Thursday, October 23, 2014

DAY 4 - FESTIVAL VIDA: DAY ONE


Alright, Day 4.  Festival Vida was finally upon us!  This meant an extra early start for we had a ton of setup to do.

As we approached the plaza that morning, we found it alive with activity.  A giant stage had been erected over night and acted as a hub for the seemingly countless techs and volunteers buzzing about the city square.  Every where I looked there were little pockets of brightly colored Festival Vida shirts setting up tables, assembling art installations, decorating the kids area or simply interacting with curious bystanders.  Our team immediately dispersed to help out wherever we could. 

Now, the best way I can describe all the activity of the day will be through pictures.  So here's your warning up front: this post will be very picture heavy.  Which will likely be a welcome relief given my tendency toward wordiness.

Our first salvo is the morning's setup:




As we were all running around that morning, a familiar face happened to stop by to check out the action.  It was Luis David! He approached Michael and Jerryl explaining that ever since he was prayed for the day prior, he's felt a sense of fullness.  He revealed that he had not done any drugs since meeting Michael and Sergio and felt the compulsion to turn his life around.  Again, he emphasized his deep desire for family.  Jerryl encouraged him, explaining that he has a Father in Heaven who loves him beyond measure.  They prayed over him again. 

During their prayer, Jerryl received the idea to introduce Luis David to Jorge!  Since Jorge had told us he was planning on helping out at the festival that day, things were shaping up perfectly.  So, once Jorge and his friends from the rehab program showed up at the plaza, she introduced them to Luis David.  She explained the situation, and Jorge was more than happy to invite the boy to have lunch with them.  The whole scene was a rich example of Godly exchange.  Jorge, a recent recipient of the transforming power of God's love, now pouring it right back into the very kind of desolation he was rescued out of. 

Before he ran to lunch, Luis David found Jerryl one more time and presented her with a necklace.  Jerryl was so touched by his act of kindness, she didn't know what to say.  He also mentioned that he saw one of the hand painted Jesus t-shirts that she makes, and would love to have one of his own.

Another encouraging story to come out of that morning centered around a man named Carlos.  He had recognized us from last year's trip when we were ministering to the homeless under the bridge.  He carried with him a Bible, claiming one of our group members had signed it.  As to who it was, remained a mystery that morning, but that didn't stop the group from inviting him to help out with setup.  He was more than happy to oblige and parked his wheelchair around a big pile of fabric and began building streamers for an art installation.  He spent the entire morning and early afternoon laughing and sharing with some of the team members and volunteers.  All the while sporting a huge grin on his face.


Around 2pm, everything seemed to be shaping up enough for us to break for lunch.  It was well needed, because come three o'clock, it was going to be non stop until around eleven. 

Once the festival got underway, it was a story a minute.  I can't even begin to explain the half of what all went down that afternoon, but I do have pictures to help out:



It was almost surreal seeing all the work and planning that went into the vision of this festival finally realized.  The whole scene was leaps and bounds more spectacular than anything I could have imagined.  I mean, it was huge!  Thousands of people at any given moment were taking part in a celebration of God's hand being upon their city.  Though many may not have seen it that way or wanted to acknowledge it, that's why we were there --with loud, lively music, bright, expressive colors, and high flying acrobats and dancers, exclaiming it with inviting candor and joyous agreement.  

A few hours into all the action, the children's area was simply a sea of little painted faces, either bright with shouts of laughter or crinkled in exertion as they hurriedly drug their parent to the next game or activity.  The opposite end of the plaza was just as alive with an exhibit of acrobatics; a seriously impressive display of parkour, skating and BMX.  However, it was in the open space between the two arenas where I was soon met with a scene I've only heard about in books and by word of mouth.

As I was photographing the skaters and BMXers, Mafe came to me with a wide-eyed expression on her face.  "There's a woman who has a demon or something!  Come quick!"  She exclaimed, pulling me my by shirt over to a crowd of people right in front of the stage.

There lay a woman with an grimace on her face that seemed a mixture of anguish and helpless fear.  She was alternating between bouts of violent shaking and slow writhing.  A few of Evoke's team were attending to her and praying over her. 

I soon learned that the woman had met some our our team the first night of the trip when we were ministering to the homeless.  That afternoon, Michael saw her walking around the festival and approached her to say hello.  When she turned and locked eyes with him, she immediately fell over backward and began shaking.



The whole thing was drawing quite the crowd and the police where taking notice, so a group of us decided to carry the woman to the green room tent behind the back-stage barricade.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, I decided to leave the ones directly involved in praying over the woman to their work.  However, Nakeisha stayed with them in the tent and filmed the entire exorcism. 

Now, I use the word exorcism because that is the only way I can really describe it.  Like I said, I hadn't experienced anything like that before.  And from what I was later told about what happened in that tent, I believe that a demon had manifested in that woman that afternoon.  Nakeisha looked like a deer in headlights after the encounter.  I haven't seen the footage she got, but she kept explaining how the woman would just periodically start growling.  The whole scenario shook me up a bit, but I barely had time to acknowledge what I had just witnessed before another scene began unfolding. 

