Tag Archives: Latin America

Don’t Ask Why

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I’m a “Why” person.  I probably drove my parents nuts when I was young with all my questions.  I just feel like if I know Why something is the way it is, then it’s easier to accept the way it is.  If I know the history behind something or if I can see the sense behind a decision, I feel at peace and I can move on with my life.  But when the reasoning behind something evades my logic… it drives me bonkers.

In language school I brought my unique brand of annoyance into the classroom as I asked “Why” each grammar rule existed or where each verb irregularity originated from.  Finally one of my teachers exploded in exasperation, “Once you learn to quit asking ‘Why’ all the time, you will be much happier in Latin America!!”  The Life-Long-Learner in me was shocked and offended.

Six years later I have learned to keep my questions to myself and to isolate my frustrations with not having answers because AMBIGUITY IS PART OF LIFE ON THE MISSION FIELD.  My teacher was right.  If you can learn this hard lesson, you will be at ease here.  If you can not master this lesson, your life will be a constant misery.

lightbulbsLet me give you an example.  In our house we have these really modern looking, eye ball shaped lights in the ceiling.  They shine a spot light directly down, so there has to be a lot of them to light up a room.  When the first one burned out, we discovered that they are not the screw in type of lightbulb.  Each bulb is hardwired directly into the electrical circuit in the ceiling.  So to change a lightbulb, we have to call an electrician.

We also have a lot of power surges here.  So when one lightbulb burns out, the chances are that several will burn out at the same time.  Each bulb costs about $5 to replace, plus the cost of hiring the electrician.  Because of all this, when a bulb burns out, we just learn to do without.  We had gone without light in the kitchen for so long that now that we DO have lights again, I keep forgetting to turn them on.  When it starts getting too dark in the house to do anything, then we call the landlord and ask him to get his electrical guy out here.  The last time he came out he replaced 12 lightbulbs.  The next day 2 of the ones that he DIDN’T replace burned out too.

burned lightbulbWHY?!?  Why would anyone build a house around such expensive lightbulbs!  They bought “the very best” in lighting fixtures, but totally skimped on the baseboards and wood trim- half of which isn’t even stained!  (Seriously, two sides of a doorway will be stained and the third is forgotten or only half way done.)  Clearly this was not a well thought out plan.

Well, I could tell you a million other stories like this where the Why behind something frustrating continues to elude my mental grasp.  But the point is, this is just life outside of America.  Our American school system fosters this kind of curiosity in us as children.  We are encouraged to ask questions and make connections and plan ahead and draw conclusions based on our observations.  These skills don’t serve us very well in a society that often lives day by day and focuses on the here and now.  It’s a different way of thinking and it’s a hard adjustment to make.

I have discovered in this process of bending my mind to another form of thinking, that I have reaped a spiritual benefit in the process.  Now I can more easily accept the verses where God teaches us not to worry about tomorrow.  “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear… Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Matthew 6:25, 34

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/296373043/”>Thomas Hawk</a> / <a href=”http://foter.com”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>CC BY-NC</a>

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/szb78/3454711251/”>szb78</a&gt; / <a href=”http://foter.com”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>CC BY-NC-ND</a>

Stress

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It may just be me being hormonal or maybe it’s because I’ve eaten fast food 3 times this week, but today I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster.  There were some really great things that happened, and there were some super stressful things that made me want to scream and curl up into fetal position for a few days.  Most days I’m pretty flexible with the way that Latinos change their plans at a moment’s notice.  I just roll with the punches, but today the punches knocked me off my feet.

For my 5th grade class and my 9th grade Bible class, I have had my units all planned out for the last 6 weeks. I planned to wrap everything up this week since finals are the next week.  But my week is being whittled away!  Today my schedule changed HOURLY!  The kids kept asking me what subject we were doing next and I would tell them, “I planned to do such and such, but it depends on who walks in the door during the next 40 minutes!”  The demands on my flexibility were pushing me to my breaking point.

So another thing that was running in the background of my mind was the fact that I was on the schedule to lead the teachers’ devotional tomorrow morning.  I have long since quit going to that Thursday morning obligation because it’s just too much to ask me to get 5 people out the door and on the campus before 7am.  It’s just too much.  But I was ready to teach and braced for the effort of herding my people out the door early.  The devo was supposed to be during a special breakfast time to close out the year with the teachers.  Right on the schedule it said “desayuno compartido” (shared breakfast) next to my name, so I assumed that I would be sharing my devotional while we are sharing breakfast together.

