Monday, February 4, 2013

Heartbreak and Hope - An Attempted Summarization of my Compassion Trip to Central America

So, it’s two days since I’ve arrived back in Australia after an indescribable trip and it’s “straight back into it.” Starting teaching at a new school, new group of kids, new way of doing things. It’s a lot to get my head around.

That’s the headspace I’m in as I try and somehow summarize my recent trip with Compassion, with a neat little bow and a cherry on top. I’ll do my best.

The numbers are astonishing, and the mere fact that I am sitting here awake and healthy is a miracle of God.
3 weeks.
7 countries.
14 children visited.
16 flights and a bus trip.
80 hours travelled by road and air.
45,000km covered.
As for $$$$, I lost count, but I know it was less than half of the average Australian wedding, which I understand is $36,000 for one wonderful, self-indulgent day.

All through the trip, I felt God sustaining, protecting and providing for me. He was honouring the prayers of so many people, and at times I literally felt myself being carried through situations and circumstances that in my own strength would have wrecked me completely.

The contrasts of this trip were overwhelming and hard to process. If I was to give the trip a title, it would be “Heartbreak and Hope.” Nice alliteration, but also accurate.

Two years ago, I was listening to the Hillsong song “Hosanna”. Part of the bridge of the song goes:
Show me how to love like You have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your kingdom’s cause
As I walk from earth into eternity

I said to God “I want you to make those words a reality in my life, no matter what it costs.” Boy, did God honour that request! But I am also glad, because I believe my involvement with Compassion, and the things I have seen, heard and experienced are bringing me closer to God’s heart, and making me more like Jesus, which for a Christian is the ultimate goal.

The home visits were mind-boggling, and they cut deep. I didn’t really get any surprises. I’m not ignorant about poverty, and I never for a moment thought that everyone lives like us in the “developed world”. But because I’ve made the choice to jump in and I’ve invested so much into these kids and families through my money, letters, love, encouragement and prayers, it was so personal, and it hurt my guts to see the way they lived, and the lack of opportunity they faced. 

I want to make it clear at this point, and it should be obvious to you, dear reader, that what I do with Compassion is FOR God, ABOUT God and BECAUSE OF God. It hurts me to say I’ve been accused by people close to me of being self-promoting and prideful in the way I go about it, and even that Compassion is an idol for me.

One good thing about the trip is that God continually confirmed to me that IT IS NOT ABOUT ME! If I had gone on this trip content in, and just wanting to see, the difference I alone was making in their lives, I would have been incredibly disappointed and disillusioned, maybe to the point of not sponsoring any more.

Compassion and God are making the real difference, giving the child and their families hope for the future in this life and the next, giving them skills and tools to lift themselves out of poverty (not doing everything for them or forcing them to be reliant on their help). 

By taking that extra step and visiting the children and their families, I found out so many things that I would not have known just from the letters. So many needs. Here’s a few:
* One girl (14) and her brother (12) have to work 6 hours a day to support the family because their father drinks
* One girl’s father has rheumatoid arthritis and is very crook, but works making coffins anyway, to support his family
* The mother of one boy (8 y.o.) is 23, and has just had a new baby. They live in a brick-box (can’t really call it a house), there is no toilet or running water
* One girl is part of a family of six, and all they own is a box of clothes each because a relative stole ALL their possessions over a number of days. Even the kitchen sink, and he tried taking the doors off the hinges.
* One girl is part of a family of 10, and has two-and-a-half walls on her house and no running water
* Two families, one of 7 and one of 11, are about to be kicked out of their house and have nowhere to go
* One girl is growing up with fighting parents because her father is openly living with another woman, even though he is married to his wife. This family had not had running water for two days when I came to visit
* One girl (18) was unable to tell me what her dreams for the future are, what she’s good at or what she likes doing.   
* One girl’s father asked the translator to ask me for money, and either he or his wife have to stay at home because if the house is vacant they will get robbed.

That’s just scratching the surface. Do you see how, if this was all about me and the wonderful difference I was making with my $11 a week and words on a bit of paper, I would have found all this too hard to take, thrown my hands up in despair and ….(I don’t know how to finish that sentence)?

No, it is not about me. I am merely/humbly/proudly (all at the same time), an instrument God is using in His Story. What I give is the five loaves and two fish, and God multiplies it to “feed” thousands. To encourage, inspire and challenge many. What an honour and a privilege it is to be used by God.

So that was the “Heartbreak” part of my title. Now for the HOPE.

Compassion works in 26 countries through partnering with local churches. I love it. The church is the Body of Christ. The hands and feet of Jesus. They set up Child Development Centres, or “Projects” where the children go to be loved, cared for, encouraged, fed.

I have now visited 26 of my sponsored kids, in 10 countries and the Compassion Projects are seriously my favourite places in the world. They are filled with life, love, energy, hope, dreams, laughter.

The Project workers are nearly all volunteers from the local church, who literally give their lives for these kids and their families. They are true heroes. They sacrifice, build relationships and KNOW them, because they want to share the love of God with them. Extravagant love, unearned, undeserved.

There are a couple of reasons the money from sponsors does not go directly to the families in the form of cash. One is the potential for corruption by authorities or misuse by the parents or extended family. But the simple reason is that the Project workers know the families so well, and know what their needs are. Every dollar spent is audited at three levels. Receipts are kept, photos of purchases are taken. I’ve seen it. The integrity is beyond question.    

On my trip the visits to the Compassion Projects provided the HOPE. There was lots of footy (Australian football) played. Lots of singing, dancing, laughing, running, jumping. Lots of music – anywhere there was a guitar, piano or drum kit, I was on it. I saw workshops in action. Teaching kids skills that can be used for income-generation and helping their families. Giving them a way out. I left the Projects confident that God was there, and He was their HOPE.

