Monday, September 30, 2013

Super Saturday in Brasil - Exploring Fortaleza and Alumni Meeting

When I was visiting my sponsored kids in Brazil last year, I had a weekend of doing nothing. Because of the language barrier I didn’t want to venture out of the hotel room. This year, God gave me Debora.

In August I read the blog of a friend, Hannah Hinojosa, which told Debora’s story. She is a former sponsored child, Leadership Development Program Graduate, and is now president of the Compassion Alumni in Brazil. I have people telling me they’re inspired by me and what I do sponsoring so many kids, but I tell you, you will be absolutely blown away by this girl. Read her story here.

I connected with Debora by Facebook, and mentioned I was going to be in Fortaleza visiting my sponsored kids at the end of September. She replied back saying that the Alumni was going to be having a meeting on the last Saturday, and would I like to join them? WOULD I!?

When I got to Brazil I contacted Debora, and she offered to take me out and about, and show me some things around Fortaleza. Yes please! So we met up early Saturday morning and headed out for an adventure.

I have visited 11 countries in Central and South America, so I like to think I am getting used to certain things, like traffic. In these countries, even crossing the road is an adventure, where you literally risk your life. We got on a bus, and Debora started telling me some of her story. She loves to talk, which is good for me, because I like to listen.

When Debora was 3 months old, she was very sick, and given about 3 days to live. Her parents were new Christians, and prayed over her along with other family members, some of whom were involved in the occult. However, they all wanted the same thing: Debora to live. Her mother prayed: “
God, if you have a purpose for Debora in this earth, and I believe on this, I just believe you will make it since taking all the disease from her body now.” And He did.

God has remained faithful to Debora. He has not removed the challenges from her life, but has helped her overcome them. After Debora graduated from the Child Sponsorship Program, she was accepted in the first group of LDP students in Brazil – one of 20 from a graduating class of 400.

She is a leader, a visionary and a role model for other Compassion sponsored children, and she is aware of this. She has found that God-given purpose that her mother knew she had, from 3 months old.

Through our conversation we found out we both love music. Debora plays the guitar and sings at her church, and a couple of years ago she had the opportunity to meet and work with Michael W. Smith, when she wrote a couple of songs for Compassion.

After the bus ride, we took a train. Debora had never taken a train in Fortaleza before, so it was a first for both of us. Fortunately the track was circular, so we ended up back where we started. As Debora talked some more, and I listened some more, I kind of enjoyed the attention we were getting from our English conversation.

We found our way back to the station we had come from and went for a walk through the markets. It was hustle and bustle, hold-your-backpack-tightly. We ended up at a park, which was a complete contrast to what we had just come from. Peace, serenity, lots of green. Sitting there, it was hard to imagine the transformation that Debora explained to me the park took at night. It becomes a hub for homelessness, violence, prostitution and drugs. No police patrol the area, so it is incredibly dangerous. Then somehow it all disappears when the sun comes up.

Two interesting encounters. A poor, toothless woman came up, asking Debora for money, and told me I looked like an angel. I can honestly say I’ve never been called that before. A guy selling ice-creams came and sat down next to us for a rest. When he heard us talking he took a stab at where I was from:
“No, Australiano.”
Once he knew this, the first question wasn’t about kangaroos, or what the weather was like. He asked me if Australians liked to drink lots of alcohol. I answered yes, wondering how he knew us so well!? Obviously Australia’s drinking reputation has spread far and wide.

Our final stop was a massive Cathedral, which I understand was built to try and compete with Sao Paulo. It was interesting. The thing that stuck with me was a macabre and creepy life-sized statue of a dead and crucified Jesus laid in a coffin. I’ve never understood this obsession with the dead Jesus, from people who call themselves Christians. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with icons of Jesus still on the cross. He is not dead, He is ALIVE!

I went back to the hotel for a “rest” before the Alumni meeting, but ended up mucking around on the net and catching up on some blogs.

