Friday, October 24, 2014

Things I Cannot Reconcile (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

When I had pulled up from the airport to my house at 1 am that Thursday morning, I saw it through new eyes.  Huge.  Palatial.  Fancy.  It felt strange when I stepped inside, seeing it through a fresh perspective.  Imagining how the kids in Belize might see it. 

Everything the same.  Yet everything different.  I was in a very down mood that first day home.  Tired.  And mopey.  Heavy hearted. Sorta struggling to reconcile what I had just experienced in those six days in Belize.  Angry at the injustice the kids had experienced...orphans who aren't orphans.  Frustrated with how I'd never gotten it before.  Because, as a recent David Platt quote says, it's easy to ignore the orphan issue when it doesn't have a name. (Even when you've worked in adoption for twenty years!)

I felt a new thankfulness for all I have and yet felt guilty too.  Very conflicted.  I was glad that my husband had sat the kids down and told them to be gentle and to have grace on me because it may be a tough transition back. He warned them I may be teary or sad or just plain tired. 

Somehow this gave me permission to allow all of the above.

So, I felt rather down that first day home. But somewhere in my funk, it hit me.  

What good does it do for me to wallow in negative feelings?  How is that honoring the Hopewell kids and the work there?  If I am indeed inspired by the kids then I need to choose the contentment that they embody.  So I worked to turn my thoughts and feelings toward the awe of answered prayers throughout the trip and the euphoria of facing fears and slaying some giants personally.  As well as the inexplicable gratitude I felt to be able to know these children.

I want to tell these children's stories.  They deserve for me to make Hopewell an epicenter of hope and education in my life with ripple effects that move people to action.  

In that vein...along those lines...let me express some things that I cannot reconcile after visiting Belize.

My house size.  By American standards, I don't live in a huge house.  In fact, I find it rather average around here, and it is the exact floor plan of many of my neighbors.  Although "around here" is quite relative considering some of the unusual wealth in our general area.  But, after visiting Belize, I see my house as palatial.  In fact, when my best friend texted to check on me that first day home, I told her I feel guilty because "why should I get to live in this palace over here?"  Her response, bless her, was that she loves my palace and how we use it to bless others.  She encouraged me by saying she sees us steward this gift well. But still...I hear the echo of the Hopewell girls' awe and amazement when they asked if my children really each have a room ALL. TO. THEMSELVES.

My wardrobe.  Um, yes.  I walked into my walk-in closet as I unpacked my suitcases and realized that I have more clothes than all six of the girls at Hopewell combined.  These girls have school uniforms, a small section of hanging space on a rod that stretches across their shared bedroom, a small locker, and a two drawer caddy.  To hold all their worldly goods.  Miss Eleanor does their laundry and hang dries it, and these kids couldn't go a week without doing laundry like I can. In fact, I'm not too sure how many days they can go without doing laundry.  And they certainly can't let their laundry baskets sit around for days on end waiting for the Folding Fairy like at my house.  I don't think it would never cross their minds to make a run to the store to purchase a shirt or outfit for one particular occasion.  

My intact family.  I've been married for nearly twenty years and have three healthy children.  We have countless cousins, aunts, uncles and other extended family with whom we enjoy good relationships.  I know that the divorce rates in America are high and many families have had to readjust due to divorce.  That's not what I'm talking about here.  What I'm talking about is the hard reality of children who cannot live with their biological family due to neglect, abuse or poverty.  I'm talking about families that disintegrate because they don't have the resources to break generational cycles.  I'm talking about children who lose all contact with all biological family due to various crises. 

By the way, THAT doesn't just happen in Belize.  It's happening in our own backyard. 

My heart physically hurt as my daughter asked me to climb in her bed the day I got back and tell her all about the children.  Because how many children around the world don't have this?  They don't have an ability to be raised with their biological families and feel loved, safe and secure.  How many mamas or daddies wish they knew how to do differently so they could parent?  Or wish they had the money to care for their children?  How many children will never be adopted and never have the security of forever families? 

Why should I get to tuck my girl in nightly?  Why should I enjoy the health of a family and extended family and all that I consider normal? I've never really stepped into the life of a child who has been denied this.  And it shakes me.  The mere fact that because of where I was born and to whom I was born, I've been able to get an education, build a healthy marriage, and parent my children with opportunities and security so many other kids don't know.

Our excess and waste.  For real.  Ever since I read Jen Hatmaker's book "7," I remember what she said about how American garbage disposals eat better than many children in the world.  Listen, the kids at Hopewell eat well.  They are not going without.  They may not have access 24/7 to snack to their heart's content or be choosy about what they want to eat when they want to eat it.  But, I still saw a reality in Belize. At Hopewell, things do not go to waste.  The farm animals provide food and income.  What they don't eat, they sell to help earn money to keep Hopewell going. The scraps from meals go to the dogs who patrol the perimeters at night, acting as guards against predators of the farm animals.  Clothes are worn until they don't fit and then they are passed down. Or until they are too plain worn out to wear any longer. Donated items for the children are held back until they are absolutely needed. The people at Hopewell, and from all I saw the people in Belize, are extremely good stewards of all that they have and take nothing for granted. 

Meanwhile, we throw out food gone bad, feed our garbage disposals feasts, and turn our nose up to something that doesn't sound good right now to eat or clothes that aren't exactly what we want to wear today.  We have issues with a need to simplify and purge.  Pinterest is full of ideas about how to pare down.  

These are concepts that I think would baffle most of the world.  Simple is all they know.  

Their contentment...and trauma.  This is what blows my mind about the children I got to know in Belize.  I've said it a few times in this blog series, but it bears repeating.  These Belizean beauties and incredible boys are contented, joyful, happy children.  They laugh and play on their little playground, sit on the floor for hours with Legos, play jokes on visiting team members, sing songs (and not just songs, but worship songs), and dance.  You could easily spend several days with them and never clue in to their histories based on what you see.  Oh, sure, there are the fights over toys, and some of these children seem pretty possessive.  

You could chalk that up to being a kid, or remember that they've had so little in their lives before Hopewell that they have a tendency to hoard. You could see one of the girls as moody and short tempered.  Perhaps consider it her nature.  Or, you can watch her at the dance party and know that children that age don't naturally move that way.  And you are heartbroken when it crosses your mind that some predator probably coached those moves.  You can enjoy their easy affection and hugs and how you are quickly embraced.  But, when you know their histories, you know that it is a miracle that some of these children should trust anyone or let anyone in.  Ever again.  You can see that boy's nearly permanent scowl and think he's just got a mean streak.  But then you learn that he was found begging on the streets to try to care for his family.  And he's still in elementary school. And still worried sick about who is caring for his mama. 

It's still hard for me to digest.  That these children, who by the way, cannot access the therapies and resources we so readily enjoy in the States, have survived brokenness and heartache and pain and wounds that thankfully many of us can't fathom. They have been literally rescued from horrendous government orphanages or abusive families or extreme poverty.  

And brought to Hopewell.  Where they heal, by the grace of God.  I'm not saying that all lasting effects are erased by any means.  But they seem to experience a grace and love at Hopewell that allows them to move forward.  That allows them to let in hope. Nothing is as awe inspiring to me than to consider the contentment I saw in these children.  Knowing the trauma in their histories.  All I can say is that I see faith like a child in them.  A faith that they can dare to dream and hope and live each day to the fullest.  

FWP.  First World Problems. If my kids were annoyed by my tendency to account their complaining as first world problems before Belize, they are going to hate this aspect of the trip's after effects.  Seriously.  Listen, America.  We gotta get over ourselves.  Myself at the front of that list.  Because how dare I feel so discontented or annoyed by things such as slow internet speed, a lack of wifi, a long line at Starbucks, traffic on the way to school (in my air conditioned minivan on paved roads), or the fact that nothing in the refrigerator looks appealing to me right now.  I'm sorry to sound harsh, but then again I'm not.  Because I never realized how pampered and wimpy and privileged Americans are until I left America for this trip.  We have opportunities every day that most of the world cannot fathom.  Education, resources, retail, disposable income, entertainment, blah blah blah.  More on this tomorrow.

