Sunday, September 30, 2012

Feeling Tense?

I am taking a break from my 30 Days of Action posts to write about something that has been rumbling and bubbling and then finally settling peacefully in my heart these last few weeks. Something prompted by a thought that has followed me since I read Heather King's Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux in July. It's about being tense, or more accurately living in tension. And how that differs from but is not totally different from what we call guilt.

I have had many conversations with people who have read books or articles full of inspiring stories about people who are living radically, sacrificing everything and making huge differences in the world. While on the one hand they are inspired by these stories, on the other they find themselves battling scruples and guilt over the state of life in which they find themselves. Often overwhelmed by the latter, they toss the inspiration in order to free themselves from the weight of the guilt.

This is a feeling I am quite familiar with as a missionary. I battle with myself all the time about how much is too much for us, how little is too little and is asking too much from our kids, how much is just enough. I put things in my basket at the grocery store and then take them out. I stand at the corner giving myself the luxury of hailing a cab then wave it off when it stops and head to the bus instead. Recently, we discovered that one benefit of living in this mission with a car is that it has revolutionized food purchasing.

When we could only get to the very nearest city and that by bus, our purchasing opportunities were quite limited. Turrialba, while it is a city, still remains very typically Costa Rican and the stores market mainly typical fare in regards to food. In addition, whatever we purchased had to be loaded into recycled rice sacks and lugged to the bus where it sat for two hours on the ride home. Then we carried it on our backs to our house. Even when we had the occasional ride to the store, we were always eager not to be overbearing and so limited our purchases. Even then, we bought way more variety of food than the typical family in our pueblo.

But with our car to drive, we have a wider variety of options. One which we recently discovered is the opportunity to take a monthly trip into Zapote, a suburb of sorts of San Jose, to shop at Price Mart (this is apparently how you say Costco in Spanish -- who knew?) We went for the first time last month. After filling out our forms and having our candid snapshots printed on to plastic cards, I turned to find a long forgotten wonderland of flavored coffee creamer, donuts, toothpaste in four packs, pancake mix and maple syrup, barbeque sauce and feta cheese. I was totally overwhelmed.

We walked through Price Mart reveling in purchases we had not made in eight months. Olive oil. Syrup. French vanilla coffee creamer. Dark chocolate granola bars. We passed on the lovely cheeses, the sticky sweet donuts, and a load of other processed foods that appeared lovely in their familiar packaging but that we have learned really taste no better then the packaging itself. We bought a lot of food. Good food at good prices. We bought toiletries and medicines to last a long, long time at the best prices we have found yet in Costa Rica. We treated the kids to the cheap pizza and got an oil change for the car. We priced out some items we will need when we are sharing our mission with groups and other families. It was a good trip, and while we indulged ourselves some, I don't think we did too badly.

But in the weeks that followed, I was haunted by guilt over the French vanilla coffee creamer. I stressed about buying it. I stressed about using it up too quickly, not fully appreciating it. I scrupulously only allowed myself only one cup of coffee with the creamer and then drank plain. I would see families walking down the streets of our town and wonder how much rice I could have given them to feed their children with what I spent on my coffee creamer. I was so shell-shocked that I have not suggested another trip to Price Mart since then. Some people in my house are still lamenting not buying the big box of chocolate covered almonds they saw and I have feared I would be like some indulgence monitor, putting things in the basket and then guiltily taking them back out and stashing them on the wrong aisle, much to the chagrin of the Price Mart employees, I'm sure.

A couple of weeks after that shopping trip, I found myself sitting on a beach in southern Nicaragua reading the book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess and pondering a lot of over-indulgence, consumerism and lack of gratitude. And how hard it is to overcome a lifetime if living in a culture that embraces all those things. My time as a missionary has opened my eyes and changed my heart in so many ways, but it has not taken away the impulse to buy more shoes than I need or the desperate craving for Coke Zero in Sonic Ice. Or my love of sticky sweet donuts and flavored coffee creamer. And sometimes, in light of the poverty I see every day, my affections for those things make me feel what in the past I had labeled as guilt.

But reading and thinking on the tenets in 7 and some of things I had read about St. Therese in Shirt of Flame has caused me to rethink what I call this haunting feeling that pervades my thoughts, my desires, my affections and makes me weigh them against the stark realities of poverty, sickness, human slavery and death. What we have labeled as guilt and thrown out as an unhealthy emotion, I think, may not be something altogether bad. Now, I am certain, as many people have commented to me in the aforementioned conversations, that our merciful Savior does not want us to live a life hindered by crippling, debilitating guilt. After all, it was precisely this kind of law that Jesus came to free us from. But I also think we have been a bit quick to toss out some really good inspiration because we were afraid to go where the initial guilt was taking us. We do not need to be a people of guilt, but I think when we begin to hear a warning cry in our hearts every time something makes us see our own ugliness and brokenness that says, "No, run, don't think about that. That's too hard. Jesus doesn't want you to feel badly about yourself" that we need to respond like Christ did to Peter when Peter shouted a similar warning at Him -- about the very hard and ugly way in which He would redeem the world -- "Get Thee behind me, Satan."