Mid way through the morning the principal approached me with the devotional schedule in her hand.  “I just wanted to check that you saw this.”  She said, pointing to my name on the sheet.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m ready.” I was confused that the expression on her face was not one of relief.  She arched her eyebrows and puckered her lips into a tense smile.  Uh-oh, something’s not right.

“So you are prepared?  I was concerned because you didn’t mention anything yesterday in our meeting (which was another stressor from the day before).”

“Yes, I’m ready to share a devotional.”

“You see that it says ‘shared breakfast’ next to your name?”

“Yes, I will share the devotional while we have our breakfast.”  Her expression of worry had not changed yet.  I felt like I was missing something.  Even though I was understanding her words completely, I was missing some hidden meaning.  I prodded, “We ARE eating together, right?”

“Oh yes, do you need any help with that?”

“What?”

“Do you need me to bring anything?” she asked me.  Now I was totally confused.

“Ummm, If you want to, I suppose that’s fine.  What were you thinking?”

She informed me that normally they do a full Costa Rican style breakfast with beans and rice, fruit drinks, and eggs.  Then a sinking feeling settled into my stomach.  I asked point-blank, “Am I supposed to make breakfast for everyone?”

“YES!  That’s why it says ‘shared breakfast’ next to your name!”

“OMG!  I didn’t know that!  I thought I was sharing a devotional while we ate a breakfast that the school provided for us!” In my mind I continued:  You mean I’m supposed to cook AND teach BEFORE I teach all day long and then go home to make dinner for 25 people on the missions team that we are also hosting at this time?  Shall I kill you now or AFTER breakfast?  “OK, well since I obviously didn’t understand that, I’m only going to bring a box of donuts and maybe someone can help make coffee too.  How’s that?”  I felt I was being generous.  Her lips pursed again.  “Or… maybe we could put a sign up list in the office and see if other people will bring stuff too.”  Hmmm…

I finally just apologized for not understanding and informed her that I can’t possibly provide breakfast.  I felt the angry, frustrated tears burning in my eyes and my throat constricted as I forced myself not to cry.  This was my last straw… for that hour.  More straws were coming, falling on me like rain.

An hour later the school secretary sheepishly came to my classroom and said, “I heard what [the principal] said to you.  Um, I am going this afternoon to buy the food for the breakfast.  I ALWAYS do this.  You were never expected to make the breakfast.  Did you think you were going to have to pay for this on your own?  Oh no, I have money from the school for this.  I will take care of all of it.  Just don’t forget that you have to do the devotional.”  Believe me, I was NOT going to forget THAT!

I can’t remember the last time I felt so much relief.  However this was a cultural thing.  The principal would never admit to my face that she had been wrong- totally flat-out wrong.  No, and neither would the secretary admit that the principal was wrong.  I didn’t get an apology for the hour of heart palpitations that I suffered.  I just privately savored my relief.

Later that afternoon, I found myself standing in a space no bigger than 5 feet square shoulder to shoulder with 13 other people and only 4 chairs.  I was in the waiting room at my son’s orthodontist’s office.   The air in our cubicle was stale, pre-breathed air.  Everyone was trying not to make eye contact with each other, and trying to wait patiently.  Because my children and I were the last ones to arrive, I knew that even through we had a 4:30 appointment, there were 13 other people ahead of us who were also waiting on appointments long passed.

We waited 10 minutes before I decided, “Screw this!  I’ve had too long of a day to sit her for another 2 hours.”  My patience was shot!  We left without even informing the receptionist who was hiding somewhere in the back office so she wouldn’t have to stare at a room full of long-suffering strangers.  At that point I gave myself permission to say, “NO.  I have been imposed upon one too many times today.  I’m going home now.” We stopped at McDonalds for dinner… for the third time this week.

You burst my personal bubble

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Before I moved to Latin America I had a rather large, roomy personal bubble.  Most Americans do.  I didn’t like “close talkers” to use a phrase from Seinfeld.  You know, a close talker is someone who stands uncomfortably close to you when they talk.  And they may even unconsciously pursue you as you back away gradually.  A close talker could easily creep me out or make me super irritated.

This past week at the conference I was basically chased around a table by a close talker.  I kept backing up and he kept following me!  I even tried throwing a few chairs in his path, but they didn’t deter him!  He was WAY into my personal bubble.

