Advice from an "Amigo Pastor" on Serving in Guatemala

Gabriel's Dad and his grandson
We met Gabriel and his family a number of years ago through a teacher from his area of Cerro Colorado, Esquintla.  We went originally to bring him a wheelchair.  We immediately fell in love with his whole family, and were a bit surprised to find out that his father was a pastor. (He had been working spraying weeds the first time we came!)

As we got to know the family and learn their story, our friendship grew.  Gabriel had been born with Spina Bifida, and, at the advice of the doctors in the hospital where he was born, never had surgery to correct the large bulge on his back where his spina cord protrudes from his spine.  At eleven years of age, we wondered if this could be corrected and arranged for him to see our friendly neurosurgeon in Guatemala City.

Since they lived quite a distance from the capital, we invited them to stay with us when they came for the appointment and got to know them even better.  During their time with us, Dad did a lot of talking with our guys about the goodness of God and his great love for them.  I got to know not only his story but his heart.

So, what happened when we visited them the other day did not come as a complete surprise.

After consulting with the doctor and receiving a referral to a national hospital where Gabriel could have the surgery, we met a number of road blocks in the process.  This did not seem to bother Gabriel's parents nearly as much as it did Dick and me.  They repeatedly told us, "en el tiempo de Dios" (in God's time).  They seemed willing to pursue the surgical option, but didn't feel the same urgency Dick and I did.  After some time, they decided they would leave Gabriel as he is and trust God to care for him. After talking with them the other day, we came to understand why.

As we were talking about the provision of God (as we often do with this family) Dad asked permission to share some thoughts with us.  Of course, we agreed.

He began by thanking us for caring about his son and their family.  He said he knew we wanted the best for them.  But, he suggested, maybe we did not understand God's best for their family.

He went on to say that while they appreciated all the effort and expense we incurred to bring them to the various doctors, Dad was thinking perhaps we could have used our time and money more wisely, helping someone who really needed it.  You see, though Gabriel had this huge ball of nerves on his back, he had adapted well to living with it.  He did not see himself as handicapped, and his parents agreed.

Dad went on to explain that they believed God had Gabriel born as he was for a purpose.  While modern medicine said that he needed to have the ball on his back removed, he was healthy and happy, and even able to crawl around and move his legs (he could have lost this ability with surgery).  They understand the risk he faces of meningitis if he injures the ball and bacterial enters his spinal fluid, this has not happened yet to Gabriel, now twelve, they didn't think it a big risk.

They choose to trust God that this will not happen in the future, or, if it does and he dies from meningitis, this is God's plan for him.  Dad reminded us that this world is temporary, and that really, we were created for heaven.  We would all go to eternity sooner or later, and if God chose to take Gabriel to heaven sooner, so be it.

While it would be easy to dismiss this conversation as ignorance and superstition on the part of Gabriel's folks, it was anything but.  As he spoke, both Dick and I felt the conviction of Gabriel's dad's utter dependence on God and his complete trust in Him.  This is an educated man who choose obedience to what he believes to be God's will over the cold hard facts of science.  How could we challenge what he believes is God's will for his child?

As Dick and I left that day, we reflected on his words.  We didn't in the least feel chastised or rejected by this admonitions to us.  Rather, we felt honored that he trusted us enough to share these thoughts with us.  We respect his great faith, and were encouraged in our own by his example.  We also came to understand more about the best way to minister in Guatemala, to a people whose life experiences and perspectives are so very different from our own.

What we realized gave us cause to pause and reflect on our approach.  As careful as we tried to be when we first suggested the option of surgery, clearly stating repeatedly that it was solely the parents' decision, we realized today how much of this process they had gone through, not because they believed it best, but out of friendship and respect for us.  Talking with Dad about this in retrospect, we realized that they didn't want to offend us by rejecting our offer of help.  While we wanted them to have the best medical options available, they believed all along that they had the best advice, from God himself.  But, until our relationship had grown to the point where it is now, they were hesitant to share this with us--they didn't want us to feel rejected by their refusal to pursue modern medicine.

So what did we learn from this?  In a nutshell, that the best available medical care may not be what is best for an individual situation. . .no treatment is without risks, and sometimes these risks are not worth it.  Where there is pain and suffering to be relieved, perhaps the risks are worth it, if there is no other way to give relief.  If the quality of life can be significantly improved, maybe it's worth taking the chance to pursue treatment.  But, where a family does not perceive there to be a problem with the condition (such as in Gabriel's case), maybe there isn't, and it just might be better to leave things alone.

I know this goes against every fiber of our US way of thinking, that if something is medically possible it should be done.  I'm not talking here about callously looking the other way in indifference to suffering.  But how much suffering can we cause by our insistence that our US way of handling disability and infirmity is the best?  Hard questions, and I'm not sure I know the answers.

