Wednesday, November 25, 2009

3 Hours, 46 Minutes, 42 Seconds…

A distinct difference between Iquitos, Peru and Spartanburg, SC (or possibly the entire U.S. as far that goes) is that people here have time for each other. One of my favorite daily sights is when my neighbors come out of their homes, toting their rebar rocking chairs, and arrange themselves on the sidewalks in front of their homes to while away the afternoons/evenings talking to each other. They typically sit for hours chatting with family members and friends, and often passersby will stop as well to introduce themselves or simply to say hello. It's because of this habit that I know everyone up and down Napo Street and they know me - I am the gringa who lives on the corner of the seventh block.

Peruvians enjoy each other's company; it has taken some time for me to get accustomed to this. I'm used to being with people for a purpose: whether at work, in a meeting, at church, in Wal-Mart - wherever we are in the U.S. we always have an agenda, and much of the time we get antsy if someone in any of those locations wants to halt us for too long as we fear we will be late for the next place/event on the list, or we just plain get irritated when people stop us to talk because we want to be left alone. Even at parties or other social functions, at best our conversations are superficial, and we flit around from person to person, lest we actually have to talk about something of substance. Of course I realize that there are plenty of people who do regularly have meaningful conversations - I'm not saying it never happens - but, in general, to the outside observer, ours is a culture that is always busy being with people, but never really having time for them.

Among the things I love most about my life here is that every day, at some point, Villa and I take a break from whatever work we have going on and sit in our own rebar rocking chairs and talk. It is priceless time, because in it I deepen my friendship with the person who takes care of me literally every day, I laugh (and sometimes cry), and I learn valuable lessons about Peruvian culture and language. Perhaps more importantly, I have been granted more than a few opportunities to share my faith and my reason for being here with someone who is not particularly religious and does not go to church, but believes in the sovereign God because he says that same God is so obvious in my life (at which time I get my much needed, regular dose of humility, because I know myself well, and if Villa sees God in me it is only because He truly is there).

Then yesterday I went home with Juan. Since the deaths of their parents, his sister, Beatrice, is the only woman in the house (for all practical purposes), living with 5 of her 6 brothers, her 2 children, her husband, and occasionally the girlfriends of 2 of the brothers, as well as the kids these brothers have produced with said girlfriends. At any given time there may be 12 or more people inhabiting the 3 rooms (one of them is not a bathroom as there is no plumbing where they live) of their wooden shack (which is better than most in that they have a concrete floor (vs. dirt) and aluminum shingles (vs. thatch) for a roof). To say the least, Beatrice has a life that 26 year olds in the U.S. cannot begin to fathom, with the burden of caring for everyone in the house falling on her shoulders. On the way there I asked Juan if she would be upset that he was bringing me home with him unannounced; he looked at me like I'd lost my mind. Actually he was a little insulted and asked me why I would say such a thing. I tried to explain to him that, in the U.S., it is not polite to drop in on people without calling first - he didn't understand. So, the motokar deposited us on the edge of the paved road and off we went on foot, down the dirt road together. When we walked into the house, there were people everywhere and Beatrice was trying to tend to all of their needs (one brother was standing in front of her with a needle and thread, wanting her to stitch up his ripped shorts, another was yelling at her because he couldn't find his shoes, yet another wanted to know if she planned to make lunch that day), while simultaneously spanking her 3 year old and nursing her 5 month old baby that was nestled in the crook of her left arm. But when she saw me standing in the doorway, she broke into a huge smile, forgot about everything around her, invited me in to sit on her bed with her, and told me she knew company was coming because a butterfly had flown through her window earlier in the day. Almost immediately everyone else in the house flocked to me as well, and before I knew it, 6 of us were all piled up on the bed together talking, laughing, and playing with the baby, while the 3 year old crawled all over me as though I were playground equipment. And so went the next 3 hours. Juan stood in the corner of the room for most of the time, watching from a distance and beaming proudly, because his family was embracing me (as he already knew they would) and because I was returning the favor. Before I left I was hugged, kissed, and invited to come back any time and often. In reality (and in my mind) a similar situation in the U.S. plays out very differently (and to most anyone, myself included, who says they would react in the same manner as Beatrice, I have only this to say - liar, liar, pants on fire!). From Juan's family, I learned a lot about what it means to make a person, a total stranger and a foreigner no less, feel welcome, valued, respected, and appreciated.

In case you've been wondering about the title of this blog post, 3 hours, 46 minutes, and 42 seconds would be the length of time my brother and I talked on the phone one Saturday afternoon back in September. Anyone who knows him is reading this and thinking, "What??? I don't believe it. There is no way Brad McAbee talked that long to anyone about anything," as he is typically a man of few words. Nevertheless, I speak only the truth - we did actually talk that long. Now, nearly 3 months later, I have no idea what we talked about (and it really doesn't matter), but I have yet to forget the amount of time. In the midst of his crazy football season schedule and my tumultuous transition to foreign missionary life, for one afternoon we let the rest of the world go by and simply made time for each other.

As I count my blessings tomorrow, my list will be decorated with my family and many friends back home, and punctuated by the unmerited privilege I have been given to live here in Peru, being accepted and loved by people who have taught me more than I could ever hope to help them. And if I take nothing else from my time here, I hope I never forget the infinite value of the individual (family, friend, and/or stranger alike) and the importance of just being with them no matter what else is going on around me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Big Juan and Little Juan

On my second trip to Iquitos in 2003, I met an 18 year old kid named Juan. So handsome and charismatic, with a smile that would light up the Boulevard on the darkest of nights, and the ability to speak relatively fluent English, he easily charmed many gringos visiting Iquitos - that is until he stole from them (money, shoes, shirts, caps, whatever was within easy reach when they weren't watching), or they saw him falling down drunk (or high, or both, as the case may be). Suddenly he wasn't cute anymore, and he became more of a street thug than a dirt-poor kid down on his luck. Juan is one of 6 children born into extreme poverty to a mother who died of cancer when he was in his early teens, and a father who daily went about the business of drinking himself to death (and unfortunately did just that earlier this year) for as long as Juan can remember. For most of his life he's been roaming the streets, searching for a place to belong, and getting into trouble. He's known all over town and pretty much no one has anything good to say about him - locals and gringos alike - with the exception of those who are just like him. Now, at age 25, he seems even more troubled and more lost than he was when we first came to know each other.