But in Latin America, my personal bubble was completely burst.  Here girlfriends often touch each other’s hair and clothing as they talk.  Old ladies hold my hand or pat my cheek or rub my arm while they talk to me.  Friends link arms as they walk along.  Everyone kisses as a greeting.  Closeness is part of the warmth of the culture.  Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.

When we lived in Mexico occasionally we would take advantage of our two oldest kids finally being in school and we would go to see an early movie.  No parents in town meant no babysitters for date nights, so we compromised.  Naturally because we are Americans we always bought our tickets early and arrived at the theater early enough to choose our seats.  Being the first ones, we had the whole theater to chose from.  But it never failed, the very next couple to enter the theater ALWAYS chose the seats RIGHT NEXT TO US with no buffer seat between us.  (Have you noticed how Americans put their coats on the seat next to them as a buffer?)  To our American sense of space, this was incredibly awkward to be sitting in an empty theater shoulder to shoulder with total strangers.  Awkward!

But for the Mexican who were used to living in one of the most crowded cities in the world, it was nothing to be nearly on top of each other.  More than likely they were thinking we had chosen the best seats and naturally they wanted the best view too.  It’s kind of like how you can draw a crowd just by staring and pointing to something vague in the distance.  (It’s kind of a fun prank, you should try it sometime.)

Here in Latin America touching and grooming and friendship all shrink my personal bubble.  I have discovered that when I return to the United States I often freak people out by standing too close for comfort.  I don’t mean to be a creeper, I just forget!  One time I was in the grocery store in the meat section.  There was only one other lady in the whole place.  She was looking intently into the cooler case, examining some packages of meat.  I thought because she was looking so purposefully that she must have found a sale item.  So I slid over to her side and looked right where she was looking.  She looked up in surprise and took a few steps to her right.  Instinctively I followed her a few steps to the right.  She gave me a dirty look.  Then I realized what a creeper I was being.  I apologized and headed to the bread section post haste!  It was pointless to try to explain that Latin America had broken my personal bubble.

Behind the 8 Ball

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8 ballDo you ever have those seasons in life where you feel like you’re barely hanging on by a thread.  You feel like you can never get caught up on all you have to do.  Just when the “In Box” is at it’s urgent fullness, life dumps an avalanche on your desk.  Latinos have a saying, “All the Gringos have watches, but none of them have time.”  Hurry, Rush, Busy Busy Busy!

I don’t like going through long stretches of time feeling like I’m just doing enough to make it through today.  I’m a planner.  I want to get stuff done so I don’t have to think about it for weeks on end.  For example, in school I do my lesson plans for an entire month at one time.  I have a yearly plan that is less specific.  I don’t want to plan too far in advance because things happen and the schedule needs a cushion to accomodate unexpected changes.  But I want to plan far enough in advance that I don’t have to scramble each night to prepare for tomorrow’s lessons.

Unfortunately we have to be flexible.  Back in Minnesota we had the occasional “Snow Day” and school would be canceled.  Here we have various natural disasters to contend with.  We had a huge earthquake at the beginning of the school year and we lost a day for that.  Two years ago we had a huge mudslide on one side of the city and the government closed school all over the city for a few days to keep parents from having to drive around the closed off area.  And in Mexico City sometimes they close school for “Smog Days” when it’s just too polluted for kids to be playing outside during recess.  One of those days can throw off a whole month of lesson plans.  Being flexible is part of life.

But on the Mission Field, my commitment to flexibility is tested almost daily.  Plans change sometimes hourly.  I either adapt or go through life frustrated.  My skills in “flying by the seat of my pants” come in handy when someone doesn’t show up for a meeting (usually without calling) or an event is canceled the hour it’s supposed to begin.  I have to “wing it”.  This means I constantly feel like I can’t rely too heavily on my plans.  I still DO plan, because it’s my nature, but I can’t get upset when plans fall through.

This makes me feel like I’m constantly making decisions in the moment, living behind the 8 ball, but that’s how the world runs here.  No one is upset by this but the Gringos.  No one expects things to happen on time except the Americans.  No one is surprised when plans change except the Foreigners.  Change happens.  What’s the big deal?  Go with the flow, “just keep swimming,” and you can survive here in Latin America.  Flexibility is a necessary life skill.  It will either make you or break you on the mission field.

Got my coffee, got my gun, I’m off to work!