Again, another crowd tipped me off to something amazing happening.  I quickly pushed through bodies to find some of our team praying over Carlos in his wheelchair.  Inspired by the parkour acrobats, Carlos had apparently explained to Jerryl that he wanted to be able to do what they did.  So that's where I found them, praying for Carlos' ability to walk. 

From what I know, Carlos basically had no feeling in or control over his legs.  So as we continued to pray, two of our team members lifted Carlos from his chair and draped his arms over their shoulders.  Slowly and clumsily, Carlos began to lift his leg to take a step!  Showered in cheers and prayer, Carlos continued.  Each step came with more control and confidence.  He must have walked about 15 feet from his chair before turning around to walk back!

Drawn by all the cheering, a woman approached us and knelt in front of Carlos with tears in her eyes.  She explained that she was a doctor and was once wheelchair bound herself.  She assisted Carlos this time as he took another stroll.  As he sat back down, she said some words to Carlos and began to take off his shoe.  It was during this interaction I captured one of the more powerful moments I've experienced to this day.


Throughout the remainder of the day, I would look over and see Carlos up from his wheelchair walking more and more confidently, requiring less and less assistance from others.  And though I never witnessed him walking completely on his own that day, (and trust me, I really, really wanted to) I have this sneaking suspicion that our team might just arrive in Armenia next year and have a kind, smiling face in a beige backward baseball cap come running right up to us.  Who knows, he might even do a front flip over a trashcan along the way. 

Soon enough, I was back to my routine of bouncing around from area to area.  As I was walking through the central part of the plaza, I came across the woman that I'd seen convulsing on the ground just a couple hours ago.  She had the most pleasant smile on her face.  She walked up to me and proceeded to speak very sweetly and kindly to me in Spanish.  I had no idea what she was saying but I smiled back as I reached for a translator.  Eventually, I found out she was telling me how much she loved the sound of English.  She also mentioned her love of French.  She gave me a hug and just simply had a sweetness about her.  As I leaned in to hug her, she even kissed me on the cheek.  Considering I was a former germ-a-phobe and the fact that she had just apparently had a demon manifestation earlier that afternoon, this kind of freaked me out a bit.  But I just kept reminding myself that Christ is in me, and where the Light exists darkness has to flee. 

Here's the woman after being restored.  


Once the sun began to dip behind the buildings and a substantial crowd has gathered around the stage to await the musical acts slated for the night, we invited a special guest to officially kick things off. 

Early on in the planning of the festival, Scott had received a word about the impact it would have on the city.  He was told that a sound would be released over the entire area, eliciting transformation and revival.  Believing this word, Scott decided to procure probably the only shofar player within 500 miles to open up Festival Vida.  The shofar was traditionally used in Jewish culture to call upon a people to assemble, and we thought such a sound could do the same for the city of Armenia. 

So, after a brief explanation from the shofar player, he bellowed out three long blasts.  On the third blast, the crowd let out a resounding cheer, hallmarking a corporate belief that their city would be transformed.


The musical acts got underway and the crowds continued to grow.  The whole plaza was simply alive.  Insomuch that it seemed even the outer reaches of the city were being pulled in by a perceivable air of celebration emanating from our little square. 

After a couple hours, Scott and Adolfo (one of the festival coordinators/translator) took the stage to thank everyone for coming out, and to share the vision of the festival as well as a Gospel message.  As soon as they began to speak, a man in the front row, who I had seen dancing his head off and having a ball just minutes earlier, suddenly let out the most primal roar I've ever heard.  He lunged forward and gripped the metal barricade in front of the stage and shook it so violently it looked as though he could have picked up the entire length of it and hurled it over his head.  Like a caged animal, he kept roaring and beating on the barricade in an attempt to get at Scott and Adolfo. 

Some of our team rushed to the scene immediately.  The crowd recoiled to give him space as he stepped back and turned toward those that were approaching him.  His head tilted downward, as he glared at the crowd from under his brow.  I was watching the whole thing unfold from atop stage left, as our team approached the man.  They began praying, attempting to address him.  He recoiled in defense a few times until someone was able to lay a hand on him.  He quickly collapsed to the cement and the team converged on him. 

This prompted another woman that was acting as his dance partner earlier, to begin screaming at our team, lashing out at them.  Nakeisha actually was punched in the camera at one point.  Antonio quickly went to subdue the woman.  Praying over her and attempting to calm her down. 

Scott and Adolfo continued to share the Gospel while all of this was going on.  And after what seemed like ten minutes had passed, I could still see a gap in the crowd where the man lay.  Close by, Antoino and the woman were now embracing; tears in the woman's eyes.  As the team continued praying over the man, they said that he would switch back and forth from a tense, combative scowl to a look of fear and helplessness, exclaiming "Ayúdame! Ayúdame!" ("Help me!  Help me!")

