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.

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