Ecuador – Day 8 (Final Day)

ecuador-344Well, the amazing week was coming to a close.  This was the final day of an incredible journey.  My emotions were so mixed….I was super excited to see my family back at home, yet I felt like my heart had planted roots in Ecuador.  I had new family there and saying goodbye to them bummed me out.  Another full day was ahead of us though and I couldn’t wait to get moving.

We had the opportunity of checking out project 542, ALC’s 2nd funded project.  Construction had not begun yet, but the plot of land was acquired (after some drama – see day 5 for details).  We had a small church service and hugged a lot of great folks….notice the hugging theme?  🙂  It was cool to envision what the new project would look like and what memories would be shared there.

ecuador-514These projects are placed in great locations, right in the middle of impoverished communities, which is ideal.  They serve as great hubs and resources for those in need.  I love the way God works and I love the way He uses His people!

Speaking of God using His people, I have a cool story for you.  After we said our goodbyes at 542, we broke up into groups and visited a few more homes.  My group had a special mission.  There was a little boy named Freddie who just had a birthday about 1 week before.  A little before Freddie’s birthday, his dad started a new job working in the mines.  The job wasn’t close to home, so he had to travel.  Although it’s great that his dad found a job, the family hadn’t heard from him in about 2 weeks.  They didn’t know if he was just unable to make a phone call, in trouble or dead.  Freddie’s birthday came around and he was really hoping to see his dad…..well, the day came and went and the family still had not heard from him.  Understandably, Freddie was very bummed about this and he missed his dad very much.  This story laid heavy on the hearts of the staff of 542, so they decided to do something so special…..they threw him a surprise belated birthday party and we got to be a part of it!!!!  They went to a bakery and purchased a cake made just for him.  They also brought some drinks and decorated the walls of the house with cool kid stuff.  To top it off, they had this awesome sparkler candle to place on the cake and those pull-string little firework confetti things.  Although the folks from 542 had limited resources and funds, they still gave what they could in order to pour out God’s love on this little boy.  Inspiring.

ecuador-549I’ll never forget walking down the dirt streets to his house, cake and supplies in-hand.  Then entering his house and seeing his smiling face light up.  He was surrounded by people who loved him, family and strangers alike.  I couldn’t believe that we were standing in a house in Ecuador, eating cake with beautiful people, witnessing God’s love in action….I was standing on holy ground…truly.

After our little party came to a close, we took the last bites of cake and it was time to head out.  We visited a couple more staff houses to meet their families and pray with them.  I was reminded once again of how dedicated these folks were to serving and pouring out every resource that they had.  They hold on loosely to their lives, knowing that God will provide.  I want to be like that.

After some great visits, the trip was officially coming to a close.  We were saying goodbye to our friends and driving to the city.  The plan was to head to the market to buy some souvenirs for our friends and family.  It was a great time and fun to negotiate prices with the vendors!  I wish we could wheel and deal like that more in the states!

The next stop was back to the hotel…the same one that we stayed in at the very beginning of the trip.  We organized our luggage there and ate some dinner.  For me, this was a sad time.  We were heading directly to the airport from the hotel and I couldn’t believe that the journey was over.  After months of preparation and prayer, God’s agenda had been accomplished and we had the divine opportunity of being a part of it.

ecuador-564Well, it was about time for our team to pack up and head to the airport.  The anticipation of going through customs and security became our new focus.  Eventually, we all made our way through the ticket line and it was time to say goodbye to our leader, Liz and the translators.  They became family to us and saying goodbye was harder than expected.  They were amazing people and we couldn’t have made it through each day without them.  They wished us well and we made our way through customs, through security, to Miami, to Dallas and finally, to Portland.  The trip was smooth coming home (thank goodness!!!) and we were ready to see our families.  When the plane landed in Portland, we all knew that it was time to apply all that we had learned in Ecuador to our daily lives.  There was so much to share with our loved ones!

After tons of hugs from our families, we gathered one last time with our group to pray.  We thanked God for an unbelievable experience and our strong team.  We thanked God for His protection and for the opportunity to be loved and to love in a whole new, powerful way.  I’m grateful for my amazing team and the memories that we shared together.

ecuador-572Looking back to about a year ago, I never would have pictured myself traveling to Ecuador.  I’m just a normal guy who goes through the daily grind like everyone else.  Being interested and responding to God’s call to go abroad never seemed like an option or a possibility.  Boy did that change!  It just goes to prove that God can use any of us to make an impact around the world.  There are folks struggling out there, doing their best to make it through another day.  They need hope and joy and comfort and food and care and love just like we do.  Getting to that point of thinking outside of our little boxes is hard, but it’s necessary if we want God to make an impact through us.  It takes intention and it often takes God slapping us across the head to get there.

