Ecuador – Day 4

Ecuador 247After a good night’s rest, we had a challenging, faith-testing day before us.  Our team was being asked to “disciple” and “teach” the staff at project 534 on how to prepare and teach a Sunday school lesson.  The evening prior consisted of late night preparations, teamwork  and foggy brains.  We put together a structure of how things would go, but we all understood that God was ultimately the one calling the shots.  We were learning to be ok with this.

We arrived at 534, ready to be stretched.  The day began with a great devotional time together and we prayed for the day.  We then headed outside to play another team game.  We stood in a circle and passed a soccer ball to each other.  The person passing the ball expressed something that they appreciated about the other person….something encouraging and uplifting.  Once the ball was passed, the person had to sit down and on it went until everybody had a turn.  There were a lot of smiles and “ahhh, that was sweet” comments going around.  I felt the love man!  It was a great building block for what was ahead that day.

Ecuador 159Next, we headed into the church to begin a time of teaching and brainstorming.  In a nutshell, Sunday school lessons at the project mainly consisted of opening the bible and reading the story to the children.  Although this is totally fine, keeping the kids focused was a challenge.  There was a need to spice things up a little and pull some creativity and fun out of each lesson.  So, with the leadership of Erin, that was our focus!  It was a creatively messy time consisting of ideas being flung around, minds being challenged and confidence being developed.  It was beautiful.

The brainstorming led to structure, which led to the formation of a lesson plan.  Over the next couple of days, each group presented their lesson plan and I could sense the pride, excitement and optimism within each of the staff members sharing.  We were so dang proud of our Ecuadorian church family!  I’m confident that this was only the beginning of great things to come.

Ecuador 165God works in awesome ways doesn’t He?!  As a group, us North Americans felt unequipped for the task at hand….we aren’t anything special, only normal people learning right along with everybody else….but we were called to do something bigger than us, so we gave it a shot and had the opportunity of seeing super cool results.

After our productive time together, we were treated to an incredibly tasty lunch made by the staff at the project.  I think it was shrimp, chicken, beans, rice and other good stuff.  They worked so hard and it was so appreciated and enjoyed!

Ecuador 169At 3pm, the flood gates opened and the kiddos poured in for our first VBS of the trip!  What a riot!  I was seriously in heaven….crazy kids hanging onto our legs, jumping around, super excited to be there….shoot, I was super excited to be there too!  The parents assumed their positions on the sidelines, observing the semi-organized chaos with proud, content smiles.

We organized the VBS in a way that rotated the kids from a bible story, to crafts and then to games.  The kids dove right in, laughing at the great stories and using their creative brains to make cool crafts.  I was part of the game crew, so I got to be rowdy and goofy with the kids…it’s a spiritual gift of mine ;).  There was so much joy as we made up secret handshakes and played simple games like soccer, and bean bag toss.  You know what, I think they would have had just as much fun playing with rocks or sticks…because they were just happy to see us….we were present and available for interaction….we were there to love and love we did!

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Sadly, after many “see you tomorrow’s” and long hugs goodbye, it was time to leave the project and visit a few more of the sponsored children’s homes.  The day kept getting better!

I can’t explain how great of an opportunity it was to visit so many homes over the course of the trip.  Each family was so different, but there was one common thread…they all had grateful, hospitable hearts.  Us folks in the states hesitate to have guests over when we haven’t cleaned the windows or dusted a countertop in fear of being judged by others.  Our amazing Ecuadorian friends invited us into their poverty-stricken, difficult situations with open arms….their gratefulness for our presence trumped their concern about our judgment.  Can you imagine how different our communities would be if we had this level of transparency?  Pretty eye-opening and humbling.

Ecuador 488Although it was tough to put this day to rest, it was now time to grab some dinner and debrief with the team.  We had so much to talk about and so much to celebrate.  This was a day of victory…not only because of what we accomplished, but because of the fears that we overcame.  God knew what we could handle and I’m so glad that we all jumped at the chance to be challenged.