Juan typically spends what little money he may have of his own for drugs and alcohol (eating is low on his list of priorities), so when I am with him it is usually in a restaurant, as it is my habit to feed him. As I sat at Ari's Burger last Friday (a popular open-air restaurant on the Plaza de Armas) watching him savor every bite of his plate of rice mixed with shrimp, chicken, and pork and a side of fried plantains, he said he'd heard I was living in Iquitos now. As you might imagine, Juan isn't known for his honesty; he tells people what they want to hear, very little of which is ever true. I have always been aware of this, but the look on his face was priceless as I recalled, out loud, all the lies I knew for certain he'd told me throughout the years. He was fuming mad at first and about to get up and leave the table when I said, "Today we start over. Whatever happens, whatever you do, no matter how bad it is, even if you think I'm going to be furious (which I probably will), you must tell me the truth." He agreed (do I think for one minute that he's going to suddenly be honest? - not on your life, but we had to start somewhere), and we began a conversation that would lead me into a mighty internal struggle for many days to come, teach me more about sharing than I've ever learned from anyone in my life, and bring me face-to-face with not only his need for a Savior, but even more so, my own.

It was almost like he was relieved when I invoked the honesty policy as he poured out the 'not-so-good' things he'd done since the last time I saw him. (By the way, the last time I had seen him was more than 2 years ago, prior to his tour of duty in the Peruvian Army, when Frank Gonda and I were taking him to a medical clinic to get the gaping hole in his forehead stitched up after one of his drunken brawls, which had also left him without his 4 beautiful, pearly white front teeth, and I was MAD.) When he finished purging, he said he didn't expect me to understand, because I'd probably never done anything really bad in my life. He also said he knew God wasn't interested in him because God doesn't have any use for people who can't change, and, no matter how hard he tried to change, he always seemed to fall back into his old ways. Raw honesty - that's what was on the table; gone were the well-rehearsed responses he'd fed to countless members of U.S. church mission teams, tickling their ears, making some of them believe they'd actually gotten through to him. There's neither space nor reason to recount all the details of our conversation, but I assured him that plenty of skeletons reside in my closet and told him if God required people to successfully change themselves before they could come to Him, then Heaven would be an empty place. He pressed me further asking what God would say if he messed up again that same night, and I told him God would say the same thing to Juan Sangama that He says to Pam McAbee when she messes up every day of her life - He would say that His mercies are new every morning and His grace abounds and He would invite Juan, just as He invites Pam and everyone else in the world, to lay our burdens on Him and let Him be about the business of saving us. He didn't believe me.

Meanwhile, a filthy, shoeless, little boy with quarter sized holes in the chest of his sleeveless t-shirt and rips in his threadbare shorts paused in front of our table (we were sitting at one of the tables closest to the street) to watch Juan eat. Without missing a beat, Juan signaled for the waitress to bring another plate, fork, and glass and, in the midst of this intense conversation, raked a pile of rice onto the plate, added a couple of slices of fried bananas, and poured the rest of his drink into the extra cup. He held up his hand to me indicating a pause in our discussion, invited the little boy, a total stranger, (also named Juan as we later found out) to sit down, put the food in front of him, and told him to eat. Little Juan told us that he is 7 years old and lives on the corner of Raymondi and Nauta streets (which means that he sleeps on the street underneath a cardboard box) and that his mom won't let him live at her house in Belen (the section of town where the poorest of the poor live) because she has too many other kids and he is old enough to take care of himself - he hasn't seen her in months and she never comes looking for him. Little Juan ate until he was full, then stood up, looked me in the eyes and said "Gracias," smiled, and walked away. Before his meal was over, Big Juan would invite yet another stranger to join us and would share his food a second time. Never have I ever been so unselfish.

Three hours later, Juan insisted on walking the 7 blocks with me to El Jardin. The last thing he wanted to know for that day was if we could get together regularly to talk now that I called the jungle my home. The answer, of course, was yes. We didn't bother to make any plans; though Iquitos is a city of nearly half a million people, it is a small, isolated place, and people aren't hard to find. All I have to do is walk up to the Plaza or Boulevard, ask anyone if they have seen him, then come back home. Later that day or the next, whenever I venture out again, he will be waiting for me. We said our 'see-you-laters,' and as the heavy iron gate slammed shut between us, I felt like I was carrying the equivalent of its weight into the house with me.

Inside, I sat on my couch for another 3 hours - just sat - pondering - things like why a 7 year old is considered old enough to fend for himself, why a 25 year old grows a little more hopeless every day, how anyone can really help in a substantial way in the face of such huge generational and cultural problems, why I am here and ultimately what good I can do, where God is in all of this, where the church is in all of this - then the tears began. I told a friend later that what I'd seen and experienced was nothing new - it is the reality of daily life here - I see it every time I leave the house. But on Friday, it was like I was seeing it all again for the very first time. In The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne says, "When we look through the eyes of Jesus, we see new things in people. In the murderers, we see our own hatred. In the addicts, we see our own addictions. In the saints, we catch a glimpse of our own holiness. We can see our own brokenness, our own violence, our own ability to destroy, and we can see our own sacredness, our own capacity to love and forgive. When we realize that we are both wretched and beautiful, we are freed up to see others the same way" (264). Maybe that's what happened. Maybe in Juan I saw everything that is good and bad about me all at the same time. Maybe for the first time I quit silently, subconsciously judging him (in the same way that others did openly, making mine a more grievous offense). Maybe I realized "No one is beyond redemption" (253). And maybe, just maybe, for one brief moment, I had the ability to love as God loves.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ding, Dong the Alligator is Dead

Once upon a time, for whatever reason, my friend Todd Garrett decided that the water in the pond here at El Jardin (the Medical Missions property where I live in Iquitos) was lonely, so he purchased a baby alligator and put it in the pond to keep the water company. Yes, I know, your minds are rambling through the same list of rhetorical questions as mine, with the primary one being: Has he lost his mind? Needless to say, since June I have been on a quest to find and remove the creature. Naturally I was not about to perform the task at hand, so several days a week for the past 5 months I have said to Villa that he needs to take care of this. He has given me one excuse after another as to why it hasn't been done: too much water in the pond (he can't get in to look), too little water in the pond (it has dried up due to lack of rain and the alligator has buried itself in the mud), too much mud (he doesn't have any boots), and my personal favorite, he hasn't seen the alligator in weeks therefore it must be dead and/or gone (you can see the logic, right?). I bought him a pair of wading boots for the purpose of getting in the pond to search; we also have a machete and any number of other tools that could be used to remedy the problem, yet the excuses continue.

