My friend Lydia compares Ecuador to Narnia. Despite the fact the the wardrobe we had in our room in Esmeraldas did not take us there-we checked) I think she’s on to something. A couple weeks after I got back from Ecuador, my family took a trip out to Michigan to go camping, visit my brother Dan, and to pick up our dog, who had been staying with him while I was gone. We passed time on the drive by listening to the Focus on the Family dramatized version of the Chronicles of Narnia. In Prince Caspian, when the Pevensey children return to Narnia for the second time, Lucy is the first one to encounter Aslan. In their first conversation she tells him that she thought it would be the same as last time- that he would appear in the same way. It was one of those leading lines that I knew would elicit a quote-worthy response from Aslan. It’s the fourth story in the series, and you could just start to feel when they were coming. And sure enough he responded with something simple, yet profound: “things never happen the same way twice.”
And it’s true. This trip to Ecuador was my third trip there, but my second summer trip, and undoubtedly and even sub-consciously, I was expecting it to be like last year. In some ways, of course, it was. We worked with the same church the first week, most of the same translators, even about half of the team was the same as last year. But in many ways, it was so different. Things never happen the same way twice. So here is the story of what God did this year; July 2016.
Ecuador. It’s funny how a place 3,235 miles from where you live can feel so much like a second home. And how the people who live there can feel so much like a second family. I guess that’s the beauty of the global church.
I could go through a day by day narrative of our trip, but I’m afraid that would get a little tedious for you. Instead, I’ll focus on the major themes from the trip.
From the first day, I was taken out of my comfort zone. We arrived in Quito late Saturday night, and after four church programs on Sunday, we had a team meeting to find out which teams we would be on for the week. Last year, I had been on a craft team for two weeks and on a game team one week. I expected that I would be on a craft team again this year. But Liz announced the craft teams first, and I wasn’t on either of them, so I thought, “oh that’s interesting, I’m on a game team this week”, but then I wasn’t put on a game team either, and I knew that I was on story team. Now, to be honest, this had seriously been a secret fear of mine ever since last year. Story team was high-energy, very dynamic, highly creative. In fact, when I had been working on the curriculum, there were even times I thought, “well story team is always really good. I can just put a few ideas in there and they’ll know how to run with it and turn it into a good story”. But there I was, not only *on* story team, but *leading* story team. The first rotation on Monday morning felt like it lasted an hour, but things only got better from there. It was like God wanted to remind me that just because this was my third time to Ecuador, I wasn’t going to just coast through the trip. I was going to need to rely on Him for wisdom, energy, and creativity. By the end of the week, I was loving being on story team. One of my favorite parts about it is that the story team gets the most time to talk in depth about salvation with the kids. A lot of them had really great questions, and about 30 of them responded to the Gospel. It was awesome to get to pray and talk with them.
The first day that we worked with the church in Quito, Liz and Micah were talking to Pastor Benjamin about camp, which happens the last week of our trip. He told them that because of the earthquakes on the coast, a lot of parents weren’t wanting to send their kids this year and that there weren’t many kids signed up. And by “not many”, I think he meant six. He said, “I don’t know, maybe we won’t have camp this year”. For those of us that had been in years past, that was terrible news. Ask almost anyone who has been on the trip, and they will tell you that camp week is their favorite. It’s such an awesome time to get to spend quality time with the kids and develop deeper relationships with them. So you can imagine how disappointed we were when we heard that there might not be any camp. Pastor Benjamin did tell us that there were kids who wanted and would be able to go, but their parents couldn’t afford to send them. Well, that gave us an idea- we could try to raise the money to send them to camp! Our goal was to raise $8,400 – enough to send 60 kids to camp. We knew it was a lofty goal, and we didn’t know if it would work, but we all sent out emails to people back home and shared about it on social media. The first 24 hours of the fundraiser were incredible. It seemed like every 15 minutes we would hear “four more kids sponsored for camp”, “we just got in enough for two more kids”, “guys, five kids just got sponsored”! By the end of the fundraiser, (and before camp started) we had raised over $10,000. It was so amazing to see how quickly God answered our prayer – and how He gave us beyond what we had even hoped for.
Our second week, we drove about eight hours through the mountains and the jungle and finally to the ocean to work in and around the coastal city of Esmeraldas. This was a new city for me to work in- last year during the second week, we worked in Otavalo, and just stopped in Esmeraldas for a church service on our way to camp. In addition to the geographical differences (Otavalo is high in the mountains and the air is cool and fresh, Esmeraldas is hot and humid right on the ocean), the cultural differences are huge. The people in Otavalo are very reserved and many wear traditional Ecuadorean clothes.
