The Woods and Compassion International El Salvador Mission Trip – November 2013
As a first timer on a mission trip of any kind, I only had the experience of the seasoned folks to draw from. As the day of departure drew near, one thing was a constant reminder among the group:
Things will get crazy before you leave.
I was told that I would doubt my reasoning for going and things would happen to reinforce that doubt. This certainly became apparent...
Signing up almost a year ago was easy. My wife, Nina, wondered if this was for her or, at least, if we really should be going together. “Nonsense”, I said, “We will go!”
I wonder what she thought when I told her a week before we left that I was just a little apprehensive. Okay, a LOT apprehensive. Our roles were reversed. I doubted the whole trip and she was assuring me that we will be fine. I got that. We had great plans for the kids’ care while we were away. The trip was all paid for, we were well prepared, and had the backing of God’s people in heavy prayer. Still, one problem remained: I have a great imagination and I fear flying. Still, what could go wrong?
I tried to keep my imagination at bay. This effort was not helped any when, on the way to work during the week before we left, I was listening to the news. Tip: If you have a good imagination, fear flying, and are going on a plane, don’t listen to the news. I did. I heard a report of an airline scare. The plane pitched down, the pilot confirmed they were going down, and the passengers were asking for forgiveness and mercy. The pilot then got the issue under control and all survived. Immediately after that news story, they announced the winning 3-digit number for the Michigan Lottery. The winning number was my number for many things, and the same number I won that same lottery with some years ago when I had a hunch and played one of the very few times I have done so. So how did I interpret this small tidbit of news that I happened to hear on my scant two-mile drive to work? “Plane crash. Your number’s up.”
To add, the closer we got to the trip, the more anxiety I had about leaving the kids for that long. What if something happened? We don’t even have arrangements. I never thought about Nina and I both leaving this earth at the same time, but what if…? It is only responsible to have plans just in case. It was decided that we needed to make a fast will and testament. We decided, before going to the hotel, we would drop the kids off at their caretaker’s house and then go home to record our thoughts. That night saw one of the heaviest wind storms that I can recall. As we dropped my kids off at their home for the week, the rain came down sideways. Backpacks, suitcases, sleeping bags, and children arrived water logged. It was getting late, so we kissed them goodbye, then completely abandoned them. Well, that’s what it felt like.
We used this time to stop back home to record the video. We had written things down and read them together to the camera. That got messy. Here we were about to embark on one of the greatest things we will ever do and we are sitting at home holding back tears and addressing each family member. I will say that we put together one of the most dynamic, heartfelt, humorous, and speedy wills EVER! But, yea, it was quite the scene.
We left for the hotel and, as we drove the van down the freeway, the wind rocked us around like a tuna boat on the high seas. We dodged garbage cans, tree limbs, cats, dogs, and whatever else wasn’t tied down in the Midwest portion of the United States. We made it to the hotel and settled in. As we began to relax, we realized we were hungry. I went out to pick up something, anything really. On the drive to and from a fast food place, I watched a car almost hydroplane out of control in front of me, my van was hit with a tree limb, and I happened upon an accident scene where a body was lying on the road. The night was ominious for sure!
Still, we would not consider any of this a deterrent. Game still on! We woke up at the planned 3:00 AM (not something I enjoyed). I checked the news. Tip: If you have a good imagination and fear flying, don’t watch the news. I did. The first story I saw was of a plane crash in Russia. Good morning, Nick! Still, we got onto that shuttle and arrived at the airport where twenty of us would drag suitcases from one check-in desk to another as we were given new instructions on where to go. Back and forth and back…to the original one we were at. Did I mention the elevators were not operational? That is what happens when you wake up at 3:00 AM. The elevators are still sleeping.