Why? Because while I think the Lord does not want us to be encumbered by a burden of guilt over which He has already risen victorious, I think He's perfectly okay with us living in a constant tension. It is the reality of our lives on this side of heaven. We live redeemed but sinful. We worship a merciful but just Savior. We serve a broken and beautiful Church. We are dying every day that we live. And we die in order to live forever. We pray to know better our Savior and He teaches us to know better ourselves. We eat bread that is His body while it still looks and tastes like bread. And we buy and we consume and we live while others beg and starve and die in a world He created. This is our reality.

And as Christians completing, as the Word telsl us, what was lacking in His sufferings, I do think we would be woefully amiss if that reality did not weigh heavily upon us most of our days. If my coffee creamer makes me think painfully of the hungry in my midst, it may not mean I need to toss the coffee creamer, but it also should not mean that I push aside the painful reminder of the poor. Perhaps there is something He is asking me to do, and the tension in my chest with each sip of delicious creamy goodness is His way of knocking. If that experience makes me think long and hard about what I purchase on our next trip and helps me to leave behind some indulgences and replace them with basic foods that can be shared, it has indeed done a very good work in my heart. And if I deliberate long and hard over each item and allow us only three indulgent purchases per trip, is it that really some kind of debilitating guilt? I don't think so. Maddening as it may be for the poor men who are forced to endure the shopping trip with me, I think it does us all some good to pick and choose intentionally as a family and to see the alternatives we are afforded when we bypass overindulgence.

Heather King says St. Therese lived in this constant tension. Feeling at once favored and special in the eyes of her Sweet Savior and alternatively small and humble and feeble in His service. Wanting with all her heart to be a missionary and yet embracing the call to the silence of the cloister. Being childish and simple and yet a spiritual giant all at the same time. If this is what embracing the tension can produce, then who I am to wave it off because sometimes it gives me a stomach ache?

I will be the first to admit that sometimes living in this constant tension does not make me the happy smiley girl I want to be. Sometimes, I just freaking want a Pumpkin Spice Latte and a Coke Zero with Cherry flavoring and extra ice. In a separate cup. There. I said it. But I have come see that that too is okay. This is where His tender mercy sweeps in and makes something beautiful of the mess that is me. You see, while I'm tempted to sulk and whine and grant myself way more indulgence I deserve in repayment for my measly sacrifices, He swoops into my struggle and draws me to Him--says to me, "Sweet Princess, there are no lattes today. But I am here. Come close. Rest from the struggle. Breathe the sweet incense of my presence. Feel better, little one? Good. Get up and do what I have asked." And then, one day when I least expect it, right in the midst of serving and doing and falling and rising, voila, a pumpkin spice latte appears out of nowhere, with the extra whipped cream I never even dared ask for even though I wanted it really badly. Because my Daddy loves me. Deeply, tenderly and intimately. And He loves to lavish me with gifts and surprise me with loveliness.

So these days, I am working at seeing all these impulses both indulgent and guilty as the forces that pull taut my spiritual heart rope, that keep me sober and alert, intentional and dependent as I try to be who God has called me to be in this crazy upside world that reeks of sin and shines with glory all at the same time. I think the Lord only pulls that rope as taut as we permit Him too. Sometimes, life demands that we let it fall slack while we put all our energies into growing a baby human inside us or rekindling love in our marriage or serving the demanding needs of our families or recovering from an illness. Other times, I think He asks if we will let Him pull it uncomfortably tight, so that it strains and stresses and pulls at us until we grow up just a little bit more. But I do believe that we are called to permit the tension to live within us, the feel its weight and to embrace it, not as guilt, but as another tender mercy meant to bring us further into the abode of His heart. And I think the spiritual progress we make is directly related to just how taut we permit him to pull our heart strings.

So if you are feeling the tension today as I am and battling the guilty grumpies as I often do, slow down rather than pushing it away. Run to Him and let Him show you what He needs you to see. Seek Him in the quiet and the stillness and, yes, the pain of your heart. Move past the guilt and give Him permission to pull your heart strings tight. And then see what He might do with you. And then happily, one day, if He is merciful enough, we might find ourselves sipping a double whipped cream pumpkin spice latte inside the gates of the Promised Land with no more pain or suffering, where our hearts strings fly loose and free in the light of His glory. Walk with me?