Even I know that the best time to locate an alligator is at night with a flashlight, so Monday evening, just after dark, I took my little linterna and traipsed to the back of the property where the pond is located. One quick sweep across the water with the beam of light and, sure enough, there they were - 2 little orange eyes peering at me. Elder Luis and a couple of other guys were hanging out at the church next door and called out to me, asking what I was doing. I told Luis that I desperately wanted to get rid of the alligator and asked if he knew anyone who'd be willing to come get it out (since Villa is obviously as much a fraidy-cat as I am). Luis asked if I had a bat or other heavy object (which I did) and said he could take care of the problem himself. So I ran to the gate to let him in. Fifteen minutes later, after a good whack on the head with a metal rake, Luis scooped the unconscious reptile out of the water, took further measures to ensure it was dead, then picked it up by the tail and promptly carried it out the gate with him and over to the church for everyone to see. And that was that.

Of course, when Villa found out the next day, he turned on the machismo and said he would have been able to get it too if he'd been here at night (at which time I reminded him that he spent 3 weeks of nights here while I was in the U.S. in September). He just laughed that silly little giggle of his and shrugged his shoulders. So now we're on to worrying about bigger and better things, such as how to make El Jardin more secure for me after the string of break-ins on this block over the past week. How's that for a cliff hanger?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Froot Loops and a Hummer

I leave Peru for a three week jaunt to the U.S. and return to find Iquitos has gone American! What??? Yesterday I finally ran out of what few imperishable food items that were left in the house prior to my trip (not to mention I've grown tired of odd combinations for meals, i.e. steamed rice and mushrooms w/soy sauce) and headed to the supermercado. As I walked into the once familiar tienda, I was greeted with sights of imported food items. There I was, surrounded by boxes of Froot Loops, cans of Hunt's Four Cheese Spaghetti Sauce, jars of Ragu Alfredo Sauce, packages of Old El Paso flour tortillas, cups of Jell-O Pudding (chocolate and vanilla), bottles of Hunt's Barbeque Sauce, bags of frozen chicken nuggets waiting to be tossed into the hot oil of a frying pan - all things I've never seen here before. I was so excited that my first urge was to grab 5 of each, whether I needed them or not; the reality around here is that just because something is in a store once, does not mean it will be there again (and there's always the possibility that it will never be there again). But I refrained, reminding myself that I have neither the money in my budget to purchase large quantities of pricey imports, nor the space in my kitchen to store such inventory. I will confess, however, that I did come home sporting Froot Loops, 2 cans of spaghetti sauce, and a jar of alfredo sauce.

While enjoying the sights and sounds of the city's streets on the motokar ride home, I was blown away yet again. There, in Iquitos, parked right in front of the El Dorado Hotel (five star that is) on the Plaza de Armas was a lustrous black Hummer with a wax job so perfect I could have used the driver's side door as a mirror. Unbelievable. To comprehend the shock value, one must have been here, or at least understand that this is a motorcycle/scooter/motokar city. In the past, only the wealthiest of people here could afford to own a car, and those were few and far between. One difference I had already begun to notice when I returned here in June after nearly a year's absence is that there are more cars on the streets than ever before. But when I say cars, I mean older model Toyotas, 70's era VW bugs, an occasional beat-up Nissan - that kind of thing. Only once or twice before have I seen what appeared to be a "newer" car here, and even so, it still was of the economy class of autos. Never a Hummer!

As I ate my lunch while watching a rerun episode of Two and a Half Men (in English with Spanish subtitles - YAY!), my previous excitement faded and my heart started to sink as I pondered my morning. Now, I know change is inevitable, and North American influence typically arrives everywhere eventually, but one of the fascinations this city holds for so many who come here is its lack of "connectedness" with the rest of the world. Iquitos is the largest city in the world that is not accessible by road; there are two ways in/out of here - plane and boat. Surrounded by rainforest, it is both difficult and expensive to ship imports here, and most major businesses find it more cost effective not to try. Evidently that is changing - rapidly. But I don't want to see a McDonald's here (what fun would there then be in getting to the Lima airport after 4 months of fish, chicken, and rice and running straight for a quarter pounder with cheese?), or an Ace Hardware, or a Gold's Gym (but say the words Target or Wal-Mart and I might be open to suggestion). I want the jungle to stay the jungle. Yes, it's hard to live life in a different culture; yes, there are times when I crave foods from home; yes, I miss the U.S.; yes, I wish I could shop in a 'regular' grocery store without making stops at 6-8 different little markets in order to get everything I need. BUT, all of these longings, these creature comforts, are part of what makes coming home for a visit so special, and the lack of these is what has always made Iquitos so mysteriously attractive to me. Here, in the middle of a city of nearly half a million people, you can feel so isolated, so far from what we gringos call civilization. Yet in some ways, there is more real life here than I have ever experienced before.

In his book Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson details the many lessons he has learned while living in and adapting to the Middle Eastern Islamic culture of Pakistan. Though he does not write from a spiritual point of view, he bluntly, unapologetically repeats the exact ideas that every book I've ever read on cross-cultural missions asserts. Mortenson says, "On their warm, dry roofs, among the fruits of their successful harvest, eating, smoking, and gossiping with the same sense of leisure as Parisians on the terrace of a sidewalk cafĂ©, [I] felt sure that, despite all that they lacked, the Balti still held the key to a kind of uncomplicated happiness that was disappearing in the developing world…" (120). Frustrated with Mortenson's egocentric, North American notion that his way was the best and only way, the man who came to be his Pakistani father-figure chastised him saying, "If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways…We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time." Mortenson follows this up with, "We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills…Haji Ali taught me to…slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them" (150). I could copy similar quotes from dozens of books; the recurring theme makes a point we would be wise to pay attention to.