Eventually, the man was able to rise to his feet.  Though I was still on stage, I could tell he now had a district peace about him.  To the sound of applause, he embraced those who prayed over him.  He was eventually ushered over to an area behind the stage where Scott and his wife spoke with the man.  I don't know much of what went on in that conversation, but I do remember Scott saying that the man revealed that when he was being prayed over he felt like a voice was speaking to him, but he could explain what it was saying.

The remainder of the night felt like one big celebration of God's presence and victory.  We had musical acts of all kinds.  From hip-hop to rock, reggaeton to salsa.  The crowd was responsive to all of it.  Here's another picture essay to help out:









Toward the end of the night, Nathan Ironside's band (a former worship leader at Hillsong Church in Australia) took the stage.  However, Nathan's flight was delayed that night, so he wouldn't make it until the following night. 

Backed by the band, Scott and Adolfo called on those in attendance to open their hearts to Jesus.  My heart glowed within my chest as I witnessed countless people responding to the call.  Hundreds of volunteers poured out into the crowd to pray with and connect those that responded to local churches in the area.  It was beautiful; the looks of surrender and relief on so many faces shined like little beacons in the sea of people. 

We spent the night worshiping God to the amazing music put forth by Nathan's band.  I was bouncing and twirling about the stage as I photographed artist and audience in unabashed worship of their Lord and King.  It was one of the more real, life-filled moments I've ever experienced.  I remember jumping down to the space in front of the stage to photograph the crowd, and spotting a group of young men jumping up and down, laughing and shouting to the music.  They were expressing a freedom neither they or I could explain apart from what only the person of Jesus could provide.




In that group, there was one man in particular that stuck out.  One that I remember being somewhat hostile to the production earlier in the day.  One that I later saw being prayed for by one of the performers outside the greenroom.  He was now bounding with the best of them, tears streaming down his face and mouth wide open in shouts of jubilation. 

As things were winding down for the night, most of the Evoke team hung around the entrance to the green room, sharing stories and interacting with the festival goers and performers.  People would stop by for a picture with Scott and thank him for bringing such a festival to the city.

While I was wandering about the area right of the stage, I came across Luis David.  He was all smiles as he brandished his very own Jesus t-shirt!  It turned out, Jim's son, Tyler, was kind enough to give his own shirt, one Jerryl had made for him last trip, to Luis David.  Now, because of this selfless act of generosity, Luis David will have a clear and physical reminder of the new family he now has.

Monday, October 13, 2014

DAY 3 PART 2 - RECONSTRUCTIVE PROCESSES


After the surprisingly extensive process of de-makeuping, dinner was at hand.  We decided on an old favorite:  the curiously named and surprisingly delicious Kosher Pizza.  As we sat chatting, awaiting our slices, a wiry young man waltzed right up to our group with a big smile on his face.  Antonio let out a shout of joy right away.  "Alejandro!!"  he called. 

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.

WHAT!?

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.    



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

DAY 3 PART 1 - PAINT AND SNACKS


The morning of Day 3 saw the addition of two new team members.  Scott's wife, Jackie and Sergio, our DJ for the festival, had flown in overnight and were ready to hit the ground running. 

After breakfast as usual, our short prayer session that typically followed took the form of a worship set.  Some of our Colombian friends had showed up early that morning and brought some instruments with them.  So for about 30 minutes we sang --worship in the form a homogenous sound of both Spanish and English echoing through the corridors of the hotel. 

As we praised God in the little open air cafe on the second story of our hotel, I would from time to time peer down to the street below.  My eyes welled with tears as I saw passers-by glancing up at our room.  Though probably a simple gesture of curiosity, each face I saw turn towards the sound I wanted deeply to recognize the gravity of what they had just happened by.  It's likely that most of those faces have very little reference for what was going on in the room above them, but if they would have heeded that small, subtle nudge --the slight inclination to brake away from their morning routine of errands and obligations and walked up those stairs to investigate-- maybe they would have discovered what those of us in the room have already found.  Maybe they would have encountered a Love that acknowledges their toil and heartache, their faults and their flaws, yet agrees to take on their burden and in place, give them the life of His own.  Maybe they would have joined our humble choir of adulation, overwhelmed by the depth of sacrifice the God of the Universe has endured in order to have a relationship with them.  Maybe the trajectory of their entire life would have drastically changed in that very moment.  Oh, the implications offered in that fleeting little instance in front a hotel they've walked by a thousand times; implications that provoke one of the most poignant observations ever to exist in this darkened, shrouded world: if they only knew.  If they only knew.  This is to be the motor behind every Christian's interaction and influence on this earth.

After worship, the agenda for the morning involved divvying up into a few different groups.   Amera (a fellow Evoker) and I were commissioned to go with one of the event coordinators to exchange eight thousand US dollars for about 15.5 million pesos.  The little currency exchange booth never saw it coming. 

Operating under the title of Manhattan Exchange, the business was essentially a plexiglass protected counter with about 3 peoples-worth of waiting room in front of it.  The whole exterior of the alcove was wrapped in a large transparency of the NYC skyline, complete with the still-standing Twin Towers.  Inside was more pictures of New York as well as a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge.  My favorite decoration, however, was a printed advertisement hanging on the wall behind the counter.  It was essentially a stock photo of four of the most stereotypical white people, all giving a thumbs-up with the words, "Manhattan Exchange" floating above their heads. 

