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.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

AS IF ON CUE...

So, if you've trudged through my exhaustively long account of last year's mission trip to Colombia and/or supported me on said trip, first of all words cannot express how thankful I am for your contribution.  And second of all, you probably know where this post is going all ready... 

That's right!  I'm headin' back ya'll!  

May I introduce: 
 
Feel free to check out the website for more info.  Just make sure you have your Spanish speaking and/or in-browser translation on.  

Essentially, the Evoke Ministries crew will be heading up a city-wide festival in the heart of Armenia, Colombia!  The festival will be a platform to share the love of Jesus through various forms of art and music with the goal of, not only bringing a message of Hope to a city know for rampant drug use and suicide, but to rally the creatives who call Armenia home and instill in them a call to bring hope and revival to their city through the mediums they already love.  We want to show them that they can glorify God and bring about tangible change through their art, and that there is a real place in the body of the Church for their unique and individual gifting.  

We've been in relationship with the city government of Armenia for a couple of years now, and we are seeing so much favor around this festival --evidence that God is doing a good work in this city and preparing for, what we expect to be, an outpouring of His love and revival through this festival.   Supported by effort of local believers taking responsibility to see their own city transformed, a revival that will sustain far beyond the weekend of the event.  Through this, we are hoping and praying for the entire city to be saved!

Here's the other part you probably saw coming.  I will be traveling to and staying in Armenia from July 22-29, and will need 2,500 U.S. dollars to fund the trip in it's entirety.  Any donations are HUGELY appreciated and regardless of whether or not you donate anything, I do ask that you be praying for myself, the team, and all of those we come in contact with during the trip as well as those attending the festival.   Investment over there will see returns all over the globe, for God's work will be carried in the hearts of those affected.  I thank you guys in advance.  Your generosity means more than either you and I will likely ever know!

If you care to donate, please feel free to either:
  1. Use this link.  (Click my name at the bottom of the article to donate.)
  2. Write a personal check to Evoke Ministries and add my name in the memo and mail it to my house (contact me via Facebook or email and I will send you the address.) 
Either way, you will receive a contribution statement for your tax write off come next tax season.

I appreciate you all locking arms with me in this journey.  I am so blessed to have such an amazing community of friends who give so generously, not just monetarily, but of themselves.  Please know that I appreciate each and every one of you!

Love you guys!
-Michael

Saturday, March 15, 2014

DAY 8 - IN CONCLUSION



Well, we finally made it.  Day 8, the last day of the trip.  For the five of you that have persevered through this 6+ month long production, you have my deepest gratitude. 

Since the eighth day mainly consisted of checking out of our hotel, saying goodbye-for-nows, and traversing a couple airports, I'll just leave it up to you guys to fill in the details of said events.  Really, I'd like to take this post to recap the whole experience and relay what I have learned, and continue to learn, from this trip.

I will start by saying, if you haven't deduced already (those of whom this isn't the first blog post of mine you are reading), this was one of the most formative and perspective altering experiences of my entire life.  I could risk to say, from my relatively narrow point of view, and based on the sheer density of experiences, it has been the most potent week of life I've experienced to date.  I find it funny to hear myself describe this trip in such a way since I am not one to exaggerate my feelings towards something (that is, if I have them at all).  In fact, it is much more likely that I'd heavily suppress my feelings rather than hyperbolize them.  So, to say something of this nature towards this trip is very uncomfortable for me, but it deserves it. 

And you know what?  There were a lot of experiences on this trip that warrant a language and vulnerability that I am uncomfortable with -- something that, I think, points to their very legitimacy.  I never thought I would be one of those people who comes back from a trip and starts using phrases like, "I just fell in love with the people," and, "I left my heart in 'X' country,"  when describing their experience.  I always thought that those were Christian-y platitudes that people used to puff up their own person by making them seem all kind-hearted and saintly.  But after coming back from Colombia, I get it. 

The first week back in The States, I was a wreck.  I felt like my emotional capacity had increased fivefold and I didn't know where to put it all.  It just kept oozing through the gaps between my fingers and running down my arms.  My friends had to run for cover lest they be engulfed in an hour long deluge of Colombia-centric anecdotes.  I mean, you've seen the amount of web-space just this textual recap has taken up, imagine when my recollect was fresher and I had the more fluid medium of spoken word. 