In this instance, however, I have to confess I don't think I ever really stopped to ask God how to proceed (I can't speak for Dick here.).  For my part, I just assumed that because I saw a problem, Gabriel needed to see the doctor.  I put my trust in our neurosurgeon to know what is best. when I needed to be putting my trust in God and ask his specific direction.  Truly, there was no urgency here.  Looking back, the more I prayed for the doors to be opened for Gabriel to receive surgery, the more obstacles we encountered.  You think I might have at least considered the possibility that these "obstacles" were really God's way of protecting us from charging ahead with what was not his best for Gabriel.

I often pray that I will not lag behind the movement of God, but that I will also not rush ahead of him either.  I fear in this instance, I did rush--or at the very least proceeded in my own wisdom.  I'm not beating myself up over this failure, but am grateful for God putting a godly man in my path who could lovingly help me see where I am lacking.  I pray in the future I will seek God first and always.  I pray, too, that I will be more conscious of the undue influence I might be exerting in a situation where I do not mean to.  Life in a different culture is complicated, and after almost five years, I am just beginning to understand how much so.

Graduations and Promotions

It seems during last October and early November, I spent a lot of time sitting in graduation exercises.  This is a small price to pay to acknowledge the hard work done by these guys who work with us. We praise God that in a country where 47% of the population is illiterate, these young peole are continuing with their education to develop the skills needed for them to be able to serve their people.  

Cesar, who lived with us last year while studying in Antigua and helps out "on-call" as a companion-caregiver graduated from Carera (12th grade) and is preparing to attend the University in January to pursue his goal of becoming a PE teacher. He will be in the first class of "professional" teachers who, under an new law in Guatemala, will need college was well as high school to receive their teaching licenses.  He has been coaching a soccer team of younger boys for more than a year now, and has a real gift for working with children through sports and using this medium to share the love of God with them.  He also is one of Dick Rutger's main interpreters and great mechanic.

Even Fidel got to go to Cesar's graduation, though I have to admit the car was just a little bit crowded.

Kevin has helped us as an on-call caregiver and lived with us for six weeks while he was completing his practicum as a dental assistant.  He, like Cesar, graduated from 12th grade and is ready to begin the University. He is planning on beginning his studies to become a dentist in January.

Marcos who works with us as a companion-caregiver graduated from 3rd Basico (9th grade).  While he struggles with academics, he has a wonderful heart for his people and for the disabled.   He was honored to receive a special award at graduation as the student who had shown the most academic improvement during this three years of high school. He is still investigating his options for school in January, but would like to continue his studies in either tourism or mechanics.  His ultimate dream is to become and attorney.  Both of Marcos' parents have died and he is living with older siblings, but is having to put himself through school this coming year.

Elder, Fernando, and Esbin on a recent trip with Dick to distribute wheelchairs.

Esbin. who is one of Dick's guys and a good friend of ours, also graduated from 3rd Basico.  He would like to continue his studies in tourism.  Esbin is one of the hardest workers I know.

Fernando has completed 3rd Basico and would like to continue to prepare for a career in the medical field during his last years in high school.  He lived with us last year while studying here in Antigua and is like my "Guatemalan son."  He truly is on his own, since his mother moved to the US when he was 3, he does not know who his father is, and has been shuffled from relative to relative to live.  He is very intelligent and I believe committed to finishing his education.  One of his great desires is to expose his classmates, often from wealthier families (at least by Guatemalan standards) to the poverty faced by many of the Guatemalans, and challenging them to serve their fellow countrymen.  Fernando is a wonderful interpreter, having taught me much of what I know about translating, and has a deep love for God, his people, and his country.  We just received word that Fernando's sponsor will no longer be able to support his education.  If you would be interested in helping Fernando succeed in school and life, please email me or Dick Rutgers, and we will explain to you how you can help.  We need to raise about $100 a month to keep him in school this year in his chosen field.

Elder, one of the youngest of Dick's boys, has finished sixth grade and will be starting Basico in January.  He is one of our best students, and works hard to keep his grades up.  He loves nothing better than to go out "mechanic-ing" with Dick.  

Gustavo, whose father had a stroke and is unable to work, is one of the students we are directly sponsoring.  He will complete his last year of Carera in 2015 and is studying computer technology.  He will then become the primary wage-earner for his family who is struggling to keep him in school.

Carlitos is ten years old and will begin second grade in January.  Carlitos faces many challenges due to his cerebral palsy, but works hard to keep up with his classmates.  His grades were excellent and he especially loves math.  

Maybelin is a 14 year old young lady with cognitive disabilities who dreamed of being able to go to school.  We were able to help her begin her studies in a private school in Santa Rosa where she is happily learning to ready.  Tania is another child in Santa Rosa who would like to begin going to school in 2015.  Both of these young ladies are from one of the poorest areas of Guatemala and would not be able to go to school without your help.

