A Young Woman Remembers Her Time in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic

Kristen and her dad, Phil
in Eppley airport before her first mission trip
Kristen Strevey was a beautiful, if somewhat innocent fourteen year old when I first met her at the planning meeting for one of my churches mission trips before I moved to Guatemala.  Today, she is finishing high school and has written two beautiful essays reflecting on two of her experiences as a short-term missionary.  It is my prayer that everyone who makes a mission trip will walk away changed by the experience, and she surely has.  Her friendship is a blessing to my life, and I hope her thoughts will bless you.

Crimson from heat and glistening with sweat, my face strained as I bent over the wheel of a specialized red wheelchair to adjust a screw.  In the seat sat a blubbering two-year-old Guatemalan boy.  His beautiful dark brown eyes watched as I placed his feet into the fitted footrest.  As the third born of triplet boys, he was affected by Multiple Sclerosis  (Cerebral Palsy--pat) caused by complications during birth.  Although I had only known the family for 20 minutes and could not communicate very well because it was just my first year of Spanish, I could see the struggles the family had experienced by looking at his young mother.  Her hands, one of which caressed her older daughter, were covered in calluses from performing manual labor to support her family.  The strong calf muscles revealed how she had had to carry her handicapped son through the streets of the coastal city of Guatemala.  Her weary eyes showed the sleepless nights of worrying how to care for the children she loved so dearly but could not support in the economical conditions of the poor country.  But, amidst the struggle, the woman’s smile shined with hope brought by the wheelchair that would lighten her daily load.  As the final adjustment was made to the wheelchair and the boy’s body could finally relax comfortably, tears of joy sprung from the young mother’s eyes.  After years of trouble transporting her son, life would ease tremendously for the family. 

Kristen and "her" triplets, July 2009
I went on the trip to Guatemala the summer before my freshman year as part of a mission team from my church with only seven adults that I had met once before.  We worked with three local missionaries who serve the handicapped community of Guatemala.  Besides the handicap ministry, we distributed food and built a small house, but, with such a large need and small amount of resources for handicapped people, that aspect of our trip prevailed.  During the daylong wheel chair distribution, about 100 chairs were fitted to children or adults and given to impoverished families.  Each chair would affect the lives of families similar to that of the triplet boy, and every person left the humid building with a smile on his face and a new hope for life.  On this day, I knew in my heart that no matter what I do with my future, whether I am a doctor or a teacher, I would be making a difference in the lives of others.  I knew that I would do anything to see the joy and hope of the Guatemalan families reflected in many more people.

Kristen and Lily, one of the residents of Hermano Pedro
But my realizations did not stop there.  On the fifth day of our trip we spent time at an institution for handicapped children and adults whose families could not care for them.  This day was one of the most emotionally challenging of my life.  The children laid in cribs for most of the day, were fed bowls of mush, and often cried for hours without any response.  My heart broke every time I turned my head.  However, the terrible conditions were due to a lack of government funds, not a lack of care.  Evident in every nurse working at Hermano Pedro was an unconditional love and patience for the children; they were doing everything they possibly could.  It brings tears to my eyes now to remember the loving smile and gentle touch of a nurse who fed a 14 year old girl from a bottle, rocking the diaper clad girl and sweetly singing her a song.  Throughout the day a passionate itch came into my heart.  I felt it as I reached under mosquito nets to hold the hands of “vegetable” children, hoping that a simple touch would bring some light to their day.  I felt it even stronger at the delightful cries of the kids we wheeled through the courtyard of the building as sunlight and fresh air brushed their faces.  Finally, as I sat with Henry, the sweetest boy I’ve ever seen, asleep in my lap, the feeling in my heart became uncontrollable.  The boy, who had cried the whole time we were there, finally had a smile on his face: he had fallen asleep in a warm embrace instead of behind the bars of a metal crib.  While the rest of the team waited to leave, I gave the slumbering three-year-old a kiss on the head and promised him that I would use my life and my knowledge to the best of my ability so that I could help other hurting children like him. 

Still today, as I work in the nursery, babysit, and teach pre-school choir, all for healthy kids, little Henry stays in the back of my mind. Henry is my motivation to attend eight plus years of college in order to become a pediatric oncologist; I want sick children like him to be able to fully experience all of life’s joys.

Kristen with Peg Pearson as she arrives in the DR
with her parents
The following two summers, Kristen spent a significant amount of time working with Peg and Bill Pearson in the Dominican Republic.  They have founded Christian International Foundation, Inc. which is based in Santo Domingo.  This essay originally appeared in their newsletter, and Kristen has allowed me to share it with you, also.  Of her trip to the Dominican, Kristen writes:

I departed the plane into the humidity of the Dominican Republic as a naïve 15 year old, not knowing that the six weeks I spent on the island would change my life. Because I traveled alone and only knew the two missionaries I lived with, I was forced to adapt quickly to my new environment. This experience established who I am today.

