With a three-fold of brightly colored thread in his hand, Alejandro proceeded to bounce from team member to team member introducing himself while quickly fashioning around our wrists a bracket made out of the threads.
As Alejandro went about the room, Antonio explained how he knew this young man. He explained that they came across him a few trips back when the Evoke team was standing in the plaza where they first received the vision to host a festival there. Through their initial conversation, Antonio learned that Alejandro was homeless and addicted to heroine. The kid had a heart breaking story in which even his parents showed no concern for him.
As they continued to talk, a local pastor that was with the group chastised Antonio, saying that the kid was just looking for money and not to bother with him. As the man began to shoo Alejandro away, Antonio was quick to rebuke the pastor. He explained that these are the very people the pastor should be loving. That instead of hurrying them away, he should be chasing after them.
Fast forward a year or so, and Antonio runs into Alejandro again. And the very same pastor who sat scolding the two of them last year, ends up leading Alejandro in a prayer to receive Jesus!
Now, back to present time and the pizza shop. Antonio is beaming as he compliments how healthy and fleshed-out his friend looks, letting us know how Alejandro no longer does heroine. He even revealed that Alejandro hand knitted a bag for him, embroidering it with "Jesus Loves You."
Soon we said our thank-yous and goodbyes to our new friend, and quickly finished our pizza. For we had a meeting to get to. We wanted to connect with the artists who were participating in the festival and sure up any loose ends before things got underway the next day. Luckily, our newly acquired Evoke: Colombia office was just across the plaza from where we were eating.
I had barely set foot outside the restaurant when I was engulfed by a wave of excitement and confusion. "It's Jorge! Jorge is here!" I heard someone shout.
"Wait, what?! Like, Jorge, Jorge?"
"Yeah! In front of the office!"
I ran over to a small circle of people gathered around an unassuming man with a buzz cut, white oxford shirt, classy-casual brown jacket, and a slight pot belly. Jerryl was wiping tears from her eyes and Alexsa was smiling ear to ear as they flanked him. As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew for sure it was him. That New York accent was unmistakable.
If you happened to have read last year's account, it's likely you know exactly who this is (though I mistakenly spelled his name, "George" in previous accounts.) If not, I'll briefly explain the significance of this man and his being in front of us at this moment.
You see, we had met Jorge on last year's trip. Homeless and hooked on a myriad of drugs, he had originally grabbed our attention by hailing us with his distinctly perfect English wrapped in a distict New York accent. Before we even decided to hear him out, he was already explaining how Obama had deported him for selling drugs in the States, and how his wife and kids are still in the US, and how he has to wait ten years until he can get back in.
After that night, we ended up crossing paths numerous times over the course of the trip. Each time we would pray over him and encourage him, and each time he would be looking better and better. He kept reiterating how he just wanted to be around us, and couldn't get the words we were saying out of his head. And by the end of our trip, he told us he was going to have his uncle drive him to a rehab clinic.
Now, almost exactly one year later, the man we had met in the streets -- addicted to crack, dirty, smelly, with a cynical, defeatist attitude-- did not even exist as a shadow of the person who now stood before us. He explained that he ended up checking into a rehab center shortly after we left last year. While there, he decided to give his life to Jesus and has been looking forward ever since. If I understood him correctly, he now works at the very program he attended; helping others struggling with addiction. One of the men at the program is actually a contributing artist for the festival, so when he told Jorge that he was going to a creative meeting for an art festival hosted by some American missionaries, Jorge figured it had to be the same people he had met the year before and decided to tag along.
And there he was!
That night, at the meeting, Jorge was our guest of honor. It was such a great experience meeting all the eager artist; sharing laughs and a bit about ourselves. However, my mind stood elsewhere for most of the meeting. I was completely wrecked by the transformation I'd seen in Jorge. I mean, nothing besides the accent even hinted at the man I had met last year. However, when I think about it, almost everything I saw in the man I had met last year, seemed to be hinting at the person that stood before us that night. The smiling, the joking, the hope disguised as sarcasm, the lightness with which he carried himself despite his destitute circumstances -- all betrayed a perceivable light behind his eyes that those in our group picked up on right away upon first meeting him in the streets that fateful evening.
Now, one year later, that light was on full display for everyone to see. Jorge's very existence had become a living testimony to a God that loved him enough to seek him out under the refuse and rubble under which he'd buried himself in an attempt to hide, and upon finding him, offered him a life completely new in it's entirety -- one of hope, sustenance and ultimate purpose and satisfaction.
After the meeting was over, many of us spent the remainder of the night listening to story after story of Jorge's new found relationship with Jesus Christ and how it has completely transformed his every day. We almost hit the floor when Jorge relayed a story from sometime in the midst of his rehabilitation.
One day, something had frustrated him to the point where he decided he was going to walk out on the program. That very afternoon, while strolling along the streets, he came across Evoke's trip organizer from last year. His name is George, and before Jorge had a chance to avoid detection, he was found out. "Hey, I recognize you! Aren't you supposed to be in that rehab program?" Jorge recounted George saying. "You better get back there! The guys from Evoke will be coming back next year. What would they think if they saw you back on the streets?"
Jorge said that was enough for him to go back and finish the program.
From the time I first saw Jorge that night, I was essentially hysterical. I just remember not being able to sit still (hearkening back to the worship night from last year.) However, I did manage to pull myself together enough to walk with Alexsa, Jorge and Alex, the artist who brought him there, back to the hotel. On the way, Jorge bought us all a round of ice-cream -- the parody in this makes me smile now that I think about it.
Once back at the hotel, some more teary eyed reunions with team members and more stories of triumph. Oh, the stories Jorge has! We huddled in the hotel lobby like old friends at a Christmas party, listening with grinning faces and heads shaking at the weight behind seemingly every sentence that leaped from Jorge's mouth. He explained how he sees God move every day. "In the small things." He quipped. "Some people look for a million dollars, I've got something better! People think I'm crazy, they ask why I'm smiling all the time. It's because I know where I came from."
He explained how he was getting baptized that coming Sunday. Every word he said seemed to be singing like a choir of angles, the glory of The One who redeems -- the one who says, "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Mat. 5:3)
As if to punctuate the night with affirmation of what we had seen behind those veiled eyes one year ago, Jorge admitted he could hear his mother's voice speaking over him, "I told you you'd be something special!"
At the end of the night, we prayed together in one of the most beautiful family moments I experienced on the trip. We prayed for Jorge, as well as his friend Alex. And though I didn't to talk to Alex, per se, since he only spoke Spanish, his demeanor told me that he was deeply impacted by the love shown that night. We all were.
What I learned from that night was that God is in the business of redeeming and transforming lives in the realest, most complete sense of the words. And with that, I'll simply leave you with a side-by-side comparison of the Jorge we first met, and the Jorge we said goodnight to in that hotel lobby.