Mortenson's book, the Froot Loops, the Hummer, and my life here in Peru all mesh together in an odd sort of way. While I don't want the Peruvians to be denied good and right progress, I also don't want to see U.S. culture invade the jungle. Like the Baltis, the Peruvians in the Amazon are survivors - they don't need us to tell them how they should live. Perhaps we should follow their lead in slowing down and focusing on relationships. Ironically, many of the 2009 summer mission teams were privy to unsolicited lessons in this area when inclement weather or a lack of supplies brought their projects to a screeching halt, and they were left with no option but to spend time with each other and their Peruvian friends. Nevertheless, as I attend meetings of mission boards, missions committees, and mission trip leaders, I listen as, with renewed fervor, they plan their next projects. Not that projects are bad, mind you, but said projects act as the backbones for recruiting individuals to be part of the 2010 mission teams because, without work to do (and lots of it), churches and missions organizations find it difficult to entice people to give up a week of vacation to simply come and be. But in our U.S. culture, we (myself included) can no longer find the time to sit on the porch with our grandparents, or turn off the TV (and all other electronic addictions) and play board games with our kids, or play tag football with friends then sit, sweaty and tired, for the rest of the afternoon just talking - if we can't slow down for our families and closest friends, how could we be expected to make time for relationships with those whose enlightening perspectives we desperately need? Does this make anyone sad other than me?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Funny Feeling

It is 10:23 a.m. local time and I am a little better than 12 hours away from boarding my international flight to the U.S. I'll be States-side for 3 weeks doing a little visiting with family and friends, and a LOT of work for AMF. I am officially in awe of those before me who have started and maintained non-profit organizations. Doing so takes an unbelievable amount of time and even more patience (which I don't always have a surplus of). Of course, the load has felt a little less demanding since I gave up teaching and now work full time for the mission.

The biggest surprise of the morning, as I pack and mentally prepare myself for 24 hours of traveling, is the heaviness in my heart; I am a little sad today. If you've been reading my blog since June, you know that I arrived here under duress; I was already counting the weeks and days until my first visit home, as the pain of saying good-bye to my family and friends was greater than I ever dreamed it could be. Then the mission teams landed and the busyness began and I didn't have time to think about missing home. But I dreaded the day the final team left, for then I would be all by myself and real life for me in this country would begin, like it or not, and I assumed homesickness would set in and I would again be urging time to pass rapidly. Fast forward 13 weeks and the time certainly has passed rapidly, yet not at my insistence, and other than a few random moments when loneliness has gotten the best of me (though I'm not sure why because I am NEVER alone here), I "settled in" without realizing that was what was happening.

To combat today's melancholy, I keep telling myself that I'll be back in a very short time - not like the previous summers when I would arrive in early June, leave at the beginning of August, then, other than a brief 2 1/2 day jaunt in November, not return until the following June. Even Villa and the dog have been acting funny this morning. For awhile now Villa has been telling me that he would be glad when I left for the U.S. because he would finally get a day off; he says I'm a slave driver - that I forget he's Peruvian and work him like a gringo. But today, he came to work early (odd, because I can typically count on him to be at least 30 minutes late), and when I asked the reason he said, "To be here for whatever you need today since you are leaving." Tamy (my German Shepherd) has started moping too, tail between her legs, refusing to eat this morning. Villa said, "She knows in her heart you're leaving." For all practical purposes, this is home now. I put clean sheets on my bed and clean towels in my bathroom in anticipation of my early morning arrival on October 11 - I am coming back soon.

Throughout this whole process of hearing God's call, trying my best to obey, quitting my teaching job, working at fundraising, and taking the leap of faith and actually coming here to live, there has been a constant battle in my mind and heart. More than in any other situation in my life I've had to learn to stay the course regardless of how I felt (and let me assure you that my emotions have been off the chart in every conceivable direction). I've had to focus on that night in July 2008 when I absolutely, unmistakably heard God tell me, "It's time," and press on. It is a powerful experience to stand firm in the decision to trust God when your only instructions are to follow Him (nothing more, nothing less), then watch Him faithfully deliver everything you could ever need, one day at a time. It is a lesson I hope I don't forget any time soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Day In The Life

Boy was I wrong! I moved to Peru with the mistaken assumption that, once all the mission teams had come and gone for the summer, I would have a lot of down time - time to rest, to get settled, to think, to pray, to decide what step to take first in establishing my life here. So far that has not happened.

Of course I have my endless to-do list, written neatly on index cards, which are then paper clipped together in order of importance. I get excited when all the items on a particular card have been crossed off and I get to admire, with satisfaction, my squiggly ink lines worming their way through the list as I toss the card into the trash. Then there are the times when all but one or two items have been crossed off on several different cards; that, naturally, calls for a new card, combining the as yet unchecked tasks onto one, and deciding where the new card fits into the rotation. But I digress…

