Friday, April 24, 2015

Buildings and Battles

I want to tell you the story of a Guatemalan church. Actually, it is the story of a lot of Guatemalan churches, so this is an amalgamation of their stories in the form of a congregation I will call Third-World Church.

Third-World Church is a small congregation of about 60 people made up of about eight families. They meet in the pastor’s courtyard, and you can hear the music from their services wafting through the neighborhood Sunday morning, Sunday evening and three nights a week. The pastor has very little theological training, but he loves Jesus and he loves his people. There are some theological problems with his teaching that stems from his lack of training, but he does a good job overall of communicating the gospel. He works another job to provide for his family, and works late into the evening visiting families and preparing his sermons.

Then one day a mission team comes from the States. They are from a church that we will call First Presbybaptist. They have come with the best of intentions and want to bless Guatemala with their work. While they are here they work with Third-World Church and its pastor to do some projects, and truly grow to love the congregation. They want to help, and an obvious area where help is needed is a meeting space for the church. After all, every Sunday the people pack into the pastor’s modest courtyard like sardines. Then, during rainy season, they rig plastic and tarps to create an ineffective system to keep the people dry.

So, the team from First Presbybaptist returns to the states and shares photos and stories. The US congregation is touched by the work of Third-World Church and decide they want to partner with them to build a building for them. So an edifice is designed, funds are raised and sent (construction is really cheap in Guatemala) and the building starts to rise from the ground. During the construction phase First Presbybaptist sends a couple of teams to help, and they return home with news and pictures of the progress, and everyone praises God that things are taking shape. 

Finally, the new building is completed, and it is big and beautiful. It is a three-story edifice with a sanctuary and classrooms and is filled with attractive tile and ornamental concrete work. After all, First Presbybaptist really wants to be a blessing, so they give them the best building they can. They send a team down for the dedication, photos are taken and shared back home and everyone rejoices and lives happily ever after. A photo of the Third-World Church and its congregation hangs in the foyer at First Presbybaptist today, ten years later.

But now take a journey with me back to the community where this big beautiful building is located. Let’s visit the neighbors and get to know them. After all, Third-World Church must be having a huge impact on their town now, and the change must be significant.

IMG_0403Two houses down from the church lives the Velasquez family. The father, Diego, gathers firewood and sells it in his community to provide for his wife and children. On a good day, he will make Q.30 (just under $4.00 USD), but most days it is half that. He is trying to feed, clothe and educate his 6 children on that amount, but it is not working. His wife is taking in laundry to help with the family’s income, but she is only making about Q.35 a week. The entire family is skinny and sickly. To make matters worse, one of his son is six years old and has cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. His anti-seizure medication costs Q.250 a month, over a third of the father’s monthly income. So they are not able to provide it. As a result, he suffers between five and ten gran mal seizures a day.

IMG_0438Directly across from the church lives an elderly widow. Her husband died around the time the church was being constructed, and his meager income was her only provision. She walks with a bent back and a stick for a cane. Her eyes are covered with cataracts, so she is nearly blind. And each day she makes her way to the local park where she sits and begs, hoping to get enough money to eat for another day.

One block over lives a single mother with three children. Her alcoholic husband abandoned her after the last child was born, so life is a challenge. Each day she makes her way to the local market with two little ones in tow and a third swaddled in a blanket on her breast. There she sells hand-made crafts, trying to help her little family survive.

These are three families in a community filled with others like them. This is Guatemala, so everywhere you turn is poverty, malnutrition and suffering. The average income in this town is around $150 a month, and people are desperate.

And in the midst of this is the Third-World Church and its building that cost around $115,000 to build. (I know! What a great deal!) Every service the music can be heard wafting through the town, and occasionally people will turn their eyes to the source. Some look with cynicism. Others with open hostility. Others with empty eyes, wondering how such a church could ever relate to and help them. So, on a good Sunday, Third-World Church is half-full. A church that was once engaged in their community is now disengaged. Their offerings now go to pay for utilities and upkeep on their wonderful new building.