The time came for me to go to the church, and I took a moto-taxi for the first time. I was as nervous as heck, but it was good fun. The driver was gentle with me, and didn’t do anything crazy. I have to say I was acutely aware that if there was even the slightest unexpected move and I’d be in trouble, but we got to the church safe and sound. I soon regretted wearing shorts and forgetting to apply bug spray, and the mosquitos were all over me.

As I understand it (and Debora will correct me if I’m wrong), the Compassion Alumni has been set up to connect and support people who have graduated from the Child Sponsorship Program, and are doing or have graduated from the Leadership Development Program. The LDP had their first group of graduating students only recently, so the Alumni is in it’s early stages. Debora said there is still some confusion about what the Alumni actually exists for, and what it’s purpose is. As the president, she is a pioneer, and it’s her job to make this clear to people.

The Alumni receives no official support from Compassion. I understand this is because it has been tried but hasn’t really worked in some other places such as Africa and the Philippines, so in a sense they need to prove to Compassion that the Alumni is worth investing in and supporting; that there are benefits.

The purpose of the meeting on Saturday was to present a strategy that Debora had devised, in order to raise funds for the Alumni. It is called “Speak, Hable, Fale!” and involves teaching people Spanish and English, for a fraction of the price of the language schools that exist. This is in order to provide people with a skill that can help them earn an income and help their families escape poverty.

Debora said normally they might get 25-30 people to a meeting. Tonight we got five. I shared a little about my Compassion sponsorship journey, and encouraged them with the story of Jesus walking on the water. I explained that with God, it is possible to do things that may seem impossible or crazy, but that to do so we need to keep our eyes focused on Jesus. When Peter was looking at Jesus, he was actually walking on the water, but when he took his eyes off Jesus, that is when he began to sink. I also explained that when Jesus rescued Peter, he didn’t stop the storm straight away, but rescued him, THEN stopped the storm. The same is true in our lives: Jesus never promises to stop all the storms in our lives, but rather He will be with us through the storms.

I told the small gathering that Compassion sponsors and potential sponsors want to know one thing: Does it work? Does Compassion sponsorship really transform lives? I told them that whatever they ended up doing, they were the example and the proof that Compassion sponsorship works, and I was honoured to meet them and be able to share with them.

I was then really excited to be able to get a short video of each of the young Alumni talking about their lives as a sponsored child, and the difference Compassion and their sponsors have made in their lives. We also played a couple of tunes, in a bi-lingual worship session :)

The evening finished with some chocolate cake to celebrate my birthday (a couple of days early).

After this the group of us went for a walk to Debora’s house. I received a real education on this night. That 10-minute walk was a real eye-opener for me, the sheltered little white guy from Australia. I would not last a day on these streets. I felt safe staying close to my new friends, but I was also nervous. I felt a sense of danger and oppression in the environment. Not much hope. The stench of sewage was prevalent. People were just aimlessly hanging around, loud music blasted from cars and houses. As we walked, Debora pointed out how many houses in each street were involved with dealing drugs. Pointing to one street, she said “all of them.”

This is reality for so many people, and it is the reality that the Compassion Project workers deal with in the children that come to them. It is a job that can only be done with God’s help, and they know it, which is what makes their faith so strong and inspiring to me.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Compassion Adventure 2013 - Day 1 in Brazil (Visiting Jasmiel)

I love how when a person is a recipient of an act of generosity and kindness, it multiples and inspires them to do the same.

Back in 2011, I got a letter saying that the uncle of my Brazilian sponsored child Ana Cristina had been killed, and the family had to move away. Two weeks later I received an email from Hayley Hughes, a Compassion employee who had visited Ana Cristina’s Project. She took a photo of Ana Cristina holding one of my letters, and sent me many pictures and videos of the day.

This act blessed my heart so much, and it has been my privilege since then to give similar experiences to other sponsors when I have either met their child or given them gifts that the sponsor passed on.

In El Salvador I took a video of Loida and passed it onto her sponsor Lindsay. In Brazil I took gifts for Erica from her sponsor Jennifer, as well as a video and some photos. On this current trip I took gifts from four different sponsors to pass on to their children.