Aside from a delay for an undefined maintenance issue on our plane (really???), the flight to Atlanta was rather uneventful. From there, we would fly to El Salvador. It could be chaotic for twenty people to coordinate this ordeal, especially at the Atlanta airport which is about the size of Connecticut. However, we were blessed to have our veteran leader, Renee! Renee has done this countless times. She knows all the contacts personally and can navigate an airport as if she built it. She has been the one to keep us all informed and has handled every detail. She was born to do this! She kept us pointed in the right directions and kicked the slow ones along. We made it to the Atlanta gate. We boarded the flight and… where is Renee?
Renee had an issue. Her passport was ripped. They refused to allow her on the plane. We figured they would straighten it all out and Renee would join us. However, at the time I write this, we are approaching San Salvador and nobody sees Renee on this plane. As we begin our descent, steam begins to billow into the cabin from the side wall panels above the windows. This looks like it could be normal, but nobody had ever seen that before. That was more than interesting as we landed in an "airplane sauna".
So there you have it. Excitement, anxiety, apprehension, looking forward, looking backward, knocking down thoughts with logic, wondering what is in store with openness, sadness about home, gladness about His mission, a tornado-spawning storm, flying debris, a hydroplaning car, a body in the road, a “maintenance issue”, a steaming plane, and our leader stuck in Atlanta. Day one…almost…
Things started to click in San Salvador. Compassion International greeted us at the airport and made us feel like the Beatles with their shouting and waving. Their enthusiasm to serve us and feed us has yet to show signs of weakening. We boarded a bus that took us to Compassion International Headquarters. From there, we were walked through the operation and representatives from each section were eager to thoroughly explain their departments and roles. We were blown away by the obvious preparation they took to on their presentations. There is no way I can sit here and describe each ones efforts. Suffice to say, Compassion International is staffed with the most dedicated, hardworking big hearted, amazing people an organization could ever dream of. The thing that hit me the most, was their genuine love to serve. They consider it an honor to accommodate us. For this, I felt undeserving. As one whose half of this partnership consists of a monthly donation and some letter writing (of which I need to do more of) it is clear I have the easiest part of this effort. I do feel I am doing an awesome thing, but the true hands and feet of Christ that are behind this, are in San Salvador.
As far as the environment here, culture shock, would be putting it lightly. It was common to see hundreds of men women and children waiting on the side of the highway, to board lines of buses along the shoulder. Entire families were just sitting or walking along the shoulder in areas where there were little to no actual places to be or to go. At one point, I commented to one of our translators (and new friend) Roberto, the sad sight of multiple vacant business and homes along the highway. It was if a dream once lived there, but is now a hollow shell. Roberto corrected me, “Those are not vacant”. There are people using those buildings for businesses."
Some of the worst housing and buildings I have seen back home would be an upgrade, compared to the majority of places we drove past today.
In contrast, the background of these sites are the most beautiful mountainous views. Beyond these ten cent shacks were views people pay dearly to see out their own front windows here at home.
Before arriving at a fabulous restaurant that opened just for us, we were blessed to hear awesome news. In preperation meetings back home, we were told we would only get to visit the home of one of our sponsored children. However, we were told today that we will get to visit all three! Words cannot describe how elated we are.
Without a doubt the most compelling feeling I have at the moment, is that God is present here! Just like the beauty of the mountains beyond the hard living, His glory is abundant in the sacrifices that His people choose to make each day. As for now, we are tired. Day two will be here before we close our eyes. Until then….
Day two began after a night of sleep with the TV on and speaking in only Spanish. I thought the language might seep into our brains while we slept. That did not work. The hotel had breakfast ready and we started our day with scrambled eggs, beans, fried plantains, papayas, pineapple, melons, sausage and COFFEE!!! We boarded the bus with much pushing and shoving. We weren’t trying to be rude. It is just that whoever is last to board the bus must do “The Chicken Dance”. There is no getting out of it either. The clapping and the singing won’t stop and the bus won’t go until the dance has been completed. Just do it. If you are last.