***P.S. Following any of the Amazon links in this post or on the sidebar and making a purchase will generate a small amount of credit for me. All credit will be dedicated to purchasing items for the Blessed Zelie Martin Initiative laid out in this post.

I have added this post to this week's Walk With Him Wednesdays link up at Holy Experience.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Providing Meaningful Work: A Plan

I wrote here that providing meaningful work for women was one way I had long been thinking about fighting the exploitation and vulnerability of women. I have kicked around these ideas for a few months now and I have finally been able to clarify them into a plan with five aspects. Today I will lay out a bit of an outline of those aspects and then we can begin talking about the things I haven't yet figured out and the needs we have to meet to be able to accomplish this. I explained that I have chosen Blessed Zelie as the patron and so in our projects list, it will be called the Zelie Martin Initiative.

  • Aspect 1: Educational Courses
                  It never takes long for people wherever we are living as missionaries to find out that I can teach English and come asking about classes. Sometimes, I get stuck on whether this is a good use of my time or not. But here in Costa Rica, I have discovered, if adults can pass exams in various subjects at various levels, their wages go up. So providing an English class for women is a very worthwhile endeavor. I have already begun talking to the school principal about the possibility of using a class room there. Later, I would like to be able to offer other kinds of classes, like some education in personal finances, health, and maybe literacy if there is a need.

  • Aspect 2: Micro-business loans
               There is definitely no shortage of ideas or motivation to work here, especially among the women. And many women have skills well worth offering. Most often the problem is that they lack the necessary investment to get started. The first loan we would like to grant is for a friend who has been studying and building little by little for two years to have her own small beauty salon in front of her home. She has finished her studies and her husband has purchased the wood little by little and built the initial structure. Now she needs the funds to furnish it out with a salon chair, sink, mirror, and professional supplies. In terms of business investment, the amount needed is small, a few thousand dollars, but to her family, it is years worth of savings. Helping her get this project of the ground would grant stability to her family. We have other projects waiting after hers, a woman who would like to teach cake making classes, thus providing meaningful work for her and skill training for other women, a woman who would like to create a small shop in her home to help her daughters pay for college so they do not have to go to work in the city. The list is ongoing. Providing an opportunity for families to create business and income with their own skills or encouraging the acquisition of work skills lessens their vulnerability and the necessity to seek work that places them or their children in danger of being exploited.

  • Aspect 3: Women's Artisan Cooperative
            The ability of women to produce beauty with their hands in universally appreciated. It is the same here. The second aspect of the plan is organize a women's cooperative. I would like to first focus on making natural stone versions of the missionary rosary and projects we can make from repurposed t-shirts. You can see some ideas I've started collecting on my Pinterest board. Once we get going on the communal projects, I would then like to invite the participating women to bring in other items they can make to sell or to teach a craft to the other women of the group. The marketing strategy would be to set up a web page to sell the items as well to set up a table monthly in a local farmer's market. We would meet on a Saturday and have Bible study in the morning, then work, break and share lunch together, and finish up in the afternoons. The women could then take various projects home to finish up if needed. However, I want to majority of the work to be accomplished in the communal work setting as I think this aspect is very important. Fellowship, sharing the word of God, breaking bread together and working together all contribute to a structure that lessens the idea feeling of loneliness and desperation among women, thus lessening their vulnerability to the dangerous forces that feed the trafficking machine.

  • Aspect 4: Indigenous Women's Cooperative
             The specifics of this aspect of the project are the least clear at this point. It is not possible for many indigenous women to walk from the mountains to participate in the cooperative mentioned above, not to mention the fact that language and culture differences would make it difficult even if they should be able to attend. Of course, they will be invited always. But I would like to also offer an alternative form of participation to the women who must work at home because of distance. Many of the indigenous women are skilled at the craft of beading. I would like to purchase some canvas field bags and market bags and let them have license to decorate them as they like with beads. These can then be included in our marketing.

  • Aspect 5: A Partnership
              I will be meeting soon with Maria at Salvando Corazones to flesh out how the St. Bryce Foundation can partner in the work they are doing to fight the injustice of human trafficking and provide the first safe house for victims in Costa Rica. But we would like to dedicate this program, the Zelie Martin Initiative, as a partner for their work. Meaning whatever we raise in funding for this program, we will share equally with them for their work and education programs that will provide a future full of hope for the residents of their safe house. So, if we have a sewing machine on our wish list, and a sponsor donates the item or the funds, we will not move on to the next need until we have donated an equal item or funds to Salvando Corazones.