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In Latin America it is very common to see heavily armed men standing outside of grocery stores, banks, and convenience stores.  Even in peaceful Costa Rica, this is normal.  At first it was kind of shocking to see that kind of force so openly displayed in our everyday lives.  But now, it’s kind of become one of those things that I hardly notice anymore.

As a matter of fact, every day on my way to school I pass the head quarters of a security company that specializes in protecting armored cars.  The entire front of the building is one giant barricade, and there are always about a dozen men in full military grade body armor hovering around on the sidewalk.  Each man carries either an automatic weapon appropriate for taking over a small country, or a double barrel shot-gun that looks like it was a prop in a Nicolas Cage movie once upon a time.  Depending on the hour, these guys are either stopping traffic to direct an armored car into the compound or just waiting around on the street for a coup to begin.

The other day I was passing this little slice of intimidation and domination when I noticed one of the younger members of the force jogging across the street obviously late for work.  His intimidating demeanor was askew as he balanced his gun in the crook of his arm.  With a back pack flopping at his hip, and a cup of coffee precariously clutched in the other hand, he looked like a student rushing late to classes.  If it weren’t for the huge gun which hung dangerously from his elbow, I would have easily overlooked him as a university student running to catch the bus.

At first it was funny to see such an incongruent sight, but I’ve been thinking about that guy this past week.  The Bible says that we are in a war and we have been fitted out with a full suit of armor.  Our one weapon is the Word of God.  So I’ve been thinking, do I treat my weapon as casually as this coffee carrying gun slinger or do I maintain a healthy respect for the power I wield? Do I take my Bible seriously, or do I just toss it to the side when something more important (like coffee) is the focus of my attention?  Just something to think about.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, authorities and power of this dark word and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand, Stand firm… with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  Ephesians 6:10-17

Time Travel Jet Lag

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We are coming up on “summer vacation” here in Costa Rica.  As a family we are looking forward to returning to the States for a few weeks of R&R for Christmas and to attend a World Missions Summit.  We are totally blessed to be able to travel with relative ease between our mission field and our home state.  But in many ways, making short trips back home sort of has the same effect as traveling through time might have.  I feel like I get Time Travel Shock and the space-time continuum is interrupted.

When I am in Latin America, the third world is my “normal”.  It’s like I exist in a completely different period of time now.  There are so many aspects of life that I just take for granted at this point.  The things that used to shock me or catch my attention have become part of my background white noise and I hardly notice them any more.  But when I am dropped like a paratrooper back into my original setting, everything that used to be “normal” before I was a missionary seems stunning or note-worthy.  Not only do I change locations physically, I seem to travel into the future to a time that has not yet existed in Costa Rica.  The bouncing back and forth can be quite a shock to me both mentally and emotionally.

Let me expound on just one feature of my time travel shock.  When I return to Minnesota the first thing I notice is the SPACE around me.  There is just so much SPACE!  Even in a crowded airport, I have ample elbow room.  When we get in the car and drive from the airport to the house, the cars all keep a reasonable distance from each other. The highway is buffered on both flanks by wide hills of grass or dunes of snow depending on the season.  So much unused SPACE!  In the grocery store, I have lost all sense of what is an appropriate distance to maintain between myself and the other shoppers.  Either I fall into my Latin American patterns of driving my cart right up to the behind of the person in line in front of me, or I over compensate and leave a confusing gap between us.  My sense of space is all out of wack.

When I return again to Latin America, the first thing I notice when I step outside of the airport is the closeness of everything and everyone.  The humidity wraps around my head and presses against my face, making me feel like I am breathing through a wet blanket.  The people press in all around me asking to carry my bags or find a taxi for me.  I have to resist the urge to start pushing people out of my way.  I want to shove everyone and shout, “Back off!  I have been folded into an airplane seat for hours and I really need some space.”  The smells of wet pavement, rotting sewer, and over perfumed humanity all press in against my senses leaving me no where to turn.  Then we get in the car and start driving home.  The traffic zooms up to us and stops suddenly, no buffer, no fear of hitting us.  They are just taking up space as fast as they can lest another car come along and claim that inch of pavement.  We zoom, they zoom.  The buildings on both sides of the highway hug the road, dangerously close.  When we stop, people swarm the car trying to sell us things through the car windows.  We keep the windows rolled up.  That 3/4 of an inch of glass between us and the street vendors feels like enough space.  Personal space has become relative.