Esmeraldas is vibrant and rowdy and loud and full of life. In the afternoons, we did our program at a small fishing village about an hour outside of Esmeraldas called Rocafuerte. It is one of the neediest towns I’ve ever seen. By the end of the week, we had about 200 kids coming to our program. Many of them live on the streets. Many of them come from broken families. Many of them are abused. The first few afternoons, I was focused on controlling each group of kids for the twenty minutes that I had them. Shouting over the noises, hoping that some of the story would be communicated and that someone would hear it. And then, I felt like God showed me that I needed to look past the numbers, and see their faces. And when I looked at their faces, my heart broke.
You can see it in their eyes. They’ve seen more of life in the short years they’ve lived than most of us will ever see in our entire lifetimes. Hurt. Abuse. Disappointment. It’s all written on their faces. The kids that we worked with in Rocafuerte were definitely a challenging group. They took all the love and energy we could pour out on them, and we still only seemed to scratch the surface. I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that our group, coming for a few days and then leaving, was just another in a long line of disappointments for these kids. In my discouragement, I turned to Philippians for my devotions. Philippians 1:6 flew off the page at me: “being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” It is not our job to complete the work. Christ will take care of that. It is ours to obey. To plant the seeds. To love the hurting He has placed in our lives today. He will take care of them tomorrow when we are no longer with them.
Friday afternoon we did a program for a town right outside of Rocafuerte. We had a great turnout, and thankfully, we were under cover, since it started pouring rain about halfway through the afternoon. As the program drew to a close, the rain stopped, and a huge rainbow appeared in the sky. As we were leaving the program that day, the pastor in that town left us with 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” God knows just what we need. He knows that we need to be reminded that He will complete the work that has been started. He knows that we need to be reminded that our labor is not in vain. And some days, He knows that we need an extra reminder that He is faithful to keep His promises.
The final week was spent at camp. In total, there were 84 kids there, from five different churches in Quito, Otavalo, and Rocafuerte. At first we were worried about how the kids from the different churches were going to get along. For the most part, they blended remarkably well. It was an absolute joy to witness kids, who normally would never have the chance to go to camp, spend the week playing, laughing, and learning about Jesus. I led the green team, “Verde” for the week. I had 16 awesome kids on my team, two dynamite translators, three fabulous helpers, and two great team members on my team for the week.
Together we learned bible verses (in Spanish), played games, ran to line ups, cheered for each other, and worked together. Everything at camp is a competition. The five teams (Rojo, Azul, Verde, Tomate, and Morado) are competing against each other. At the end of the week, when all the points for all the competitions were tallied, our team won the gold medal. I loved watching the reaction on my kids’ face when they realized that they had won. Sheer excitement and happiness. My favorite part of my team though, was having Daniel and Genesis, two kids who were on my camp team last year, on my team again this year.
I remember after the medal ceremony was over Friday night, almost everybody was sitting around, enjoying the huge bonfire that we made. I had run back to my cabin to grab a sweatshirt, and as I was on my way back to the fire, I stopped for a bit and sat at one of the tables right outside our cabins. A few team members and I reminisced about the week, and I remember thinking, I wish I could just bottle this up and take it home with me. The sounds of kids laughing and having fun. The mad dashes to line up after the whistle. The clapping game in the dining hall. Their big eyes while we are telling them stories. Practicing our memory verses together. The comradrerie amongst team mates. Kids praying to receive salvation. Braiding Martina’s hair. Paula coming and pressing her face against the screen door of our cabin. Watching Daniel play soccer. Sandiel coming up to me and doing our handshake. Josue calling me “Suzy” all week. Filing 86 kids through little streets to the beach. I wish somehow I could take a part of that home.
Reintegrating back into everyday life is something I still haven’t mastered. It’s hard to go back to your world, when you’ve seen so much need and hurt somewhere else. I have so much abundance here. Why wasn’t I born in Rocafuerte? Why didn’t I grow up in a town where little girls are abused? Why was I raised by two parents who loved me? Why do I get to eat three meals a day and sleep in a bed every night, in a house with a roof over it? Those are the questions that I toss back in forth in my mind. Questions I will never be able to answer. In “The Horse and His Boy”, the main character, Shasta comes face to face with Aslan, and asks him why he had wounded his friend, Aravis. Aslan answers, “child, I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.” I don’t know why my story isn’t theirs. But I’m grateful that our stories are now intermixed. Because these kids’ stories have changed my story, and left an imprint on my heart.
I feel like with every missions trip I take, I get a little bigger glimpse into the heart of God. I am reminded that when I weep over a hurting child, His heart breaks even more. When I rejoice at children committing their lives to Him, His joy is even greater. And really, isn’t that the whole reason for the journey – to know God more? After all, “this was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”