A big truth came out of this day for me: typically when God is calling us to do something, it’s not predictable….in fact, it can be pretty scary.  Not much growth happens when we are comfortable though.  Faith develops when we are bent, squeezed and faced with the possibility of failure.  These are the hardest times, but often, the most rewarding times in life.  I felt like some walls were broken down for me….like some chains were loosened….because I got a taste of God doing what he does best: using normal people to accomplish great things.  All this being done by His power and grace only.  This day was a fantastic day.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” -Romans 8:28

Ecuador 337More to come….stay tuned for day 5!!!

God Bless,

Paul

 

Ecuador – Day 3

Ecuador 020Things were about to get real.  Days 1 & 2 consisted of travelling, overcoming, vision-casting, introducing, laughing, crying and resting in preparation for what was waiting for us on the next leg of our journey.  The clouds were beginning to lift in Guayaquil and we would soon hop on the bus and take a 2 hour drive to Santa Elena!  This would be our new home for the rest of the trip.  My stomach was churning with excitement…only God knew the powerful time that was ahead of us.

As the bus rumbled through the streets of Ecuador, past banana tree farms, past street vendors, past iguanas on walls, past homes, mostly small and broken, I knew that our team was ready for a new adventure.  We would soon be arriving to project 534 where we would be greeted with smiles, hugs and the presence of Jesus.  It was time to hang with some kids!  Not yet though….the bus began to slow down a bit and suddenly, the roads were solid dirt, the homes became smaller, wild dogs wandered the streets and it was obvious that we were taking a quick detour before the project….

Ecuador 038The bus rumbled to a stop and the lingering dust cloud behind us began to settle.  Little eyes, both big and small peered at us with curiosity through bamboo fence slats and door openings.  They must have been thinking things like; “Who are these people?”  “Why are they here?”  Well, to my surprise, we were there to visit a few homes of the kids that we sponsored, woo hoo!!!!  I knew that we would be visiting, but not this soon!  Although I was beyond excited, I have to be honest about something…..arriving to these poverty-stricken areas via a large bus embarrassed me a little.  I felt unworthy, spoiled and humbled.  The folks living in the community didn’t seem phased though…..just excited that we were there.  Unlike North America, every “hola!” was exchanged with another.  Every wave was returned enthusiastically.  Folks were human to each other, even amidst rough conditions.  How refreshing and inspiring!

Ecuador 145We broke up into 3 groups and ventured off to visit a few homes.  I had the amazing opportunity of visiting my sponsored child, Nicole.  As my group and I strolled down the streets of Santa Elena, I couldn’t fight off the nervous feelings.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Would they welcome me with open arms?  Would we have enough to talk about?  Would Nicole be afraid of me?  My anticipation turned to joy as soon as I was embraced by Nicole’s mom upon our arrival to their home.  I met Nicole’s dad next as I approached the door to their home.  Hiding sheepishly behind him was Nicole.  She wore a pretty white dress and was just plain adorable!  Understandably, Nicole was very shy at first.  We exchanged hugs and had a seat in their home.  I couldn’t believe that after a few years of mailing letters and praying for this little girl, I was sitting next to her, my shoes touching her floor, my arms hugging her, my team being a part of it.  God is so good!

Ecuador 046Our conversation was pretty simple.  It consisted of basic questions regarding school, food, pets, etc.  My man Fernando was translating for us (thank the good Lord!) and did a great job of bridging the language gap.  There may have even been a little ballet dancing going on between Nicole and I…maybe 😉

One last thing about the visit blew me away…in the middle of their main living space, there was a table with a photo of our family on it…yeah, our family!  Also, Nicole had multiple pictures of our family in her bedroom, strategically placed in a certain area right next to a little box which contained all of the letters we had written her.  Man, we were a part of her family!  They love us!  It was an amazing reminder that the simple things like sending pictures and writing letters to these kiddos means the world to them.  What a humbling and encouraging feeling!


imageAfter an amazing visit and big hugs goodbye, it was time to head to project 534.