It seems that my index cards are hanging around longer than I expected them to - a phenomenon I've begun to examine. And so last Thursday, after a particularly busy day, I decided to retrace my steps to see exactly how my time had been spent. My alarm went off at 6 a.m. (yes, I know that's a ridiculously early hour given that I am no longer on a school schedule) and I hit snooze 3 times (at 5 minute intervals), at which time (6:15 a.m. to be exact) I got up. I made the rounds through the house and outside around the grounds turning off all the lights that stay on at night to alert would-be wall climbers that someone is actually living in here. I fed the dog, I fed the bird, then I fed myself. While eating breakfast and lingering over my coffee, I watched the last 15 minutes of Melrose Place (reruns in English are a beautiful thing, no matter how bad the show, when you live in a country that doesn't speak your language). At 7 a.m. I put in my exercise DVD (because I promised myself I would get healthier while living here). Midway through my workout, Villa arrived at 7:30 and sat down in the rocking chair outside to wait for me to give him his marching orders for the day. At 8 a.m. I finished the workout, grabbed a bottle of water, and plopped into the other rocking chair to make a plan with Villa. At 8:30 I showered, dressed, turned my computer on and had grand aspirations for the morning - I needed to continue working on my AMF board meeting agenda, the AMF brochure that is incomplete, and the beginnings of a missions newsletter. I also needed to reply to several emails and return a phone call to the lady at the print shop in Spartanburg who is working on some mock-ups for me of potential logos, letterheads, and business cards for AMF. By 9 a.m. I was concentrating on the task at hand when Villa appeared at my window, asking the first of many questions that would continuously interrupt my train of thought as well as my projected work schedule. By 10:30 a.m. I had gotten up from my desk and gone outside to tend to Villa's pressing needs (such as whether I thought the table he just painted needed another coat or could be fine the way it was) 4 times. At 11:00 a.m. I was on a roll because I'd now had 30 peaceful minutes at my computer; but that would end when I looked up to see Margarita standing in my doorway announcing, "I am here." Translated, that means "It's your job to come to the porch to sit and talk to me until the accountant gets here." So that's what I did - for the next 30 minutes, because Joel, the accountant, was Peruvian-style late for his meeting with Margarita. I left them to their own to work, having provided them with all the information they needed from me, and came back to my computer, where I spent a glorious 20 minutes working before I was summoned to show them how to work the printer Margarita purchased. At 12:30 p.m. I heard my name yet again - this time I learned that today was the day Margarita had designated to organize and clean out the pharmacy and that I would be helping her (this being the first I'd heard of said plans). Drenched with sweat, because Margarita was cold (it was an overcast, albeit humid day) and had forbidden me to turn on the ceiling fan while we worked, at 2:00 p.m. she pronounced us finished - for the moment. My breakfast had long since been digested, so I went for the quickest fix in terms of lunch - a ham sandwich with some fresh pineapple (yes, I bought it, yes, I cut it up) on the side. At this point I realized that I had neglected to spend time with God and combined lunch with quiet time. Villa returned at 3:00 p.m. without the supplies I gave him money for a few hours earlier; seemed he opted to go home for lunch first instead of shopping, knowing good and well that the stores would be closed for siesta time when he was through eating and would not reopen until 4:00 p.m. - so he decided he would just hang out here and wait. At this point I had two choices: I could go back to my room and try to pick up where I left off that morning (with the near 100% chance that Villa would interrupt me at least twice) or I could sit down and talk to him for the next 45 minutes; I opted for the latter in order to spare myself a stress-induced migraine. At 3:50 p.m. Villa determined the paint store would be open by the time he could walk there and told me he would see me on Friday morning, because by the time he could make his purchases and transport them to El Jardin it would be at least 4:30 p.m. and the end of his work day. Alone again at last in my house I walked back to my computer to make the phone call to the U.S. I intended to make that morning. I dialed; it rang and rang and rang, but no one answered. That's when I noticed the clock on my computer; it was not 4:10 p.m. in the U.S., it was 5:10 p.m. and business for the day was over. I said a bad word out loud. Well, at least I could try to make a little more progress on the brochure, which I did until 5:30 p.m. when it began to get dark and I needed to get up to make my rounds through the house and around the grounds turning the all-night lights back on so that my space was, once again, well illuminated and free of intruders (except for the neighbor's cat which sits on the wall for no other purpose than to torment my dog and make her bark until she is hoarse). If I hoped to eat dinner before 7:00 p.m., my work day had to draw to a close so I could begin cooking - an art I'm having to re-learn here. The absence of prepackaged, frozen, and microwave foods, the lack of a car and a drive-thru to hit even if I did have a car, and living on a budget that doesn't allow for much in the way of restaurants (and who wants to eat alone in restaurants all the time anyway?) necessitates regular cooking on my part. Fortunately, one of the previous day's activities had been to make the rounds to the 5 markets I shop regularly (each having its own special items that none of the others has), and so I had another piece of fish in the fridge, some fresh vegetables, leftover lunch pineapple, and enough rice for one more meal (then it's off to the market again). By 8:00 p.m. I'd eaten, the dishes had been washed and put away, and I was perched on the couch in front of a muted television, watching the quarterfinals of the last tennis tournament before the U.S. Open, and enjoying my nightly phone chats with my family. A little channel surfing at 9:30 p.m. encouraged me to make better use of my time reading in bed until I fell asleep, somewhere in the neighborhood of 11:00 p.m.

And that, dear friends, was my day.

A typical day.

The life I have signed up for.

It is significantly different than the previous 18 years. It is not highly structured; there are no bells, no class changes, no curriculums. But there is an odd sort of rhythm to life here. The times, activities, locations, and interruptions to my planned schedule vary from day to day. There's still laundry, and yard work, and appointments, and grocery shopping, and meetings, and a host of what I would term "normal, U.S. routines," but it's not the same, and it is difficult, maybe even impossible to explain. Many gringos would look at my day and determine that it was a total waste - that I got nothing of significance accomplished, because my schedule and list of accomplishments (refer to the aforementioned index card to-do list) didn't conform to the North American notion of productivity. I was actually feeling frustrated and unproductive myself, but my dear friend and fellow missionary, Jeni McLane-Barrantes later added her seasoned perspective to that day. She pointed out the numerous opportunities I'd been given to work on my Spanish, the all important relationship building time I'd had with two of the most important people in my life here, the new experiences I've enjoyed in learning to cook again (by new rules and recipes), and, when all was said and done, I had logged nearly 3 hours in front of my computer (a major feat by Central/South American standards). She reminded me that I wasn't in the U.S. anymore and that Latinos don't play by the same rules as North Americans. She was right - and if I detailed "a week in the life" here, you'd see exactly what she means. Perhaps Duane Elmer, in his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood - Serving the World in Christlike Humility, says it best: "Most Westerners manage their lives using PDAs, daily planners or computer pop-up reminders. Little room remains for the unexpected or the ambiguous. We work hard to avoid uncertainty and to live an ordered, predictable life. The unknown, the unexpected, is an unwelcome intrusion in our schedule. We believe it to be dangerous to the order we have built into our existence" (53). Nothing here is predictable; everything here gets interrupted. PDAs are pointless, and you might as well get used to intrusions, welcome and unwelcome alike. So much for my index cards...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Celebrating Education

