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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  The bus was met by a crowd of locals, all dressed in their best and super excited to see us. The project had never been visited before, either because it was a relatively new project or because of how remote they were, but either way this was a very special time for them and we could tell.

 Katie takes no more than one step off the bus and Norma is right there to meet her. She looks so happy and beautiful and Katie is absolutely beaming with joy as she hugs the little girl that she’s been sponsoring since May. Although I was taking pictures, it’s hard not to be moved by the moment. This is something I am never going to forget and I am so excited for Katie! The entire team is ushered in quickly to the church since we arrived many hours later than they had expected. What I notice immediately is that Mark and Tim are completely surprised by the elaborate decorations in the church. They look at me and tell me that this is very unusual and as I look around I can understand why.

 The entire floor of the church is covered with fresh pine needles. There are dozens of palm branches literally stapled to the walls. Twine is strung from corner to corner and flowers and greenery are hanging about every 6 inches. There is a giant homemade banner of greeting in front of the modest stage and it seems as though the entire village is here. Myra motions for us to quickly take a seat and leans over and whispers that this is the first time she has ever seen anything like this. Pine needles on the ground is done for Christmas, but that’s about it.

 What follows next was such a blessing it’s hard to describe it in words. The children, including Norma, all dressed in white, have memorized a presentation of praise and dance with special homemade candles and props. Myra interprets some of the lyrics and I realize how much these children authentically love their Lord. As if that wasn’t enough, one of the staff there named Isaias, who lived in the US for a few years, joins the women and they sing “Lord, I lift Your Name On High” in both Spanish and English. Another very special moment since I know many of these women only speak the local dialect, Ixil. This is followed by an inspiring sermon by the local pastor based on the parable of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. There’s something very authentic and joyful about this pastor and my heart is moved by his words.

 The next activity is a celebration lunch for us with the staff and Norma and her family. We head upstairs to find six small classrooms, a common area, a small office that also doubles as a pantry and food prep area and a teeny, tiny room that serves as their “kitchen.” There is a large cement basin in the corner of the common area that has a faucet as well. I am asked if I want to help serve and I immediately jump in to help.

 In the office there is a woman sitting on the floor in front of a large alumni bucket filled with what looks like tamales wrapped in twine. She begins handing them to us and we unwrap the leaves and find pieces of chicken and spices inside. The leaves are spread out on to the plastic dishes and the leaves are trimmed with shears. It’s quite a messy ordeal, but everyone waits patiently in the common room. After the chicken is squash flower soup, rice and vegetables, all served on small Styrofoam plates. I can sense this is a feast for them. I choose to sit with the women teachers and a translator and they tell me more about what they do there. They were so loving and caring, I truly admire their dedication to teach the children.

 The children arrive soon and we get to spend some time watching them in their classrooms. I can tell that they love to learn and that the teachers there are committed to teaching solid Bible content. I am impressed with the way that they are able to do so much with so little. The rooms are so small that the children’s desks are literally squeezed in right next to each other but they don’t seem to mind, they are fully engaged in what’s happening. The walls are very thin and the roof is just a sparse tin roof so the teacher’s practically have to yell in order to be heard over the noise of the other classrooms. It just doesn’t matter though – the kids are so enthusiastic!

 As we question the staff we learn that their limited space has kept them from opening up more opportunities for more children. They have already received a lot of help and building materials from the community and are trying to get more. Compassion rarely helps with building space, dedicating the majority of the funds to assist the children directly, so the staff have their work cut out for them. As I leave the project I pray for God’s provision.

 It’s late afternoon and the team wants to take the 20-minute hike to the waterfall that provides the village its water supply in order to capture some more film footage. So we head out with a few of our new friends, along with Norma’s whole family, to visit the waterfall.

 The hike begins easy enough. There is a narrow, but well traveled trail on the side of the mountain that doesn’t seem to be terribly steep. But about 10-minutes into the trek, the trail becomes steeper and muddier. Okay, I think to myself, no big deal, just follow the rest of these folks. And Norma’s mother has a skirt on with cheap plastic sandals, so surely it can’t get too bad.

 It soon starts to rain and the already muddy trail starts getting muddier. My tennis shoes are soaked and coated with mud. Norma’s mother climbs the trail without effort and doesn’t have any problem with her footing, even in sandals. We get to the waterfall and it’s all worth it. It’s breathtaking! A few minutes are spent capturing the moment with Katie and Norma and then we turn to head back.