So how do I conclude such an awesome trip?  How do I sufficiently portray what’s on my heart?  I guess I’ll just leave you with some great words behind why I went: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” -Matthew 28:19-20

As a Christian, the Great Commission lays heavy on my heart and truthfully, it scares the crap out of me sometimes.  God calls all of us to “go.”  It’s not always pretty or organized or perfectly planned, but neither is life.  God uses normal people to accomplish miraculous things, He just needs folks who are willing to take steps in faith and trust Him.  So I ask you this: Are you brave enough to go?  Are you willing to stretch yourself and risk being uncomfortable?  I encourage you to let these questions sink in.  God’s inviting you to join Him in transforming lives…in transforming your life.  Take the invitation.  Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Thanks so much for following me along this incredible journey!  It’s been fun!

ecuador-585God Bless,

Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ecuador – Day 7

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To my amazement, this was one of our last days in Ecuador.  The week had flown by so fast!  We had a super fun day planned and the anticipation was killing us.  We were heading to a water park to have fun with our sponsored kids!

Somehow, Compassion had connections with a private yacht club and we were able to rent the park for a few hours.  There were several slides, a few pools to swim in, a big water fountain thingy and a basketball hoop.  It was a pretty cool place and we were stoked to share this experience with the kiddos.

To be honest with you, our team had no idea how this day would go.  In the U.S., a day like this would be fairly normal.  We are used to having a variety of fun things to do and having the money to afford it.  Our Ecuadorian kids weren’t too familiar with our lifestyle and this day was pretty lavish for them, I’m sure.  We weren’t too worried though, God had proven throughout the week that He was handling things just fine.

My family sponsors 2 children (Alan & Nicole), so the plan was for all of us to hang out together.  We also had a translator assigned to our little group to help with communication.  I was so grateful for that!  Edmund was the man!

imageOverall, the day was fantastic!  We had tons of time to just splash, jump, slide, shoot hoops and be kids!  I was even able to teach the kids how to float and swim a little….what a cool thing to be a part of!  It was great to see their moms contentedly watching us play.  I was grateful for their trust.

After the swim time was over, we had lunch and I was able to give the kids some gifts that my family and I had bought for them….basic stuff like backpacks, coloring books, t-shirts, photo albums and some candy.  We also purchased some basic gifts for the parents…stuff like bed sheets, work gloves, kitchen utensils, towels, scarves, etc.  We were told to buy the necessities…practical stuff that could be used every day.

imageThe kids and parents were very grateful for the gifts and their response was very interesting to me.  Although their smiling faces told me “thank you,” their hugs, kisses and overall loving interactions showed me that my presence was even more appreciated.  The fact that I was in Ecuador with them seemed far more important and meaningful to them.  What a shift from our materialistic, “stuff-based” culture here in the United States!

Unfortunately, the inevitable moment had arrived and it was time to say goodbye to our kids and families.  After many hugs, tears and “see you soon’s”, we headed to our bus and the families headed home.  Sadly, this would be the last time that we would see them during this trip.  What an experience.

As we all took a deep breath and reminisced about the day, all we could do was smile and do our best to take that energy and joy to the next stop of the afternoon…..we were on our way to project 535 to hang out with some more kids and serve them dinner.  This project was similar to 534 & 542, but our church was not directly involved with the funding.  Our connection is that Abundant Life sponsored some of the kids at the center.  I’m thinking about 50 of the 200 (give or take) kids were sponsored by ALC.  Pretty cool to see ALC’s influence in so many areas in Ecuador.  Makes me proud to be a part of such a cool church.