I had heard about the experience of pulling up to the project for the 1st time and couldn’t wait!  Kids and families were just waiting for us to arrive.  Welcome signs were held and smiling faces lit up the space.  As we exited the bus, it was as though we were famous or something.  I wanted to shout, “we’re not that special, really!” but I just enjoyed the moment and grabbed all of the hugs, kisses and high-fives that I could get.  I let their love penetrate my heart.  There’s no words to explain it, only gratefulness.

imageAfter we all got settled, these beautiful people held a “welcome to Ecuador” church service for us.  They waited a day to hold the service due to our travelling delays, so thoughtful.  There was preaching (by Bryce), singing, dancing and American / Ecuadorian flags being presented together, united as one.  Powerful.

We had the opportunity to meet a lot of kids (including my other sponsored child, Alan) and reunite with the project staff that we had met the day prior.  It was a great day.  One full of anticipation, love and joy.

After this awesome evening, we headed back to the hotel and ate dinner, debriefed and prepared for the next day.  Day 4 presented the opportunity of teaching the staff how to structure a fun bible lesson for the kids.  We were all a little intimidated…it felt beyond us.  You know what, it was.  God stretched us and taught us something very valuable….to just trust….not only in God Himself, but the skills and abilities that He has given us.  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on our own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.” -Proverbs 3:5-6

Stay tuned for day 4!

God Bless,

Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ecuador – Day 1 and 2

imageAfter many meetings, tons of preparation and a lot of prayers, the day had finally arrived!  My team and I were heading to Ecuador!  I remember feeling both elated and anxious at the same time.  It was early, I wasn’t hungry and coffee didn’t even sound good.  Leaving the family was so hard…really hard, but I had to trust.  I came this far.  Only God knew what was in store.

We arrived to the airport at 4am to catch our 6am flight.  Our leaders, Bryce and Amy told us that the mission trip started when we set foot in the airport….boy were they right.

We were tested as a group immediately….our flight to Dallas was cancelled due to weather.  After about 30 mins. or so, they figured out a way to get us to Miami and eventually to Ecuador.  It was a plan that consisted of splitting our team up into small groups.  Some of us headed to San Francisco, others to Los Angeles, others to New York and I headed to Chicago with my home girl Kelly.  By a miracle, at the end of the day, most of us (the 3 New York folks didn’t make it) made it to Miami on time to catch our flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador.  The others made it the next day.

When we finally set foot on South American soil, it was roughly 4am or so the next morning (give or take…c’mon, my brain was a little foggy ;)….our original time for arrival was 9:30pm the night before.  We quickly found out that most of the team’s luggage didn’t make it to Ecuador.  Luckily, the luggage was found and delivered the next day.  Crazy man!

imageThrough it all, our group was a bunch of warriors.  No complaining, just focus and flexibility (like rubber bands).  God knew what He was doing…..priming us for a week of love, power, grace and awesomeness.

After a couple of hours rest, we met with the staff/volunteers from the different projects, 534, 535 and 542 (534 & 542 are the projects that ALC has funded, but ALC sponsors some kiddos from 535 as well).

Prior to this, our fearless leader “Mama Liz” told us that we would be shaking things up a bit this trip.  That our mission was not just to impact kids.  Our mission was to build the church, which meant supporting the staff and building relationships with these beautiful people.  This consisted of the amazing opportunity to serve them, converse with them, visit their homes, meet their families, teach them our ways of how to run a Sunday school lesson/VBS and just be a family.  Of course, we would spend a lot of time with the children as well, but this trip would be two-fold.  What a fantastic vision….one that we all embraced.