We had a short drive to the Sion church and educational facility otherwise known as “The Project”. We were greeted with the enthusiasm that only about 100 children could be capable of. They lined the aisle up to the middle of the church clapping and smiling, each with a sign bearing their name and the name of their sponsor. Then, for the first time, we got to see Enyeda, Oswaldo, and Aileen, our three sponsored children through Compassion International. Their hugs were a long time coming and they brought us to tears knowing how excited we all were to see each other. There is something about that kind of hug. You will never forget it.
After getting acclimated with our kids, everyone sat down to watch them sing and act out some great songs of praise. When that was over, we separated into groups to tour the educational facility. Downstairs, upstairs, room by room, we were given full presentations of what each section taught the kids. Math, social studies, cooking, language, crafts, infant care, occupational skills, and so much more. Although we were separated into groups, all of the children began to find adults to trail and stick close to. They joined each session with us and it was clear that they are very proud of the project, as well they should be. There is nothing else like it in this region.
Afterwards, we were driven to our first home visit. One turn off the main road and we were on a dirt path with very large holes and random stones and concrete to fill the deeper ones. The small bus dropped in and out as we moved gingerly down the road lined with houses as different from one another as they could get. From one room abodes to larger ones, they sat close to the road, far off, and some at the end of very steep driveways. The landscape and houses looked like something Picasso might have come up with. Nothing matched, nothing flowed, and the disparity of what one family had that another did not was obvious in the vastly different accommodations. The road had a random stream of water cutting a path down the descent that roaming dogs drank from. This wasn’t Kansas, Dorothy.
We arrived at the home of Oswaldo, one of the nicer homes we saw. Just past a small gate that closed behind us, we were brought to a small front yard with a garden that lined the way up to the front porch. Mom and Oswaldo met us on the porch and we, with our translator, began the hugging and introductions. As we spoke of our appreciation for the visit, I noted the water reservoir next to the front porch. The house does not contain running water or plumbing of any kind. Other things caught my attention, but it was important to put my curiosity aside and connect with the family.
We brought lunch and were about to get started with it when Oswaldo’s dad walked into the yard. This is rare for a dad to come home from work in the middle of the day. They do not get paid much, so to take time off is a tremendous sacrifice. It meant everything to us and the family that he wanted to join us. We all sat at a table on the porch and passed out the food which was the equivalent of a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal. It was far beyond the norm at this household. I prayed, the translator translated, and we dug into the meal.
After the meal and some small talk, we presented the family with gifts. Cookware for mom, work gloves for dad, and some toys, shirts, and drawing equipment for Oswaldo. We were showing Oswaldo how to throw his first Nerf football and, as he cocked his arm back, football in hand, I saw his father wiping away tears. A Nerf football will never make someone cry, but hope and love will. Through Compassion International, we were able to bring that to this family.
After playing with Ronald, dad showed us the house. Each of the few rooms were dark and stuffy with a musty smell, but the décor certainly said, “Home.” When he showed his were he and his wife slept, I pointed out his stereo and TV and told him, through the translator, that we call that a man cave back home. He thought that was pretty funny. Truth was, his TV and stereo was nothing like anything we use back home, and his room actually was more of a cave than we would be comfortable with.
The visit went by quickly and it was time to board the bus. We said our goodbyes and promised to keep the letters coming. There were smiles and hugs like any normal departure, but it was an uneasy feeling knowing the connection we had just made, yet not having a clue when and if we would really ever see them again.
Our next visit was with Aileen’s family. Aileen’s mom has a house along, and very close to, a paved road. The front door, like most windows and doors here, had steel bars, but no glass. The living room was a noisy place to be. Cars and three-wheeled taxis zoomed by just a few feet from us as we sat in the family room. Looking around, I noticed the adjacent room had a dirt floor. Like many other places we saw, the doors are often open wide to the outside. Also, many things that we would keep inside were outside. For example, a sink area where they do the washing and cooking was set up in the back yard behind the house. The weather here is usually sunny and hot. Other than rain, there is not much to ruin things, so it is normal to see stuff outside like this. What I didn’t expect was to see their bathroom outside too. Two stalls built into the corner of the brick wall that surrounds the yard served as the restroom. Again, in this house, no running water or plumbing of any kind.