In addition to our awkward use of space and the gawking our family of 5 will do in every public space, going back for Christmas time is a surreal experience in and of itself.  My parents want my kids to make a Christmas list.  My kids don’t know what toys are “out there” now.  They ask me, “What do I need, Mom?”  I just shake my head.  I am stuck back in time from when we first left America 6 years ago.  I think about what will fit in a suitcase- again, I have space issues.  Before we leave, I will search the internet for what clothes are in fashion now.  I will try to pack things that are neutral enough so that I blend into the background and don’t make me stick out like someone who just arrived from the year 2006.  Not only to we change spaces, we change times as well.  I am already anticipating the Time Travel Jet Lag.

The best 50 bucks I ever spent

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We have “stinky sewer days” here in Latin America.  Somedays the wind is blowing just right (or wrong) and we get toxic fumes wafting into the house.  On those days, we have to close all the drains and bathroom doors and windows.  The stink just seems to come from everywhere!

But recently we developed a worse problem at our house.  One day I was doing the dishes when it seemed like someone threw a stink bomb right in the middle of our house!  It was the worst stink I’ve ever experienced.  Describing it as a combination of vomit and poop would seem too organically generous.  This was the incarnate of putrescence.  The odor was evil itself!  We shut all the drains, windows and doors… then we were trapped inside with the hellish aroma.  Where was it coming from??  I wondered.

After a while the fumes cleared, and then rose up again, and cleared and returned… I couldn’t find the source of the stink.  Of course my husband has been gone all week long, so I couldn’t confer with him about the plausible sources of the odor nor the potential solutions to our problem.  So instead I bought a few new air fresheners to tide us over until Monday when we could call a plumber.

Just on the off chance that someone had some experience with wicked stenches, we asked one of our friends for advice.  Being very experienced with the mundane requirements of living in Latin America, our friend asked us if we had cleaned out the grease traps lately.  The what??  The grease traps.  Apparently there is a cement box out in the yard a few feet from the house that contains a trap.  We knew where the box was since we sort of ignored it every time we worked in the yard.  So this trap is supposed to keep RATS from coming up the sewer into your house.  Supposedly it also helps cut down on the stinky sewer days… I’m not sure how.  This is why you can not flush the toilet paper in Latin America.  I gunks up the traps.

Our friend told us that every 6 months you are supposed to open the box and scoop out the poop and food and toilet paper stuck in there!  I screamed, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” when he told us that.  We have lived in this house for over 2 years and we’ve never cleaned the poop out of the grease traps.  No wonder the sewer was smelling badly!  I thought, “Oh dear Lord, please say this is a job that we can PAY someone to do.”  Otherwise it would be the worst Barf-O-Rama we’ve ever experienced.

So yesterday at 10am, a very unfortunate plumber was made $50 richer and I am an incredibly happy girl with clean grease traps.  Good bye $50, I have never been so happy part with you before.  And good bye stinky sewer smell.

The Shoe Repair Guy

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This is actually from the Philippines, I just thought it was funny.

Even though we’ve been living in Latin America since 2006, I am still learning life lessons all the time.  This week I learned, “you can not always assume that everyone sees the same problem that you see.”  This will save you much irritation and annoyance if you can let go of the assumption that all problems are “obvious”.  Let me give you an example.

Here in Latin America we don’t throw anything away unless it’s really trash.  In the United States, people throw stuff away just because they get tired of it or maybe it’s a little broken and they don’t know how to fix it.  But here, we have repair shops for everything!  This makes me happy, particularly where shoes are concerned.  Without the regular rotating of clothing in and out of the closets for the 4 seasons, we wear the same clothes all year long and they wear out way faster than in the States.  Sometimes shoes will wear out before the kid is grown into the next size, and for this reason, the Shoe Repair Guy is important.  Unfortunately, the success of a shoe repair is only about a 50-50 chance.

For example, I took my worn out running shoes… OK, it took me 10 years to wear them out... in for new soles.  The Shoe Repair Guy put on some slippery rubber soles with no tread.  I took them back and asked for tennis shoe treads and he glued on the chunkiest treads you’ve ever seen.  So now I look like a nerd jogging in orthopedic platform tennis shoes.  But it was cheaper than buying new shoes.

Over the summer I took my son’s tennis shoes in for a simple glue job on the side.  The outside looks fine, but he says the glue feels clumpy on the inside.  *sigh*  They should last a little longer now, sorry Kid.