I've heard it said that America is at the top of the food chain.  Now, I've seen and experienced it.  Just like I tell my kids about the nearby wealthy suburb--THIS AIN'T THE NORM.  All that we look around and see and take for granted AIN'T THE NORM for the majority of the world.  And where I was in Belize, I didn't actually see extreme poverty. There was electricity and running water and sewage systems and even wifi.  What I experienced was a people and a nation rich in culture and strength and resiliency and authentic faith.  

I've been home for two weeks and I'm no closer to being able to reconcile some things in my mind and my heart.  

I think it's supposed to be that way.  

I think I'm supposed to see some things, embrace some revelations and accept that they simply do not make sense.

I think it should never make sense.

And may it all prompt me to action.  To do something with all these gifts of insights that I gained.

So, who wants to go back to Belize with me? 

It will wreck you and move you and change you. 

And you'll never regret it.   

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Even the Skies Cried (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

Departure day from Belize.  Funny.  Just a few short days prior, I was counting down to this day, looking forward to it.  But it had all changed.  Now that I was staring it down, it felt daunting.  To say good-bye.  To go back home.  Because I was and still am desperate to hang on to this experience.  To be changed by it.  To allow every nuance of revelation and lessons learned to take their full effect.  I once feared coming here.  As departure day dawned, I feared going home and acting like it had never happened.  

I jumped out of bed that morning, rather frantically getting ready because I did not want to miss any of the kids.  I walked out of our bunk room, and there was the van.  The few kids who are driven to school had already climbed in.  I waved to them, and they waved back.  I was mindful of how I had prayed for every child by name the night before when sleep eluded me.  So, I spoke through the open door to tell the oldest boy, Nathan* that I was so proud of his dreams and I believed he was a talented graphic artist and would be praying for his ability to go to college.  

Suddenly, Keisha*, the one who had whispered "I love you" the night before, was grabbing me from behind, wishing me a good-bye.  She put me through it as I searched and scrambled for words with her, and then she laughed because she knew the joke she'd played on me...she was not leaving yet.  She actually rode the bus.  She just wanted to see what I'd do when I thought the good-bye was imminent.

The van pulled away with the first few kids, and we were surrounded by a sea of children as our team gathered with them.  We were taking photos endlessly and chattering with them.  Rich -- or "Mr. Rich-man" -- was pulled into one last "sass-off," otherwise known as a clapping game with three of the girls. 

We had seen a couple of passing showers during our visit, but had not really experienced the rainy season as I had expected.  But this morning, the moisture was thick in the air with a coming storm.  And the result was a sweltering and sticky heat.  I thought about how the heat and the good-byes were equally insufferable.  While saying good-bye was too much, I was eager to get it over with, like ripping off a band-aid to avoid prolonging the pain of it.

There was Shauna*, the oldest girl, stubbornly announcing that she wouldn't remember us at all.  Because teams come and go all the time.  But we saw it for what it was.  Her bravado.  Her armor and defensive coping skill.  We all said that we would never forget her or any of them, even if they forgot us.  It must have been what she hoped to hear, because she suddenly grabbed her composition book for school and said, "If you all sign my book, then maybe I won't forget you!"

Other kids followed suit, and we found ourselves signing book after book, adding little hearts and hug and kisses signs.  And then, one girl asked us to sign AND write out our favorite verse or song lyrics.  One-upping each other with the best book signatures.  

Anna*, a melancholy little girl, had been intially very happy and affectionate that morning.  But the book signing, a sign of good-byes, pushed her away.  She went and sat with her back to us, refusing to speak to us.  And I was reminded once again of the depths of pain that these kids tend to cover.  

Of all the days to be late, the bus was running about twenty minutes late that day.  So we continued to take pictures, all of our team members desperate to capture every child in a photo.  We laughed and hugged and worked hard to keep it all light.  I think our entire team was trying to soak in these last minutes without adding too much weight to it, for all of our sake.  

Because we cannot post their faces on social media, I had determined I wanted to take this picture before I left Hopewell.

Because I was felt so desperate to share these kids with you.  To be sure that I commemorated and honored these incredible kids in every public venue possible.

Another team member came up with this photo.

That's Shauna with Joana.  They are standing at the entrance to Hopewell. An American mama and a Belizean beauty whose mother can't care for her.  Joined together.  Because that is what these few days in Belize did.  It brought us all together.  Regardless of age or race or socioeconomic class or any other difference.  Hopewell became our common ground.  Where our hearts were knit together.  

When the bus finally rumbled up the gravel road, my stomach churned.  I kept mentally repeating my promise to not cry in front of the kids.  I could not open the flood gates.  

There were last minute hugs and smiles and promises to never forget them and to pray for them.  I was careful to not promise to come back.  Although I have every intention of doing so.  I wanted to be careful to only promise what I was confident I could do for them.  So, I promised to write them and to pray as they walked across the road and climbed up on the bus.  

As the bus pulled away, they were all hanging out the windows, waving frantically as we waved just as frantically back to them.  Until the bus and the children were no longer in sight. 

I bee lined for my bunk room so I could have a moment to cry.  But, I was careful to not give into it completely, lest it overwhelm me.

Over a quick breakfast and team meeting, a team name was announced.  Someone had come up with the name Team Mullet.  Because we were all business in the front and all party in the back.  There could not have been a more fitting name.  We were, as a team, all about getting our business done.  Accomplishing our goals.  Working through our homesickness or discomfort.  Pressing on for the sake of these kids.  Because I think they were always our motivation, and that only intensified once we got to know them.  And indeed, party in the back.  Because we had, as a team of nine people from four states, mostly strangers, formed bonds through laughter and making fun memories.

As we loaded into the van to make the drive back to the airport in Belize City, the skies opened up and a downpour came.  We joked that even the country of Belize was crying about our departure.  

The dreary skies and constant rain reflected my mood.  I was homeward bound.  Praying for wisdom about how to reconcile all my emotions.  How to tackle the re-entry and the next steps.  How to do these kids and this experience justice in relaying its significance.  How to steward this experience well as I moved forward.  

After lunch and waiting with some of the team at the airport, I thought the weight of the emotions had passed and my resolve had kicked in.  So I was surprised to feel intense tears and sadness as I boarded the plane to Miami, along with two of my teammates.  I realized that I felt a finality.  I really was leaving these kids.  Leaving a bit of my heart with them.  The weight of these emotions felt palpable throughout my journey home.  

The only other time that I can recall feeling anything similar to that was when my dad died.  And I went to run errands to make funeral preparations and felt a sense of injustice.  How could the world just go on about their day and not recognize the significance of the moment?  

I sat in the Miami airport on my layover and texted my husband about how overwhelmed I felt.  He sent me an email with an article about coming home after a short term mission trip.  

What a relief to normalize this strange and new experience.  To hear the advice to retreat and reflect initially, and then debrief.  And by debrief, the article advised, to be careful to recognize that when people ask about your trip, they generally want a quick answer.  Not everyone wants all the details that you might be eager to relive. So, be mindful to answer questions and not unload it all on every person that asks.

So, hey--thanks bloggy friends, for letting me completely debrief here!  It's been cathartic beyond words to process it all.  And prayerfully, I have hoped that my posts have had something in them for you, too.

When at long last I got on my last flight, the tears came again.  This was the last step.  I was leaving something behind.  Someones.  So I prayed for them each by name.  For specific things for each child and adult at Hopewell.  From Miss Eleanor, the housekeeper, who lives up the river and daily takes her canoe to get to her bike, which she uses to get to Hopewell.  To the youngest child of the house parents, their one-year-old daughter.  And everyone in between.  I prayed for myself.  That I would be changed and marked and never forget.  That it would somehow all stay fresh and shift and mold me.  That I'd know the next steps.  That I'd know how to re-enter my life and to move forward, integrating the lessons I'd learned by the experience I'd been so privileged to enjoy.

The children.  The ponds.  The jungle.  The animals.  The tasks.  The adventures. The people.

Belize.  So far from home.  A world away.  Yet a place where I am forever connected.  