On Tuesday of this week I had the privilege of a trip to Tamshiyacu for the official opening ceremony of a new school for handicapped children. The SCOTA School (Special Children Of The Amazon) meets the educational needs of deaf and blind children, as well as children with significant physical and mental disabilities. A host of local celebrities, including the Governor of the Region of Loreto, and our own beloved Engineer/Architect Jorge Foinquinos, who is also a Congressman, attended the festivities. Eight students were present, along with their parents and/or other family members. From what I understand, the word has spread to the surrounding jungle villages about this school, and enrollment is expected to increase rapidly. Though both the government and educational systems in the U.S. can often be a royal pain in the behind to deal with for families with special needs children, at least there is a system that tries to provide opportunities for them. In Peru, unless a private organization provides the facilities and necessary materials, the government is generally not interested in the well-being of those who cannot speak for themselves, agreeing only to compensate (and I use that term loosely) the teachers. Regardless of my personal feelings about the Peruvian government and the total lack of importance it places on education for the masses, there was an air of excitement surrounding the festivities and I couldn't help getting caught up in it, mainly due to the attitude of the teacher who has agreed to move to Tamshiyacu (an hour away on the river - on a fast boat - a 'we'll see you whenever you manage to get there' on a slow boat/river taxi) to live in the school in order to work with these children. Her optimism, enthusiasm, and dedication are contagious; she is living her call and it is obvious.

Ironically, Monday was the first day of the 2009-2010 school year for faculty members in Spartanburg County, SC. While sitting in the screened porch, sipping my second cup of coffee, pushing away a stray strand of hair blown forward into my face by the early morning breeze and watching the sunbeams stream through the trees here at El Jardin, I pondered the opening of school. I have to admit that there was no part of me whatsoever that wanted to be rising with the alarm clock once again, heading off to brain-sapping in-service meetings, but there was a piece of my heart that felt empty. You see, I knew that I wanted to be an English teacher as a mere 11 year old in the spring of my 5th grade year at Ware Shoals Elementary. Unlike most of my classmates, whose professional ambitions changed with the wind throughout elementary, jr. high, high school, and even college, my career path never waivered. One of the most exciting days of my life was about a week into my student-teaching at Woodruff High School; I passed a student in the hall at the end of the day who said to me, "Have a good afternoon, Ms. McAbee; see you tomorrow." I walked out the door that day with the biggest smile on my face (and a glow that was still to be observed more than 30 minutes later when I got out of my car at Wofford and walked into my dorm) because I felt like I had 'arrived.' I was finally fulfilling my heart's desire; I was born to be a teacher. Until a few years ago I could never imagine myself doing anything else.

God has a sense of humor - at least He does in my relationship with Him, and He enjoyed a large chuckle at my expense on Wednesday. Many of you know that a point of frustration for me in moving to Peru has been not really knowing what my life would look like and exactly what my work would be. As this job has never existed before, it is really up to me (with the guidance and supervision of both the Medical Missions and Amazon Mission Fellowship boards) as to how it all shakes out. I've known from the beginning of this venture that I would be involved to some extent in the business of MMI and wholly in charge of the ministry of AMF, which would include working with the pastors regularly, as well as developing relationships with their wives with the prospect of becoming part of whatever women's ministries exist and eventually writing and leading some Bible studies of my own. But the Big Man upstairs threw me a curve ball that I didn't see coming. As I was going about my planned morning activities (doing laundry, studying Spanish, making sure Villa was working vs. wasting time), a banging on the gate ushered in Pastor Santiago from a church here in town that is not currently affiliated with AMF, but perhaps will be in the future. After a very brief round of small talk (abnormally short for Peruvians), he got right to the point of his visit. He'd come to ask me to consider coming to his church one day a week to teach English. Well, knock me over with a feather! In the back of my mind I'd harbored the thought that one day, when I felt very comfortable with my Spanish, I might begin tutoring some individuals in English, but never in my wildest dreams did I think the opportunity would literally knock so soon. I stuttered and stammered and searched my brain for every possible Spanish word that might be hiding there to explain why I couldn't do this. He countered all my arguments by telling me that doing this would help me with my Spanish (which it will, dang it - so much for that excuse), but more importantly, it will attract teenagers to the church first, because they want to know English and second, hopefully, for matters of a spiritual nature (holy cow - using teaching as a means of potential evangelism - meet the young people where they are and earn the right to be heard - sounds familiar!). When I told him that I taught literature and grammar to native speakers, not to second language learners, and that doing this would be very difficult he played the 'God Card' saying, "In Him all things are possible," (yeah, yeah, whatever - we all know the verse), and further drove his point home by saying that the announcement that I would be living here for 3 years was an answer to prayer, because God was providing some of the poorest people of Iquitos with another way to become educated - at least as far as learning English goes - and that might ultimately be a tool to lead them to Christ and to a church family.

I responded as a good missionary (and a good Christian for that matter) should and told him that I'd pray about it - which, in Peruvian Spanish, means "Yes, I'll do it." I had already mapped out the coming 5 weeks and set them aside for some intense Spanish studying. I informed Pastor Santiago of this and that I would be making a quick trip to the U.S. in late September/early October, but when I returned to Peru I would talk with him again and let him know what I believe God is leading me to do - which, in Peruvian Spanish, means "We'll get started as soon as I get back."

It seems education, in some shape, fashion, or form, is the theme of the week. And it seems this old teacher may not have handed in her chalk just yet. I'm not sure where this is going; I do need time to pray about it and talk it over with my trusted advisors. What is clear is that God has a plan for me here, and every day He hands me another little piece of this giant jigsaw puzzle I like to refer to as my missionary journey.

To all of the teachers around the world, particularly my friends at Spartanburg High School, thank you for living life in the trenches. Thank you for your dedication to the job that many critics believe they could do better than you (though you'll never see any of them actually giving it a try) and for sacrificing your time, money, and countless other resources in order to offer the children a fighting chance. The reality, however, is that whether we claim the field of education for our chosen professions or not, we are all teachers. This topic of many devotions throughout the mission team season here this year is that someone is always watching us, therefore we are always setting an example, good or bad, whether we know it and/or want to or not. And so this question should haunt us all: What kind of teacher am I?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Que Mas?