Looking back, I love seeing the number of situations where I had nothing to offer but PRAYER. I didn’t necessarily like being in those situations at the time, because I felt so useless, helpless and inadequate, but as the Bible says “His strength is made perfect in my weakness.” That statement rang true on too many occasions.

I was left with the profound realisation that when everything else is stripped away and we’re left with nothing but complete and utter dependence on God, that’s when He does His best and most powerful work.

Being able to pray with and for these precious families was such a humbling experience and a privilege, I often struggled to hold it together. The fact we can come directly to the Creator of the Universe and He listens and responds to us. He WANTS to hear from us, and YEARNS to have a relationship with us.

I was able to pray for a miracle of healing. For provision of jobs, houses and food. For strength, courage, wisdom and knowledge. For God’s peace and security to come on each family. For barriers to be broken down so that the families would fully come to know and rely on God for their needs. I was also able to pray for a beautiful group of 13-15 year old girls on behalf of their sponsors who most likely will never get to visit them.

The amazing thing was, the thing I quite often found myself praying the most was THANKS. I was in the middle of this profound experience, smacked around by the realities of life in poverty and the word I kept hearing myself say the most was THANKS?

My two most impacting experiences both involved prayer.
One was with the young mum of the only boy I visited on this trip. I have shared about this in another blog, but seeing her circumstance, her loneliness, her brokenness, we went out into the backyard, and as I looked at the hole in the ground that was their toilet, I had nothing. I was lost, for words and for actions. I held her close, and verbalised the only thought that came to my mind, the only thing left: JESUS. Being able to pray for that woman was so precious, and I’m grateful to God for the opportunity.

My last visit in the Dominican Republic was not one of the most memorable or exciting. I barely got anything out of her all day, and to be honest was ready to go home. However, God turned it into possibly the most eternally significant moment, and showed me what can happen when you pluck up courage and act on a prompting from God.
She was not able to tell me any of her dreams for the future, what she was good at or liked doing, which for an 18 year old was sad to witness. She had mentioned at the start of the visit that she wasn’t a Christian, and I knew I had to follow this up at the end of the day. I asked her “What is the one thing that is stopping you from fully giving your life to God.” She was unable to answer. There was just some barrier blocking her way.
I shared my experiences of being similarly lacking purpose and direction when I was younger. It wasn’t until I fully committed to God at age 21 that He started giving me opportunities and showing me what He wanted me to do with my life. I emphasised that it’s completely her decision, but as soon as she takes that step and gives her life to God, He will start working on her and make something great out of her.
The time of prayer we shared was incredibly powerful. She was moved to tears and I could feel God working in her heart. He has given her wisdom and protecting her from falling into the teen pregnancy trap that has snared most of her friends. I can’t wait to see what God will do with her life.  
Time after time I was floored by the faith and trust these families had in God, despite the “predicament” of their circumstances. It was so counter-intuitive, but that’s the Kingdom of God. It’s just so backwards, upside down and topsy-turvy to our “human” way of thinking. Their gratitude at my visit, as well as their hospitality and generosity with so little to give, was also amazing to experience. I received t-shirts, traditional Guatemalan garments, pictures, notepads, letters, all made and given out of pure love.

It was amazing to witness the differences between the families who were completely committed to God and the church, and those who were on the edge. Two families in particular, you could literally feel the unity, love and hope that existed in their homes. They were no better off materially than any of the others, but they knew that their true value and Hope was found in Jesus.

One family of six makes money by selling a traditional drink called “horchata”. On a good day they make $20. Yet with their faith in God and help from Compassion, all four kids dream of having jobs in the medical profession. The thing was, with this family, I honestly believe that those dreams can be fulfilled.

One thing I’ll never forget is twice having the offer of someone else washing a weeks worth of my dirty clothes (this is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone!) It was an incredible act of servanthood and humility, and it was much appreciated.

Some highlights to finish off:
* Playing drums and leading a church of 300 Mexicans in celebrating our Great God
* Taking each family out to a restaurant for lunch, often for the first time. Such a simple gesture, met with such thankfulness and gratitude
* Eating so much wonderful fried chicken I’m surprised I didn’t turn into one!
* Witnessing the pure, innocent joy of going to a fun park, a zoo, jumping on a trampoline and a bouncy castle.
* Meeting Rosa and her family for a second time three years on, and seeing the differences which are evident in their lives, thanks to their faith in God.
* Going on a Moto-taxi ride in Mexico
* Teaching the kids about Australia, jumping like a kangaroo, snoring like a koala and laughing like a kookaburra
* Singing songs to kids and being sung to by kids
* Seeing the joy, life and hope at each of the Compassion Projects, and knowing it is from God alone.
* Getting the Australian football out in soccer-mad Central and South America
* Being a passenger in a car in seven different countries in South/Central America and not witnessing (or being involved in) a single accident!
* Getting to know each of the families I’ve invested in through sponsorship on a much deeper level, knowing that God has connected us.

Even though, as you can tell, I’m a hugely passionate advocate and supporter of Compassion and what God is doing through them, I’m not going to finish with an “altar call.” I’m not going to beg, coerce or guilt you into sponsoring a child. That decision is up to you, and is between you and God.

However, over the course of this trip, I am confident I have fully, completely and honestly (sometimes too honest for my own good) painted a pretty clear picture for you.
A picture of the state of the need in the world.
A picture of the difference between our world and theirs, and the clear fact that, if we are willing, God can use us to make a difference to a child (or many!) and their family.
If you want ANY more information about anything you’ve seen or read, feel free to contact me and I would love to share with you. The ball is in your court.


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