So, there is the rough outline of the idea. I am ready to put in the work to get it going and keep it going. But I need a lot of help thinking through particulars and acquiring the necessary skills and supplies. That's where you can help. So, let's all keep praying, asking Blessed Zelie's intercession, and then perhaps we will be able to work through the details and create something meaningful and beautiful for the women and families of Costa Rica and for God.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Providing Meaningful Work: A Patron

One of the best ways we can help protect women and children from the vulnerability that can lead to exploitation and enslavement is by providing meaningful work opportunities. I have been thinking long and hard about an outreach in this realm since April or May. 
I am still trying to think it all through and make the necessary contacts to flesh out my ideas, but I am developing a basic outline of the stages we could take at the St. Bryce Foundation take make real strides in the area of providing meaningful work for women.
Over the next week or so, I would like to share those ideas and plans with you, ask for your input where I still need help figuring things out, and show you where you might be able to help out. It is going to take some thinking to put it all into words and articulate the needs clearly. Today will not be the day I can get it all out.
So today, I will introduce to the patron I have chosen for this particular outreach, Blessed Zelie Martin, and ask you to pray with me that she intercede for the success of this endeavor.

Blessed Zelie Martin                                     

Blessed Zelie was the mother of the much beloved St. Therese and her siblings. She also worked as a maker of Alencon lace in France. As the lace maker, her work was not simply to make lace on her own and in her own time, but to find women and train them to properly create the designs she had sold. Each woman would then work on her piece of the project and return it to Zelie, who would then painstakingly piece together the work of each to create a seamless and beautiful final product.
I have developed a deep devotion to Blessed Zelie over these last few years. She, like me and even more so, suffered the loss of much loved and deeply wanted babies. In reading the letters that accompanied these losses in book The Story of a Family, I found a companion on my journey of loss who showed that it was possible to find sanctity in the terrible pain. 
I have looked to her often since then as a model of peaceful, gentle motherhood, of balancing home life, work life and spiritual life, of being a holy wife, and in many other aspects of life as well.
I look to her now as I embark on this endeavor that feels overwhelming, as I try to piece together the pieces of an outreach that is growing grander in thought by the minute, as I try to link women from various communities in various parts of the world all with a willingness to work and a valuable role to play.
I know the lace maker will understand and I know her intercession will win grace for pieces and the whole of this project. So will you join me in asking the intercession of Blessed Zelie Martin over the next few days as I try to put these ideas in to words and then put the words into action? And as we approach the feast day of her little saint, also patron saint of missions, perhaps you will consider including all the work of the the Saint Bryce Foundation and our proposed projects in your novena prayers

Monday, September 24, 2012

Let's Invite Others to Join Us

I (and you) am five days in to my commitment to take action against human trafficking. After reading the facts and hearing the stories and praying fervently on this, I am all the more convicted that it is part of my missionary duty to what I can for those suffering this grave injustice. I am flying with the Holy Spirit on exactly what that is, but He is helping me mightily. I have already made some new connections, been inspired to get moving more seriously on some outreaches I already had in the works, and am thinking through some new ideas.
As this week moves ahead, I'd like to begin sharing my ideas and brainstorming more with you. But I thought that today we could commit to inviting other people to join in our efforts first. I know that many have shared the posts here so far and are talking about this issue and your conviction to do something about it. But perhaps today you could go one step further?
  • I have created a page at the top of this blog with links to all the posts so far. Maybe you could e-mail to a few friends with a personal note asking them to join you in this commitment.
  • If you have a blog, maybe you would be willing to share the link with your readers? Or might you contact some of your favorite bloggers and share the link with an invitation to join us here?
  • And what about talking face to face? Talk to someone today about the real and horrific suffering human trafficking is causing in our world and ask him/her to join you in fighting the atrocity.
  • Want a way to gently invite your kids to have a heart for these victims and their suffering? Read this thoughtful article and see if it might help you find the right words.
  • Is there anyone in your church community who might want to join us in our commitment? Why not invite them via e-mail, a phone call, or a quick visit to their office? 
  • And let's not forget that spiritual action is powerful action. Don't stop praying. How about we all begin praying about something we can fast from to remind us to walk in solidarity with the victims of human slavery? Let me know what the Spirit inspires you to do. We'll commit to fasting together one day this week.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Let's Listen