Friday (Sept 27) was my first day in Brazil, and I was visiting a sponsored child that wasn’t even mine. A few months ago, sponsor Brian Crawford posted on Facebook a letter from his sponsored child Jasmiel. It was incredibly impacting, as the young fella was having a difficult time, and showed just what a difference a sponsor makes in the lives of the children and families.

I contacted Brian to find out what part of Brazil Jasmiel was from, and he said Fortaleza, which is the same city that my seven are from. I offered to visit him on behalf of the Crawfords, and that’s where I found myself today. The Crawfords have two kids – one with Cerebral Palsy and also a newborn, so it was a privilege and an honour to visit their boy on their behalf. God was once again using me to bless others.

Jasmiel's mother recently left the family. This has led to all sorts of behavioural problems and presents a challenge for the Compassion staff who were caring for him. Jasmiel’s father is unemployed at the moment, and has three kids (Jasmiel has an older sister and a younger sister) to care for. All three kids in the family are sponsored which, in their situation, is literally the difference between life and death.

There were no Project activities on this day, as it was a planning day, but that didn’t matter one bit. Jasmiel was joined by his two sisters and two or three other friends, and we had a great morning playing soccer (with the ball the Crawford’s had given him), Australian football, table soccer, table tennis and jumping on the trampoline. This was the first Project I’ve been to that has a trampoline. I had a go, but didn’t last long – my knees don’t like me jumping

I was blessed by the Project staff, so caring, friendly and enthusiastic. I have found that at each Project I have visited, I love it how God has set it up so that the Compassion kids, who are the most needy in the community, are surrounded by such love and care. They literally experience the love of God through these wonderful adults, and it transforms their lives.

We took a tour of the Project. The environment is always so colourful and child-friendly. I learned that the Project has been operating for 5 years, and has gone from 100 to 305 kids. We then had a delicious filling lunch, and there was no more trampolining after this.

Next we had a little devotion time, where the kids sang a couple of songs, and the 2IC Rosenilda said some encouraging things. I was humbled to be the first sponsor to visit the Project, and Rosenilda said that when they found out I was coming the staff were more excited than Jasmiel was!

I’ve said it before, but sponsor visits mean so much to the Compassion Project workers. They do an incredible job, literally giving their lives to be the hands and feet of Jesus to these kids and their families. I made sure to encourage them before I left, telling them that there are people thinking of them and praying for them. They are not forgotten.

Finally we had the home visit. The house belonged to Jasmiel’s grandparents, and was passed on to his father, so that at least provides them with some stability. It is basically a brick box, with some holes in the roof. It has a living area and one bedroom. I was told that Jasmiel and his father sleep on the bed, while his sisters sleep on the floor in the main, narrow living area, which has a rough dirt floor. Not sure whether they have any sort of mattress. There was a small stove with some kitchen utensils. Three little kittens wandered around the place (and got stepped on at one point), and there were a couple of chickens and a rooster in the backyard.

One thing I was so encouraged to see was that Jasmiel’s father clearly loved his kids deeply. He was pleasant to talk to, and joined in our games of football and soccer. In the developing world, when a family breaks up it is usually the father that leaves, so I was witnessing a rare thing. I can only imagine his frustration at not being able to personally provide for his family, but he is a godly man who hopes in God and is so thankful for Compassion being there to support him and his kids.

Day #1 in Brazil: Big tick

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Compassion Adventure 2013 - Visiting Cristina in Peru

On Wednesday, the third stop on my Compassion adventure was Peru, where I sponsor 10 year old Cristina. She was one of two remaining sponsored kids I have not visited (I still have not been to see Paola in Honduras).

Initially Lima turned on quite a grey, cold and wet day (it warmed up later). We headed down to the very south of Lima. The drive to the Project was interesting. The environment was rather drab, dusty and colourless, with severely underdeveloped roads and buildings, and cacti growing in the median strips. I imagine it would be a challenge for many people to maintain any sort of hopes or dreams as they eked out an existence in that environment.

