For over a decade, representatives from our close ministry partner, Compassion International, have been asking me to join them to visit one of their projects in the field. I consistently turned down their generous offer again and again because I felt like I couldn’t be more convinced that the work they were doing was necessary and productive for the Kingdom. I truly believed that there wasn’t any reason for me to personally experience their work – I was already “in.” But I was wrong. I’ll explain why in this and the next few blog posts.

 Every year I work closely with Compassion to develop a compelling presentation for our student training conferences. This year a young lady named Katie Payne is joining our tour to tell her story. Katie’s testimony, along with her infectious personality and passion for those less fortunate, provided a new and fresh perspective for presenting Compassion at the conferences. And it just so happened that one of Katies’s sponsored children lived in Guatemala. So that’s how I ended up deciding to travel with the team to Santa Avelina.

 Compassion took care of all the logistics for a short trip (Sunday-Friday) to this remote mountainous town to capture on film Katie and Norma’s first meeting. My unofficial role was to accompany Katie and provide support and encouragement throughout the 6 days. That seemed easy enough. I still didn’t think the trip was a necessity for me but I did have a sense that God was preparing me for a new friendship with Katie and I was really looking forward to sharing this experience with her.

 The preparations for the trip were more than I anticipated and as it turned out the timing wasn’t great either. Several projects were still in process at home and at work as the departure date approached so I found myself a bit stressed about leaving. But as soon as my flight out of Denver left the ground, a I had a strong sense of peace knowing that there was a team of folks praying. I was really excited to see what God had in store.

 When I arrived in Houston to meet the rest of the team I found out quickly that two of our small group of five were delayed due to airplane mechanical problems. Neither one of them would be able to get in to Guatemala City until the next day. We were on a tight travel schedule but it was looking like we would have to try to make up for the half day delay somewhere else in the itinerary. So Katie, me, and Tim our Compassion rep went on ahead and arrived in Guatemala about 9:30 Sunday evening.

 We were met by Myra, our in country liaison for the trip. I couldn’t help but like Myra right from the moment I met her. She was so welcoming and loving right from the start. And even though we were travel weary, she made sure that we had everything we needed and knew everything we needed to know. Even crazy little details like, “we don’t flush our toilet paper here so there will be a basket next to the toilet for you to put it in” and “you need to use the bottled water we provide for you to brush your teeth.”  Compassion knew what they were doing, and Myra represented them well. She instructed us that we should have a leisurely morning the next day since we needed to wait for the rest of the team. She agreed to meet us for breakfast and then we would stop and visit the country office before heading to the airport.

 Our hotel that evening was amazingly beautiful, a 5-star location with all the luxuries you’d expect plus a unique Central American charm with candlelit gardens and expansive decor. I was impressed and was looking forward to a good night’s rest in our more than comfortable surroundings.

 The next day we did exactly what we were told – we took our time, had a wonderful breakfast, and then headed out on the mini-bus. We knew that this was not going to be the pace of the rest of the trip because we were already behind schedule and also had to plan a new driving route because a major road had been severely damaged by a mud slide, adding hours to our already long bus ride.

 The country office was educational and it was great to meet the many people behind the scenes to ensure that the 187 Compassion projects in the country were well managed. We learn that Compassion only partners with local churches in their projects. I love the strategy behind the ministry. It truly is brilliant. I was humbled by the offices practical setup and blessed by the people we met. The security system was extreme, bullet-proof doors with a fingerprint requirement for entry, reminding me of the danger they faced day in and day out just coming to the office to do ministry. I take so much for granted in my cozy corner in suburbia!

 It’s easy to recognize that there is a crime problem in the city as men with machine guns are standing outside of every retail establishment – something business owners invest in themselves for protection Myra tells me. The traffic is chaotic and loud as hundreds of motorcycles buzz like bees around every other vehicle trying to push its way to its destination. I see Policia all over the place but wonder how effective they really are in light of the situation. I was excited to get out of the city.

 At the airport we encounter yet another challenge, one of the equipment bags is MIA. As we brainstorm solutions it finally shows up and we load up and head out, just a few more hours behind.

 The delays have created another challenge as well since the roads are too dangerous to travel at night. We will have to find another place to stay along the way. Myra works closely with Sandra at the country office and we end up in a small mountain town with some crazy long name I couldn’t even think about pronuncing. The guys plan for dinner but Katie and I decide to settle for a Cliff bar and some girl talk since we had a great breakfast (crepes with caramel and Nutella) and a late and filling lunch (local fare with tortilla making at a cavern-type restaurant along the way).

 Now our second night as roommates we’ve settled into our routine. Katie and I quickly bonded and were able to share stories as well a few laughs. What a wonderful friend for life! Yes, this was going to be a great trip!

 The next day was the first of many bright and early mornings (although I don’t think we realized that at the time). You really do learn a lot about people when you encounter them at “unGodly hours” (as Katie says). That, along with our many, many hours on the bus, gave each of us some remarkable insights about each other. I’d give examples but I’d be breaking our bond if I shared those with outsiders. I will give away a few of our made-up nicknames for each other though…

 Inspired by the seven dwarfs:

 Sleepy – Mark because he has tha uncanny ability to sleep anytime, anywhere.

 Doc – Tim, chosen for his “take charge” personality.

 Sneezy – Katie who has the most understated sneeze in the world.

 Happy – Nic because he goofing around even when he’s sleep-deprived.

 Dopey – that would be me… I always seemed to be “stepping in something”.

 The next portion of our journey through the mountains of Quiche (pronounced kee-chay) proved to be just as exciting. Twists, curves, switchbacks, bumpy roads due to mud…. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t car sick! The scenery is beautiful as the mountains are green and lush and it’s surprising how the people have planted maize anywhere there is soil, even on the steepest of inclines.

 The people of the region are poor and without modern transportation so I quickly become accustomed to seeing old men with piles of timber tied to their backs and women in Mayan costumes with baskets balancing on their heads walking on the side of the road. And it wasn’t unusual at all to see super young children roadside unsupervised. You would never see this in the States. Omar tells me that the different colors and patterns of the Mayan skirts and blouses identify the many different dialects, but I still don’t understand why it’s only the women and children who wear the traditional clothing.

 We pass through several small mountain towns that offer a glimpse of life there. They remind me of some of the depressed towns I have seen in Mexico. The people are curious about the bus, but busy with their everyday chores so not paying too much attention to us. Katie enjoys waving to them and they seem to enjoy waving back at her. There are homeless dogs all over the place that no one pays any attention to – they just run around and stay out of the way of traffic.

 The last 45 minutes we are on a one lane dirt road, heading deep into the woods. Finally, we reach the small village of Santa Avelina. The bus pulls up to the project and Nic (our videographer) jumps off the bus to be sure he captures Katie and Norma’s first encounter. I wasn’t quite prepared for what was to happen next…

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