So I climbed into my own bed in the early morning hours, after a long day of travel.  I knew I had gained far more than I had given, as I drifted to sleep, once again praying for every single blessed Belizean I had come to know.   

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

There's Wifi at the Mayan Ruins (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

Our last full day in Belize.  That Tuesday morning, I greeted some of the children as they made their way to the bus stop for school.  And I could hardly believe it was the last full day there.  

Apparently, our team is made up of complete rock stars because we had managed to accomplish the entire project list for our trip, plus some bonus projects:

Construction on fish shack where tilapia will be processed.  CHECK.

New fish pond cleared of brush.  CHECK.

100 pounds of tilapia harvested.  CHECK.

Respite for house parents by caring for kids.  CHECK.

Broken thatched roof on one building, nearly all pulled down.  CHECK.

Bonus projects:  Two new gates built because cows had escaped.  CHECK.

Barbed wire fence repaired where escaping cow got caught.  CHECK.

All escapees (cows and a horse) returned to Hopewell.  CHECK.

In our first four days at Hopewell, we had managed to see howler monkeys, cows, pigs, horses, geese (very mean geese who chase you down...I made the oldest girl Shauna* always stand between me and them, which made her laugh every time), chickens, more mosquitoes than we ever hope to see again, tilapia and more tilapia, and even a rather large tarantula right outside the bunk house.

Listen, while my phone caught this photo, I was otherwise occupied and have no regrets about not witnessing this spider first hand.  And I'm no expert on spiders, but the girls at Hopewell were able to identify it as a "red booty tarantula."  I'm sure they are accurate in their assessment.  For the record, the oldest boy at Hopewell, Nathan*, showed his fearlessness by stomping on this spider in his sandaled feet, thus saving all Americans from sure death.

And so our adventures at Hopewell had been rather full of tasks and projects and fun with the kids that had included school projects, home work, legos, the Lego Movie, a bible study, more legos, some yummy meals together, singing, dancing, a glow stick dance party, crafts, more legos, and sass-offs to end all sass-off because "Mr. Rich-man" beat those girls like he'd been sassing off all his life.  We have video to prove it, but it has yet to be released in order to protect the innocent.

It was thus time for us to venture away from Hopewell.  We had originally planned to take a half-day to sight see, but due to our awesomeness and productivity, we had nearly the whole day.  

Off we went.  Piled into this van.

And driving on roads like this.

Let me offer a side note here on this road.  THIS stretch of road was actually some of the smoothest road on a rarely paved section on the way TO the Mayan Ruins.  However, whilst we traipsed about the ruins, this was happening to the road.  And so, our return trip included this sight--the road being literally torn up as we traveled along.

I think it's fair to say that we were all looking forward to a day to explore and see the area.  We'd all agreed to spend our time going to the "near by" Mayan Ruins (it's all relative) and perhaps a stop at the baboon sanctuary if time allowed.  Because our other main priority for the day was to visit the Prison Gift Shop.  We'd been talking about since we saw it on our way to Hopewell that first day.

And of course, Jonathan, the house dad, knew the warden of the prison.  Have I already mentioned that Jonathan knows everyone and has a story about everything in Belize?  So apparently, this new warden has brought self-sustaining farms to the prison and other such improvements.  And according to Jonathan, people are actually committing petty crimes to get INTO prison because the conditions are reportedly that good.  

Thus the legend of the Prison Gift Shop grew in our minds.  Could we score t-shirts that might read, "I Went to the Belizean Prison...Just visiting?"  Or maybe hats or key chains?  What souvenirs might we score for our children there?  

So our day of sight seeing would thus include the Mayan Ruins and the Prison Gift Shop.  I have to admit that I thought I'd feel a huge relief on this last full day.  A bit of "I did it!  Now, I can go home."  Just 72 hours previously, I thought being home sick was quite reasonable and I just honestly didn't understand when our team leader said that Belize felt like a second home to her.

Really?  The heat and humidity and bugs?  And how rural it is?  A second home?  It all felt so foreign.  I mean, how does one live so far apart from others and from resources?  How, for the love, does one survive without a nearby Starbucks or Target?  I didn't get it.

But, as we passed the lush green jungle and the small square houses, spread quite far apart, I somehow felt right at home.  I cannot even begin to explain what happened during those 72 hours because I honestly don't know myself.  I just know that once I slowed myself down and prayerfully began to seek to embrace the experience, asking God to help me not just get through it but to enjoy it, something changed.  My perspective changed.  Instead of seeing my life as superior, I began to simply see it as different.  I began to see the beauty and allure of the slower pace of life in Belize.  The simplicity there.  The hard work and resiliency in the people.  Freed from the trappings of city life and keeping up with the Joneses and an "entertain me" mentality and the pressure of social media distractions.

There is a strength here that we wimpy Americans lack.  There's a quiet strength and a wisdom in these people.  There's a freedom -- an appreciation for life -- that we are too self-absorbed to gain.  I realized all of this as we drove along.  I realized that I get it.  I get a love for this place.  A joy and contentment in the people that spoiled, entitled, obsessive, distracted Americans lack.  Myself included. 

But I can do without the crazy Belizean roads.

So there I was, lost in thought about the culture and the people and all that I had gained in the last few days.  About how the lightness I thought I'd feel at the end of the trip had turned into a heaviness about how to leave. 

And I was ready to see some ancient Mayan Ruins and be amazed at the primitive culture it represented. 

But I saw this sign when we pulled up.

And I did totally LOL.

Perhaps I do oversimplify and romanticize my impressions of Belize.  There were, after all, a fair share of dish satellites attached to the small, simple houses we'd seen.

After my "yes" day the day before, I felt empowered somehow.  A sense of new freedom and potential.  A sense that I can do things I never thought I could do.  I was beginning to ponder what I am still considering--what might come next for me?  What might this trip be a stepping stone to for the future?

So I climbed to the top of the tallest ruin, ignoring my fear of heights.  I stood at the top and took in the view that I would have otherwise missed.

There I was, a world away from my usual task lists and car pools and the trappings of the tyranny of the urgent that cloud my perspective.  I thought of my family and my life back home.  And I whispered a prayer that I would never forget to push back fears and take the climb to enjoy the view.

That I would not miss such opportunities.

Having conquered the Mayan Ruins, we were off to the Prison Gift Shop.  Once we arrived, we parked next to a car full of men who took a good long stare at us.  I felt a moment of anxiety, wondering about what I was doing stepping into a prison gift shop, but then I remembered.  I'm here to see it all and do it all and take every opportunity.  

So we entered through the fence with barbed wire, passing the Visitor Processing Entrance, complete with elaborately carved wooden doors.  Tucked just to the left of it was the gift shop.  The shop was manned by a very polite young man in an orange shirt and shorts with his number stenciled on the front.  The items, we were told, were all made by the inmates.  Listen, I don't know if that was true--just like I had no idea if the items I purchased at the little market by the ruins were all made by THOSE shop keepers.  

But I loved the idea of it.  These beautifully carved doors like I'd just seen.  The paintings and other items.  All created by inmates whose worth and value can still shine through, despite their choices.

I just loved the idea of it all.  I wanted something for my house to remind me that all people have a creative beauty and worth.  Prison inmates or not.  So I chose two little heart shaped cheese plates that the store clerk so carefully wrapped up for me.  I use them for trivets on my kitchen table every night.  And I love to remember that Belize is simple yet complex.  Beautiful in its hidden treasures.  And people are people...whether sitting in prison or not.  We all have something to contribute.  

Our day of adventure brought us back to Hopewell, just as the kids arrived home from school.  I was tired and groggy from the bouncing car ride in the heat of the afternoon, but the end of our trip loomed ahead of me.  This was my last afternoon to help the kids with homework and spend time with them.  Time to pull it together and push on.  After all, these kids were quick to change out of school uniforms and into play clothes and then rush at us in the dining hall with their back packs to tackle their home work right away. 