With my first Sunday on the humid island came my first immersion into the culture: The Spanish Church. Walking through the doors, I was surprised by the simple yet magnificent sanctuary. People began to find seats, still warmly greeting churchgo-ers, and I discovered my first lesson: Dominicans are friendly to everyone. Compared to the general coldness of the US, these interactions were overwhelming, but as the time passed, I grew accustomed to conversing with many people and shattered the walls of my comfort zone daily, setting a basis in social interaction for the rest of my life. The aspect that struck me most about the Dominicans was that they all seemed to have a genuine interest in their acquaintances and how life was treating them. I found no traces of fake, shallow friendship among the people. Although difficult, I try to reflect this compassion with every person that I interact with today.

Kristen and Deive

Before I had arrived, I had fallen for the stereotypes of the people of a third world country: lazy and poor. I was instantly proven wrong though by a group of young adults that helped in the mission. They were studying to be lawyers and doctors or running their own businesses, but still poor. One of my best friends, Deivi, 22, was working as a radiologist and studying full-time. From Deivi I learned to push myself to reach my highest potential but not forget where I come from. Although Deivi was always busy, he still found time to volunteer, care for his family, and love friends. Now, when I feel overwhelmed by school, show choir, work, volunteering, and everything in my life, I find motivation from the fierce determination that the Dominicans possessed.

People I interacted with and befriended were poor, below the poverty line in the US. I traveled there with the attitude that I would be doing them a great service, but they surpassed me in sacrifice. Out of love, and not a haughty attitude, they gave pesos to children on the streets or ran errands for their neighbors, continually putting others before themselves, and reflecting the life of Christ. I saw that the way to minister to people is not always through words but more through actions. In this modern world, losing myself is easy, but I strive still to demonstrate my love for Christ in my actions, just as the Dominicans taught me.

While I thought I was going to the Dominican Republic to change people’s lives, it was mine that changed. And although I was able to help many people, my life and character benefited the most from the trip.

Thanks, Kristen, for allowing me to share your essays.  You "got" what a mission trip is all about--us serving God through His people, and Him growing us in the process.  I hope you come visit us again soon.  God bless you on your journey.

Please pray for Kristen as she moves on to college and the next phase of her life.

Festivities with the Fulps

For the second year in a row, Daryl and Wanda Fulp and their nine children have been kind enough to include me in their Christmas Day celebration.  I was not the only one invited to there home today.  So were Dick, Scott and Linda Hardee (friends from Kansas City who are here for three months), my friend Judy Kerschner (from New Life School in Santa Maria de Jesús), Geraldo (Daryl's assistant) and Daniel (a volunteer at Hermano Pedro).  In addition, they had invited 8 of the residents of Hermano Pedro to spend the day with them.

This so shows the heart of this family.  They are continually "on mission," whether it be to the Guatemalans they serve, the residents at Hermano Pedro, or their fellow missionaries.  Their family is so full of love that it just overflows to all they come in contact with, and I am fortunate to be on the receiving end of this affection.

I see a number of families in which the parents are missionaries, and the kids are along for the ride.  Not so with this family.  From the oldest, Brittney, who is studying special education through distance learning and already teaching a special needs student in her home, all the way down to Kimmie, the youngest, they are sold out to Jesus and sold on Guatemala.  It's pretty amazing to see.  So it's extra special to spend a day such as Christmas with them.

We visited, ate, received gifts, and just enjoyed each other.  It was wonderful to see our friends from Hermano Pedro getting to enjoy being part of a family, if only for a day.  Watching the older guys, especially, confirmed the need for an opportunity for them to live in a more normal setting, such as we hope to make Casa de Esperanza.  

Jeremiah with Fidel
The highpoint, though, was watching the Fulp children make such an effort to ensure their guests from Hermano Pedro enjoyed their day.  The generosity and kindness of these kids is made even more special by the fact that it seems to come naturally to them.  If you asked them, I don't think any of them would say they are doing anything special.  That's how special the ARE.

Side story:  Kimmie, who is the youngest and has Cerebral Palsy, heard me talk about our hope that Fidel will soon be living with us in Casa de Esperanza.  In all seriousness, she came to me saying: "Are you sure you know what you're doing?  He (Fidel) has special needs, you know."  