Buenos dias! It is 8 a.m. and I have been without power for the past 5 hours - at least. The silence from the absence of my fan blowing woke me up around 3 a.m. - well, that and the shrill humming of a mosquito near my ear. I have been unable to go back to sleep without some air stirring for fear that I would most certainly be a complex case of both malaria and dengue fever by morning if I didn't constantly fan myself to keep the biting insects away. Of course anyone who has seen me recently would say that was a waste of time, because there isn't any unbitten flesh left on my arms and legs at this point, so the bugs would chalk me up as a lost cause and move on.

Before I go on, I want to first say thank you to those who have been praying for Ina. She is currently in Lima awaiting a cornea transplant. It is my understanding that she may be there for as long as 3 months to recuperate, and for the doctors to monitor her progress. I was able to join her family last week to see her off and was blessed to be able to tell her that I miss and love her. As any mother would be, she is worried, anxious, and upset by the thought of being away from her daughters for that length of time. Valerie is 11 and Maria is 6 - they are staying with Ina's sister. Please continue to lift up Ina, her children, and the rest of her family through this very difficult time.

Three weeks ago (Wow! Where has the time gone?) the first of two groups from Huntington, WV arrived, and with them my good buddy Monty Fulton. I've had the pleasure of Monty's acquaintance for better than three years now, and I am always invigorated by his passion for this mission. Lest you begin to believe Monty is a saint, let me assure you he is quite a character. When he's not flooding my email inbox with blonde jokes, he's sending me sarcastic torts questioning why I have yet to post anything about him and his team on my blog - so Monty, this is for you.

The first Huntington group ministered to the physical well-being of Gallito with the medical team seeing patients and the remainder of the team installing simple water filter systems both in the church and in homes. The hope is that the people will begin to see the value of having and using clean water, which will, in turn, go a long way toward preventing some of their most common illnesses. The aforementioned Monty was part of the water team, even with his hurt leg, which he injured by falling off a ladder the day before his departure for Peru. I offered to shoot the lame horse; Sherry, his wife, was all for the idea, but the rest of the team had second thoughts; thus, Monty is still with us. The second group began their week in a most exciting fashion with Cal Kent displaying symptoms of a stroke during dinner on Saturday night. After several hours of tests and specialists at the Ana Stahl Clinic, Cal was diagnosed as having suffered a TIA (or mini-stroke) and medicated accordingly. Both the doctor here and Cal's doctor at home recommended that he return to the U.S. immediately for further tests, but "immediately" was going to be a problem because a transportation strike was taking place in Lima and one was threatened for Iquitos. The Kents were finally able to fly home on Thursday of that week and reported back that he did not suffer from a TIA but from TGA, or trans-global amnesia which can occur when travelers have experienced sleeping and eating patterns that significantly deviate from the normal with the added factors of equatorial heat and the effects of anti-malaria medicine. He gave us quite a scare, and I am very thankful that he is ok. Additionally, the second group was truly initiated into Peruvian culture through the medium of rain. Unless you have lived here, it is difficult to understand how rain affects life in the jungle - it stops. The most likely reason for the cessation of activity is because the Peruvians travel in rickshaws or by motorcycle with no way to remain dry, or because the work to be done is outside rather than inside. Regardless, Group 2 experienced daily downpours, keeping them from the grueling Gringo schedule that the mission teams maintain, but they adapted well and learned that it is, indeed, ok to just hang out and get to know people, and that they did most admirably. While they began construction on the new Sunday School building, they also found joy in playing with the children, taking naps on church benches, and following John Stephens (the younger version of Monty Fulton) into the Amazon for a swim. I find this refreshing, because our North American lifestyles are so driven by such an insanely inhuman notion of productivity that it is ridiculous. Throughout the two weeks of West Virginians I also had the opportunity to make some new friends among their first-timers who taught me a new card game and laughed uncontrollably with me (it is the best medicine). I look forward to seeing you all again soon (even Monty) when I visit Huntington during one of my trips back to the States.

More than once since I got here I've asked the question, "What else can happen?" The big occurrences like Ina and Cal, the not-so-big ones like multiple power outages (that have always managed to happen on evenings when no mission teams are here) and no hot water, and the smaller, insignificant ones like dial-up vs. high speed, wireless internet, when all added together seem enormous. It feels like a thousand little things go wrong daily, all leading up to the big whammies; and by the time the big ones join the mountains I've made out of mole hills, the climb is nearly impossible. But then I remember the summer of 2000 in Buena Vista, Colorado when I was having a hard time hiking to the top of 13,000 ft. Mt. Chrysolite with my arthritic hip. Just when I thought I couldn't take another step and was ready to give up, I looked up to see Steve Wise coming back down the mountain for me. No matter how many times I told him to go back to the top to be with his guys, he refused to leave me. Instead, he stayed with me every step, encouraging me, pushing me, never letting me quit. I recognized back then that this experience was significant and that God was showing a piece of Himself to me through Steve, but that mental image holds even greater importance to me today. It is in this memory that I see the present; God is always with me, never leaving me, as I climb the mountain of cross-cultural living and ministry. And His capacity for closeness is much greater than Steve's, for He is in the very air I breathe.

By the way, the power is finally back on...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

He Never Said It Would Be Easy

To say there have been trials in these first two weeks would be a gross understatement.

I had just settled into a routine and become quiet in my spirit when it was time for the first group to arrive. My three guys from First Presbyterian, Sumter, SC came bounding in last Saturday morning, bright-eyed and bushy tailed and ready to work (well, maybe they weren't so energetic at first since they had been up all night in the Lima airport). They did a tremendous job of working with Pastor Rony in Quistacocha to begin construction of a Sunday School room behind the church. We had a lot of laughs, mostly at Jim Gee's expense (don't worry Jim, I won't publish the story about your college Spanish class here), but the week was successful both in terms of relationship building among sister churches and work projects. Jim and Robert had the bonus of a trip to the hospital with a 17 year old boy who was in excruciating pain. Initially they thought he had appendicitis, but it turned out to be a kidney stone, not that the diagnosis was any better for the poor guy.