Tagging along with us through this whole ordeal was a young man named Jairo.  Though I can't quite say he was a translator since he was in the intermediate stages of learning English, he was very enthusiastic and really easy to get along with despite some communication hurdles.  Over the next few days, he would turn out to be a huge asset to the team.  His willingness to serve and meet whatever need we had, and to do it willingly and joyfully made him such a delight to work along side. 

After essentially causing the elderly man behind the counter to have to close up shop for the day, we set back for the hotel.  There we found some of the girls from the group gathered around a cafe table outside.  They were elbows deep in beads and rope, charged with making around 1000 bracelets for the kids area of the festival. 

As we mingled in the small cafe area, we caught Michael and Sergio returning from passing out festival fliers and evangelizing in the plaza.  They each wore a bright smile as they explained some of the amazing interactions they had over the course of the morning.  The marque exchange they recounted centered around a young street kid named Luis David. 

Apparently, Luis David made is first impression on Mike and Serge by cursing them out and saying in a cheeky manner, "The Devil's got me!"  as he ran away.  However, as they were returning from the plaza, the duo came across Luis David once more.  This time he was more open to conversation.

He explained how he was homeless, on drugs, and was in desperate need of family.  The only resemblance to a family that this kid had was what he called a "drug family."  From how it was described, a drug family acts as a small gang; a group of individuals who adopt the same last name as a way to band together to sell drugs.   Michael and Sergio were quick to encourage him and he even allowed them to pray over him. 

Shortly after we finished listening to the accounts of the morning, a familiar face joined the ranks of our group.  It was Johnny!  The young man with the collection can we had met yesterday on our way to the mall.  He apparently wanted to continue our conversation about Jesus.

He didn't say much but affirmed with intermittent nods the things I was saying; about who Jesus is and what He has done, and the necessity of a personal relationship with Him.  After I had finished, Sergio, who is fluent in Spanish, was able to go a little deeper and explain things in a more fluid manner to Johnny.  We then huddled together to pray for him to receive Christ.  As we finished, I noticed through his quiet disposition, a muted, yet deep emotion.  It's nothing I could pinpoint, and I doubt he could either if asked, but you could tell he was experiencing something novel, or at least experiencing something that starkly contrasted the framework in which he was used to existing. 

After mingling a bit longer, we were soon off to lunch at what's becoming a staple on our trips to Colombia, a mountainside restaurant called El Tejar.  The view will look familiar to those of you who've read last year's recap but I figured it's worth a second look.




Once we had our fill of bandeja paisa (which is about a fourth of the plate due to the ginormous portion sizes) we took our taxi parade back to the hotel.  There we set out to do some more canvasing for the festival. 

I'll be honest, canvasing was really hard for me.  I don't know if it was the rapid-fire style of interacting that was intimidating me but I couldn't get off the initial fear of breaking the ice.   I didn't want to talk to anyone.   It was like I had forgotten everything I had felt just that morning during worship.  Yet worse, it was that very experience that was being held in front of me as I struggled there amongst the foot-traffic.  It was a cruel-hearted taunt that the Devil was using to draw me deeper and deeper into self-condemning thought -- a vicious trap in which the victim is so wrapped up in thinking of what they should be doing, that they lose any hope of focusing on what they could be doing.

All too often, I find the "shoulds" that I am hung up on aren't what God is asking me to do at all, but rather the "coulds," that seem so small and unimpressive, are God leads me into real and life-giving interactions with people.  (I feel this idea may need some unpacking, which I plan on doing in a later post, but for now I need to get the story of Festival Vida out in a timely manner.)

Either way, the shoulds had me paralyzed that particular afternoon. 

Though most of my time on the streets was spent inside my own head, I did manage to have two interactions of note.

The first one involved my overhearing a girl let out an American colloquialism in perfect English as she stumbled over a declined part of the walkway as she passed by our group.  We happened upon her a few minutes later and I flagged her down.  Turns out she is from Orlando!  In fact, she lives about 5 miles from my house!  She just happened to be in Armenia visiting a friend. 

The second interaction involved Amera and I having caricatures of ourselves drawn by an insistent street artist who approached us as we sat at a cafe table.  The results were… something:


After recovering from the mild horror that is implied teeth,  I ran into the hotel to stow/hide the portrait in my room.  There I came across the bracelet artisans still hard at work, though they had now moved their operation to the hotel's dining area.

At a table adjacent to them, Jackie had vast array of paints and supplies sprawled out across the tabletop.  She was training up two festival volunteers in the craft she is very well know for: face painting.  Like, really well done, elaborate face painting. 


Of course, they needed canvases to practice on and Jennifer, Janice and Mafe were perfect models.  However, there was a lack of male volunteers.  And since training would not be complete without addressing the differing topography of a male face, Jairo and I had to feign reluctance when asked if we wanted a tiger's face.  Jairo received the full treatment and went back for a flaming soccer ball tattoo on his arm.  I only got the base coat but even that managed to stick around and leave me with orange and yellow eye shadow.  Those face paints are no joke!