During this last trip to the Shoe Repair Guy, I got a little creeped out when the guy asked for my phone number in a very unprofessional sort of way, if you know what I mean.  So I asked my husband to take over that errand for me.  Recently I sent him over with a pair of sandals that were starting to pull away around the toe.  I showed my husband where the glue should go, and then I mentioned that they could use a new sole too.  A week later he picked up my sandals with a pair of brand new heels glues to the bottoms…  Huh??

I was a bit dismayed by this, because “anyone with two eyes could see the problem,” I thought.  (But maybe this guy only has one eye.)   Obviously the top of the shoe needed gluing at one point and the soles are worn bare… who said anything about a new heel?  I have now accepted the fact that what is obvious to me, is not always obvious to others.  And I should never assume that we all see problems the same way… or that we all have two eyes.

So back to the Shoe Repair Guy my husband will go.  Maybe I should have given the guy my phone number to assure better service.

 

A Taboo Subject among Missionaries

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OK, it’s time to get brutally honest.  Today I’m going to blog about a taboo subject.  It’s something that most missionaries experience at some point in their careers and yet NO ONE wants to talk about.  It sounds sinful.  At some point in their lives, most missionaries say to themselves, “I don’t want to go to church.”

Now before I pick that scab off, let me clarify, I USED TO LOVE going to church.  I grew up in a ministry family and we were in church every time the doors were opened.  The overwhelming majority of my childhood church memories are wonderful, so I’m not processing repressed emotions here.  Then I grew up and had my own family.  We became a ministry family too.  As an adult, I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of ministry… but I still loved going to church.  Even though Sunday was the longest work day of the week for us, I still loved going to church.  It was all about Jesus!  Yeah for Jesus!

I loved going to church, until I became a missionary.

With one change of location, church became something completely foreign to me. Church became the source of so much culture shock.  The minute I set foot outside of my house in Latin America, a tidal wave of Spanish washes over me.  I am swept out to sea.  For two and a half hours (five in Mexico), I tread water every Sunday in church just waiting for someone to pull the plug and drain the ocean.

Let me describe my cultural shock, I mean my church experience, through the eyes of a Minnesotan transplanted to Latin America.

Because we’re missionaries, we feel obligated to put ourselves through this practice for Hell every single Sunday.  We crowd into a VERY HOT room where everyone sits shoulder to shoulder, uncomfortably close.  (We’re so close that by the end of the service I am wearing the perfume of the lady sitting next to me.)  The music starts.  Somewhere in the rules of the cosmos it is ordained that if you give a Latino a microphone they will wrap their lips around it and sing at the top of their lungs.  I don’t know why, but it is true.  For an hour and a half, the singers howl like banshees into the hottest sound system in a 10 block radius because the neighbors who don’t go to church just might get saved if they can hear the service in their living rooms.  It’s hard to remember that this is about Jesus.

It does not matter if the drummer can keep a beat, he will pound the life out of those drums.  The audience does not clap on 2 and 4, they clap on 1 and 3.  (At each church we visit, my children always ask, “Mom, do we clap in English or in Spanish?)  If there’s not a tambourine in the room, then you’re not in an Evangelical church.  For the first year, my children would cry that their ears were hurting.  I stuffed cotton balls in their ears every week.  I think we’ve all lost a percentage of our hearing, because no one cries anymore.  I can’t hear myself sing, but I think sound is coming out of my mouth.  I guess I went deaf for Jesus.

The preaching… 90 minutes or more.  Remember that I have about a 20 minute attention span on a Good Spanish Day.  On the positive side, that’s a solid hour of Bible reading for me if my kids are behaving.  Jesus likes Bible reading, right?

But my children are another trial.  Every Sunday they become tormented by demons.  There is more screaming and crying and fighting in our house on a Sunday morning than in all the rest of the week combined.  By the time we get to church… I want to sell my kids to gypsies.  IF there are classes for them, I can guarantee that they won’t want to go to them.  I let them bring Polly Pockets and coloring books to service.  They still whine and wiggle and annoy each other and basically drive me nuts for two and a half hours.  I’m having a really hard time focusing on Jesus.

When Lucy was a baby I tried to acclimate her to going to the nursery, but each week I found myself sitting on the floor of the nursery picking up thumb tacks and staples from the carpet and taking batteries out of other babies’ mouths.  Diapers were changed on a filthy twin mattress that took up most of the floor space.  In the corner was a broken play pen.  The corner of the play pen was held together with a rusty wire.  Sometimes the toys were stored in the play pen, and sometimes children were stored there.  Every toy in the room was broken and dirty. There were broken balloons mixed in the heap, and one time I found a tangle of an old telephone cord that someone thought the babies might like to chew on.  There was no way I was leaving my child in here!  I’m sure this has nothing to do with Jesus.