I felt the clock ticking all afternoon and evening with a growing sense of dread.  How could I tell them goodbye?  How does one leave a place that they originally feared being and now cannot imagine leaving?  True, I was ready to see my husband and kids.  But I texted my husband this message:

"Parting will be very hard.  Packing tonight so I can get up and see kids off to school in the morning...don't know how to leave these kids...or come back from this experience."

It's still true.  I don't know how to shake the sadness I feel to be separated from the kids who stole my heart.  I'm not even sure how they stole my heart in such a quick time, but they did.  And I think of every one of them many times a day and say endless prayers for them. I don't want to come back and get "back to normal."  Because I want to be changed and different...I want to be impacted by this experience. 

And in this frame of mind, I found myself on bedtime duty with the girls this last night in Belize.  I negotiated a tiff between two girls and continually reminded them to stay on task.  Just like at home.  Except totally different.  Because again, I was reminded of the injustice that these kids have already survived.  

Perhaps sensing the finality of this last bed time, I was inundated with questions by the six girls once they finally climbed into bed.

--"You mean, EACH of your kids has their very own room?"

--"Your shirt says Team Willow...oh, your friends adopted a girl named Willow?  Did she live in an orphanage like us?"

--"How long have you been married?...nearly 20 years?...Even if I do find a husband, I'll end up separated and on government help."

--"What color is your house?  It must be white.  Tell me it's white!"

I sensed that they were indeed stalling their bed time, but also seeking connection.  And I was grieved by what I read between the lines of their questions.  Their pains and perspectives. Then, they asked me to recite every one of their names and the boys' names and everyone at Hopewell.  As if they hoped to sear them all into my memory.

How could I effectively communicate that I would never forget any of them?  How could I possibly express my appreciation and love for them?  My dreams for their future?  My hopes for their well being?  That I was leaving a part of my heart with them?  I felt I needed to keep it light and not add to the weight of this moment for these kids who have already said too many good-byes.

So I prayed a prayer over them all, asking that the Lord help every one of them see his great and powerful love for them.  Asking him to remind them every day of their great worth to him...that he loved them to death by sending his Son.

And then it was time to visit each of them, bending into their beds, as they each called me to them for a hug.

When I reached in to hug Keisha*, she whispered a quick and quiet, "I love you!"  And I whispered it right back to her.

Keisha. Fearless.  Mischievous. A smile to light the room.  In my journal, I have written impressions of each of the kids.  About her, I wrote: "fiesty, firecracker, fearless.  Gives the hardest stares and the hugest laughs and smiles.  Leader.  Survivor.  Strong and brave.  And expressive bundle of energy who can light up a room."

I saw it as no small gift that she, full of vigor and energy, should quietly and shyly whisper her feelings in such a way that she must say it quickly before she backed down.

I turned off the lights, uttered one more good night, and headed to the bunkhouse with a heaviness I still can't explain.  

Because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was leaving more than a suitcase full of crafts and necessities with these kids.  

I did not know how to do this.  To leave this trip and re-enter a world that was my security when I left but now had a bit of unfamiliarity to me.  Because in these few short days in Belize, I had gained a perspective and an understanding that I seem only able to express in inadequate cliches.

It was a sleepless night for me.  As I tossed and turned and prayed for help and strength for the following day of good-byes.

And the only thing I knew for sure is that I would not cry in front of the kids. I would hold it together for them.    

*names of children changed to protect their identity

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's Like I Don't Even Know Myself (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

Monday, October 6, 2014.  It was a watershed day for me.  (No pun intended as you read more details).  A day so significant that I am still trying to sort it all out.  Yet, for all that I have yet to discern, I am completely confident that it was a day of great meaning and a point of reference from that day forward in my life.

First, I guess I should set the stage a bit.  In some desperate hope that I can accurately relay the significance of this day...I have to help put it in context.  I was a painfully shy child.  (Don't worry!  You won't be getting the ENTIRE life story).  From my perspective anyway, I was timid and held myself back tremendously, as a result of pretty tenacious bullying throughout elementary school due to a severe speech impediment.  I was slow to open up and terribly girly.  Okay, I was prissy.  My mom insisted on a boy haircut for me and my sister for many years, so I wouldn't be caught dead in anything less than a dress.  Lest my lisping-speech impediment-sorry-shy self ALSO be mistaken for a boy.  Growing up an Army brat, I had to refine my skills at making new friends, but I never felt I belonged. I think I still have a sense of guarding myself to some degree.

In other words, I held back as I wrestled with insecurity and I never liked to play in the mud.  I think I've mentioned on this blog a time or twenty that I lean toward OCD, as well?  Comfort zone is a big thing for me.  I play it safe.  Have never been accused of being a risk taker.

So when our team leader started our morning team meeting and devotion with a question that left that pit in my stomach where I knew I had to speak up...I was totally thinking, "Oh DARN!"  But as I mentioned in yesterday's post, I had ignored that prompting in church the day prior, so I knew I was stuck.  

I tried to summarize what I felt led to say.  But no can do.  I had to go all in and spill my whole story.  I have in the past been able to do so without crying.  But, no such luck on that day.  With 8 of my closest new friends, I laid it ALL out there.  My Beaver Clever church girl childhood as a goody-two-shoes and then my dad's death that left my entire life on shifting sand.  Then, finding that Jesus really was the Rock at rock bottom.  And the gracious gift of a new boyfriend, Chris Enright in the middle of all my ugly.  (Yes, husband to be). My whole faith journey and the latest crazy journey of the last two years.  As God has sought to unwind and unravel my empty and burdensome religion in exchange for staking all my hopes on a faith steeped in grace and firmly footed on His love.  I told my new friends about how coming to Belize was a step WAY OUT of my comfort zone.

So, there you have it.  To say that sharing my story was carthartic would be an understatement.  It was a burden lifted.  It was public declaration that I have chosen to believe that if God were small enough to understand than he wouldn't be big enough to worship.  And I will choose to worship and obey until my dying day.  Maybe not always without grumbling.  Perhaps with great fear and trepidation.  Stumbling and fumbling. But, I will not run from him.  I've learned instead to run to him.

I knew even as we broke for our day's tasks, wholly concentrated on projects that day since the kids were in school, that it was signficant.  To be that vulnerable.  To obey the prompting to share.  To go all in.  To say yes.  Yes, God.  I'm yours.  I'll go where you call.  I'll be available.  And I stepped away to hear my day's assignments feeling energized.  Free.  Light.

I think that Chris, our team leader, maybe saw an opportunity?  Or God prompted him to ask, anyway.  

Was I really going all in?  Did I mean it when I told the Lord I'd try to take the plunge of where he wanted me to go?  That I'd try to choose His power and strength over fear?  

"Hey, Heather," Chris called, "I need help in the pond.  Peto is clearing the brush for the pond that will be stocked next.  Can you help clear it out?"

Um.  Did I just say yes to God?  

For real?  Going into a dirty nasty fish pond?  

"You did say you'd work on saying yes," whispered a voice in my head.  Otherwise known as the Holy Spirit.  

Sorta hard to argue with that logic.
Off I went.  To grab my new red muck boots and to LITERALLY take the plunge.  Because Chris said something about the pond being chest high in some spots and some vague promise of no snakes.  

The team members at the fish shack construction site had a few comments to make.  About all the mosquitoes that were bound to be at the pond.  And how they couldn't really believe I was doing it.  
"This is me.  Convincing myself," I replied.

And so I did.  I tried to convince myself.  I can do hard things.  I can say yes.  I can get out of my comfort zone.  

I thought about how I'd walked the pond's perimeter the day before with three of the girls who live at Hopewell. How they bragged about swimming in the pond and how awesome it was.

I realized something then that I am still pondering now.

Knowing the Hopewell kids has made me brave.  Or braver, anyway.  Because they are so brave.  They have taken the hand that life has dealt them.  And they have pressed on.  They greet the hot, humid days in Belize, devoid of so many conveniences and comforts we enjoy, and they smile.  They march forward.  They find reasons to laugh.  They live in the day--in the present.  Not the past or the future.  They are content.  And joyful.  

So, if they can swim in the pond, then I can jump in to work there.

I can't be outdone by a teenager, after all.

You may look at that picture and think, "Big deal.  A girl in a pond."