We were greeted with many hugs, kisses and high-fives.  Little smiling faces melted our hearts once again.  There’s truly no way to express the joy and pure contentment felt during those times.

imageAfter the amazing greeting, the kiddos headed into the kitchen area and had a seat at their tables.  It was time to eat some dinner!  My team helped out by setting up some tables and chairs, bringing drinks and warm bowls of rice and chicken to each child.  Most of them just pounded their food.  It was fun to walk around and encourage some of the little ones to eat their dinner…I asked them to flex their muscles and tried to explain in broken Spanish that food made them have big muscles…..they got a chuckle out of it :).

imageTowards the end of dinner, I noticed some of the older kids pulling out plastic containers….they were keeping their leftovers to bring home to their families.  They didn’t want to leave a scrap of food behind.  I pictured their families waiting at home with anticipation , hoping for some good grub to eat.  I felt so guilty.  We waste so much food here in the U.S. and are so incredibly spoiled and entitled….we expect working fridges and full pantries and complain when our french fries aren’t cooked perfectly.  Shame on us, shame on me.  It was a humbling reminder to be grateful for a full stomach…it’s a luxury that we are so gluttonous and ignorant about as a nation.

imageAfter dinner, we helped with the clean up and headed over to the church building for a mini church service.  Soon after, we headed out to visit some more of our sponsored kid’s homes.  This time, our visits felt a little different.  Instead of mainly travelling via bus, we walked to most of the homes.  It really allowed us to experience the community and lifestyle on a deeper level….kids played soccer, shoes hung on power lines, dogs sheepishly wandered the streets, dust was on our shoes, kids flew kites, eyes peaked at us through doorways, smoke rose from burn piles, laundry colorfully hung and dried in the sun.  Simplicity and raw, hard living was all around us.  The reality is that after our visits that day, our air-conditioned bus was waiting for us….the story was different for our friends in this community…the only thing waiting for them was the necessity of grinding through another day.

imageA certain house visit reminds me of the “grinding” that these families have to go through, just to survive.  We entered the house via a dirt path, past a couple of pigs and the banana tree in the “front” yard.  The floors consisted of compacted dirt and rocks.  The walls consisted of cardboard and bed sheets.  They kept the place very clean and the 2 children (one boy and one girl) were beautiful and very well-behaved.  We found out that the dad wasn’t around very much.  He fished about 25 days out of the month and brought home roughly $150-$200 a month.  What a life and what a hero the mom was for basically raising the kids on her own.  She looked tired and spent….I don’t blame her one bit.  What amazed me is that even through her family’s struggles and lack of resources, she still offered our group some shrimp.  What hospitality and generosity!  That food is like gold to them and she was willing to share it with us strangers…what a welcomed culture shock….one that I will never forget.  I was both blessed and saddened by this visit, but I was confident that God had this family in His hands.


imageAs the day became dusk, it was time to head back to the hotel for some dinner.  This day was filled with so many different opportunities to love, to play, to observe and to just be present.  The main lesson learned for me was this:  OUR PRESENCE AND WILLINGNESS TO LOVE WAS MORE IMPORTANT TO OUR ECUADORIAN FAMILY THAN ANY EXPERIENCE OR GIFT THAT WE COULD GIVE THEM.  Stuff is stuff, but memories and relationships last forever.

imageGod Bless,

Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ecuador – Day 6

ecuador-570In my mind, this day was the most powerful in regards to sensing God’s love and power.

As a team, we had the opportunity of doing something incredibly humbling: washing the feet of the staff.  Our leaders were all on the same page regarding the vision for this idea.  The staff at the projects are always pouring into others….very rarely do they have the opportunity to be served.  In order for them to be effective leaders and in order for us to be humbled, washing their feet seemed like a powerful idea and boy was it powerful!  It’s amazing to think that Jesus, the Savior of the world did the same thing for others….it was an honor to follow in His footsteps in this way.

It was pretty simple.  The church staff sat in chairs with the basins of water at their feet.  We kneeled in front of them, removed their shoes and quietly washed each of their feet.  Once we were done, we dried each foot off, placed their shoe back on and gathered more water for the next person to serve.  What an experience!

On a personal note, as the washing concluded, I felt God leading me to go around and just hug people.  Not like half-hearted pats on the back, but big, real, tight hugs.  I then felt led to place their cheeks in my hands, connect our tear-soaked eyes and kiss them on the forehead.  During every hug given and forehead kissed, tears just flowed like a faucet…..good, hard crying took place and it felt like God was breaking chains, tearing down walls and opening up heaven.  Authentic, real interaction was taking place…..most of the time, not a word was spoken, there were only God-fueled actions.  Powerful.

Now, as somebody reading this bog, I can completely understand how all of this would sound strange, uncomfortably intimate and even weird, I get it.  It’s pretty much hard to explain the presence of God in that room….one of those “you had to be there” kind of things.  You’ll just have to take my word for it I guess.  Picture a nice warm blanket wrapped around you on a cold day…that’s all I got.