On the way I got the sense that God was going to teach me something on this day, and I was right. It wasn’t one of those overly joyous “made-in-heaven” type of days that we all hope for when we meet our sponsored kids, but I guess not all of them can be, and I’ve had my fair share anyway.

Cristina turned 10 on Monday (Sept 23), found out the next day I was coming, and I was there on the Wednesday. What a birthday present! We met at the Project and she was quiet and cautious. I had a bit of a tour, took some pics and saw Cristina’s classroom. There were no Project activities at this time, because the kids were at school, so we came back later in the day.

A highlight from the Project was the “Sponsor Wall” in each classroom, where they list the names of each child and their sponsor, and once a week they have a special time where they pray for all the sponsors. I know I certainly feel it at times - the sense of God’s blessing even when life seems normal or boring. It is because I have kids, parents and Project workers praying for me.

After a while we went and visited Cristina’s home, where we met Mama and her older brother Enrique. Her younger sister was at school and her father was working. The house has been given to them by one of Cristina’s grandparents, and they’ve been living there for 14 years. It is small and cramped but they have a bathroom with a toilet and electricity.

There was also a fridge and a washing machine. This is not because they are well-off, and they are still paying them off, but because they participate in a special arrangement with 3 or 4 other families which I understand is quite common in Peru. Every month, one of the families receive an agreed upon amount of money from the rest of the families, which enables them to purchase necessary supplies or appliances. The next month it’s a different family’s turn to receive the money.

Both Cristina’s parents work. Mama makes a special fruit-based dessert, and sells it at a local market. Her dad is, as I understand it, a freelance soccer coach/trainer who coaches teams or individuals according to demand. It is not stable or secure work, but on this day he was working. He is 46 years old, but apparently he was the equivalent of a state-level soccer player in Peru back in the day.

I gave Cristina some gifts, with a couple of extra soft toys thrown in because it was her birthday (and also to lighten the suitcase). She received them with quiet gratitude.

After this we went to a local mall for lunch. I observed Cristina as we walked past all sorts of shops, and she soaked in the noise and the atmosphere and the busyness, and I got the sense it was like a different universe to her. We had chicken and chips for lunch, and for some reason I agreed to order a salad bowl. It was here I discovered Cristina’s absolute dislike for anything that even looks like salad. Mama and I proceeded to light-heartedly try and get her to have some salad, and Mama took the uneaten home in a bag. I said jokingly “So is that your dinner for the next week?” I don’t think she saw the funny side.

Mama was pleasant, friendly and good to talk to. She and the kids are committed Christians and involved in their church, the brother only more recently. He could be a key player in getting their father along. Cristina’s father is staunch Catholic, and that’s the excuse he has always used for avoiding church, but I have the feeling that eventually, when he sees the changes in his kids and the love of the Compassion staff for his family, who knows what will happen down the track. Continuing to pray…

It was during this time and on the drive back to the Project that I discovered sometimes not even a sponsor visiting from the other side of the world can interrupt a strong mother-daughter bond. With her mother, Cristina was a different child. She laughed, smiled, babbled away and was so much more relaxed. It was good to see that side of her, even if I wasn’t the cause of it.

At the Project in the afternoon I was able to meet Cristina’s friends and classmates. The weather had warmed up as we played and sang and had a great time. There is no language barrier when it comes to having fun with kids,

I left Cristina with some words, encouraging her to always work hard and try her best, because that’s all God expects us to do. I prayed God would show her what she is good at and what she loves to do, and she would be able to spend her life doing that, bringing glory to Him.  

The main lesson I learned from today is that true and genuine love gives generously, extravagantly and lavishly without expecting anything in return. The ultimate example of this, of course, is Jesus coming from heaven as a man in order to make us right with God. His death and resurrection paid the price for us, and we can be seen as righteous in God’s sight. There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve this. It is a gift of mercy and grace from God.

In my own small way, I hoped today I was following Jesus’ example of genuine, extravagant love, and I know Cristina appreciated it, even if she didn’t show it physically. Thank you God, for the opportunity.