But I look at that picture and it's powerful.  It carries great meaning to me.

Because I look at that picture and think, "It's like I don't even know myself."  How funny that God is trying to teach me to face fears and take risks and take a plunge.  And I'm thigh high in pond water. I got into that water--yes, chest high on the sides--and it was a moment of epiphany.  It was a moment of saying that I can't wait for the fear or anxiety or discomfort to pass before I do things. I do things and then the fear and anxiety and discomfort will pass.  And God will never lead me anywhere without him. Because he makes me stronger than I think I am.  He makes me braver than I imagine.

I won't be skydiving anytime soon, mind you.  But, I'm starting a journey.

I'm starting a journey of realizing how God sees me.  Of seeing the walls of old scars and wounds and deceits about myself begin to crack.  I'm praying they will keep crumbling.

Because I don't have to be defined by other's opinions.  I don't have to make choices based on emotion.  I can do things on the power of Christ alone.  I can get muddy and dirty and haul brush.  I can face a day of hard labor with dread and ask God to help me embrace it.

And he will.  About two minutes into this task, I realized the joke was on the rest of the team.  My time in that pond was the coolest I'd been all week, except for the sleeping hours when we had air conditioning.  Not a mosquito in sight.  And if there were snakes, I never saw one.  I'll choose to believe that there weren't any.  I wore my back brace--as you can see in that middle picture above--and this task also proved how far my back has come since my December surgery to repair a ruptured disc.

Seems God was showing me that he is healing more than my back.  He is healing my broken and distorted perspectives.  

Because he doesn't see me as a lisping timid prissy little girl.  He doesn't tolerate me or put up with me.  He doesn't endure me with a roll of his eyes.

No, he took me into that Belizean pond to prove and emphasize that he sees me like an athlete's parent at a big football game.  You know, those parents who wear their son's jersey with his number and a big button on their shirt with his photo.  And you know exactly who their child is because every person in the stands hears the parents cheering every time their son takes the field.  They scream and yell about their boy and what he accomplishes.

And I stood in that pond and I knew.  I knew my Heavenly Father is just like that.  He is wearing a big photo button with my picture, and he was elbowing the angels to say, "THAT is MY girl.  Will you just look at her?"

My word for 2014 is love.  I've spent this year dwelling on sitting at his feet and believing his love for me and praying it will spill over.

And he broke through some old junk to fill me with an assurance of his love when I chose to obey and say yes. I waded back and forth, hauling out brush and had an overwhelming sense of awe at what God was helping me do. 

Hauling out the brush in my heart.  Hauling out the disbelief that constrains me.  Hauling out the actions based on feelings and instead choosing to act on his power.

What more does he have? This is the question I'm still asking. 

That sense of euphoria carried me throughout the rest of the day. In fact, I still feel it when I think on this experience. I can honestly say that I enjoyed grabbing and sorting dozens of flopping slimy fish with my work gloves, as we harvested the first batch of tilapia for Hopewell.  As we were covered in the mud the fish flopped all over us. I laughed and smiled and drank it all in.

That evening passed quickly with the kids, eating dinner and playing games and doing a craft together.  And I felt different somehow.

At our evening team meeting, the leaders joked about it being my yes day.  Because I had said yes to whatever was asked.

Indeed.  October 6, 2014, was my yes day.  Because when I whispered a tenative yes, unsure and apprehensive, my Father shouted a YES, I'll help you.

Listen, I don't know what fish ponds taunt and intimidate you.  I don't know what wounds and past history still haunt you.  I don't know what deceits about yourself won't quit visiting you.

But, if I learned anything that day, I learned this.

When I am willing and weak, He is strong and able.

"For all the promises of God find their YES in Him, Christ Jesus.  That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory."  2 Corinthians 1:20   

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sunday Worship, Rainstorms & Jungle Tours (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

My pastor often speaks of the big "C" Church.  Meaning the global church.  The beautiful body of Christ made up of all believers and confessors of Jesus Christ.  Beyond denominational labels or other differences.  All around the world.  I've grown weary of denominational labels and fussing and feuding.  So I love to consider the global Church.  Eyes fixed on the Jesus we love. In the past few months, I've been able to witness the beauty of the big "C" church and to see how very alive and well it is all around the globe.  First at Hillsong Church in London, where I was moved to tears to sing songs and praise the One who united all of us there, regardless of color or nationality.  Then, in Canada at family camp, where I worshiped nightly with many I hold so dear, enjoying their genuine and authentic faith free of the strongholds of Bible belt appearances.  And then, most recently, that Sunday morning at Doublehead Baptist Church in Doubleheaded Cabbage, Belize.

We piled into the two vans at Hopewell, children standing or on laps, not due to neglect but just because that's the way it is.  Some things just don't exist in Belize (that's a whole other blog post for coming days).  We made our way to the church where the pastor is the father of Kendra, the house mom.  Familiar praise music blared from the efficient square green cinder block building.  One room, except for the little room attached on the left and the two small bathroom stalls attached on the right.  

Our crew of nearly thirty, with all the Hopewell kids and our own team, more than doubled the little congregation.  There was a word from a church member on shame, as the young man encouraged us all with this question about being timid about Jesus:  "Why be ashamed when you follow Someone so great?  So don't put on a coat of pride that leads to shame.  Be proud to be a church girl or church boy."

Amen.  Indeed.  We then introduced ourselves to the smiling faces and began singing together.  Ceiling fans whirled to combat the heat in this simple building.  Free of any need to outdo or outshine other local churches.  No fancy programs or huge production or extensive events.  Just worship.  Gathering.  All in one room, people of all ages.  

In the midst of the service, all of a sudden, the temperature seemed to drop about ten degrees.  And a sudden and short-lived hard rain began to fall.  As if on cue, several children popped up to run into the rain and close car windows or pull their bicycles out of the rain.  Again, I was impressed with how these kids just do what has to be done.  Without prompting.  Without complaining.  They just handle the needs they see.

I must admit that I do have one regret about my time at the Doublehead Baptist Church that Sunday.  When the pastor asked if any of us visitors had a word of encouragement to share, I sat still.  Despite the sick feeling in my stomach, which I knew well enough to know was a prompting to speak, I ignored it.  Oh, yes.  Just after the young man talked about being bold. 

You see, my pastor and elders had come to pray with our family about my trip.  To cover us in prayer.  Psalm 20 was a specific passage that was prayed that night, and I knew it was a Word not just for me.  But, I couldn't seem to get up the guts to stand up and share.  I was further convicted of my own self-consciousness when the reserved house mom, Kendra, stood up to sing.  I had no idea that she had such a beautiful voice.  All of us were in awe of her gorgeous singing.  Thankfully, someone got it on video.

Just before the sermon, the children were dismissed to the adjoining room, where we could overhear their low rumbles and teaching while the pastor shared his sermon.  I loved that.  Knowing that the children were being taught just as we were.  Separated only by a small wall and window.  

As I said already, lest anyone think differently, the worldwide church is alive and well.  And Belizeans, living in the heat, doing hard and honest work--living simpler lives devoid of big city trappings--they gather to praise God.  To thank him.  To worship him.  Convenience and comfort are not things they seem to consider, much less demand.  They just come to gather together and hear the Word and worship the One they choose to follow and trust. And I loved the pastor's encouragement about seeing wounds we endure not as set-backs but as set-ups for better things to come.  I loved his advice on how to find the real simply go back to the Word.  I loved that he reminded us that we are all afraid of change, yet we must remember change brings about newness.  And newness should be encouraging.  After all, when we choose to follow Jesus, we are told we are a new creation.  

I cannot really express what it was like to be embraced and welcomed and encouraged by the people that Sunday morning. To see the world and our differences shrink in the enormity of our commonality.  To experience a simpler worship.  Which reminded me again about how the tables were turned.  Because I tend to think America is such a great land.  And that arrogance leaves me ignoring the wonders of other cultures. They, in fact, have so much more figured out than I had ever considered. Once again, I found I was the student and they were the teachers.  Not vice versa.