This visit did not go as easy as the last one. Aileen’s mother, Roxana, is a single parent. She works seven days a week selling whatever goods she can gather from anywhere. The fear in her eyes was real as she spoke of not being able to provide for her two girls. The father had left a while ago and she struggles to make a life for her family. She spoke of wanting more. Who doesn’t, right? Well, more will always be relative. Most people I know prefer our kind “relative” back home.
We began giving them the gifts we brought. Even then, the mood was solemn except for Aileen. Her eyes widened, her smile brightened, and her soft voice would say, “Gracias”, many times. The hope she has amidst the struggles is the kind of hope most children would have. At that age, this is normal and she simply is not aware of how difficult things really are.
We had encouraging words for Roxana and Aileen’s older sister. I explained to Roxana that, growing up, I did not have much either. Still, I don’t remember a life of not having much. I only remember a strong mother. Roxana is a strong mother also. We believe Roxana has the tools she needs to raise her children in the best ways a child should grow up. Still, even when we do all things right, life is often difficult regardless. I pray she heard the meaning of our words and continues to seek the Lord.
It was time to pray and get back on the bus. We asked for their requests. Roxana asked for health and a way to provide. Aileen’s older sister asked for intelligence so she can do her school work. Aileen asked that her daddy knows God. It is the same prayer Aileen has asked us to pray in every letter she has written us. So we prayed, and will continue to do so. For now, it was time to say those open ended goodbyes. I don’t think this part could ever get easy.
Days 3 and 4
Day three began our two-day housing rehabilitation project. There were two houses in need of roof repair and some other work that would be defined once we got there. Renee had instructed us weeks ago to be flexible because things could change at any minute. I know enough about home projects to know that they don’t always go as planned. Therefore, I was prepared, right? Let’s get this done!
We twisted through narrow streets lined with buildings and peppered with small taxis zigging, motorcycles zagging, and people walking. Did I mention that they often don’t use sidewalks here? I think that the amount of merchandise displayed in the fronts of stores makes people simply walk in the street with the taxis, motorcycles, busses, and small pickup trucks with 8-10 people in the back. I have no doubt that this kind of scene will end up on a driving game someday. It is a challenge that Oscar, our driver for the week, is up to.
We eventually found ourselves on a road that sent us skyward. Like the “click, click, click” of being pulled up a first hill of a roller coaster, we lumbered up, up, up… except that it wasn’t exactly a “click, click, click.” The twenty of us packed out this little bus and we rocked and rolled up this road with sounds of a labored engine, whining transmission, rocks spit out from the tires, and twenty randomly consistent “WHOAS!” We bounced our way along this road made of a bed of large, nearly flat stones.
We arrived at the project I was to work on. Down the short walk off the road, we were at the home of Julio, Anna, and their four children. Their house is a one room abode about 18 feet wide by 12 feet deep. The corrugated metal roof extends off the front of the house about another 12 feet. This was it: one room, no plumbing, no windows, no flooring, and no bathroom. But the view was spectacular.
To start work, we had to remove everything inside the house. It all was placed along the edge of the yard where a long descent begins down the mountain. What struck me the most was the musty smell in the house due to very little ventilation. We piled clothes onto sheets and carried the bundles to the back. When the house was empty, we started work.
We began tearing the roof off and making good time. I was enjoying the pace and thought this job wasn’t as hard as others I had heard of. I know of stories where direction wasn’t clear, communication issues caused delays, and people getting sick from the heat. Here on my project, it wasn’t extremely hot and things were moving along.
The structure of the porch was made up of small diameter trees that were cut and placed in the ground about 6 to 8 inches deep, so they all came out easily. When the area was cleared, the measuring began. Eight places were marked where new holes would be dug two feet down and about ten inches in diameter. With a manual posthole digger. This job just got hard. We were doing this right and that means much larger wood sunk into deeper holes.