In most of the communities and villages where we work there is at least one such church. In one community I have counted three. In each case there is a US church behind the construction, and in most cases the church is very ineffective at reaching their community. There are exceptions, but they are rare. In most cases, these building projects have distanced the congregations from their communities and made it more difficult for them to minister.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am very much in favor of US churches partnering with congregations in the developing world. Indeed, I believe such partnerships are crucial. However, they need to be strategic and careful. And they need to be driven by a heart to produce biblical priorities in the supported church, not US priorities. (Believe me when I say there is a difference.)

So, how can US churches partner effectively with churches in developing countries? I’m glad you asked!

1) Get to know the culture and community surrounding the church. Really listen to the local church leaders who know and understand the culture. Send individuals from your congregation to spend time in the town and in homes. Look past the surface to truly see the needs of both the congregation and the community. You cannot visit a country on a one-week trip, take some snapshots and understand either the problems of a community or the solutions. This requires humility, patience and time. Don’t just jump in with a fundraising campaign and checkbook. Often it will require much more than money to help.

2) Stop having buildings on the brain. The US church tends to have a building fetish. We seem to think that the greatest thing a congregation can do is build a bigger, better building, or at least enlarge their current one. This is our marker for “success.” In a poor culture such as Guatemala, that is not important. Churches meet in courtyards, modified homes or anywhere they can fit enough chairs. The only places you find a preoccupation with buildings are within the churches that have been heavily influenced by US Christians. When you are surrounded by poverty, malnutrition and illness, buildings are not very important. But if you do feel led to assist a church with a better meeting place, keep it modest. Does a building really need to be built, or can you do modifications to their current building? Often $100-300 of lamina and building materials can make a big difference in a church’s current meeting place. If a building REALLY needs to be built, can it be built modestly in a way that blends into the town instead of standing out? And can it be built with a multipurpose mindset with a vision of blessing the community all week long? Think minimal and practical if you think of buildings at all.

3) The most important needs are often not obvious. Things like a lack theological training or social awareness are often overlooked. Sometimes the greatest need of the pastor and church is education in the Word of God because they have not had that privilege in the past. Sometimes they need help understand how the Gospel relates to the poverty and suffering of their neighbors. (There are many pastors here that teach it is not the responsibility of the church to address physical needs, only spiritual ones.) Are their ways your church can help your partnered church gain understanding and education? Word of Caution: As stated above, we need to be careful to make sure we are teaching biblical principal and not US principals.

4) Seek to address needs in ways that allow your role to remain behind the scenes with minimal intrusion. If a Guatemalan church is seen as simply taking money from North Americans it creates resentment in the local people and other churches. When working together to address the needs of the community, do so by providing support to the church and allow them to be the face of the work. The US church does not need another photo op or pat on the back.

5) Partner with a goal of eventual self-sustenance.  Help them establish a path to being self-supporting, so they can one day meet the needs of their community without outside assistance. Help them establish local businesses that employ locals and provide funds. And then plan to get out as soon as possible so that you can partner with another church to do the same. Often there are businessmen and women in US churches that can help develop such a plan. Think strategically and sustainably.

As you read through these suggestions, you might be tempted to think that this is a lot of work. It really is. But the reality is that there are no quick fixes to the challenges that churches in developing countries face. It requires long-term investment and carefully thought-out strategies. It requires prayer, seeking God’s guidance and the awareness that even the best intentions can do great damage. In fact, good intentions are destroying this culture and many others like it. But they don’t have to.

Guatemala does not need more or better church buildings. We need more and better churches that are equipped to be the hands and feet of God in the midst of a desperate culture. And your church can help.

Blessings from Guatemala!

Daryl, Wanda and the Crew

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Facing Death…and Life

Death has visited and touched us again in the last week…twice.

On Monday I was in Antigua for a meeting when I received a call telling me that Phil Bergen was being transferred via ambulance to a private Antigua hospital with a suspected heart attack. I immediately headed there and arrived to find that he had been pronounced dead in the very same room where we lost Thania last July.