My trials began on Monday last week. It seems there was a significant ant population living in the house, so Ina, my housekeeper, bought insecticide . She was careful and wore gloves, but failed to wash her hands once she took the gloves off. She later rubbed her eye, creating an abrasion with insecticide particles still on her hand, which penetrated her eyeball. It would be Tuesday evening before I found out this happened. I tried to talk Ina into going to the hospital, but she did not want to, explaining that she neither likes doctors, nor taking medicine. For impoverished families, such as Ina's, statements like that can often be translated into "I can't afford to go, so why bother?" By Thursday her pain was unbearable, she had lost her vision in that eye, and she finally acquiesced to getting medical attention. She has now been in the hospital for 4 days and the doctors are still uncertain about whether or nor she will be blind in her right eye, particularly since she waited so long to seek help. Her situation is also complicated by the fact that she is diabetic. Ina is not just my housekeeper; she is my friend, and I love her. She is upset and discouraged and needs to be lifted up. Please pray for her.

Meanwhile, the Sumter group was leaving, and the first of two Huntington, WV groups was arriving. Needless to say I've had to call a time-out and prepare to drop back and punt. Ina is invaluable here; she is the "jefa," or chief of the house; she makes it run. It is difficult to understand just how much she does around here until she is not here to do it. It has been challenging these past few days to figure out how to function without her, but we are managing. I am so grateful to have Sarah Beth Mulet here this week. She spent two summers here as an intern while she was in college, is the secretary of AMF, speaks fluent Spanish, and is one of my very dear friends. She arrived just in time to step in and say, "Don't worry. I'll help you, and we'll be ok."

As a knee-jerk reaction, I have found myself questioning God. Why is this happening at all? But especially why is it happening when I just got here? And why now, when I need her most? Did I completely misunderstand God about coming here? Have I done the wrong thing, quitting my job and moving to South America? Fortunately my sweet Mamacita and my beloved Collins know me better than anyone and always say the right things to talk me down off the ceiling when I am going through one of my intensely reactionary phases. They've gotten a workout recently!

At my moment of greatest discouragement, I opened Streams in the Desert and read the day's devotional, which had obviously been written for me: "'Never dread any consequence resulting from absolute obedience to His command…Dare to trust Him! Dare to follow Him! Then discover that the forces that blocked your progress and threatened your life become at His command the very materials He uses to build your street of freedom'" (F.B. Meyer, 248). What else is there to say?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

So, Here I Am…

I'm now one week into my tenure as a missionary in residence in Iquitos, and I'm still tired.

The past couple of weeks have been the most mentally, physically, and emotionally draining of my life. It is an experience like no other. In my wildest, most outrageous dreams, I could never have imagined the depth of the grief of leaving my family, friends, church, home, job - I can't explain it and I don't even want to try. But, once again, God has shown up in a most timely fashion. Knowing that I would need the kindness of strangers at this juncture, He gave me a sweet-spirited waitress who never said a word, but simply smiled at me with compassion in her eyes while I ate my lunch in the Miami airport last Monday, crying the whole time. He provided an understanding Peruvian immigration officer who, when I explained that I was a missionary and requested a 90 day tourist visa (typically the longest one they issue), told me it would be best if I had a 6 month visa - "just in case." He put a kind-hearted woman at the LAN airlines counter who counted my luggage as part of the group checking in beside me so I wouldn't have to pay for my extra and overweight bags to fly from Lima to Iquitos. Yet most importantly, He placed me here in this jungle port city for the past three summers to develop the relationships that I would need to sustain me during my transition - Ina, Margarita, and Villa have gone so far above what is required of them to make me comfortable and to help me begin to feel like I am at home that I can never repay their kindness.

My first major lesson has been one of focus. I admit unabashedly that upon arrival I did not want to be here. Such feelings were difficult for me as I have always had a strong attachment to this place; I did not understand myself, but what I did understand was that I wanted to be on a northbound plane, headed straight back to Sparkle City, SC. I cried all day last Tuesday as I half-heartedly unpacked, tossing things in tandem into the closet, on the chair, across the bed; and I cried myself to sleep that night. The next morning, I cried again when Margarita showed up at El Jardin to give me the "gift" of the bank debit card. Being the absolutely wonderful woman that she is, she cried with me. Her words soothed me as she said she understood that I had come here at great sacrifice, but that she loves me, that her family is my family, that she will take care of me, and that September (and my first trip home) would arrive quickly. I am not exaggerating when I say the tears dried up immediately; my snap realization was that my focus was too large. Instead of thinking about getting through one day, one week, the 7 weeks of mission teams, then my return to the U.S. for an early fall visit, I was allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the idea of 3 years here. The nation of Israel learned a similar lesson when God refused to allow them to get swept away in the big picture by providing manna one day at a time.

I'm reminded of my favorite Laura Story song - the same song she sang to/for me during Westminster's Lay Renewal back in February - whose lyrics read, "…and You answer, "My child, I love you, and as long as you're seeking My face, you'll walk in the power of My daily sufficient grace." So at this point I'm only allowing myself to focus on today - no more, no less. If you do not own the daily devotional Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman, get it. June 18th's entry spoke renewed life into me this week with these words: "Pay as little attention to discouragement as possible. Plow ahead like a steamship, which moves forward whether facing rough or smooth seas, and in rain or shine. Remember, the goal is simply to carry the cargo and to make it to port."

So, here I am. My path to this point has been nothing less than spectacular. To those who have taken this walk with me thus far, thank you; and to those who are joining me now, welcome. Hold on tight. You're in for the ride of your life.

Recommended Reading

  • The Bible
  • Serving with Eyes Wide Open - Doing Short Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence - David A. Livermore
  • Cross-Cultural Servanthood - Serving the World in Christlike Humility - Duane Elmer
  • Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) - Robert D. Lupton
  • When Helping Hurts-Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself - Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Shadow of the Almighty - Elizabeth Elliot
  • Messy Spirituality - Michael Yaconelli
  • The Irresistible Revolution - Shane Claiborne
  • Peace Child - Don Richardson
  • If God Should Choose - Kristen Stagg
  • In the Presence of My Enemies - Gracia Burnham
  • Inside Afghanistan - John Weaver
  • Same Kind of Different as Me - Ron Hall and Denver Moore
  • Through Gates of Splendor - Elizabeth Elliot
  • End of the Spear - Steve Saint