That Sunday after church, we drove back to Hopewell for another incredible lunch prepared by Rosa.  And just like my own kids, I saw these Belizean children run to change from their Sunday best to play clothes.  

After lunch, we saw an opportunity for the much spoken of "jungle tour" to check out what was rumored to be a freshly cleared section of jungle around the perimeter of the current buildings.  So, at the advice of our fearless team leaders, we changed into long pants, boots, and layers of 98% deet mosquito spray.  And off we went.  Traipsing into the jungle behind the fish ponds, with the oldest daughter of the property manager leading our charge.  Did I mention that she was wearing her Sunday dress still and her sandals?  While we, the Americans, were suited up for some big adventure? 
You can see that sweet girl off to the left in her sleeveless dress.  You can also see Chris, the team leader, just behind her.  He brought his machete, just in case parts were not cleared well.  Since Peto, the property manager seemed a bit confused about where this newly cleared area was?  (THIS should have been a huge clue to us about how this would go).  You can also see in this picture the other three kids who joined us.  In shorts.  No bug spray.  No fear.  No problem!

Listen, us city folks considered ourselves quite adventurous.  We also completely overestimated our ability to explore the "wilder" areas of the Hopewell property.  We got a little stuck in some deep mud on the way in and pushed on.  Then, approximately every mosquito in Central America got word about the ridiculous Americans.  They saw that our pampered selves were no match for their jungle savvy.  So, we began to mutter and admit that maybe this wasn't such a good idea?  There was Chris, cutting back some brush with his giant machete.  The kids were completely unaffected, and we began to consider a sudden ending to our approximately nine minute jungle tour.  Tracy, Chris' wife and the other team leader, got a "really cool picture" of us with some big palm leaves all around.  And there we were, about 100 yards into the jungle, knowing we were no match for the elements.

We turned around and now, Tracy, who had been in the rear, was suddenly in the front.  She began to high tail it out of the jungle as our clothes became covered--and I do mean COVERED in mosquitoes.  Dozens hundreds THOUSANDS of vampire mosquitoes seeking to drain us dry.  As we began scrambling to run out of the jungle, poor Karrie, another member of our team who had been just behind Tracy, kept getting her boots stuck in the mud.  Chris was trying to help her, while Joana and I were swatting away the surrounding bugs by frantically waving our arms around us like we were performing some crazy new dance.  All the while, Karrie is apologizing for holding us up and we are trying to calmly say, "It's okay!"  Except that I think we all felt we'd entered the sequel to that creepy Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds.  Those were some big mosquitos, I'm telling you.  

So basically, we are all squealing and laughing and screaming and causing a ruckus while the kids were perfectly calm.  

Yep, 'Merica.  Proud to represent you there in that Belizean jungle.  Happy to become comic relief to the children of Belize.  As we sacrificed ourselves to be mosquito bait in order to spare the children of this fate.

That is my arm.  Post jungle tour.  In my defense, do you see how bad it was?  My other arm and neck and any exposed skin looked very similar.  I believe I have been so tired since I got back because of the blood loss that day.  

You might understand, based on that picture, why I was content with the assignment to journal in the afternoon since blogging this trip was part of my tasks for the team.  

While the day before had dragged endlessly, this day passed quickly.  The kids played Legos and then dressed in their BRAND NEW soccer uniforms donated by a youth league in California.  Imanie, the high school senior on our team, had also brought donated goals and balls.  

It was like Christmas.  Those kids so proudly walking around in their spanking new soccer jerseys, shorts and socks.  Even the skeptics in the crowd couldn't help themselves and joined in the soccer drills and game.  It made me wonder, as I sat near by, listening to their screams and yells and laughter.  How often do they get brand new things?  Not because they live at Hopewell, but because this is not a part of the world with a Target on every corner.  These kids take pride in their appearance, the girls braiding their hair or pulling it into buns.  The boys tucking in their shirts.  But I never saw a mall there.  Anywhere in the city, much less the rural countryside where we were.  There was no quick, "hey, let's run to Walmart and grab whatever we need."

Yet again.  Another moment of epiphany.  We think we have it all figured out.  But maybe, just maybe, they are the ones with superior perspective.  Because they find contentment, not in things or possessions.  But in the simple joy of living.  

This day, of Sunday worship and sudden rainstorms and jungle tours gone awry, quickly came to an end and I was assigned to the bedtime duty team.  At my house, all too often, I find myself rushing my kids into bed, eager to bring the day to a close and glossing over the opportunities to linger with them.  I was determined to not have that attitude here.  I mentally chastised myself and reminded myself to give them my full attention. To make the most of this moment.

So, the six girls, ranging in age from seven to thirteen, followed their known routine, grabbing their toothbrushes from their lockers, and dressed in long pajamas, then settling into their beds to tease and chat and giggle.  I sorta smiled internally to see this slumber party of sorts.  

But then it hit me.  As I listened to one girl pray and answered calls to tuck each girl in and give each one a hug.  I bent over Rachelle*, my crafting partner from the day before, and tucked her in just like I do my own daughter.  I pulled the sheet over her head and then pulled it back, tucking her in tightly and telling her that it's just like I do for my girl.

And my heart hurt with the sudden realization.

How can I convince my own kids to not take for granted that their mom is there at bedtime?  These girls deserve that. Every child should have the love and security of doting parents. Yes, they have a loving house mother who pours herself out for them daily.  But there is still the harsh reality of their forced separations from their own biological family.  

It's such a simple ending to a day of fun and worship and laughter.  A mom to kiss their cheek.  A mom to banter with them and reassure them of her enduring love.  That they belong to her and vice versa.  

This was no slumber party.  As I tried to cover my comment about my own daughter, praying it would pain no one in the room, I felt a deep stab in my stomach.  These girls don't have that basic thing...their own biological moms to offer protection and assurance.  And because their own families could not care for them or did not protect them, they are here.  

I hugged each girl as they called my name with their request to have my individual attention.  And I fought back tears and an anger.  I couldn't help but think of what those mamas are missing.  The pain inflicted on these girls.  These sweet precious girls did not complain or cry about what they were missing out on.  I never once heard an angry word about their biological families or rantings about how unfair life had been for them already.

And so my mama's heart hurt for them.  That they'd ever had to be separated from the women who birthed them but couldn't care for them.  I drank in the joy of tucking these girls in to wish them sound sleep with sweet dreams and an anticipation for a new day. I saw it for the privilege it is.  Because these girls are treasures.  They are miracles.  Just like the boys who live at Hopewell.

Turning the air conditioner on and the light off, I whispered a prayer as I walked back to the bunk house.  It's a prayer I've repeated dozens of times since I left Belize. I asked God to pour out his grace and his healing to fill the voids and cover the wounds of these precious kids.  Be their hope, Lord Jesus.  Be their future. 

Sing your song of love and grace over them so that they know how treasured they are.  So that they know that they belong at the banquet table of the King of Kings.


Friday, October 17, 2014

When Orphans Aren't Orphans (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

Rarely, in fact nearly never, is life like a scene from a movie.  Complete with sound track and profound moments of epiphany.  You know, those movie moments where the main character is so impacted in an instant that the plot twists and the conflicts come into focus.

But, I had such a moment as my third day in Belize began with the bright sunshine of a new day.  A sabbath day, in fact.  While we ate breakfast with the kids before heading to church.

We were all gathered in the screened, second story dining hall.  I was still shaking off the long day before and praying for a better attitude...better coping skills...a better day.

I got up to grab more water, with the music playlist of another team member playing on the blue tooth speaker.  In my morning fog, I looked across the room, and my eyes connected with Shauna*, the oldest of the girls at Hopewell.  Shauna.  Nearly fourteen, she is half-child, half-woman.  When I had met her two days prior, the first thing she told me was her age and that she didn't want to grow up.  She had no desire to be an adult.  It was said with great defiance, a tough "I don't care" demeanor.  

But, in the end, her joy and laughter and her wicked sense of humor and good nature win out, despite her best efforts to the contrary.  She's been wounded and abused by adults who seem to have sparked her cynicism about anything good coming in adulthood.  I think her mind tells her to be callous.  But her heart says she just can't completely succumb to that.