I guess what I'm trying to say, is that during that trip I experienced the Love of God in such a tangible, first-hand way, that it enacted something inside of me.  That's not to say I hadn't had similar glimpses of God's love before this trip, and I do not, in any way, debase anything I've experienced beforehand.  But there's something about the concentrated aspect of this trip that essentially connected all the elements that God had been putting into place in my life and figuratively plugged them in to a power source.  

Like, this love thing, I feel like I get it now.  At it's most basic level, I get it.  When I looked into that kid's eyes in Cecilia and saw, in some ineffable way, God working in his spirit, was when I understood, likely for the very first time, the very fact that every single person matters to God.  No longer was, "Go and make disciples," (Matt 28:19)  just an airy notion of conviction applied in some rudimentary attitude toward the general population.  No, the disciples had faces now. 

That's really one of the biggest take-aways from this whole trip, the incentive behind the universal call of Christians to love.  I used to think it was based in conviction -- that a "good" Christian was supposed to show love and share the Gospel because the Bible said so.  And I wanted to be a "good" Christian so I manufactured such performance in order to validate my faith.  I figured that if I just tried hard enough, I could get to a place where I felt relatively good about my usefulness as a follower of Christ.  Very plainly, sharing the Gospel was very much about myself, and only consequently about whomever was on the receiving end.

But once I got a glimpse of the Father's heart, that whole framework fell away, and I saw the true intent behind the mission.  We are called to love others because God loves them, because God loves us.  Just recognizing this has brought me so much peace.  No longer am I acting out of a sense of slavish obligation, out of fear of not acquiescing and wallowing in guilt when I don't.  Rather, action now comes from a place of confidence.  A place that knows God's love for me is real and immovable and that that very same love is also reserved for every single person on this planet.  And that is exactly where our commission comes from.  We who have received and accepted the Gospel already have the life it imparts, therefore we do not share the Gospel in order to receive something that has already been given to us, rather we share it because that very same life is also reserved those who have yet to receive it.   Only then, does it become truly about God and them, and only consequently about ourselves.

So what does loving people look like?  I feel the application is unique to each individual and situation.  The key is intent.  Are you approaching the situation with that person's best interest in mind?   Are your actions toward another motivated by the fact that he or she is dearly loved by the God of the Universe -- The God who gave his very Son unto death in hopes of winning back His lost son or daughter?

C.S. Lewis sheds sobering light on this notion in his sermon, "Weight of Glory":

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption  such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

All this being said, do I still mishandle tons of opportunities to love people?  Yes.  Am I still amazingly cowardly sometimes?  Of course.  But I no longer derive my value from how well I adhere to convictions or how righteous I feel at any given moment.  And it's in this freedom that I feel God has allowed me a much greater effectiveness when it comes to loving people. 

Now, I believe this realization could have very well played out without having to travel to a third world country and immersing myself in an unfamiliar culture.   A fervent seeking of The Lord and loving of people should be the focus of our everyday and should play out in and around our homes and workplaces.  That is, of course where the majority of our time is spent, so it should be the grounds on which we hash out most of our revelations and breakthroughs, deepening our knowledge of the God who made us.  It is also the area in which we have specific influence that others may not have.  We are in a position to more effectively and intimately love the people God has placed in our immediate vicinity than those coming from outside a specific idea-set or culture and likes that particular point of relation. 

So then, why go on a mission trip when there are people right in our own backyards who need the love of Jesus just as desperately?  Three things come to mind: 

Firstly, it is an overt way to break a trend of stagnation in which one is simply going through the motions.  It causes a jumping of the tracks for a life suffocated in safe complacency and predictable mediocrity.  If you desire to go deeper into the things of God, but you can't seem to find any headway and have exhausted yourself within your current environment through various attempts to break a routine you know is lacking in fervor, then a perspective altering trip might be beneficial.  However, if you are simply discontent with your current situation and looking for a change of scenery and some excitement in your life, then a mission trip is not a good idea.  A vacation would be better suit the need.