The star of the show, however was an actually reluctant Michael Dow.  I dunno, I think the shark only adds to his ferocity.



And I'll stop Day 3 at that.

The upcoming stories from the night require a lot of text-space due to their gravity and complexity.  Plus, I can hear you panting from here, so I'll spare your eyes and concentration for now.  Seriously though, thank you all for reading!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

DAY 2 - BACK TO SCHOOL


My first morning of the trip began just as I had hoped:  with the whole team gathered around one long table in the hotel cafe enjoying made-to-order omelets of a peculiarly dark shade of yellow-orange and eggy pancakes that, this time around, came with the accompaniment of good ol' American syrup --proof they're getting to know us northerners at La Quinta Porra.

After filling up with food and prayer, half of us were off to a K-12 school to promote the upcoming festival.  Upon arriving we were informed that we would only have about 5 minutes in each classroom as classes were still being held at the moment.  In order to cover as much ground as we could, we split up into teams of 2 to 3 and dispersed to various parts of the campus.  Michael and Antonio, however, were asked to speak in front of a group of kids the administration had deemed "most troubled."  They were given an entire hour of class time to speak. 

My buddy for the morning was a plucky girl from Evoke named Stephanie.  As often the case in my experience of Evokers, we complimented each other swimmingly.  Where I'm introverted and stand offish, she's warm and inviting.   Where the only dancing I do is figuratively --around any invitation to do so physically-- she is a breakdancer, essentially the pinnacle form of kinesthetic awareness.  Where my brain seizes up any time I attempt to talk in either Spanish or Child, her's is fluent in both.  

Given this dynamic, when it was my turn to speak to a class, Stephanie would take my rigid, cumbersome description of the festival that I essentially hurled at the kids like a sack of old cantaloupes, and transform it into something much more palatable and enticing. 

Overall, the kids seemed really receptive to the invitation.  The biggest response always came when Stephanie would mention that there would be breakdance crews performing at the festival, and the students would almost loose their minds when she mentioned that she was part of one of the groups.  Immediately they would clamor for a demonstration but Stephanie had neither the proper attire nor space, so she compromised by teaching willing volunteers how to do a "freeze."  Attempts by the volunteers weren't lacking enthusiasm, but came up short in execution.



After we had visited all the classrooms we could, the group reunited in the foyer of the front building.  As we gathered, the class bell happened to ring.  Floods of students of varying ages filled the hallways and we immediately became the topic of every passing conversation as well as the recipients of noticeable giggles and stares. 

The younger ones had no qualms about approaching members of the group.  Soon I had a posse of 6th grade boys bombarding me with questions.  Our conversation consisted mostly of battling for common-ground between my attempted Spanish and their English peppered with helpful interjections of charades.  When I saw an opening to could pull Stephanie from her own gaggle of children in order to translate, I found out they were interested in two main things:  One,  if I had children of my own, which turned to if I had a wife, which turned to if I had a girlfriend, which turned to what I perceived as a subtle sense of pity.  And two, how to find me on Facebook.  I felt like a relief pitcher for the Miami Marlins as about half a dozen anxious hands scrambled for pen and paper as I agreed to relay my contact info.

Soon after, my celebrity continued as I was hailed by Stephanie who was knee deep in teenage girls.  "They want you to speak English!"  She said with a smile.  Pretty accessible entertainment business in Colombia, I guess.

"Hey… I'm speaking English…"  I said with a shrug.  My audience erupted with giggles and buried faces.  Nailed it.  


Antonio drew a crowd with his choice of headdress. 








Nakeisha's hair was a big hit as well.



Once all the hubbub finally settled and kids found their classrooms, we headed for the taxis.  As we gathering outside, Michael and Antonio were able to share about their experience speaking to the "troubled" group at the first school.  The most striking story coming from the experience came when they asked the students if they needed prayer for healing or freedom from anything.  One brave young girl burst into tears, admitting that she had been sexually abused growing up and that she need freedom from her past.  I am baffled by the courage of this young woman and I know God is doing a good work to free her from the shaming chains that have shackled her since childhood.

Soon we were off to another school to do the same.  Again it was the same progression of door to door, except this school had way cooler topography.  I mean, check out the volleyball/soccer/basketball court:



After the schools, our afternoon was mostly spent back at the hotel.  There I got to know one of our translators that was new to the group.  His name is David and I am super impressed with this kid.  He's only 14 years old and his English is impeccable.  And by impeccable I mean he can speak in a British accent on cue.  Though we only spoke briefly, I could tell his mind works very similar to mine.  Perceptive, analytical yet open minded, he was a kid after my own heart.

Soon, dinner was waiting at the food court in the mall.  And as we embarked, David and I were approached by a young man holding a collection can.  He explained that his name was Johnny and that he was collecting money for a program that helped rehabilitate young men who have problems with addiction.  Though I couldn't figure out if he was in the program or just helping out, it was apparent that he himself had fallen on hard times as well.  There was something about his eyes that I've noticed in many of the people we run into on the street.  There was a distance to them, like some kind of void existed between his true self and the person that stood before us.  We talked with him a bit and  managed to give him a small donation as well as pray over him and the program.  We also handed him a flier for the festival, telling him we'd love to see him there.