It's impossible to describe the day we had, but maybe some pictures can give you a glimpse into the joy that filled "Hogar de Esperanza" (Home of Hope),  the name of the Fulp's home, this Christmas Day.

Singing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus,
 and the three youngest Fulps getting ready to blow out the candles
on "Jesus' Birthday Cake"



Francisco or Chico
who the Fulp kids call "Abuelito"

Delmi taking it all in
Carlitos checking out the swing

Leonel getting plenty of love and attention
from Carissa
Julio enjoying some of his
Christmas candy

Francisco trying to impress Judy Kerschner
as he sports his new sunglasses

Fidel just hangin' with Daniel and Geraldo

Christmases Past

After we had a tremendous lunch at Phil and Judy Bergen's, Phil asked each of us to share a favorite Christmas memory.  It was clear to see the "cultural gap" between the North Americans and the Guatemalans who were gathered.  I have become familiar with many of the Guatemalan Christmas customs, but I guess I didn't realize how "middle class" my exposure has been.

Christina, a Spanish teacher, shared that she had never celebrated Christmas until she met her husband and his family. She was a Christian, but the poverty in which she lived ruled out gift giving in even its simplest form.  And, I have learned just this year, many of the evangelical and pentecostal churches in Guatemala do not emphasize the Christmas season.  Christmas carols are not sung in churches, and nativity sets or advent wreaths are almost considered pagan. Many evangelical churches do not even have worship on Christmas day, because it smacks too much of Catholicism.  Without worshiping together, Christmas would, indeed, be just another day off work.

Her husband's memory also took me by surprise at the same time that it broke my heart.  He wept as he told us how, at the age of ten, he received his first Christmas gift.  That Christmas he got a pair of shoes in which he could play "futbol" (soccer).  Prior to that, he had had black shoes for school, and tennis shoes for PE, but he was not allowed to wear these to play futbol because he had to save them for school.  When he received his futbol shoes, he played soccer half the night, and then slept in the shoes the remainder of the night. to see an adult man weep as he recalled this time broke my heart.  I think this story had such an impact on me because I know how important futbol is to Dick's boys.  And while they are far from middle class, they all seem to be able to find shoes and even the few quetzales it takes to rent a futbol field occasionally to enjoy a game or two.  I honestly can't picture their lives without this sport, so it was especially poignant to hear this man's story.

The final story hit even closer to home.  One of the Guatemalan women told of her first Christmas tree, which really wasn't a Christmas tree at all.  She had desperately been begging for their very poor family to have a tree, and her grandfather went out and found the best one he could find.  It wasn't an evergreen, though, but a branch of a thorn tree which grows wild here.

The children were so excited to have this tree, however, that they rushed to decorate it.  All they had were some old metal type of pop bottle tops.  These, however, were the ornaments on their tree, and they could not have been more pleased.  Recalling this, our dear friend cried, remembering how poor they were, but how happy they were with what they had.  I couldn't help but think of some pretty lean years when my kids were little, and remembered how important a Christmas tree was to them.  We always somehow managed at least a "Charlie Brown" tree, and we always had lights and ornaments, even if they were homemade.  This story more than any I have heard, has helped me realize just how profound is the poverty here in Guatemala.  And how resilient are the Guatemalan people.

I am grateful to the Bergens for including me in this celebration.  The food and conversation was wonderful.  I am more grateful, though, for understanding a little be more about the heart of the country which I now call home.  I love Guatemala today more than ever.

Nochebuena, 2012 (Christmas Eve)

Dec. 24 found me at church at 4:00 to help prepare for the Christmas Eve service which was to start at 5 pm.  The children were presenting a drama, and we needed to get them in costume and practice once more before we started.

The adults were enjoying "ponche" (a juice based punch filled with dried and fresh fruit) and cookies in the cafe.  In fact, they were enjoying the preservice celebration so much that, in true Guatemalan tradition, we didn't start the service until 5:30.  That was good for Dick, though, since he was running late trying to collect all the boys and almost had decided to stay home.  A call from our friend Daryl Fulp encouraged him to still come in, and he really wasn't that late afterall!

Pastor Antonio (with his daughter Sophia) and Pastor Giovanni, our Celebrate Recovery Pastor
I was never so proud to be a member of Iglesia del Camino (Church of the Way) as I was this night.  Our lead pastor, Mike Watkins, pretty much stepped aside for most of the service and turned the major part of the evening over to our Guatemala staff. I know few pastors who are willing to give up their pulpit time to another, and this is the second time I've seem Mike do this on a major holiday, as well as frequently having Antonio and Giovanni (our two Guatemalan pastors who are seminary trained as well as ordained) preach throughout the year.

