could.  So I sat with her.

Carla's beautiful long hair.

The next day came and I had more confidence.  I knew where we were going, what it would be like, and why we were there.  I was asked to help in the kitchen which compared to being in the sun painting a wall, it seemed like a dream job.  I entered the kitchen not being able to say a word beyond “hola”.  I was handed a knife, cutting board, and some vegetables.  I watched as they demonstrated what I needed to do.  Please don’t let me cut myself I thought. What a burden I’d be if I had to go for stitches! 

Everything is cooked from scratch with fresh veggies from the market.

I started chopping as I quietly observed the women.  Each time someone new entered the kitchen they were greeted and kissed on the cheek.  No one was overly enthusiastic in a fake American way, yet no one was grumpy or stressed or rushed, or anything else suggesting they’d rather be somewhere else. They all worked together on different tasks consulting each other from time to time and perhaps sharing a detail from the day before.  I had no idea what we were making but everyone else seemed to and the kitchen ran like clock work.  After a few hours of chopping and preparing, it was time to serve.  Again, the three of us moms took our places in front of the vats of food and carefully scooped out the exact amount the ladies had demonstrated for us.  Tray after tray went out and in its place more dirty dishes came back.  

The plates and cups went out full and came back empty.

We worked hard and moved fast, but never in a stressful frenetic way, but rather in an organized purposeful way.  I couldn’t help but think of the kitchen as a perfectly oiled machine, working with many hands and many hearts to accomplish such a task.  At the end of service, we started on the dishes. 

The kids and moms took turns doing dishes.
There were many to wash, many to dry, and many to put away.  The task wasn’t done until the last thing was put in its place.  Again I asked myself, how is it that no one is getting sick? There is no hot water, dirty sponges, and dishes being washed by so many different people with different ideas of what’s clean. 

Sink to wash pots and pans and dishes.
Is it possible that we in America have become so germ-o-phobic that we drive ourselves crazy with ultra cleanliness?  

After clean up the women made us workers a special and different meal.  Each and every day they’d pull out the finer plastic china and utensils and real glasses for us Gringos.  The food was fantastic and never disappointed us.  

Special lunches made fresh for the Gringos.
When the meal was over, we’d sneak back to the kitchen and wash the dishes we had just used.  The cycle never ended but no one complained.  Meanwhile in the next rooms the dental clinic was underway.  This was the first time many of these children (and some of the women in the kitchen) had ever been to a dentist.  The first day was just to check the kids’ teeth and the second was to do the more complicated procedures and the cleanings.

Rooms set up with dentist chairs.
While the kids waited, our team did the best we could to entertain the kids. There was something different about these kids in Pavas. First of all, they were physically tough, meaning that they were able to play hard, get bumped or bruised, but not cry in the corner. They laughed it off and kept playing.  I don’t know if that was a good thing because it suggests that what they experience outside of the Hope Center is much worse than a few bruises from indoor soccer.  Next, they were starved for physical attention and affection. Many of them jumped on our backs and wanted to be carried around. 

Kids always wanting a ride.

They craved anything to be touched lovingly or be paid attention to.  Another observation is that these kids were loving to each other.  It’s not that I didn’t witness some pushing and shoving between kids, but when it came down to it, these kids looked to each other for comfort and protection. They were bonded in ways far beyond what I usually see between siblings and friends.  Finally, these kids wanted to play.  More than anything, they wanted to have fun. 

Kids doing what they loved best: play time!
I can’t imagine the hardships they face outside of the Hope Center, but inside these wall they have permission to be kids.  Speaking of that, it was on Tuesday that I met Lispby (Leslie) and her sister Kimber (Kimberly).  They were as tight as two sisters can be.

Kimberly (left) and Leslie (right)
Kimberly clung to her big sister like she was her only source of comfort.  I’m guessing they are probably half sisters as Lispby has much darker skin than her much lighter sister.  Again, Kimberly is another little girl that is so cute and has such beautiful curly hair that it makes me afraid for her future and she is only 4 or 5 years old.  I befriended the pair by just sitting with them and smiling at them.  It seems to be the universal language for friendship. 

We made necklaces, colored bible story pages, and kicked the ball around.  These girls will be in my heart forever.  As the day closed at the Hope Center, we watched several of the kids walk down the hill further into the slums where I presume their homes are.  It was strange to see them leave.
The view from inside the Hope Center walls looking down the hill.
There is no one around in this picture but the cars, trucks, and motorbikes careen down the hill quite fast. 
They weren’t picked up by their mothers. They weren’t upset or crying as they left. They were just existing as they always have and I suspect will continue to do so.  It was such a strange sight. In America you wouldn’t dream of sending such little kids out to walk dangerous streets alone and here no one is expecting them at home or looking out for their personal safety. They must navigate the busy street alone doing the best they can.  In some ways it made me sad for our country that we have become so driven by fear that we can’t bare to allow our fully capable teens to go anywhere alone yet these little elementary school kids can walk through crime, drug, and gang infested streets and do just fine.  It is in these moments that the slums are teaching me where I have room for improvement.   


By the third day at the Hope Center I felt like I was part of the team.  I greeted the women with a kiss, took a knife from the drawer and began chopping garlic and the largest carrot I've ever seen.