Secondly, the nature of a mission trip is very conducive for honing your focus on Godly things.  While on trip, almost all distractions of daily life are stripped away, leaving you with entire days to be in constant communication and contact with The Lord through either work, relationship, or quiet meditation.  By definition, everything you do will be "on mission."  You are there for one purpose, to participate in the work of the Living God.  A mission that often plays a secondary role in our daily lives is now primary and solitary on a mission trip.  This, with the hope of bringing such a directive and intentionality back into everyday life, one full of distractions, and applying it as we go, rather than just during weeks-long bursts speckled throughout a lifetime.  And that can be the beauty of missions, it affords you time enough to see God at work and the intention behind His work -- something you may have been too distracted to see back home.  And once you get a glimpse of that, you can't help but to continue to see things through that lens once you get back.

Thirdly and most importantly, is that there are people in dire need that simply do not have the means around them to seek help.  Due to poverty, oppression, or isolation there are those, in every single nation, who are both physically and spiritually deprived that require some sort of outside support.  I'm not just talking about starving orphans and beggars, but those in abusive relationships, those who are too afraid or ashamed to ask for help and feel they have no worth, those who feel that depression is just a fact of life and that God has just simply forgotten about them.   Sometimes, self prescribed isolation is the hardest chasm for help to cross.  A need for revival is not just reserved for the impoverished parts of the world.  It exists in the most affluent of nations and in the palaces of kings as well.

Again, this is all something we experience in our own cities, but when it comes to mission trips there is a unique element that I have observed and it is somewhat in contrast the notion cultural-centric influence I spoke of earlier.  The very foreignness we experience on such a trip, that sensitizes us to God's hand and His revelation reciprocates within the person we are interacting with.  The different-ness of someone from outside a person's daily routine and realm of influences can be enough to derail them from their current schema and enact a receptivity to the message you bring.  This was very evident with one of our translators.  She flat out said that she does not want to listen to what her own people have to say.  However, she could not get enough of what our group of foreigners had to say.   

Now, this notion kinda makes sense to me.  My guess is that she has already built up associations and assumptions based on past experiences within her circle of relationships.  We all do this.  After getting to know the people around us we can usually predict, with pretty reliable accuracy, what a friend or acquaintance is going to say or how they will respond to a particular situation.  We already have a grasp on that person's role and investment in the relationship and weigh it accordingly. 

However, when someone completely new, and in this case, likely from a completely different culture, shows a legitimate concern and interest in you as a person, you don't have those assumptions to rely on.  You have to actually listen to them in order to gauge where they are coming from.  This is where we, as missionaries HAVE to come from a place of love, because the instant a person feel as though they are just another potential client of a door-to-door salesman or the next sequin-clad assistant you are going to practice your saw trick on, you might as well be pushing a vacuum cleaner in their face. 

This brings me to my next point.  A mission trip should be for the benefit of those whom we have come to serve.  I know this should be a given and number one in priority, but sadly, I can attest that it was not for me upon going my trip.   Being introspective in nature,  I found it very easy to recognize my own needs and where I wanted to grow coming into this experience, but I really struggled to recognize the needs of those I was coming to serve.  And it's a very real danger with these types of trips.  Someone coined the phrase "volun-tourism" and I think it is very poignant in describing the way in which we tend to us trips like these groom our own character and add to our spiritual tool belt, all at the expense of the very people we came to "serve."

On the other side of the coin, given our sinful nature, I don't think we can come to a place where we will be 100% selfless in our approach to missional work.  I know if I tarried until I felt like my intentions were pure enough for me to go, I'd currently be writing my 8th blog entry about how I'm still not quite ready to go to Colombia yet.  What I was finding to be the biggest hurdle was that I didn't have a face to put to the people I was coming to serve.  They weren't necessarily people yet, just a concept. 

Almost immediately upon arriving however, God gave me faces.  Like I mentioned in earlier posts, a face for each day.  And my heart broke.  I love how this is designed in us --that our hearts look for faces.  If we can put a face to a name, that name is given a beating heart and a soul and value beyond anything this Earth has to offer.  Something as beautifully simple as eye contact covers more than a 300-page biography. 