And so, as our eyes met, there was that hard look on her face.  A tough, distant look.  I offered her a smile and her face suddenly lit up with that gorgeous smile of hers at the exact moment that the song playing offered these lyrics:

Girls will be queens
Wrapped in Your majesty
When we love, when we love the least of these
Then they will be brave and free
Shout your name in victory
When we love when we love the least of these

It's a moment hard to convey.  Because it was like the veil of heaven was slipped back ever so slightly and I saw this song coming to life.  I saw a young lady, striving to be brave and free and to shout Jesus' name in victory, weighed down by all that she has endured.  Teetering on the fence between her past and a hope for a better future.  And I saw that these moments in Belize were precious.  They were the stuff of heaven.  That I would be given the opportunity to love these kids.  To know these kids.  To be part of what God wants to do in their lives, to claim them as his kings and his queens and his dearly loved children--redeeming them from their past.

I thought I was going to an orphanage.  I knew it wasn't exactly that...I struggled to describe it before I left, and even more so since.

Because the truth is that not one of the eleven kids is a true orphan.  Not a single child at Hopewell has lost both parents to death.  The more complicated reality is that these children have been brought to Hopewell because of abuse and neglect and parents who are very much alive but unable to care for them. That is why I cannot share their names or their faces.  Or their beautiful smiles with you.

So, what do we do then?  What is the best way to help when orphans aren't orphans?  Why is there not a word for that?

There should be a word for that.  

Here I was, meeting these children whose smiles and demeanor and friendliness and all appearances of being normal kids--it all belies the trauma and unimaginable history they've survived.  Because they are survivors.  From the youngest to the oldest.  Surviving being harmed by their parents.  Or at the very least, being harmed by others while their parents did nothing.  Found begging on the streets as the breadwinners at age 8.  Trying desperately to care for their parents.  Victims of the lack of resources when their families could not afford to feed them. 

Children whose parents have left them true orphans have endured great loss.  Children whose parents are living and have abused and neglected them and failed to protect them leave a wake of confusion and pain and a lack of closure.  How can a small child reconcile that they actually do have whose hand many of them have suffered?  What then?  

There's not even a word for that. 

Because they aren't really orphans.  They are just displaced.  And my eyes were open in Belize to this reality.  Because I wonder of the estimated 127 million orphans in the world, how many fall into these complicated categories?  I know speculation projects many of them are not actually true orphans.  Many have parents who are so bound by poverty and lack of opportunity that they cannot provide for their children.  Many of them have parents who came from abuse and carry on that horrible legacy.  Many of them have extended family who wish they could parent.

So what then?  

Places like Hopewell are trying to fill this gap.  To shape and rewire these hard places by offering loving house parents, food, education, warm beds, safety, and normalcy.  A pseudo family.  It can be easy to forget why these kids live here at all.  Because their resiliency shines when they grab your hands and form a circle and play a dancing game.  Or spent hours playing with Legos.  Or dive into their assigned chore with a polite, "Yes, m'am."  Or run off down the road to try to round up the escaping cows. (True story!)

But still, throughout my time at Hopewell, the scars became visible.  When I was tasked with helping the kids fill out new forms about themselves for their files.  And the young man who used to beg on the streets to try to care for his mother is asked, "What would your 'someday' wish be?"  And he says, "that my mom would come," as he fights back tears.  Or another young man, who has lived on his own in the city, dabbling in gang activity says that he knows God loves him because he's still alive.

My heart breaks to see the dichotomy of a child trying to enjoy care-free childhood days while working to heal from burdens no adult should endure. 

My heart broke further as the team learned more about the kids' histories.  And then it shattered when I heard that while international adoption is possible in Belize, the adoptive parents would have to live in Belize for twelve months with the child before their case could be considered.  

There you have it.  The harsh reality that is coming to light more and more.  We are told that an estimated 127 million orphans live around the world.  However, many of those children are not true orphans.  And many countries around the world have such complicated adoption processes that even if adoption were the solution, it's pretty much impossible.

So what are we going to do?  Something is better than nothing.  And one child helped could be the start of a ripple effect.  Eleven children raised at Hopewell could grow up to help eleven more each and so on and so forth. So we can't be intimidated by the sheer volume of the problem.  We gotta figure out where to dive in with our unique gifts, talents and resources.  So we can do something.

There needs to be serious concern and conversation about this global problem.  Families in crisis need to be supported and equipped so that their children can move from being vulnerable to being healthy and avoid being labeled "orphan."  Places like Hopewell and Abide Family Center in Uganda are doing amazing work, teaching struggling parents how to be great parents and giving them life and job skills so that they can always care for their children.  Places like Hopewell, or the private house in Ethiopia where 13 former street boys now reside with house parents--these are the places that need to become the trend.

Because God says in James 1:27 that pure religion is caring for the widows and orphans.  And we, the church, need to start thinking globally and outside the box.  

Here is the international trend as I see it.  International adoptions, complicated by the Hague Treaty and political struggles, are becoming more difficult.  Meanwhile, children remain at risk.

If we are looking at a generation of children who are labeled "orphans" and will never be adopted, then I believe passionately that we need to respond better.  We need to be part of a trend of finding better solutions than overcrowded, dirty, inhumane government orphanages.  We need to be part of places like Hopewell, where non-orphaned orphans can find a home and security and ultimately hope.  

We need to be part of avoiding toxic charity.  We need to be part of equipping and raising up nationals to care for their own children, within the context of their own culture, and aimed at the best opportunities that their country can provide. We can't have the superhero complex.  We can't throw money at the problem if we even acknowledge it in the first place.  Instead we need to be part of efforts to help local organizations be empowered to become self-sustaining as they care for the children of their own country.

That.  All of that.  That is what happened when I looked across the room during breakfast one hot Sunday morning in Belize, and I saw a girl with a tough exterior melt into a huge hopeful smile.  

I saw that girl become a queen.  Oh, yes, Lord, wrap her in your majesty.  Help her become brave and free and shout your name in victory.

Because she is so much more than the least of these. 

She is the future of Belize.

*Names changed to protect the identity of the children.     

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Longest Day (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

I remember when my kids were little and the days seemed SO. VERY. LONG.  The hours would drag as I tried to keep a preschooler, toddler and infant alive occupied.  My husband knew the sure sign of a long day.  If he came home and the children were in the bathtub, wrinkled with pruny fingers, while I sat against the wall next the tub--it'd been a long day.  Because I had resorted to my old trick of "hey, kids, climb into this contained space and play and splash and I won't even attempt to wash you."

My second day in Belize felt a little like that.  Okay, a lot.  Except that you can't exactly throw fourteen children, ranging in age from four to seventeen, into a bathtub to pass the time.  Nor can you sit them in front of a television or use the crutch of electronics.  Because these things were not part of the equation.

Listen, I'm not proud of my response to that second day. But, I'd like to pretend that I kept my issues contained and internal, away from the kids and the team. Because our only assignment, being part of the "kid duty" team, as opposed to the construction team that day, was to play with the kids.  Enter their lives.  Get to know them.  Show them love.  

You know, in other words, the very reason I came to Belize in the first place.

I started strong.  I had actually gone to sleep the night before in the blessed air conditioning that we enjoyed only during sleeping hours, on my top bunk and cool sheets, thinking about how repulsed I was by my excess.  Impressed with the simplicity of what really matters.  On that emotional high of hearing those Belizean beauties and boys singing about their love for Jesus.

So after a delicious breakfast, prepared by the amazing Rosa (how does she pull off meals for thirty in a hot kitchen less than half the size of mine?  I can hardly pull something together for my family of five?) was play time.  Or rather, homework time.  Because the kids all had homework to do on that bright, hot Saturday. As soon as Kendra, the house mom, gave us the list of homework for the various kids, we shooed her away for a day of respite.  

First on the Noah's Arks.  Um, what?  It took some clarifying from the older kids to understand that yes, indeed, the majority of the kids were tasked with building models of Noah's Arks.  For school.  Public school, at that.  Because apparently, in Belize, public school education includes stories from the Bible and assigned Scripture memory.  Who knew?  