Maria Dolores, our Children's Director whom I serve with, had written a skit for the kids to present.  The skit dealt with the struggle of many Guatemala children whose families are too poor to provide even a small gift for them.  The drama pointed them to the real gift of Christmas, the coming of Our Savior to live with us, and invited them to commit their lives to following Him.

This little girl had a hard time keeping her place, often running over to me for a quick hug and then going back to the group.  As I watched her, I couldn't help but think of the children's book, The Littlest Angel.  She's such a doll!
 At the end of the service Pastor Mike announce that eight of our children had prayed with Maria Dolores to ask Jesus into their lives.  What a blessing, especially since I know Maria Dolores will follow up with discipling these children.

After the children sang a few carols, two members of our congregation gave their testimonies.

 One was a member of our Celebrate Recovery group, who shared his story of how the love of Christ and the support of this community helped him not only find sobriety, but a job and a home.

The second was one of our musicians who recently had open heart surgery.  He shared with us how God had miraculously provided the thousands of dollars he needed for his care.  This may sound a bit strange for a Christmas service, but the whole point was that Jesus' coming makes a difference.  As Pastor Mike enthusiastically reminded us throughout the night, LOVE HAS COME, we need only to accept it.

We closed the service with the most appropriate celebration of this love, the Lord's Supper, followed by a candlelight presentation of the hymn Light of the World.  In all we were at church more than two-and-a-half hours, but it really didn't seem that long.  We had experienced first hand the Light of the World, and the Love of the Father.

After our Christmas Eve celebration at church, Dick, 12 of the boys, and I headed over to my house for our first Christmas Eve dinner.  The boys had voted that they wanted hamburgers for supper tonight, so Linda Hardee, who is staying with me along with her husband Scott, helped me dish up and fry burgers.

Scott praying the blessing
The menu was simple; hamburgers, chips, cabbage salad, and condiments (including dill pickles which I had managed to find at WalMart in Guatemala City--yeah!), followed by cookies.  Not what I would probably have chosen, but the boys were full and content.

Dick then presented each of the boys with a small Christmas gift, and Esbin served as the spokesman for the group, as he gave me a blender from them all.

One of the blessings of this house has been my ability to "entertain" the boys here.  They sometimes come over after Youth Group on Friday nights, even sleeping over a few times.  We can also come back here on Sunday after church, to visit and talk about what had been taught in church that morning.  The boys say they get more out of this small group discussion than they do from just listening to the sermon.  It humbles and blesses my heart at these times to hear them share what God is doing in each of their lives.  It amazes me how willing most of them are to share in a more intimate setting, and I am honored we can provide a space for this through our house.  God is already using this place beyond what I would have expected.  But, then, isn't that just like Him?

December--Another Month of Celebrations

Actually, our celebration of Christmas began in November, when I was invited to the Hope Haven Christmas party.  Though I don't work with the wheelchair factory all the time, they are so gracious to include me in many of their activities, and I always feel right at home when I walk in there.  It was a great night celebrating with good friends.  The bonus was that my dish, pumpkin filled ravioli in spinach sauce, really grossed Dick out!

Feast days honoring Mary are very important here in Guatemala, as in all of Latin America.  These holidays are celebrated more with parades than the typical processions.  For the first time this year I went to Ciudad Vieja, a town south of Antigua, on Dec. 7 to see the parade celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The "floats" in this parade seemed to honor primarily the life style and culture of Guatemala, though there were few fairy tale characters thrown in for good measure.  The people riding the floats were mostly children, including one young girl on every float (regardless of the theme) dressed up as the Virgin Mary.  It was really a lot of fun, but I'm still trying to figure out the religious implications, if any, of this parade.  Click here to see a slide show from this event.

December 12 is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Each year, on Dec. 11, there is a "convite" (gathering of the confraternity honor this appearance of Mary to a young man in Mexico) and a street dance is held--right in front of Mari's house. Again, I'm trying to figure out how this ties in with a holy day.  What I do know is that we get little sleep because of the booming music in the street, usually lasting until 2 in the morning.  (It's a little better in my house which is a block south of the gathering.  Last year, the group was right outside my bedroom window!)

The next day, on the 12th, more traditional processions are held, again focusing on children who are dressed in traditional Guatemalan costumes.  To see a lot of cute pictures of these children click here to go to the blog of my friends, Judy and Phil.  They have done a great job of chronicling this event.