If you struggle with selflessness in this realm like I do, I encourage you to pray it out and press on expecting God to give you faces as well.  Just know that this trip cannot and will not be about you.  Mission trips are intended to show and instill God's love in areas and situations where it is not readily found.  It is profoundly about the lives of those being served.  But God, in His goodness, takes the opportunity to work on ours as well. 

In conclusion, I want to thank all of you who have given both financially and prayerfully to me in this trip.  Please know that every dollar was poured into both the lives of the citizens of Armenia as well as the lives of each Evoke team member.  Without your help, I couldn't have experience one of the most formative weeks of my entire life.  And if anyone reading this feels any inkling of compulsion towards their own mission trip, I encourage you to go!  Even if you don't feel like you have figured out everything motivationally or feel like you aren't "spiritually strong enough,"  all I can say is join the club.  A phrase that is often uttered in Evoke meetings goes a little something like this:

"God doesn't called the qualified.  He qualifies the called." 

Love you all,
Michael

Sunday, December 22, 2013

DAY 7 - REVISITATION


Day seven began similarly to the rest, and I wasn't complaining.  The thin eggy pancakes, the squeeze bag of raw honey, Tyler stockpiling the strawberry jelly packs, all were becoming a welcome and comforting routine.  I needed that little bit of comfort that morning for I knew what the coming day held.  That day was going to be take-two of the door to door evangelism thing. 

Soon we were off to what I would consider, at least in appearance, the poorest neighborhood we encountered on the trip.  To further punctuate this thought, Fabio decide to come along with us, just in case.  Upon arriving and scoping out the area, two things became apparent:  1) corrugated aluminum seemed to be the building material of choice for most of the residents and, in some cases, just leaning a few pieces together constituted a room.  2)  This particular neighborhood was just the tip of the impoverished iceberg.  For running through the valley below was what looked like a river of makeshift shanties, even worse off in appearance the homes above. 



As I stood surveying the slums below, it didn't feel real.  I felt like I was in some incredibly immersive movie.  Yet the reality persisted, as sounds of vitality rose from the rag-tag neighborhood.  A hailing neighbor, a barking dog, children shouting in play perfumed the air with glimpses of everyday life.  It's moments like this that offer perspective and ever elusive sobriety in regards to the privileged conditions in which I live.   And from that, the door to door just sort of amorphously commenced. 

With my trusty Karina at my side, we addressed our first home.  An older woman answered the door and upon hearing we were missionaries, welcomed us inside to pray over their home and her sick daughter.  The woman called for her husband and daughter to come and join us.  After introductions, I placed my hand on the daughter's shoulder and we began to pray.  As I was praying for healing over this woman, she began to sway in tight, little circles which became larger in larger as the prayer progressed.  Soon she was whipping around pretty significantly.  When I finished praying, she stopped.  It was peculiar, and I don't know what else to really say about it.  Anyway, I thanked the family for allowing us in their home and the pastor of the church we were partnered with for the day shared with them a little information about his church while Karina and I headed to the next house. 

It felt good having a door opened up to us right off the bat.  In fact, soon after, Karina and I were engaged with another homeowner just down the road.  Though he did not let us into his home, he did grace us with a good twenty minutes, or so, of conversation.  His name was Alberto and I have to say, the conversation we had was probably the first "real" feeling interaction I've had during a door to door session.  After getting over the initial wrenching of the conversation into the deep end of things, the situation really seemed to open up.  I no longer felt like I was giving some sales pitch or presenting my argument in a debate team competition, and his responses weren't drenched with staunch overtones in an attempt to politely to shoo me from his porch. 

As we talked, he wore the common shoe of the people we'd been meeting.  He was Catholic in the sense that he owned a Bible, and stuttered when asked about where he felt he'd go when he died.  I, in turn, explained to him the assurance we have in Jesus Christ --that know matter the misdeeds of our past, no matter how badly we've screwed up, our citizenship in Heaven is affirmed when we come into relationship with Jesus and acknowledge Him as our Savior.  He seemed to hear me in a very real way.  Then he asked me an interesting question that I, in some way probably due in part to my own occasional wonders, somewhat expected.  