One of the hardest parts of the life of an exploited victim is never being able to speak up for yourself and be heard. The feeling of helplessness and hopelessness of being totally silenced is a terrible aspect of stripping away someone's humanity.
For survivors of this terrible atrocity, there remains the terrible feeling of no one wanting to hear your story. I know just a little bit of this feeling from my loss of my son Bryce. There is an overwhelming feeling when you meet people to let them in to this part of your life that marks you so deeply and makes you who you are. And then there is a shame for having that need. No one wants hear your ugly, painful reality. You make people feel awkward. It is taboo in our society to be that real, to tell that much truth. So you sit instead with a lump in your throat and pain searing your soul while you smile and chatter idly.
For survivors of trafficking, it is necessary to share their stories when they have recovered enough to do so. In order to re-enter society, they need to be able to trust people in general again. They will never do that if no one ever listens to them, if no one is ever able to go there with them, to the hard and hurting and painful places.
It is easy to read the facts about human trafficking. It is harder to listen to the real horror stories. I want to shut it off myself. To say, "I get it, I don't need to hear any more." But the truth is, if I am going to choose justice and mercy for these women and children, it is not about what I need to hear. It is about listening. It is about the fact that they need to be heard. To help them heal, we need to listen.
So today, I invite you to follow these links and read, listen to the stories. As it pains you, as it makes you want to turn away, let the Lord break your heart for them. Pray for them. And pray for the valiant people every day who are working in the recovery effort, listening daily to this pain, trying to sop up the emotional and physical and spiritual wounds of this atrocity.
Let's not turn away from the ugly and the pain and the real. Let's show mercy and take action by being willing to listen.

  • Survivor stories at the Polaris Project
  • Facing the real and the ugly of these stories at the blog Jammed True Stories
  • This Is Our Story can be borrowed for free on Kindle
  • Here is a list of videos that come up when you search Human Trafficking Survivor Stories on You Tube
  • When your heart is breaking over these stories, maybe you could pen a note of encouragement to Maria at Salvando Corazones and thank her for being willing to give up her life, her business, her home, move her family to Costa Rica and daily live with this pain, daily try to instill hope. You can post your note here, e-mail it to me, or Facebook message me. Or you can post it on the Salvando Corazones Facebook page. 
Let's listen to the hard stories because we know we must. And then let's thank the people who are listening every single day. This is living mercy. This is living justice. And you can do it. Now. Today. Please do.

And don't forget to keep praying our prayer. And sharing these posts and the prayer with others. Don't be discouraged if no one responds. Do the right thing anyway. God will work with what you give.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Let's Get The Facts

If we are to take an action on the issue of human trafficking, it's important that we take the time to get the facts. I know, I hate getting the facts myself. I'd much rather just get all impassioned about something, ride the wave as long as it lasts and then move on.
But human slavery and the buying and selling of children for sexual exploitation--happening in every country on the globe--today--as you read this. We can't afford not to educate ourselves. It will arm us for the battle and fuel us with an honest passion, not just an emotional one.
So here's how we can take action today:

  • The most comprehensive and well organized way to read the most recently gathered information about this issue is to look through the Trafficking in Persons Report published annually by the U.S. government since 2001. I realize there is no way to read the entire document, but do read through as much of the introductory material as you are able. And then some of the individual country narratives. If you are in prayer for me and that beautiful little face that broke my heart, you might take a look at the Nicaragua report. If you are praying for the success of Salvando Corazones, you might read the Costa Rica report. Maybe there's a particular country you have heart for for your own particular reasons. Look it up. Read it. Get the facts. Let's know what it is we are working for. 
  • Salvando Corazones information about Costa Rica: There is some good history and back ground of what is happening here in Costa Rica explained here.
  • Health and Human Services Fact Sheet: A good overview of the legal definitions of the crime
  • The Slavery Map will allow you to get a country by country and even state by state visual of the most recently reported, documented cases of human slavery. Staggering.
  • United Nations information: Info PageFAQs,Publications and Tools (I'm not linking this one for its readability but only because I think it gives a good idea of the wide spectrum this issue encompasses--there are law enforcement issues, justice system issues, social and psychological issues, diplomatic relations issues. No one, in any professional or personal sector should be uneducated about this issue.
  • This page is for emergency medical providers but is a really good explanation of trafficking from the psychological and sociological perspective.
  • Educate others: Tweet or post as your Facebook one fact you learn today with the link to the source.
Overwhelmed? I know, me too. I don't think anyone has the time to read all of this in one sitting. But if you take just a few minutes today and walk away armed with a little more information, a little more perspective, a little more passion, you have taken action on behalf of these victims. On behalf of real people living in real horror. All over the world. Right now.

