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 1Boarding 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.