Once at the food court, the same one we had visited last year, I immediately remembered three things:  1.) Asian stir-fry has achieved international transcendence in the food court world.  2.)  This particular food court has the best view of any mall food court I've been to.  3.) Plating goes way beyond food court level.  


After tapping out about half way through my smorgasbord of denseness, David came over to join our table.  We picked our conversation right back up, as we talked a little bit about where we came from and what our future aspirations looked like at the moment.  His revolved around the medical field, and to that I say more power to him.

Then David said something that I've heard few times now on these trips, something that is really affirming to the work being done in and through our group.  He said, "You know, I took this job thinking it would be just that.  I thought I would be translating for some North Americans for a couple days and that would be it.  But I find myself just wanting to be around you guys.  Like, I don't want to leave.  It stinks that I only have one day left with you guys!"  I found myself saddened by the same thing.  I really wanted him to spend more time with us as well. 

After dinner we were off to an evening church service where Scott was asked to share a message of empowerment to the congregation.  The message Scott gave centered around the local church taking responsibility for the change they wish to see in their city; that they are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the city of Armenia; that the festival we are hosting is just the beginning.  Yes, we expect to see God move in a big way during the festival and we expect to see may hearts and lives changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but after the festival is over we will be flying back to the U.S.  It is the local church that is tasked with the work of disciplining those that responded to the call heard at the festival.  And it is the local church that is tasked with continuing the work of reaching out to those in need and those still in darkness.

As the message was wrapping up, Scott asked all of those willing to say, "Yes," to such a calling to line up in the front of the room.  There the Evoke team set out to pray for empowerment over each and every one of them. 

With the shimmering of Alexsa's flute peacefully swelling the hearts within every chest about the room, the dull roar of feverish supplication saturated the entire space to the point where the walls seemed to give way to the sound --allowing such a sweet and candid harmony to spill out onto the streets. 

And at some point amongst the song and sermon, the surrender and the call, Nakeisha came across David.  He had tears in his eyes and was exclaiming, "I know Him!  I know Him! I felt Him!"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

DAY 1 - COMING BACK

 

Preface:

So as many of you know, I've been back from my trip to Colombia for about three weeks now.  And to be honest, I still feel like I haven't processed the trip emotionally.  I can say, without a doubt, that the entire trip was indisputably good, and that God moved in a huge way through Festival Vida by eliciting transformation in countless lives.  I have a sneaking suspicion, and blatant hope, that in beginning the process of recounting this year's trip, I will also set in motion the unpacking of my own experience and bring to light what God has instilled in me.  In doing so, you will see two stories unfold.  You will see the story of Festival Vida and all the events surrounding it, the people involved and the hand of God at work in the city of Armenia.  But as I relate this to you, you will also be witnessing a part of my own personal story -- participating in my uncovering of the things God wishes to teach me through this trip.  My hope is that as I write, things still congested within my own head will come to the surface and you all will be able to experience and glean from them along side me. 

Day 1

Boarding the plane this time around was much less of an ordeal -- at least as far as my emotions were concerned.  Externally, it was a harried dance of ticket lines, Spirit reps, and distributing obscene amounts of lentils and luggage to make the 100lbs weight limit for our small army of bags.  After a Usain Bolt-ian sprint through security and a short requiem for the backs of the baggage handlers unfortunate enough to be assigned to our lentil bricks, we made it to our gate even with a handful of minutes to spare.

My thoughts, as we hung over the gulf, were in stark contrast to last year's as well.  In some ways, I'd say I was excited.  I looked forward to having fond memories evoked by familiar faces, sights, sounds and smells -- to witness again God at work in the hearts and lives of a people with which I've gained a kinship I previously wouldn't have thought possible.  With a team of almost twice the size sitting around me, and with a festival of two years in the making, planning, and praying slated for the weekend,  I was ready to get to work.  

Landing and disembarking was as scenic and laborious a usual, and soon (used loosely) we divvied up into taxis and translator's cars and were off to La Quinta Porra -- our hotel and home base for the week to come.  As I rode middle seat in the back of John's (one of our translators) car, two things most effectively made me realize I was back in Colombia.  1) The reckless abandon, yet striking skill with which everyone drives, especially those on motorcycles/dirt bikes -- which is basically about 75 percent of the population.   2)  The ubiquitous smell of exhaust presumably caused by the cyclist-heavy population.  I also had the privilege of riding with two team members who were new to the Colombian experience.  Seeing their wide eyes and excited expressions drinking in every undulation of the mountain-clad terrain revived pleasant memories of my own maiden taxi ride from last year's trip. 