As a team, we left this time changed forever.  Our tanks were full and we were ready for whatever God was preparing us for.

ecuador-328Next, to keep with the theme of supporting and getting to know the staff, we had the opportunity of visiting each of their homes.  It was a blessing to see where they live, to meet their families and to pray with them.  It was just amazing to see such beautiful people opening up their homes, pouring out their resources and dedicating their lives to serving others.  We were so fortunate to have had this experience.

After the staff home visits were done for the day, it was time to head back to project 534 for another day of VBS….only this time, there was a twist.

ecuador-171Instead of playing the games, bible stories and crafts with the kids, we had a VBS for the parents!  The kiddos went into classrooms and did their own stories and crafts while the parents had the chance to have their own fun and just be kids.  They participated in the stories and made their own crafts.  It was really something!  They had a blast!

They also played some of the same games that the kids played and truthfully, I was worried that they might get bored.  As I discussed this with some of our team members, I was told that many of these parents didn’t have much of a childhood…..the opportunity to play and to just be innocent kids wasn’t there, which is a sad reality.

To my surprise, these parents who were lovingly observing their kids playing from the sidelines the day before were laughing, smiling and really getting into the games!  They had a child-like innocence about the way that they played and participated.  It was as if they were enjoying the childhood that they never had.  It was awesome to see.  I’m grateful to have been a part of that.

During this time, one game was a particular hit.  We called it “sponge pass.”  There were 2 lines of about 6 people each side by side. At the front of each line was a large sponge and a bucket of water.  At the end of each line was a person with an empty water bottle, which was held on top of the head.  The point of the game was to soak the sponge with water and pass it overhead to the person behind until it reached the back of the line.  The last person in line squeezed the soaking wet sponge into the empty bottle.  This was repeated until the water bottle at the end of the line was full.  It was a race, so whoever filled up their water bottle first won.  Understandably, the person holding the water bottle overhead got the short end of the stick and was soaked by the end of the game!  What a hoot!

015The parents loved this game.  They especially loved watching us folks from the US get soaked.  Almost our entire team participated and what started as a simple game ended in a huge water fight!  We were a wet, dirty mess by the end of the festivities…absolutely perfect!

017After another great day, it was time to head back to the hotel.  We had the opportunity of Pastor Alejandro (the pastor responsible for all of the church plants and the guy who facilitated the ground breaking ceremony on day 5) and his wife joining us for dinner.  We had a great conversation regarding his vision for his church and also his vision for Ecuador as a country.  He currently pastors a very large church (a mega church by Ecuador’s standards) and he’s using his many resources and contacts to make a huge impact on the surrounding community.  It was an inspiring conversation full of passion and conviction.  I was grateful to have been a part of it.

This was one of those days where, when my head finally hit the pillow for the night, I just marveled at God’s power.  I couldn’t believe that He allowed me to experience such an amazing day.  Wow.

I am left with one major thought when reflecting about this day in Ecuador:  Many times, when we serve others, it’s not just about the person or people whom we are serving….it’s about our hearts as well.  God speaks to us through interaction and genuine service….that’s just how he designed things.  I know that my cup was filled to overflowing and there’s a part of me that was stamped forever by the love and kindness shared by just actions alone….no words were needed.  Amidst every hug, every smile, every laugh and every tear was a common knowledge that we were loved by a God who is way bigger than we are.  As we served one another, it was as though we were truly living out God’s will for our lives.

Here’s a few words from my favorite book:  “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”  The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” -Matthew 25:35-40

SERVING OTHERS = SERVING JESUS.  Boom.

Stay tuned for day 7!

God Bless,

Paul

 

Ecuador – Day 5

ecuador-229Day 5 presented a really cool opportunity.  Our team was invited to a ground-breaking ceremony for another church.  Basically, the church owned the plot of land and they were close to starting the building phase.  The ceremony consisted of some prayer, worship and a great faith-filled message.  A small hole was dug and a rock hung from a string directly above the hole.  Towards the end of the ceremony, the string was cut and the rock dropped into the hole, signifying the first stone being laid as part of the construction process.  We were a part of history….God’s history!  What an honor.

Pastor Alejandro planted this church and is also responsible for training others to branch out and start churches.  A good example would be Pastor Jonhny from Project 534, where we spent most of our time serving on the trip.  It was a pretty powerful thing to witness and I’m grateful that they invited us along.  Although we had no affiliation with that particular church, they considered us family…being brothers and sisters in Christ was the glue that bonded us.  The bible in action…awesome.