Wow... that's a big carrot!
Shortly after one of the women came in speaking Spanish while pointing at her shirt and giving a disgusted look. It was so funny because her sentiments translated perfectly.  She was unhappy with the color of her shirt and wanted a different one.  A few minutes later she left and came back wearing a pink t-shirt and a big smile.  I guess you can say some things are just understood.  The morning continued on with lots of painting outside and chopping inside. 

Someone had the idea to put handprints on the outside columns of the Hope Center in each color that represented the logo on the sign outside.

This sign is on the outside wall of the Hope Center.
At first the idea was to use a child-sized hand as a model for all the hands, but then someone suggested we ask the women in the kitchen if they would like to add their handprints too.  Turns out they were delighted and each chose their favorite color and placed it lovingly on the walls. 

Vanessa (in a pink shirt instead of yellow) adding her handprint to the wall.
Before long we drew quite a crowd and the children all wanted a turn at placing their mark on the wall.  

This little girl was the daughter of one of the women in the kitchen.
Back home it might have been a non-memorable event, but here in Pavas where most things are dirty and unkempt it was a great display of pride in ownership and genuine effort to make things just a little bit nicer for the kids.

The blue paint is new and the handprints make it colorful.
The lunch service that day was bitter sweet.  There was hardly time to ponder that this would be our last time serving because there was so much dishwashing to do.  That really sums up a lot of experiences at the Hope Center… there is so much to do that processing the meaning behind each task has to wait for another time.  

Another healthy hot lunch.
Around 2:00pm the kids came back to the center for our “esquala” (little school).  A few of our team members sang songs in the front while the rest of us mingled with the kids who were sitting on the sidelines.  

I went and sat next to two girls who were alone. 

I don't know their names but they loved looking at pictures on my iPhone.
I asked their names but they were so soft spoken it was hard to hear.  I was having a hard time connecting so I pulled out my phone and showed them a few random pictures.  When I got to one of a swimming pool at Disney World the girls took a quick breath and exhaled, “booo-nitaaaa!!”  I couldn’t decide in that moment if it was a good thing or bad thing to show them pictures. That’s the kind of thing that comes to mind when working with these kids. My main thought was do no harm, so I put my phone away and I encouraged them to listen to the story.  After craft time the kids wanted to play games in the main room.  Their favorites were freeze-tag, soccer, and anything having to do with being spun around in circles.  A little boy and girl performed a patty-cake type game/song for us.  It reminded me of something I would have done in my childhood.

Then the same little boy grabbed two cups and started to do the cup song.  Emily and Katherine joined in and before you knew it all cultural and language boundaries were down and the only language needed was laughter. I love thinking back on those moments.

The moments that are harder to describe and are more painful to think about are the final ones.  I went into the kitchen to say goodbye and could not contain my tears. They were ones of gratitude for being patient with us Gringos who cut and washed so much slower than they did. It was tears of joy for having had such an amazing experience with them. It was tears of sorrow knowing that I won’t see them again for a long time and perhaps never. It was tears of appreciation knowing that they will continue to feed the children daily doing God’s work with little reward.  These women taught me so much in three short days.  They taught me that working together makes things go faster. That each one has something they could teach to each other. They taught me that working towards a common goal is more meaningful than doing it alone. They taught me that chopping things up really small is a good thing. And they taught me that pail yellow isn’t a good color shirt for women with dark hair and dark skin.  I don’t know these women’s personal stories, but I know they give of themselves selflessly every day and I know these women can cook!  The children of Pavas are blessed to have them.  As the van pulled away for the last time, several of the children came running along side of it.  I don’t think there was a dry-eye in the bunch as we rode back to the hotel in silence. 

It’s been three days since I’ve been back from Costa Rica.  They say jumping back into your old life might be difficult.   I’d say it’s nearly impossible because you don’t come back as the same person. The same challenges might await, the same stressors are burdensome and the daily grind doesn’t let up, but somehow everything is different.  I’d like to say I’m more patient, tender hearted, and connected, but so far I’ve been frustrated, annoyed, and discontent.  I want some things to be like they were in Costa Rica and I wish some things would be like it is in America for the kids in Pavas.  I find myself looking around at things and thinking they aren’t important yet I can’t change the way our culture does things.  I know I want to go back. I know it was the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life, but I’m not sure yet how to incorporate what I learned into daily life here. 

I think about the kids in Pavas all the time. I think about the women in the kitchen and wonder what they are serving for lunch. I look at my fast paced hectic luxurious life and I search for the meaning beyond the obvious things.  I wonder if that’s what happens when you take a trip like this… your heart ends up in two different worlds.  Maybe that’s what God wants for us. To place our heart in as many world’s as possible. Can you imagine God knowing the details of the lives of every person on every inch of this planet?  I have lots of things to contemplate and I wish I could say this will end in a neat and tidy way with a scripture verse and some profound truth.  It won’t.  The bottom line is that I’m still trying to figure it out, but I know I’m thankful that God got a hold of my heart. I’m glad that the seed of being uncomfortable in a comfortable world was planted and watered. And I’m glad I got to became ‘that person’ who goes on a mission trip.