As we entered the city, we were unexpectedly struck with an inconvenient detour.  The road in front of us had become congested and as we inched along we noticed a cop, appropriately clad in safety vest and full-faced helmet as he was on foot,  weaving between the cars.  He stopped at John's driver-side window and asked for his license.  After a lengthy exchange that I had no hopes in understanding, John was left with a ticket and instructions to take a different set of roads into the city.  As we assumed our new route, it was explained to me that you had to have special registration in order to use particular roads within the city.  I didn't have the thought to ask if this was commonplace in Colombia, so I just chalked it up as another peculiarity to the country. 

After some added time due to our detour, we finally made  it to the hotel.  There I found out my roommate was going to be a recently made friend of mine named Michael (easy enough.)  I was excited about this.  I found him easy to talk to right off the bat, likely due in part to the fact that we had recently found out that we had gone to the same high school. 

After unpacking, we were asked to meet in front of the double doors leading to the dinning area.  This was nothing too out of the ordinary considering this was the common congregating area during last trip.  Once everyone was present, the doors were opened to reveal a whole party of old and new faces surrounding a spread of chicken wraps and coffee milkshakes, complete with balloons and a banner offering a heartfelt welcome to the Evoke team.  From translators to church admins, the welcome party was a warm mixture of familiar friends and easily made new ones.  Each of these faces adorned with an infectious smile that immediately made it's way onto mine.  The kind of feeling that came over me in that moment can really only be summed up in one word: family.  A word that would become a theme over the course of the coming days.

Once the hugs and hellos subsided, the majority of us decided to go grab a bite to eat.  We landed on a place called Alta Vista, which would end up being the source of a majority of our meals over the course of the week.   The owner was super gracious to accommodate such a large group of rambunctious Americans and actually happened to be from Jersey, so ordering a breeze.  I actually didn't know this fact, or that he spoke perfect English, until later on in the meal, so I let my new friend and translator, Mafé, order for me.  I told her to surprise me.  This is what I got:


Essentially a pile of melted cheese dotted with corn and ham.  The bed of lettuce essentially only existed as satire.

After setting the precedent for my body for the coming week, I turned my mind toward prepping for what was next on the schedule.  Neatly wrapped in a ribbon of parody, our mission for the night was to minister to the homeless under a bridge, the exact same scenario I was thrust into the first day of my last trip.  This time, however, the nervousness and feeling of inadequacy that once draped over my shoulders, was replaced by a sense of confidence and maybe even the early stages of excitement, or at least anticipation --anticipation birthed out of what I had witnessed the last time I was under that bridge:  hope, love, restoration and a breaking off of chains that have bound so many for so long that some may have simply forgotten that freedom was even a thing.  All of this set into motion by the word and love of a God who has not forgotten them, not even in the least bit.   This is what I saw last time, so this time I had no reason to expect anything less. 

As we approached the bridge, memories began flooding back.  I saw the nook where Lirio once lay embracing a woman emaciated by AIDS, lying in her own filth.  I saw a grungy spot on the ground where I once sat talking with two homeless men, one who thought he was destined to be lost and unreachable to God and the other who was HIV positive a filled with questions.  Any doubt  I may have been harboring about coming back this time around was obliterated in that moment.

We kept walking until we crossed the street and rounded the corner of a sketchy, assumedly abandoned building.  There we were met by a moderately sized gathering of homeless who were patiently awaiting service from another American missionary group who had arrived earlier and were tending large pots of stew. 

Before we had a chance to start conversing with anybody, we were motioned by a woman to step inside the aforementioned sketchy building.  With surprisingly little hesitation, we walked right into an almost pitch black corridor that was partially subterranean and had the dirt floor to match.  As we fumbled with our phone lights, the lady that invited us in explained that she and her husband have been living in this building and using it to shelter the homeless for 14 years.  The build does not have any power or even light fixtures for that matter (apparently someone stole the fixtures/wiring a while back.)  As we stumbled down the hallway, we came to a opening on the right side of the hallway.  By this time, I realized we really have no way of knowing there's not some collection of miscreants hiding in the shadows waiting to offer up some kind of Colombian-style beat down on us.  As if sensing the vibes of hesitancy from delicate American constitutions, the homeowner lady informed us that no one uses the building at night since there is no power.  For some reason, everyone seemed to be satisfied with that conclusion and we pressed on. 

As we passed the doorway, I caught a glimpse of what looked like beds made solely of large bamboo pillions.  My attention was quickly diverted, however, by the rickety spiral staircase now before us at the end of the hallway.  Again undeterred, we proceeded to wobble our way up the stairs into a large center room that looked like some sort of dining area.  Like I said, we were relying mostly on phone flashlights so the layout could only be revealed in about two square foot portions at a time.  At some point during our urban spelunking, I noticed the district sound of dogs barking was echoing from somewhere within the building, like the potential shadow dwelling miscreants I guess I just figured if they were going to attack, they would have done so by now.  So, again, we soldiered onward and upward.



After traversing another sketchy set of stairs and some form of industrial baby gate, we were now in a large room on the third floor.  Barred windows situated at the back of the room let in a dim orange glow from street lamps as well as the occasional passing headlight from a car.  The building backed up against a hillside, so though we were three stories up, we were still at street level.  It was in this room that we decided to gather in a circle and pray over the building and it's owners.  