I tell you what, we had such a powerful/fun time!  We played a hilarious name game…..we all stood in a circle and each of us had to give our name and a body part that itched (ie., my name is Paul and my nose itches).  The person next to you in the circle had to repeat your name and body part and then say their name and body part…..this continued until we were all the way around the circle….If we repeated something wrong, we had to get in the middle of the circle and dance!  I was towards the end and repeating 40 people’s names and body parts was not my strength….but they humored me and I danced a lot :).  So fun!

imageNext, we had a powerful time of conversation and prayer.  Thank the good Lord for our amazing translators (Pauli, Titi, Nicko, Fernando, Jonathan and Liz), they bridged the language gap so beautifully!  At my table, we prayed over our time together, the culture and for God’s hand to be on the different projects.  Man, was that powerful.  I cried like crazy because I was so overwhelmed with God’s presence.  My Ecuadorian family prays with passion, conviction and desperation.  It really touched me.  We don’t see that much emotion in the states and I certainly don’t pray like that on a day-to-day basis!  I felt like God was saying; “hey Paul, welcome to Ecuador. Get ready, I have some plans for you so hang on tight!”  Amen to that!

To end the day, we ended up going to a big store called Super Maxi….kinda like a Walmart.  We bought some last-minute supplies and stocked up on chocolate, coffee and other cool stuff to bring home!  It was a fun outing and it was a great introduction to the city.

We ended with dinner and anticipated going to 534 the next day.  So exciting!

Overall, those 1st couple of days taught us something…..when God is moving and people are following, there will always be obstacles.  Satan is always waiting to trip us up, but God has bigger muscles than he does, so we’re good to go.  Our team was given an extra dose of strength, patience and perseverance for this trip, I truly believe that.

imageWe also learned that God likes to shake things up.  We all expected things to go a certain way, but that wasn’t His plan…..so often we settle for “good” when he’s more interested in “best.”  We need to hang on loosely to our lives, we really do.  God always knows the path, we just need to be willing to step.  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” -Jeremiah 29:11-13

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Day 3 to follow…stay tuned!  🙂

God Bless,

Paul

Ecuador – Stepping Into The “Unknown”

Ecuador thumbs upAs many of you know, I’m heading to Ecuador in a matter of days.  It’s gonna be awesome loving on kids, being surrounded by a different culture and serving with a great team of folks.

In preparation for this trip, we’ve had various meetings outlining the basics of what we’re going to experience.  We’ve talked about things like our fears, our concerns and our hopes regarding this adventure.  We have itineraries and plans for how things should go.  We’ve prepared the best way that we know how.  Honestly, we could plan until our eyeballs fall out, but one truth still remains:  Whenever God is leading something, there’s always a certain amount of “unknowns” or “what if’s.”  That’s just the way it goes and I think He’s designed life that way.

Imagine if we could tell the future…..if all outcomes were made known to us before they happened….if we knew the pain we would experience tomorrow….why would we need faith?  Why would we need goals?  Why would we need God?

Here’s the thing, God’s agenda is totally different from ours most of the time and I’m grateful for that.  He is always preparing us, always strengthening us and always using us for purposes beyond anything that we can fathom.  Purposes that will ultimately glorify Himself.

The hard part is trusting that He’s got this, that He’s holding us in His hands…..that He’s leading.

The reality is that no matter what big thing we’re facing, there’s always going to be loose ends that need to be tied.  There’s always  going to be the anxious question of “what’s next.”  There’s always going to be risk.  There’s always that humbling realization that God is actually using ME….little ‘ol ME!  All of this can be exciting, scary and humbling at the same time!

The great thing is that sometimes, we have no choice but to lean on our God….you know, the God whom we put our faith in everyday….In this case, the God who is the root reason for this trip!

So, as we are only 5 days from our trip, I’m approaching the challenge of something new with open arms.  I’m trusting that God has already laid the path, I just need to walk down it.  The loose ends will tie themselves, the question marks will fade and the presence of Jesus will be there….I really believe that.

God is so good and I’m honored to be a part of His work…..”unknowns” and all!

God Bless,

Paul