And remember to keep praying. Every time you read a fact and it horrifies you or breaks your heart, pray. Every time you feel overwhelmed by statistics, pray. Prayer is our most powerful source of inspiration and are most powerful weapon.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Let's Get Going

So I said in yesterday's post that I was going to come back today and share ways that we can all begin to be part of the solution of the atrocity of human trafficking. Here's the truth, I have a lot of inspiration, passion and ideas and that's about it.
But if you're willing to bear it out with me and help me do what we can where we can, I am willing to try to get this going. I want to fight the temptation that tells me I should wait until I have a well-formulated plan to invite people into. I want to fight the temptation to say tomorrow will be a better day. I want to fight the perfectionist side of me and be willing to be made of fool of for Christ and His most vulnerable children.
My vague idea is to create 30 Days of Action Against Human Trafficking, big and small ways we can all join in the fight for awareness and action on this issue. I'm brainstorming, making contacts and thinking it through as I go. That means it will inevitably develop and change as we go along. But one piece of counsel I always offer to those trying to discern what God is calling them to is "Don't wait while you wait." Do whatever you can. Here. Today. Right now.
So today, we are creating some ways you can join us in prayer and invite others to do the same. Today, I spent time on the phone with a missionary trying to make a real difference here in Costa Rica, getting educated, getting inspired, getting invited to visit and learn more. And thinking of ways you can join us. Now. From wherever you are.

Here's what I've got for today:

  • Begin praying the prayer on one of the pictures below each day (I am including a specifically Catholic one and one for my non-Catholic followers and friends. This is by no means an effort to divide us, but I feel like we really need a stronger presence and stance from Catholics on this issue, to step up to the plate publicly the way many other Christian organizations have, thus the specifically Catholic option.)
  • Share the picture and prayer on your Facebook page.
  • Tweet the url to this post and tag @StBryce
  • Pin this post on Pinterest.
  • Check out the Salvando Corazones web page and like them on Facebook. I spoke with Maria, the founder this morning and she told me that prayer would be a great help right now. Begin to pray that they can get the funding to get the first licensed safe house for trafficking victims of the ground by Christmas and put 18 girls in a safe environment to recover from this horrific abuse.
  • Pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us and show us how The Saint Bryce Foundation can collaborate with them in their work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Little Girl That Broke My Heart