As we finished, the woman who owned the building was in tears and saying she had been praying for this day to come.  As dispersed, Antonio was left kneeling on the floor in the center of the room.  He later explained that he felt stuck there.  He didn't know how else to say it, but he just felt glued to the floor.  Even when the dogs were, for some reason, released from their pin and came running in from down the hallway, he remained there in that position for a good while. 



Eventually we exited what had now become, the oddly tranquil environment of the building and dove right in to the bustling scene outside.  By this time, a good portion of the crowd had received their bowls of stew and were now congregating on the open grass.  Some stood in little pockets of conversation often attend by a missionary or two while others slumped over their meal, protecting it with knees and elbows.  Either way, our group immediately set out to meet the locals.

In what I consider God jabbing at what had happened last year in this situation, I found myself only taking about two steps before a boisterous black man hailed me from the food line.  He walked up to me and without so much as an introduction, he asked me straight up how he can pray for salvation.  Taken aback and slightly suspect, I pumped the brakes for a second.  "What? Wait, yes!  I mean, hold on a sec'.  Yes, I'd love to pray with you for salvation, and we will, but can I explain something first?"  I had my new friend and translator, Mafe, relaying to the man for me.  "You see, I will pray with you, but there is nothing magic about this prayer.  It is through knowing and having a relationship with Jesus Christ that we are granted salvation from our sins.  It's about trusting that Jesus was sent to earth to die in our place.  And if we believe God raised Him from the dead, and if we set Him as Lord of our life and choose to follow Him, it is then we are given the assurance of eternal life."  (Note:  The words in this scene are  likely much more eloquent than what I spoke at the time, but the same general message was conveyed.)  I asked Mafé to share a bit of the Gospel with the man and together we explained how it was not by any work of his own that he could somehow "get right with God," that doing good will not earn him salvation, and that salvation lies solely in the person of Jesus Christ. 

He acknowledged that he understood what we were saying.  I asked him his name.  "Carlos," he replied.  

We huddled up to pray.   I told him to repeat after me, but to speak the words to God, not to me.  We began, "Lord Jesus, I give you my all…" 

In the next few minutes, Carlos dedicated his life to Jesus, recognizing that he has sinned and fallen short of God's standard, but trusts that the work Christ did on the cross has restored his relationship with God and that he need only believe to receive salvation, and that it is his intent to follow Him all the days of his life. 

When the prayer ended, Carlos grabbed my hand.  With a firmness that radiated all the way up his arm onto the kind, soft features of his face, he shook it and thanked me.  I pulled him toward myself and embraced him. 

"Mi hermano," I addressed him. 

"Mi hermano." He replied.  With a quiet solace in his voice. 

Carlos then left to go get his food so we decided to walk over to the bulk of the crowd.  There my roommate, Michael, shared a bit of his testimony to the nearby crowd.  He then gave an invitation of prayer to anyone who needed healing.  A few came forward and he proceeded to pray over each one of them with an intense confidence that I admired. 

Since each interaction was literally face to face, I don't know too much of the intimacies of what was exchanged but I do remember seeing a man walking away after having his knee prayed for.  As he rounded the corner he hopped a couple times on the ailing joint, assumedly testing it. 

Soon, my attention was drawn to another small collection of people sitting in the dirt.  Two from our team, Antonio and Llalyle, plus a man laying on his bag, were clapping along as another man pounded a rhythm on his chest and wailed out a melody in either muddied Spanish
or gibberish.  Regardless, the laughter and connection they were sharing transcended any hindrance set in place by language or cultural barriers.  



These where the kind of things I observed all night.  Real interactions and real connections between people of very distinct and seemingly disparate backgrounds.  It really spoke to the power of intentionality and how simply listening to a person's story can go a long way in connecting with them and showing them they have value. 

Something that really spoke to this notion was the unexpected reunion some of our team had with a little girl of about 14.  They had met her last year under the bridge as this shifty eyed, feral thing with heroine in her veins.  Skittish and distrusting, she would recoil at the slightest human touch.  Antonio recognized her right away and approached her.  He tapped her should from behind.  She shrugged it off at first.  But as she turned around she realized who it was and her face lit up.  She flung herself at him and embraced him with every inch her spindly little body hidden beneath an over-sized sweatshirt.  By the time I arrived, a small group of our team members had formed.  Bouncing around like a little mop-topped imp, she giggled and made faces at Tyler, the 12 year old son of one of the group leaders.  After a jovial urging from the group, she gave Tyler a bashful kiss on the cheek, then quickly retreated to hide behind the legs of our team members on the other side of the circle.  She was the epitome of a little girl, a far cry from the creature encountered this time last year. 

And this is how I'll choose to end Day 1.  With themes of family, restoration and reunion already presenting themselves, I will go ahead and say that there are many more stories of this kind to come.  Many of which, I have yet to grasp the depth and implications of.  Making for an interesting journey over the next few weeks.  Please know I appreciate all of you who have the patience and willingness to come along for the ride.