 One of the locals decides to try a different route and it’s so steep that I keep having to stop to get my breath. This holds up everyone behind me but they are all gracious. I begin to wonder if I am going to have a heart attack and die – right there on the side of a mountain in Guatemala.

 The trail leads us to the village cemetery and then it begins to not just rain, but POUR. We rush to find cover and end up standing in an open half-finished cinderblock structure. I’m glad to be out of the rain but have no idea where we are.

 I quickly find out that we are in the home of Isaias. His English is good so he explains to us that he went to Florida for seven years to make enough money to come back and build a home of his entire family. He is 23 years old. He points to a tight little stairwell and we follow him down to see his current living space. We meet his parents, his brother and sister-in-law and their three children, all of whom live there with him. Back upstairs we see an old table saw and stacks of wood that he will use to finish the space. I am so impressed with this young man. His heart is so genuine and he works so hard. Along with working on his house he is also a translator for Compassion and the bookkeeper at the project.

 We finally return to the project and say our goodbyes. We are wet and tired and it’s been an emotionally draining day but we are glad we get to return tomorrow.

Tim had brought 4 packets of sponsored children from the project with him. He had shown them to me on the bus and asked me if I was interested at all in sponsoring one of them. And even though Katie pushed pretty hard, I really didn’t feel led to step up to the plate. Tim didn’t push, just placed the packets back in his backpack gently.

 After visiting Miguel’s home we were able to return to the center for some more time to observe the children in their classrooms. That is where I decided that I wanted to sponsor a child from this project before I left. However, what I really wanted was to sponsor the child that no one else wanted. I wanted the child from the project who had been waiting the longest for a sponsor with no response. So when Tim returned, I talked to him about it.

I think I stumped him because when he came back to me he had the same 4 packets he had shown me before. He explained that it would be difficult to find out the information that I wanted and he felt it was important that I meet the child while I was there. I didn’t think that was necessary, but I looked back over the packets and chose Gaspar. I had noticed him when I looked at them before. His photo was not very compelling and he was the oldest of the four children. Tim left to go talk to the staff to see if he was there and returned with him in tow.

 I knew right away that this was a match made in heaven. Gaspar was so shy that he could hardly look at me. He was so small for his age and didn’t speak any Spanish. When I was able to look into his eyes I could tell that his health wasn’t great by the yellow clouding his pupils. Isaias knew him well and quickly took on the chore to break the ice between the two of us. He translated to Ixil all of my words and stayed close while we were trying to bond.

 It took a bit, but Gaspar finally was able to raise his chin and speak with me face-to-face as well as give me several hugs. I found out that he wants to be a musician someday so he can praise God. An ambitious goal given how shy he is, so I admire him for that. We gather some gifts for him – a puzzle, a soccer ball, some other toys and when I give them to him his eyes light up like Christmas. Has this poor boy ever had anything like this happen to him before? Probably not.

 What a wonderful blessing this new addition to our family is going to be! I can’t wait to tell TJ and Rick and to send Gaspar some pictures and a letter.

We decided to hit the road early again and stop for breakfast after a couple of hours of travel. Unfortunately, the bus ride on the way back to Guatemala City was more tumultuous then on the way there. I have no idea why, but my stomach felt as if it were in my throat. By the time we reached the restaurant, I was green and the world around me was spinning. Tim helped me off the bus and I had to sit for about 30-minutes completely still before I could sip some hot tea. I ended up being able to get down about a half of a waffle and then I took some Dramamine for the rest of the bus ride.

 Prepared for the drugs to completely knock me out, I found a cozy corner on the bus and settled in. Everyone else made makeshift beds out of the rows of seats and quickly fell asleep. But I couldn’t rest. I was nervous about getting sick so I asked Myra if I could join her in the front seat. What a wonderful few hours I had talking with her! I found out more about her and her family as well as Guatemalan culture.

 We stopped for lunch at place specializing in Crepes (go figure!) and had a great lunch. Then we headed in to Antigua so that Tim could meet his sponsored child, Christa Lee.

 Antigua used to be the capitol of Guatemala so it’s a pretty big city. Cobbled streets and plenty of tourist shops abound. We got off the bus and headed to the Chocolate Factory where Tim was to meet Christa Lee. Compassion paid for a tour for all of us so we all got to learn about Cacao and how chocolate was made and even make some ourselves. It was SO much fun watching Tim share this experience with his sponsored child! She was a sweet little 5-year-old girl who was not shy at all. They immediately became friends.