This weekend we took one of our famous visa renewal excursions to the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua. As far as traveling goes, it was relatively unremarkable. We took our own car across the border guided by a cute little man named Jorge who knew his stuff and made the crossing paper work a snap. (When you get to the Nicaraguan border, whether you are walking or driving, you literally begin to be hunted by the “official” border guides who will carry your luggage/ watch your car/ bring you the papers you need/take you to the right windows etc. for a “tip” of your choosing. Which one you give in to eventually is a matter of fate. This time, we got Jorge, who was a literal God-send.) It was so easy that while my poor husband stood in line one last time, I went shopping for hand-crafted leather sandals at the curb side market. (Look, they’re $5, provide for some man’s family and fit perfectly in the new style I’m developing: missionary boho chic. I couldn’t resist.)
After the hugely successful crossing, we headed to , a beach town San Juan del Sur on the Southern tip of Nicaragua. As is the case with most beach towns around the world, San Juan del Sur is a mix of locals living at or below the poverty level appropriate to the country, the hippie ex pats who sell jewelry on the streets and live who knows where, the investors who own the hotels and are all also building condos and selling home sites in two other towns, and the Europeans who apparently prove they have “made it” by buying elaborately constructed condos at ridiculously over-inflated prices in the most obscure locations they can find. I’m telling you, fly to any country in Latin or South America, Asia or Oceania, drive to the nearest coast, find the beach and this is what you will find.
We tend to stand out a bit among this crowd if you haven’t already guessed. We traipse our poor children from one end of town to the other looking for a place to stay that: 1. has room for all of us 2. is willing to subject itself to our brand of chaos, 3. costs just a little more than free. Then we find somewhere to eat.
On the afternoon we arrived, we sat down at a large beach front restaurant and took in the lapping waters of the Pacific, the long stretch of sand, the huge statue to the Divine Mercy perched atop a mountain overlooking the whole area, and the incredibly reasonable seafood prices. At least 25 people made their way to our table from the beach to sell us things – sunglasses, phone cases, hand-crafted pottery, jewelry. This is the case everywhere you go in Nicaragua. It’s one of the reasons I have fallen in love with the place. (It’s a weird missionary thing.)
Our missionary spending mindset goes something like this…cheap hotels, cheap food with the occasional splurge, cheap or free clothes and shoes…poor locals selling things you don’t need and which are likely to break before dessert…buy them. We had already bought two pairs of sunglasses and an iPhone car charger when the most precious little girl approached our table with a basket full of little creatures made out of sea shells. We gave each other the collective bleeding heart look that said we knew we were not sending this sweet one away empty-handed. We bought a turtle. We encouraged forced my father-in-law to buy a turtle. I asked her who made them, she said her mother. I asked her how old she was, she said nine. And then my son gave her the sunglasses we had just bought him because “they were kind of pink anyway”. They were burgundy. Welcome to the family of bleeding hearts, son.
Later, as Greg and I were talking about the place and the atmosphere and how much we loved Nicaragua, I mentioned the little girl to him. He is by now used to the fact that everywhere we go I become fixated on some girl child and talk about her endlessly as if I had known her all her life. We agreed she was the most precious little thing and mentioned with some concern that we hoped someone was nearby watching her as she worked on that crowded beach.
That evening I sat in the hotel lobby with the plan to take advantage of working Wi-Fi and glut myself on free7Kindle books. I connected and found to my happy surprise Jen Hatmaker's book 7 at the top of my list. I had forgotten that Elizabeth had gifted it to me a couple of months ago to read along with her but I had never been anywhere with Wi Fi to download it. I started reading, and I did that book thing that bookish types do. I immediately become so immersed that I treated everyone around me as if they were interrupting an important conversation every time they distracted me.
I took it with me to the beach the next morning and read for four hours while my boys splashed and played and built sand forts and collected rocks and sand dollars. I will admit that I was so immersed that all of us are now walking around hissing loudly “DON”T TOUCH MY BACK” whenever anyone comes near us. If you are not familiar, Jen Hatmaker is a Christian author and speaker who, along with her husband, took up God’s challenge to simplify their own lives and become advocates and friends to the poor. In 7, she spends 7 months wheedling down some area of her life to 7 essential things and reflecting on its effect. For one month, she ate only 7 foods, another, wore only 7 clothing items. It is everything I love in a book – challenging, inspiring, spiritual, funny (Y'all the girl is funny). And she made me think about lots of big things there on that beach.
Of which the loudest was “what the heck am I doing here on this beach when there are poor just around the corner? Why am I not serving?” Eventually I remembered I was sitting on that beach because I live a life in service to the poor. I resisted the temptation to load up my little missionaries and their flip flops and tell them we had to leave immediately to buy rice and beans to deliver to yet unknown needy families in the area. I waved happily to them as I watched them jump waves with a couple of local boys they had befriended, carefully guarded their prized rocks (okay, I might have left them when I ran  screaming from the incoming tide, Kindle high in the air and towels in hand), and read on.
And then she was back. The sweet little brown face gently pushing a seashell rooster toward me, the shy smile melting my heart. I knew I couldn’t justify buying another sea shell creature but I didn’t want to send her away. I wanted to buy her a Coke and something sweet and sticky to eat and tell her to sit down next to me and forget about working for the afternoon. I knew that probably wasn’t going to get high approval marks from whoever had sent her out here in the first place. So I told her I couldn’t buy anything today and to be careful.
And my heart has not stopped aching ever since. In its early aching, I wondered with a tinge of anger  about who sent her out to the beach alone all weekend to work. I questioned why they didn’t realize it was dangerous. My mind started to question what the human trafficking statistics were in Nicaragua and if her mother knew about them. I was mad at whoever was putting this child in this danger so regularly.
And then I began to think about why she was there. And my heart hurt even more. It’s been hurting ever since. I cannot get this little girl out of my mind. She’s on that beach working every weekend because of us, because of me. Because my heart will bleed more readily looking into the beautiful face of that little girl and be inclined to buy her little shell animals than it will be looking into the face of her tired mother  trying to support her children. Because I am not moved to action by her poverty or her efforts to avoid it, she sends her little girl to me – vulnerable, sweet and a good sell. I am sick about this.
I have begged the Lord to help me see how to remedy this in myself. I have begged him to break my heart wide open for the mothers trying to survive, feed their children, keep them healthy and happy and whole against all odds. And to give those mothers my full attention and support when I find them in front of me. To tell them that I value what they are doing, that they are valiant and noble and beautiful and that it makes me thankful to have the chance to look into their beautiful faces and be blessed by their presence and their work. I beg to be the person who loves and encourages and supports instead of looking away or acting bothered. I beg that I will never again contribute to the culture that encourages a mom to send her child out to work because it will bring them more food than if she went herself.
But my heart still breaks. That little girl follows me to my dreams at night and on my morning walks. I think of things I wish I would have told her. That she was very, very beautiful and had a sweet smile. That she was doing a really good job and her mom would be proud. That she would never ever be alone because there was a God who loved her and valued her above all things. That she could walk in joy and hope because she had been redeemed by the love of a merciful Savior. I wish I could have found way to explain to her without frightening to her how careful she needs to be. I wish I could run back there right now and have a re-do. But I can’t.
And I’m living with that reality and asking God what He wants me to do with it. Asking the Holy Spirit to prompt me to see the ways I am called to be part of the solution. Yesterday, I took a long look at the Trafficking in Persons Report. This reality is profoundly appalling and the statistics so overwhelming, that sometimes I find it mind-numbing. I shut down because if I really think it all through, I might break in half from the tragedy of it all. But yesterday, I was happily surprised to find that Nicaragua is not on the watch list, that their government has really stepped up efforts to protect their people and complied fully with all the international recommendations. But my heart sank when I read further and found out that the very beach where we were, San Juan del Sur, is highlighted as one of the highest danger zones for human trafficking in Nicaragua. Also, to my surprise, I found out that Costa Rica is still on the Tier 2 watch list. The country has increased its efforts in the area of human trafficking and moved up from the abysmal Tier 1 status it first received, but still lacks in awareness campaign efforts and has yet to prosecute a single suspected offender.
My recent reading has inspired to think beyond the “well I’m here, being a missionary, aren’t I” mindset and think of ways the Spirit might be calling me to action. And I think there are ways that, with a little help, we can make an effort on the awareness front here and in San Juan del Sur. I might need a bit of a hand on the technical side of what I’m thinking about. I’ll be back tomorrow to tell you more about it. Drop me a line or a comment if you might like to help be a part of the effort.
In our daily holy hours, part of the prayer we pray is “that I may never sit with arms folded but always seek to do more and better”. I know Jesus is breaking my heart for this little girl and her mother on a beach somewhere in Nicaragua for a reason. I’m sure if I pushed it out of my mind for a few days, it would be replaced by other things. But I don’t want it to. I’m begging the Savior to break my heart for His people the way His breaks for them. I’m begging to be an apostle of mercy. I will take that little girl to my prayers every day and speak over her the words I wish I had thought to say there on that beach. I will try to find someone in the area who might seek her out and find an adult who would keep watch over her on the weekends when she is working. I will pray that God sends me back to her, to her priest who is struggling to minister to more than 20 communities without proper chapels. I will pray to see her in the eyes and faces of every mother and child I meet here where I am and that I always find the courage to say those things to them that I wish I had said to her, to the little girl who I hope has forever changed me, opened my eyes anew to the plight of God’s children, made it real and painful and too awful to ignore.
Will you join me this week in praying every day for this sweet child? For all children in danger? For the mothers who are struggling to provide for them and feel forced to endanger them? For God’s people to seek them out, find them, love them in His name, do what they can to relieve the suffering of the poor? For all our hearts to break into action? And then, maybe, you will be able to join me in the little effort I am brewing up in my mind? Please will you come back and read more on that tomorrow? If you are praying with me, will you leave a note in the comments, so we can see the bouquet of prayers we are arranging together? Thank you for listening to the cry of my heart.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Be Forewarned