"So, you say that Christ forgives all sins.  That no matter what you've done, you are forgiven and are going to Heaven if you accept Jesus as your Savior?"  Alberto asked.   I affirmed.  He continued,  "So, say a man, (he referenced a historical figure but I forgot the name) in his past, murdered hundreds of children, but before he died he accepted Christ as his Savior.  What happens to him?  Is he in Heaven or Hell?"

I kind of laughed at the question, applauding him for the difficulty of the premise.  You know what I told him?  Something I feel Christians don't say near enough are often too prideful to admit --I don't know. 

"I don't know," I admitted.   "There's know way I can know the condition of the man's relationship with Christ, but I will say this.  I feel that the Grace that God provides is bigger than any of us can ever fathom, or even want to fathom in some cases."   And I left it there.  I was okay with not knowing the answer.  

And in regards to the example Alberto provided, I trust that God, in his infinite wisdom and character, would judge justly, and that justice may very well look differently than we, as creatures hindered by our fallen nature and finite state, might expect.

He seemed satisfied with my admission and the conversation continued.  Talk continued to touch on the realm of salvation and at one point I asked him if he'd like to acknowledge Jesus Christ as his Savior in that moment and, consequently, have assurance of where he'd go when he died.   Again, the realness of his response was refreshing.  He explained that it is something that he'd like to think some more about.  He mentioned maybe going to a Bible Study the local church was hosting, or talking to someone in the church.  I encouraged him to do so and lauded him in his approach to a decision such as this. 

"Please, do take your time in deciding this.  This is the most important decision you will make in your life, it warrants contemplation.  Take all the time that you need, but no more than you have to."  I also explained to him that this is a personal decision that he was making, one between him and God.  He does not need to seek out a pastor or deacon in order to make this something official.  He can talk directly to Jesus Himself.

As we were saying our goodbyes, Alberto asked a question that sent a warmth throughout my entire being, "Will I see you again?" 

I smiled as I responded,  "I don't know.  I'll be back next year.  If we come to this neighborhood again, I'll look for you.  I expect great news next time I see you."  Then I added.  "You know, if you buy into this relationship with Jesus thing, then I have no doubt we will see each other again, in Heaven."

By this time, I was feeling it.  Real conversation and real good can be had with this whole door to door thing!  Who'd a thunk?  Even when we'd get the, "Go away!' from the back of the house, or the I'm-pretending-I'm-not-home-but-doing-a-bad-job-at-it-by-still-making-noise charade, my confidence was still brimming.  God was working in these interactions --door to door, done in love, and God was showing up! 

Soon, Karina and I were at the porch of a little old lady's home.  She was very sweet and greeted us through the bars of the window we hailed her from.  She apologized for not going so far as to invite us in and explained that the last time she let people claiming to be missionaries into her home, they robbed her -- a notion that I still have a hard time stomaching.  So we settled for relating across the window sill. 

Our interaction was more stereotypical of the many we experienced that trip.  Again, we found someone entrenched in religion, offering rather passive and automated responses to our inquiries.  We did get to love on her though, and pray whilst holding her boney little hands through the wrought iron.  As the conversation wrapped, she offered us some homemade popsicles.  Weary of the water source, I passed, but Karina happily obliged.  She opted for coconut, which was literally pulverized coconut frozen in an upside down cup shape, with little chunks of the hairy, brown exterior and all. 

The final interaction we had that morning was with a kid likely only a few years younger than myself.  Again, the barred window was our medium and after some initial hesitation/suspicion, he really started to open up.  His name was Leonardo and he was currently studying engineering at what I assume was the university level.  As conversation turned God-ward, he revealed that he felt that there was a distance between himself and God.  When asked who's fault he felt that was, he admitted it was probably his.  As he acknowledged this I noticed a distance in his eyes, as though that admission had struck something deep within himself. 

"You know,"  I started.  "God is always right there.  No matter how far away you think you've run, you can simply turn around and find Him standing right beside you." 

He seemed to agree with me.  Then he asked me one of my favorite questions of the trip.  "How do you pray to God?"

"Just like you are having a conversation with a friend."  I replied.  "Just like you and I are talking right now.  Be real.  Be honest.  It's not like there isn't anything he doesn't know already.  Let him know how you really feel.  Your thoughts, your fears, your anger, your doubt.  He can take it."