After the ceremony, we headed back to 534 to finish up some of the lesson plan stuff from day 4, go to some more home visits and prepare for another fun day of VBS with the kiddos!  Shortly after we arrived, we received some bad news….

Project 542 is the newest project for our church.  This is the 2nd project that our church has funded, along with 534.  Project 542 hasn’t started the building phase yet, they’ve only acquired the land…or so they thought.  In a nutshell, Kerly, Pastor Jonhny’s wife (from 534) was the main negotiator for the land.  From what I understand, it is pretty difficult to find good land and close good deals in Ecuador.  Negotiations are primarily sealed with a handshake agreement until things are made official via a notary signature.  Apparently, the seller of the land changed his mind and backed out of the deal.  This happened just before they were to meet with a notary to make things official.  Understandably, Kerly was pretty upset and frustrated because of this.  The first thing we all did together was pray…..we prayed for the guy selling the land, we prayed for peace and we prayed for God’s will to be done.  I love how prayer was the life-line in all of this.  Our Ecuadorian family didn’t have much, but they had God and that’s all they needed.  Inspiring.

ecuador-340Later in the afternoon, we received some great news!  Kerly decided to meet with the seller one more time.  I’m not sure of the exact details of the conversation, but she explained that her church family from North America was visiting and that she would really like him to rethink the whole deal.  He seemed pretty shocked that we were actually there in Ecuador as all of this happened.  I’m not sure what his main motivation was to change, but he decided to stick with the original deal and go through with the sale of the land….just like that.  It was one of many examples during the trip of God intervening when obstacles presented themselves.  So cool!

After some good news, it was time to start VBS with the kids again.  For some reason, I remember this day being pretty hot and humid.  Amidst the basketball and soccer games, I was a sweaty mess….like super sweaty….like really sweaty….like, ok you get the point :).  Even amidst the “steaminess” of the day, it was such a joy to see the kids again and make new friends.  I was also able to hang out with our sponsored kids, Alan and Nicole again and I could tell that they were getting more comfortable with me.  There were more high-fives, hugs and I even scored a couple of kisses on the cheek from Nicole….talk about melting a dude’s heart!  Have I mentioned that I love these kids?!

ecuador-273After another great day of VBS had ended, we had the opportunity of going on more home visits.  It was time to visit Alan’s house and I was so excited.  Because we went right from the project to their house, Alan, his brother and mom got to ride with us on the bus while his dad was waiting at the house.  As we approached their home, Alan’s eyes lit up with anticipation and he gave me a “here’s my house!” look as we began to exit the bus.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in regards to conversation because Alan’s family was pretty quiet.  To my surprise, as we entered their home, I was greeted with a thoughtful “welcome to my little house” sign on their wall and smiles flashing everywhere.  I felt so loved.  On top of this warm greeting, Alan’s mom gave me a bouquet of flowers entirely handmade of paper and other various materials.  It was for my wife, Pam.  I was floored and humbled by such thoughtful gifts.  We made small talk and I talked some trash with Alan about beating him in soccer…pretty funny.  As we talked some more, I discovered that his dad walks about 1-2 hours to work everyday and once he’s at work, we walks some more….he’s a street sweeper.  I developed so much respect for him and all of the hardworking folks in Ecuador who are struggling to put food on the table.  I couldn’t help but feel convicted regarding my attitude towards work sometimes….I added it to my list of things to work on.

ecuador-295Unfortunately, it was about time to leave.  Towards the end of every home visit, we always closed our time together with a group prayer.  During this time, we asked the family if there was anything in particular that they needed or maybe if they had specific prayer requests.  Almost every family either prayed for health and/or for their family to stay together.  Alan and Nicole’s families were no different.  Never once did I hear somebody ask for material things, handouts or pity….only the essential, tangible things that were lasting.  In North America, we have so much already and we have the habit of asking for even more.  These folks just wanted to survive and stay together.  How simple.  I appreciated these times of prayer together…..all of us in a circle, joining hands with one common thread: JESUS.  Chokes me up just thinking about the power in that.  It was beautiful.

ecuador-085It was now time to head back to the hotel.  Another great day was in the books!  Every day provided me with a new lesson about life and faith.  This day showed me that when folks gather together with God as the focus, powerful things can happen.  God is always present, but His powerful hand is even more evident when His people unite in love.  “For where two or three gather in My name, there am I with them.” -Matthew 18:20

Stay tuned for day 6!!!

God Bless,

Paul