We are so proud of the progress that these students have made, and admire their dedication to their education when finding the funds to go to school is difficult to impossible for them and their families.  All of the students I have written about are sponsored either through Dick Rutgers or through our ministry general fund.  If you would like to become part of their futures by helping support their education, please email me and I'll give you more information on how you can do so.  

We are grateful to those of you who contribute to our ministry and enable us to give these students the opportunity to pursue their God-given purposes in life.

Meet Osmi, our (hopefully) new resident

Last week I received a welcome surprise phone call from Hermano Pedro orphanage.  Magda, one of the social workers, was calling to ask if we would consider accepting a nineteen year old young man, Osmi, to live in our home.  He is currently in the teen boys unit at the orphanage, but has the potential to live in the community with assistance.  His family is extremely poor, and unable to care for him properly in their home, so he needs somewhere to live where he can be well cared for.  The staff believes we are his best option.

I was honored to receive the call, because those of you who have been reading my journal for a while will remember all the struggles we went through to get social work to agree that our home was a good place for Fidel to live, about 16 months ago.  I believe it is evidence of the quality of care we have been able to provide for Fidel that the orphanage would initiate a placement.

In reality, Osmi has been in my heart since the day I met him.  He came to Hermano Pedro the same month that Fidel left there to live with us.  I met him at Fidel's going away party, and instantly fell in love with his tender heart and determined will.  At this time, Osmi could only lie on his left side, could only move his left arm a few inches, and was wasting away.  We all thought, the nursing staff included, that he was near death.  It broke my heart to get to know him, since I really believed in a short time we would be losing him.

My most powerful memory of meeting him was his desire to eat cookies.  At this time, he was on a feeding tube and it was highly doubtful he would begin taking normal food by mouth anytime soon.  This was all he asked for, though, so I talked with the charge nurse, Juan Carlos, to see what we might do.  With a tremendous amount of compassion, Juan Carlos looked at me, and shook his head, saying, "Why not?  He's probably not going to live long.  Give me the cookies and I'll feed them to him, a small piece at a time.  I don't think it will hurt anything.  Just keep it between us!"  So our relationship began over a mutual love of cookies and a desire to connect.

And this is where the miracle began.  Carlos, a gentleman from El Salvador who volunteers at Hermano Pedro, got to know Osmi.  He believed if Osmi could have some degree of independence and mobility it would encourage him and make what time he had left more pleasant.  Dick agreed to construct a powerchair, doubting Osmi would ever use it, but willing to try anything to encourage this amazing young man.

(Click here to read more about Osmi during this period.)

The medical staff worked hard to properly identify Osmi's problem, and he was finally diagnosed with Scleroderma.  This is an autoimmune rheumatic disease which results from an overproduction and accumulation of collagen.  This causes a hardening of the skin and connective tissues.  In severe cases, it also affects the internal organs and the digestive tract.  Osmi has the more serious, systemic type of the disease.  While there is no direct treatment for Scleroderma, treatment of the symptoms is helpful in controlling its progression.

With proper medication and physical therapy, Osmi made consistent improvement.  He began to sit upright, and gained significant movement of his arms and hands.  Using his powerchair, he began to travel the halls of Hermano Pedro, rapidly making friends with everyone he encountered.

Osmi with his teacher, Carla

He began attending classes with one of the Hermano Pedro teachers, Claudia, and he passed fourth grade this year.  She discovered he is quite a good artist, and has encouraged this ability. He began taking computer classes at one of the Antigua computer cafes.  And he wanted more. . .

Osmi's drawing of Carla

This was when Magda decided to contact us.  Osmi wants to continue his studies, and Claudia is researching distance learning programs in which he can participate.  She has offered to come and help "coach" him with this studies as needed.

While we are anxious to have Osmi become part of our family, there are some concerns that need to be addressed.  Given his significant medical needs, we estimate that our budget will need to increase by about $4000 next year to cover the cost of his medications and care.  We are negotiating with Hermano Pedro to see how they might be able to work with us to subsidize some of this added cost for at least the first year that he is with us.

We are praying, too, for donors to come along side us to help us absorb this extra cost.  If ten people would commit to donating $400 during 2015 (that's about $35 a month) we will be able to care for this young man.   We are trusting God will provide this, as He has all our needs, since we believe it is within his plan for both Osmi and our home that he should become a permanent part of our family.

The next step is getting the legal documents drawn up to formally transfer Osmi to our care.   This is not difficult as we have already been through this process with Fidel. Since his parents originally signed the paperwork admitting him to Hermano Pedro, they must come and sign this forms for him to be released to us.  This may take some negotiating, since they live in a fairly remote area, but the social work department is handling this.  So we wait and pray that we will be able to begin transitioning Osmi to our house before Christmas.  That would be the best present we could all receive!

Graduation 2014, Nueva Vida, Santa María de Jesús

Graduation this year was particularly exciting for us at Nueva Vida.  It marked the Fifteenth Anniversary of the school.  I'm excited to share with you some of the highlights of this remarkable day!

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