I would not call Phil a close friend, as we never spent much time together. We were both busy with our respective ministries, so we didn’t really have an opportunity to hang out much. But I did consider him an incredible co-laborer for Christ. He and his wife, Judy, established Amor Guate, a ministry in Jocotenango that runs a soup kitchen and after-school program and works with families. We often take our teams over to work in their program, and we have helped families with children who have special needs that they have encountered through their work. Phil and Judy have impacted thousands of lives through their ministry, both here in Guatemala as well as Canada and the United States. Phil was a man of God who had a way of helping people to see their identity in Jesus. He was quick to laugh and cause others to laugh. And the world is a little dimmer without him.

This is had an impact on us, mainly because Manuel Moran, our Group Home Coordinator, and his wife, Cristina, are very close to the Bergens. They have both worked closely with Phil and Judy, and Phil was a mentor and father-figure to them both. When I arrived at the hospital, I wept with Judy and their staff and with Cristina. Manuel was in the city getting medical treatment for one of the children from our rural village ministry, so I waited for him to arrive. I met him outside and broke the news and hugged him as he wept.

Phil and Judy were expecting a team of 19 to arrive the next evening, so we have stepped up to help with this team so Judy and her family can make funeral arrangements and have time to grieve. Today they spent time in our home, and we will be taking them to Hermano Pedro tomorrow morning.

Please pray for Judy, her children and their entire team of employees and volunteers here in Guatemala. The future is uncertain now, so they need God’s comfort and guidance in the days ahead.

Then this morning I received word that little Elizabeth (Lizzy) had slipped into the arms of Jesus last night. I wrote about Lizzy in my last blog and explained how we had been asked to take a 10 day old baby with hydrocephalus. We had said “No” due to a lack of manpower and overcrowding, but had referred the courts to Village of Hope, which is run by our friends, Todd and Amy Block. Over the last few weeks they have done a fantastic job of loving Lizzy and getting her the best medical care available. Their daughter, Addisyn, was her primary caregiver, and no little girl has every been loved more.

But God chose to permanently heal Lizzy last night, and she is without pain and illness now. But I must admit something that makes me feel very ashamed. When I found out she had passed away, my first thought was an overwhelming feeling of grief for the Blocks, but my second was, “Thank you, God, that she was not with us! I could not have handled losing another one!”

And as my own words rang in my ears I realized how horribly selfish that was. I don’t believe that we were wrong to say “No” to receiving another child. I believe God had planned all along for her to go to Village of Hope. We could not have loved her or cared for her better than the Block family did. But I also realize that my goal should never be to spare myself from pain. Here my friends were hurting at the loss of a little one that was one of their own, and I was breathing a sigh of relief that I was spared from their level of grief. I hate it when I see that ugly, selfish, old Daryl come out, and want him to be dead forever.

So death has visited us twice in the last week, and four times in the last three weeks. Three weeks ago a friend of Manuel was gunned down in the street. Last week we lost Don Jorge, who passed away suddenly. I had just given him a wheelchair the month before, and we are grieving for his widow who now lives alone.

Death seems to somehow be closer here in Guatemala. In the U.S. death appears as a more distant idea. Stateside, even when we lose someone we love, we are usually distanced from death. The body is removed quickly by professionals and you don’t see it again until it has been prepared for viewing. It is kept in a funeral home or church and we bump into it briefly for viewing and funeral.

Here you are involved in the process. When Esperanza died, she stayed with us. We prepared her little body, changed her clothes, placed her in the tiny coffin and kept her in our home until it was time to carry her to the graveyard. When Thania died, I claimed her body (wrapped in a garbage bag) from the morgue. We transported her to the funeral preparation guys who cleaned her, dressed her and placed her in the coffin. We then received the coffin and transported her back to our home for a service and then to her family in Jutiapa. The entire process of dealing with death is very up close and personal.