The rest of the day saw the new roof get installed onto the house and much thicker, heavier porch roof supports set into the ground. We were able to get all the holes dug and I only broke two of the tools. It looked like day three would be a short day.
Remember when I said we were told to remain flexible? The next day, the weather was hotter. When we arrived to the site, we were given an additional job. The wall of dirt that was parallel to the road and along the property extended up to the road. This was not exactly straight. As it passed the corner of the house near the front door, it had a tree that made the wall jut out and back in as the wall continued on. Anna wanted to put her kitchen there, but it needed to be straight. We would have to cut out that jut and remove the tree to do so. There is a saying that goes, “What momma wants, momma gets.” We began picking away at the mountain. Two gallons of water and countess trips to the edge of the yard where hundreds of buckets of dirt were thrown later (did I mention we had no wheelbarrow?), we had that wall straight. Momma was happy.
As we worked together with volunteers from Sion Church and spoke through translators, bonds were made. Many times, we would stop working and share stories. We spoke to the family, the helpers, and one another for those two long days. As difficult as some of the work was, it is apparent that we were building more than a roof. We built friendships. Then we needed to get back to work!
We eventually got the roof on and then learned of a surprise. One of the things the family needed was a bathroom, but it was not something that was able to be provided for this project. As we were finishing up our work, we learned that, somehow, they would be able to get a bathroom built. A truck pulled up and men began handing bricks to one another from the truck to property. We were done for the day and our project was complete. The bathroom would be built by the crew that we worked with on the roof. I slept very well the night of day 4.
Note: Days 5 and 6 are not completed, but will be added here soon.
The Bible tells us that God Rested on the 7th day. We came here to live out His Word, spread His message, and be the example of Him through Christ. However, for our hearts, minds, muscles, and memories, there would be little rest today. We had more work to do. I think back on the week of pulling luggage through airports, switching flights, waking up early, getting to bed late, tearing down housing structure, rebuilding, digging holes, moving dirt, getting three home visits in and meeting our sponsored children, becoming acclimated to dire conditions that people call home, and corralling over 250 screaming and dancing VBS children from station to station every twenty-five minutes (or whenever the 25 minute bell randomly rang). In the midst of a week of new friends, new family, laughing, bonding, eating, and traveling together, we sweated, got sick, strained muscles, cried, and thanked God for hearts big enough to carry every new reality back home.
Then there was today when we would have to perform the toughest job all week…
We packed our bags and sat down to breakfast where the name of the place could have been The Melancholy Inn. The conversation was not as jovial and the mood was much less cheerful than the previous mornings. After breakfast, we boarded the bus and headed to Sunday service at Sion Church for the last time on this trip.
Timing was everything this morning. We had to depart immediately after service, so our goodbyes would have to happen before service started. By the time service began, only one of our children, Enyeda, had arrived. She sat with us and her little sister, both proudly wearing the dresses that Nina picked out for them earlier in the week. The dresses were bought on a whim and Nina seems to have a knack for knowing a kid’s size. She didn’t disappoint. They fit the girls perfectly.
During worship, we looked around to see if the other two children showed up. Eventually, an adult walked Aileen… excuse me, Alejandra into the church. We had been referring to her by her first name. During this visit, we learned she went by her second name. Either way, she was there. I stepped out of the row at the front of the church to become visible. She saw right away and ran into my arms. I walked her to Nina where hugs commenced and tears flowed.
It was a while before Ronald… excuse me, Oswaldo arrived. There's that first/second name thing again. I had to get his attention, then he joined us in a less emotional way, but he couldn’t hide his smile. He was sporting a Detroit Lions shirt. I wonder where he got that :)
We worshipped together in service, but service doesn’t last forever. Soon, it was time to go. How do you describe moms, dads, kids, sisters, brothers, and us all hugging one another and wishing we didn’t have to leave them. It was clear this was a sad day for them as well.