I haven't blogged in a long time. Like a long time. I haven't flexed my writing muscle at all in a really long time. I'm not sure what happened. Usually when I write, it goes something like this: experience something profound/hard/amazing/funny/real. Think a lot about it. The thinking begins to write itself into something in my head. It writes and writes and writes itself in my thoughts until it's an itch that must be scratched and I scribble the words out onto the screen and feel a great, blessed relief.

Lately, there just hasn't seemed to be the time for the last few steps of this process. The experiences are coming so fast and furious and I'm thinking about so many things, that nothing ever seems to have time to stew long enough to become insistent. But make no mistake, there's a lot of stuff rumbling around in this brain. And it's starting to get kind of crowded in there. And Lord knows, my brain doesn't need any excuses to be any more of a mess than it already is.

Plus, I am a writer at heart. I love to write. It's part of me the same way screaming at football games on the television and sniffing deep to inhale the scent of rain and dirt are. I have missed this part of me.

I have figured that part of what is contributing to my malaise lately is the constant flow of sound bytes I am putting out there and taking in in the world of social media. So I have made a commitment to pull back from those places a bit and take the time to do some real processing and writing. Something I think is long overdue.

And I'm just putting this out there as a warning, I just devoured Jen Hatmaker's book 7 in a day and have moved on to God Doesn't Sleep. I've got Radical re-queued in the line-up. I'm feeling the beauty of the life I live, a deep zeal for the poor, and the tension of never being able to do enough. I'm thinking about growing up as a grown up and the way suffering shapes us. I'm reading lots of human trafficking statistics.

In short, as life permits, I'm going to try to unscramble some deep thoughts in this spot in the near future. If you like cute pictures and sweet stories about missionary kids, you might only be mildly entertained. But if you're interested in how this journey is shaping and changing and growing me, if you're willing to touch on some hard spots with me, to look at some ugly stuff and grope for mercy along side me, well, let us see what God does.