But that is not all. Death is a very real part of every day here. During my first 43 years of life I lived in the United States and saw death as something that happens to others. Not that I never lost people that I loved. I did. But it was almost always natural death and seemed distant. There always seemed to be the illusion of protection. If I got sick or injured, someone would make it better. America is safety-conscious, so we lived in an airbag-filled world. It just felt as if we were sheltered from death.

That is not the case here. There are violent crimes that fill the headlines. (Two days ago I read that Guatemala has averaged 15 murders a day over the first 100 days of 2015. This, in a country about the size of Ohio.) There are horrible accidents taking lives, and blood filled photographs on the front page of the newspapers to prove it. Many people get sick with treatable illnesses, but are turned away to die by the hospitals because they cannot afford treatment. Or, in some cases, they die because the hospitals don’t have the basic medicines to treat them. People die regularly here because medical personnel don’t have basic training such as CPR. And almost every day children die here of starvation. Death is real and personal here, and very few live with the illusion of protection and safety.

And, as an American, I sometime find myself wanting to run and hide from those realities. I just get sick of seeing death so up-close and personal, and I want to spare myself. And this desire for self-protection increased exponentially after losing two of my children in 2014.

And yet God has called me to this place, not to run from reality, but to show people how to face it…with grace, strength and Jesus Christ. Sometimes we have the privilege of saving lives, but other times our role is to just walk with people through the valley of the shadow of death, helping them not be afraid. And, many days, that is difficult and overwhelming, and I can be quite the coward. It is much easier to face the shadow of my own death than to see the deaths of so many precious children and grieve with the lonely widow.

I have much to share with you regarding our ministry and growth, but that will save for the next post. For today, please join me in praying for Judy Bergen, her children and all who loved Phil. Pray for the Block family as they grieve little Lizzy. And pray that Jesus will be glorified in the midst of this season of loss.


Daryl, Wanda and the Crew

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Surgery and Suffering

Contrary to rumors that have circulated, I am not dead. Although there have been a few times in the last few weeks when that would have been an appealing option.

As I shared in my last blog (sometime around the turn of the millennium) I was facing surgery for a hernia that I had been struggling with for some time. As it worsened, I reached a point at which it needed to be addressed, so I went in for surgery on March 14.

Since I moved to Guatemala, I have had lots of experiences with doctors and hospitals, but this was my first one from the patient’s side of things. Understand, I had my work done my a private doctor in a private hospital, so my experience was far better than the typical Guatemalan’s hospital stay. Yet it was almost humorous from an North American perspective.

IMG_0470I checked in at the hospital, signed a few forms and put on a ridiculously small hospital gown with backside air conditioning. Then the fun began when a nurse came in to insert my IV. I am not squeamish about needles and pokes, but I admit that I think she was trying to get the IV line from my hand all the way to my heart. I have had concussions that hurt less. Then, after she left, I noticed that blood was dripping from the insertion point, down my hand and onto the sheets. So, at that point, I made a horrible mistake…I called the nurse. She came in and looked at the bleeding, yanked vigorously on the line (while I squirmed in pain) and then pronounced, “That’s normal.” And she was gone again.

I was scheduled to be put under for my surgery, and was surprised when they took me back to the operating room and prepped me for a spinal block. I found out later that the anesthesiologist who was scheduled did not show up, so they sedated me and did the spinal block instead. So, I was awake but drugged the entire time.

Despite all of that, the surgery went well and I returned home the next day, sore but ready for a couple of days rest and returning to work. However, on Monday my fever went up, the pain increased and my incision began to drain…a lot. Our doctor checked me and said I had an infection, so he started my on antibiotics. But over the next couple of days, I did not improve, so we began a series of antibiotic injections.

At some point during this period I had a conversation with the doctor. (The fever and the pain make everything a blur.) He told me that it was rare for these kinds of infections to develop because they take so many precautions. “For example, we don’t have surgical masks to wear for surgeries, so we try not to talk while we are operating. This minimizes the spray for our mouths that could cause infection.” After hearing that, I was shocked that infection could have occurred under such strict precautions.

After a few days of struggle with pain and continued fever, it was decided that they needed to reopen part of the incision to allow for drainage. So the doctor did it. In my home. Without anesthesia.