Naturally, we look at situations from our own perspective. As sad as we were, we had homes and children to get home to. When I think of this day from a sponsored child’s perspective, it rips into my heart. We are sad, but we were going home where we can drink water from the tap, flush toilets, sleep on clean sheets, lock our houses, and take the garbage to the curb for pickup. We come home two days before Thanksgiving, a day where we open drawers and closets full of clothing, then stand there and say, “I have nothing to wear.” Then we will go to a climate controlled house where we will eat more food than we need and certainly more than people here eat in a month. And we’re sad?
These kids were as sad as we were, but they will go home to makeshift houses where floors are dirt. Water is gotten from a reservoir outside the home if they are fortunate enough to have a source. Bathrooms are outside stalls with little privacy. Trash is lying in a heap somewhere in the yard. There is nowhere to place it. It is not picked up. I think of Enyeda’s house where 9 people live and the only part of the house that has a roof is a small lean-to type steel room with three beds.
But there is something our houses share with them: The HOPE we find in Christ. Today, from the despair of the homes described here, the most beautiful children sat with us and praised God. There is so much heartache to find in the community surrounding the Sion church, but the love, joy, and hope that lives here perseveres in spite of it. There is a lesson here that takes me back to the contrast I mentioned the first day I arrived and it reminds me of Isaiah 61:3
"...and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor."
Making this day even more difficult was having to say goodbye to our translators and friends. All week long, they were the glue that bonded our two churches in language. They ran from person to person and never showed any signs of tiring as we continually summoned them again and again. Our excitement often trumped manners, but they served us with an eagerness I have rarely seen before. I hope to see them again.
Tonight, Nina and I sit alone on the patio of an oceanside resort where our team will wind down for a day and a half, then fly back home. Most people would be happy to be here. It certainly is nice, but again, the feeling is bittersweet. We miss the kids. It has been a physically and emotionally exhausting week. Everybody is tired. We will enjoy this time, but we look forward to home.
Until then, God be with the translators as they wearily travel home, and may the blessing of our Lord and Savior be with the families of The Sion Church and El Congo community. Until we see you again…
Nick Gerace (author) from Warren MI on October 29, 2014:
Thank you! We try not to define our expectations and let the Holy Spirit fill our tanks. We have not been let down :)
Joyce Terrell on September 18, 2014:
Nick & Nina: Your dedication of God's work will not go without rewards. I am sure that the best reward was the experience in itself as you have shared with us thru your eyes. I too have desire to do International Mission work one day. My prayer is that God will use me to give hope to others where there is none. I want to share love and let others know of the love of God, his mercy and grace. Thanks for both for your unselfish time. You too, will be blessed.
Sandy Clifton on September 16, 2014:
Nick - Loved reading of your mission experiences! Having been to India to pick up Spencer when we adopted him, I can understand the culture shock, and the feeling of doing all we can for those beautiful children! I continue to support the kids of India, and hope to return someday, if only to allow Spencer to see his birthplace. May God Bless you and your wife in all you do! xxx
Mary Kay on November 22, 2013:
I'm so thankful for this blog. You captured it perfectly with your words. At least as much as the experience can be captured. I am praying for you and Nina and the rest.
Phyllis Freeman on November 21, 2013:
Nick, thanks for the very detailed blogging. I could see the homes and people full of hope because of their sponsors. A friend of mine is going to a Latin America country in February. I want her to read your blog. She also is both excited and anxious. Thanks for your service there. May God bless the remainder of your trip. I hope you are still using your writing talent because you do have the gift of allowing the reader to "see" your story. Blessings.
Sandy Foos on November 21, 2013:
Nick thank u from the bottom of my heart for your Blogs,for keeping us all informed. I know by your words this amazing journey will forever change your lives, I pray one day Mike & I will be able to share the word of God, and also meet our beautiful little girl.
God b with u all.