When we get in the car to go home, I congratulate myself on making it through another service.  We won’t have to do this for a whole ‘nother week.

So this is what you won’t hear from the missionaries that are visiting your church to raise their budgets:  Going to church?  We dread it.

Sure there are things we learn to appreciate about it along the way, but for most missionary families, going to church is the most stressful thing we do all week long.  I can tolerate the difficult shopping challenges, waiting in line until Jesus comes back, crazy drivers who break the law left and right, filth and poverty everywhere, the heat, the smell, the prehistoric sized bugs, beans and rice with every meal, punching through the language barrier.  But when you take away my familiar church experience and replace it with THAT it’s like the cloud that can’t contain one more drop.  The cloud bursts and an ocean rains down on me.  I’m drowning in cultural differences.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.  I’m not the only missionary that has said to herself, “I hate going to church.”  Sometime when you have a missionary all alone in a quiet booth at Denny’s, ask them how they feel about church and let them be brutally honest with you.  It’s a relief to be able to admit it.  I don’t want to go to church.

Hobo Water

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We used to live close to very busy “Round About” (or Rotunda if you’re from Costa Rica) on the main road into San Jose.  This Rotunda has a fountain that runs most days.  Some days we would see bums bathing in the fountain.  My kids were fascinated by this.  One day when we were driving around the Rotunda, the wind was blowing and the fountain was spraying all the cars on the East side of the fountain.  As our car entered the spray, my kids scrambled too late to close the car windows and screamed “Ahhhhh Hobo Water!” when they got wet.

We see homeless people every day.  And because of this, I make a mental point to notice them… even if they are just passed out on the sidewalk… because I don’t want to become insensitive to seeing them.  I don’t want homeless people to just become part of the background or the landscape of living in Latin America.  They are people too, they may be mentally ill or drug addicted, but they have parents and maybe other relatives who still wonder about them and care about them.  No man is an island.  Each person is born to a mother at the very least.  No one is a throw-away.

Behind the mall near my house is a shanty town, a “precario.”  If you drive through the street next to the precario there are signs warning you to slow down because children play in the street.  One sign says, “none of our children are extras, please drive slowly.”  I like that.  Someone is making a point to the world.  “We may be poor, but we love our children too!”  I make a point to read every word of that sign, even though I have long ago memorized it, because I like that someone is taking care in their own way.  I don’t want that sign to become invisible to my eyes.

On my daily commute from my kids’ school to the school where I teach English, I pass an empty lot.  I’m sitting in traffic long enough to pay attention to that lot and the things that happen among the weeds and construction debris left from the demolition of the building that was once on that corner.  Back in the far corner of the lot, a tile floor remains intact.  Over the last few weeks, two or three hobos have set up camp on the tile floor in the corner.  I look at them every day.  I want to see the junk that they have accumulated.  It’s treasure to them.  I noted when they found a mattress.  I noticed when they had a camp fire going.  I saw when they finally hung a sort of curtain over the door of the hut.  I laughed the day I saw a life sized, cardboard cut out of a woman advertising headache medicine propped up against the wall by the door.  Trophy wife?

I think about that life and I wonder if it’s really that much different than the life that you and I lead.  Most of us are on a life long mission to accumulate stuff.  Our houses are full of stuff we never need and don’t really want, but we can’t throw anything away because “it’s mine!”  How is our house full of fake flower arrangements and decorative bowls propped on useless side tables any different than the hobo house with the mattress and curtain door with the prized cardboard blonde holding a bottle of Tabcin?  We may have paid more for our junk, but it’s still not coming with us when we leave this life.  Our junk might look pretty in our eyes, but so does the grocery cart full of hub caps in the eyes of the homeless guy.

My point is, we aren’t all that different.  When you pass a homeless someone on the street, don’t pretend you don’t see them.  Don’t let them become the back ground of your commute to work.  Look at them.  Notice them.  Think about them when you’re at work or driving home.  Don’t let your heart be fatigued.  These people matter to God, they should matter to you too.

“Don’t let your heart grow weary in doing good.” 2 Thessalonians 3:13

“Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for the urgent needs of others and not live unproductive lives.”  Titus 3:14