Have you ever seen the movie Braveheart? You remember the scene near the end of the movie in which William Wallace is stretched out and being tortured by being slowly cut open? That is what I envisioned as I lay there with the scalpel slowly cutting. Meanwhile, the doctor kept saying, “Breathe normally!” At that point, I thought about grabbing the scalpel, stabbing him in the stomach and telling him to “Breathe normally!”

So, nearly three weeks after surgery, here is where I stand in my recovery: 1) Two different doctors have told me there is no more infection. 2) I am still struggling with significant pain surrounding the incision. 3) The wound continues to drain. 4)I have resumed my normal schedule and am, once again, visiting families. (I will write more about these visits in my next blog.)

guatemala_3As difficult as this ordeal has been, I still realized how blessed I am. Most Guatemalans who need a similar surgery will spend hours waiting at the national hospital to see a doctor. (The picture here is of a waiting room at a national hospital.) Because of a lack of government funding, many of these hospitals are telling people they need to go buy their own supplies and bring them to the hospital. (The family of one young girl who recently needed an appendectomy had to go out and buy a scalpel, forceps, sutures and gauze before the hospital would do the surgery.) Most of these hospitals do not even have basics such as Tylenol or amoxicillin. Then, if the patient develops complications like mine, they would return to the hospital and wait many hours again to be seen, only to be sent away without a real exam and with often inept medical treatment.

Just to make it clear, I often joke in this blog and exaggerate for humor sake. (I realize my minor surgical procedure and accompanying pain was nothing compared to what William Wallace endured.) However, I am not exaggerating about the state of the Guatemalan healthcare system. It is in shambles, and people are suffering and dying as a result.

Please pray for the people of Guatemala. And pray against the corruption that assures the politicians receive pay raises and kick-backs, but prevents the hospitals from having basic supplies. Pray for the missionaries who are working hard to fill the enormous gap and catch the people who are falling through. And, while you are at it, maybe you could pray that Jesus will return soon and put an end to all this suffering.

11096556_877365068969069_1138732973132668260_nSpeaking of suffering, please pray for the family of Sandra. On Friday, this 31 year old mother of two boys was gunned down in the street in the town of Pastores. At first it seemed like a random shooting, but as more information came out, we discovered that it was not random at all. The shooter was a drug dealer who was angry at her because she refused to sell drugs for him. One of my faithful ministry partners, Manuel, had been working with Sandra to help her recover from alcoholism. She had been alcohol free for two months at the time of her killing, and, with the help of Jesus, had cleaned up her life. She leaves behind a grieving family, including two sons, ages 9 and 21, and a mother (pictured here and named Carmen) with whom she lived. We visited them yesterday and were told that the sons are not sleeping at night. They keep hearing their mother’s voice and run out of their room to look for her.

11091387_10153200720173970_1037178997560828674_nIn addition, please pray little Elizabeth. Last week we received a call from the courts in Guatemala City asking us to take this 10 day old little girl with hydrocephalus. We did not have the space or personnel, so we said no. (This is the most difficult and painful part of our work.)  But we also gave them the number for two homes that are run by friends. Knowing her significant medical needs, we wanted her to end up in a place where she would received the treatment she needed quickly. She ended up going to Village of Hope, which is run by our friends, Todd and Amy Block. They have a great ministry and immediately began getting her the medical care she needed, including shunt surgery. We were able to connect them with our neurosurgeon, and Elizabeth had the surgery on Saturday and is now recovering.

The doctor has told them that she only has a small portion of her brain. As a result, they are saying that she will likely only have reflex responses and never talk or interact with the world around her. However, we all know the power of God and the impact of a loving family, which she has at Village of Hope. I have seen similar prognosis that have been blown away. Some of those children are now walking, talking and singing. Please join me in praying for a miracle for Elizabeth. And please pray for the Blocks and the wonderful staff at Village of Hope as they care for her.

That is all for now! Blessings from Guatemala!

Daryl, Wanda and the Crew