Again, I could feel him listening.  There was that beautiful discomfort in his face that told me God was at work.  That his very spirit was responding.  There's such a profound meaningfulness in experiences like that.  It's something that I can't describe and am really only beginning to recognize myself.

By that time the rest of the group was gathered about half a block away and motioned to me that it was time to go.  The three of us prayed together and then Karina and I headed back to the group. 

On our way back to the city, we stopped by a Chinese restaurant for lunch, at which Fabio joined us.  Much to everyone's excitement, Fabio's girlfriend agreed to meet us there as well.  She was welcomed with open arms, as Fabio beamed with pride introducing her to everyone. 

Due to the cancellation of a mural we were scheduled to paint in a local skate park, we had the afternoon free.  Being that we were leaving the next morning, many of us took the time to peruse the shops around our hotel for gift to bring back to family and friends. 

After managing to end up in a shop by myself attempting to buy four bracelets for five thousand pesos a piece and having the shop worker thinking I was trying to haggle with him, a group of us went on a quest to find Alexsa an indigenous musical instrument to bring back to the States.  As we walked to a music shop north of our hotel, we came across a rather large group of people gathered in a circle in the plaza with the large tree mentioned in a previous post.  These spectacles weren't uncommon in a city that had mostly B-grade street performers seemingly on every corner.  However the performance at the center of this particular circle was rather unsettling.  Two men had constructed a little altar on the ground with various trinkets and what appeared to be a Bible.  They proceeded to theatrically buzz about the space provided by the crowd, uttering incantations and pouring water on the ground.  The whole display really messed with me, it just felt dark.

After shaking off the uneasiness caused by such a scene, we continued on to the music store where Alexsa purchased what I would describe as a crude version of an auto-harp.  I forget what it's actually called but it had a cool, rustic look to it. 

On our way back, we came across some street vendors sitting on the corner of a high foot-traffic area and decided to check out their wares.  There were two jewelry vendors who I assumed were together based on their matching hippie exteriors/vibes.  They had a huge array of really well done bracelets, necklaces, and the like.  Lirio, being a jewelry maker herself, jumped right into conversation with the two.  Meanwhile, Janice and I decided to talk to the third, likely unrelated guy sitting down at the same corner. 

His name was Juan and he wielded a classical guitar and a love for '90s grunge music.  He asked if we knew of Nirvana, we nodded, and after explaining that he knows very little English but will attempt to sing in it anyway, began to play.  Though the name of the song escapes me, I was impressed with his rendition of it.  Firstly, because I'm impressed with anyone who can sing and play guitar at the same time, but mainly because his minimal grasp on English actually aided him in his emulation of Kirt Cobain. 

The next song on his playlist came from a genre I'm much less familiar with, Argentinian grunge.  Again, I really enjoyed the performance.  As I sat there listening to this grubby street performer, flanked by hippie jewelers in the middle of a shopping district in downtown Armenia, Colombia I had yet another one of those God-is-so-good / How-could-I-have-even-imagined-an-experience-such-as-this moments. 

After Juan finished and we applauded, he began to explain to me that he desired to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina, that as far as he was concerned, it was the hub of musical talent in South America.  I, in turn, told him about the city of Nashville having a similar accolade in the States.  This peaked his interest greatly.  The proceeding few minutes consisted of him inquiring about the so-called Music City, including how to get to said place.  His eyes glistened as I regaled with talk of talented musicians on every corner and recording studios on seemingly every street. 

As it came time for us to head back to the hotel, Juan gave me his Facebook information while the girls finalized their purchases from the assumed hippie couple.  I particularly enjoyed that interaction.  In some ways it was a slice of normalcy.  It felt like a conversation I could easily find myself in back in the U.S. 

The remainder of the night consisted of dinner at one of the larger local restaurants --at which I had a rather odd turkey sandwich swimming in an orange glaze-- along with various conversations and mulling about the hotel lobby.  An obvious undertone however, was the fact that tomorrow we were leaving to go back to the U.S., a notion that, to my complete surprise, made me rather sad.