So, like McGyver, Tracy, the team leader, and I bee lined for the building that is currently storage to see what craft supplies we might scrounge up.  Okay, I can do this, I thought.  I'm crafty.  Surely, I can figure this one out.  

Here is the random assortment of goods we scored from the stash of things other teams have sent and brought for the kids:  paper plates, felt, pipe cleaners, craft sticks, tape, glue, scissors, a little cardboard, and construction paper.  Oh, and by the way--the ark should include animals and of course, the eight people who were on the ark.  That was the assignment. These kids had their Biblical facts straight:  you must have Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives.  

Alrighty then.  We laid it all out and began the mission impossible.  Like any other siblings, there was the mad dash to claim supplies and fight over them while we adults attempted to negotiate and tackle how to help about eight kids make replica arks out of the supplies on hand.  Yi yi yi.

But, as it sorted itself out, I was amazed at how quickly the kids divided into groups with adult helpers and began working on either their arks or their spelling or their reading.  Diligently working.  On a Saturday morning.  Initial groaning (and who could blame them?  I was sure my teenage sons were still asleep back home)...quickly evolved into diligent work.  Showing what I would come to see is an amazing characteristic of Belizeans.  A strong work ethic and industriousness.  

(Author's rabbit trail note: one of the girls kept repeated the theme for the 33rd birthday of the country of Belize.  We kept hearing her saying, "Injustice hands, intelligent minds, together for Belize" in her Creole accent...We later figured out she was actually saying industrious hands.)

These kids were creative and took pride in their work.  One boy, I will call David*, carefully constructed his ark like a trained architect.  He seemed to have a mental blue print immediately, and tenaciously spent the next three hours bringing his plan to life.  His intricate framing became a strong structure.  Others worked with cardboard or felt or craft sticks.  And somehow, in the hands of these strong and hardworking children, a pile of random craft supplies became a wide assortment of completed Noah's arks.  

I spent the entire morning helping one little girl, Rachelle*.  This little girl is first of all, gorgeous.  She could be a model for sure.  She is sweet and kind and helpful beyond words.  If you're looking for her, you will likely find her in the kitchen helping with dishes or toting the house parent's one year old baby on her little hip.  

Rachelle was not convinced when I initially suggested we use the paper plates as a frame.  She let me know how skeptical she was, but also that she was willing to give it a go.  And so, we slaved over the coveted hot glue gun I had broughtWord quickly got out about this useful tool, and so a little crowd of kids crammed into the tiny kitchen to get a turn.  

As the morning progressed, Rachelle and I bonded over hours spent with paper plates, brown paper bags, craft sticks and hot glue. She offered the ultimate compliment when she expressed that she wasn't sure of my idea at first but that she was glad she had gone with the choice of paper plates as a frame.

 Rachelle's finished ark

The morning wrapped as the kids fawned over our assistance to draw the animals they needed for their arks.  Side note: no animal artists were part of our team. The kids giggled over our attempts and graciously accepted the animals they deemed worthy.  I was still doing pretty good emotionally at this point.  I was still in awe about how I tend to dread school projects at home.  But here, stripped of distractions and agendas, I found that I welcomed the project as an opportunity to bond and as something to do.  I loved seeing the quiet and hard work ethic of some,  and the energy and mischief channeled into the creativity of others.  

After lunch, we brought out the toys.  THE TOYS.  Y'all, THE TOYS that were sorta a "time filler" in our minds -- something to do in between our other planned activities with the kids over the weekend.  But, these kids--all of them--would spend hours, literally hours, playing with them. They went from being a side note to the main thing.

The toy that was such an instant hit?  Legos.  Yep.  A few bags of discarded or borrowed legos became THE THING.  The kids were plopped all over the dining hall, in little groups or solo, building with legos.  From the four year olds to the teenage girls.  These simple toys became not just hours but days of distractions for the kids.  There were fights, of course.  From subtle negotiating and trading by one boy to full on grabbing out of each other's hands.  But, they sat, oblivious to their sweating in the afternoon heat under the ceiling fans stirring the air.  

Here's where things started getting ugly for me.  The heat.  And humidity.  And the afternoon lull in energy began to wind me up. Or rather, unravel my resolve.  The day began to feel endless.  I began to miss the comforts of home.  I am sad to admit that I began to count down mentally how many more days until we could go home.  I mean, the kids are awesome and all.  But, when is bedtime?

How double minded I was, as I helped Tracy lead a Bible study with the kids on the fruits of the spirit (while they played legos, we spoke and they listened). Even as I was teaching a song about patience and self-control, I was wishing the days away until I went home.  Oh sure, I marveled at the seeds of faith obviously planted in the fertile soil of their open hearts.  These kids spouted off answers throughout the lesson that showed that this was not their first Bible study rodeo.  

But still, I found myself overcome with waves of irritability and frustration.  Even a touch of homesickness.

Here is the only thought that pulled at me throughout this first full day, fourteen hours with the kids.  I had a choice to make.  All of us who visit foreign countries or volunteer or enter the difficult lives of others.  We can complain and moan about the heat and bugs and work and discomfort.  Or, we can remember that WE actually have a choice.  Because we can go back home to all of our creature comforts.  We can go back to air conditioned expansive homes with luxuries these kids couldn't fathom.  We can enjoy opportunities that these kids might never see.  We were born in a privileged America.  And we are wimpy.  And we gotta get over ourselves.

Because we can endure for a few hot and sweaty days and pour ourselves out--working heartily as for the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23).  Putting our comfort aside for the sake of others.  
Because if we are going to attach ourselves to the name of Jesus, we must remember, after all, how uncomfortable he became for our sake.

THIS, this train of thought, pushed me through the long afternoon of negotiating legos and playing with the kids and finishing homework and then setting the table for dinner.  

And God whispered some truth to me as I battled internally, placing these thoughts in my head.  I had overcomplicated things.  I worried that the older kids wouldn't like the song I taught or the crafts I'd planned...or even me.  

Here's the simple truth.  The simplicity of the worldwide church.  Loving joyful kids plus an obedient heart to do so equals God's greatest blessing -- hearts united and new connections.  Children like Rachelle* who would sneak up behind me to throw her arms around my waist and offer a huge smile.  Jesus is our common ground.  Beyond language barriers or cultural differences or age differences or racial differences.  They have a need, I thought.  I can meet a need.  

Yet, I was discovering that actually I am the needy.  They are the need meeters.  They have much to teach.  They have much to offer. It's the reciprocal rhythm of living out the gospel.  

Before I knew it, the sun began to set on that very long day.  And while their unusually late 10 pm bedtime still loomed hours away, the dark of the evening became the light at the end of my tunnel.  The kids fought over which adult sat next to them at dinner.  Obvious attachments had grown throughout the day.  And I realized that these kids, of all ages, had just passed a day with great contentment without an electronic or even air conditioning.  With simple toys and tackling school tasks.  Not once did anyone complain about being bored. 

Yeah, my kids are not going to like some of the things I will go home with from this experience.

After dinner came the big treat we had planned for the kids.  We played The Lego Movie, projected on a sheet hung on the wall of the dining hall.  Amazed that I had wifi there, I was able to sit in the dark at the back of the room and text with my family at home. This helped me pull it together so I could get over myself.  And then, before I knew it, I was told I didn't have bedtime duty and I could go shower and go to bed whenever I wanted.

Oh yes.  Once again, I felt an internal scolding of how much I had mentally complained. Unnecessarily. I fell into my bunk and prayed that I could endure with more grace and finesse from here on.  I had come all this way.  I didn't want to just get through the experience.  I wanted to enjoy it.  To soak it all in.  To run this little six day race with endurance.  Lord, help me!  It may not always be comfortable.  But it is only temporary.  

I reminded myself that I was right where I was supposed to be. Where I was meant to be.  

And so I prayed for new mercies in the new day to come.  

Because that is, after all, what God promises for each new day.

New mercies.  Fresh faithfulness. 

*Actual names of the children have been changed.  Tomorrow, I will dive into why.