We were able to help provide the workers at the Hope Haven factory with a Christmas dinner on their last day of work before their vacation, Dec. 21.  A generous North American friend wanted to provide a meal for the shop, but wanted to remain anonymous.  We were able to facilitate this for him, and Mari, my adopted Guatemalan daughter, prepared and served all the food.  We spent time just visiting, which we don't often get to do at wheelchair distributions, and were even serenaded by a gentleman volunteering at the shop.  It was such a fun day.

Saturday, Dec. 22, I was invited to a Christmas luncheon by two missionaries, Phil and Judy Bergen, who are new friends.  Their ministry, Love Guatemala, is based in Jocotenango, just outside of Antigua.  I met them through Scott and Linda Hardee who have been staying with me the past week.  They wanted me to come up especially so I could meet Edwin, a Guatemalan who has been their link with the mayor's office in Joco.

 Edwin  has a developmentally disabled brother and wants to start a group home and sheltered workshop for individuals with cognitive disabilities in a building he has been given to use in Pastores, another town not far from Antigua.  I can't help but believe it is a Godincident to meet someone who shares my vision for community living for the disabled, in a country where I have not been able to located any functioning group homes.  We will talk after the first of the years about how we can collaborate and share resources and ideas.

I also was privileged to hear some of the Christmas memories of some of the Guatemalans with whom Phil and Judy work.  Two of these stories in particular broke my heart.  Click here to read them.

Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) was spent in a special worship service, followed by supper with Dick's kids at our house, then a visit to Mari and Leo's, culminating with fireworks at midnight.  A long day, but a good one.  Click here to find out more about our celebration.

Christmas Day I was excited to spend time with Daryl and Wanda Fulp and nine of their ten children, as well as eight of the residents from Hermano Pedro.  Our group was rounded out by my friend Judy Kerschner, Scott and Linda Hardee, and Genardo (Daryl's assistant) and Daniel, who volunteers at Hermano Pedro.  Providing dinner for us all was quite an undertaking, but Wanda's theory is "there's always room for one more."  Her girls follow in their mother's footsteps, jumping in to help whenever they can.  I am so blessed to be friends with this family.  Click here to peek in on our day together.

My son Jeremy, his wife, Lindy, and sons Zachary and Nathan
I did get to speak with each of my boys on Christmas, though I missed talking with Mikayla, my daughter. Jeremy and Lindy were preparing brunch for the family when I called, but I used Facetime to visit with my grandsons Zachary and Nathan.  I think one of the high points of my day was when Nathan, only 3, recognized my voice and started yelling, "Hi, Grandma," before he even saw my face on the Ipod.  It was so good to be reminded that he knows me, though I'm seldom there.  Joel, my youngest, went to California to spend time with middle son, Jonathan, who is a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.  So it was a different type of Christmas for all of us, but one in which family still played a central role. It was good to be able to share part of it with the kids, even in only from a distance.

Mikayla having snuggle time with Zach

So this Christmas season has filled with family, friends, food and fellowship as together we remembered the birth of the Babe in Bethlehem.  I am blessed.

Emanuel--God With Us

Happy Birthday, Jesus.

As I remember your birth, I wonder at the great love that led you to leave the throne room of heaven to become one with us. . .

Not one of us, but one WITH us. . .

Through your birth, you invited us into the "community" which is the Trinity, to share life with our God.

Through your life, you taught us how to walk with you daily.

Through your death, you enabled us to once again to be united with the Godhead through the Holy Spirit.  

And through your resurrection you give us the hope of what it will be like to one day fully live out this unity with You, Your Father and Your Spirit for all eternity.

It seems I cannot contemplate your birth except through the prism of your life, death and resurrection.

It is difficult understand the self-sacrificing love which hung on the cross for three hours, but I can imagine what it cost you to do this.

However, I cannot even begin to imagine, with my time and space bound mind, what it was like for You, the Lord God of the Universe, to take on the confines of a human body--with all its limitations and infirmities. What it cost You to come to us as one of us. To manifest for us the Godhead in a manner with which we mere humans can relate.  To sacrifice infinity for morality to become like us in all things, save sin.

I struggle to imagine what it was like for the God of All Power to humble himself to come as a totally helpless and dependent babe.  For the Word of God to become of an infant whose only expression is to cry out in need.  For Him who holds all authority in heaven and on earth to submit  Himself to the authority of two frail humans such as Mary and Joseph.

As I gaze at the sweet baby in the manager, I stand in awe once again.  Not solely at the miracle in which God became man, but also at the outrageous love that would compel You to do so.

Thank you, Jesus, for becoming one with us, your ultimate gift to us.  Let me learn from You to live in the self-emptying love which brought You to us that first Christmas morn.  Let me live in that love today, and forever.  Amen.