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?

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