For I was hungry and you gave me food

Yesterday was World Hunger Day. I read the articles and heard the statistics and I used to think I could somewhat understand what hunger was. But I didn’t come close to grasping that reality until I went on my first mission trip (I went to India a few years ago) and saw poverty for myself. Even after traveling to a third world country and seeing real hardship first hand, I still will never fully understand because for me, there was never a day in my life when I wondered when or how I would get my next meal. Of course I’m thankful for this, but I’m also so thankful to God for giving me the opportunity to live outside of myself for even just a few days.

L'Artibonite 8Part of the ongoing ministry of Highlands is in partnership with Feed my Starving Children. This amazing non-profit organizes feeding programs in many different countries around the world. One of those countries is Haiti, and this past winter I had the privilege of being a part of one of their mobile packs. A group of volunteers gathered at Highlands and packed hundreds of packets of food to ship to Haiti. I volunteered for this project before I knew I would be going to Haiti just months later and I’m still reeling from how amazing it has been to come full circle. Being able to be a part of the packing process, to hear the stories of malnourished children who are now being fed on a regular basis, and then to see with my own eyes those children who received the food, is a blessing I will not soon forget.

The journey down the dusty, unpaved road to L’Artibonite mirrored how I was feeling that day. We were on our way to help distribute one of the feeding programs. With each bump the fluttering of my heart was magnified and with each dip the sinking feeling in my soul deepened. I tried to prepare myself for what we would see in one of the poorest communities in Haiti, but no amount of prayer could have shielded my heart. We finally arrived after what seemed like hours and the group of children who were a part of the feeding program in the village had already gathered.

The wide, beautiful, and expectant eyes that looked up at us were enough to instantly bring tears to my eyes. We didn’t know the last time every person in this village had eaten a full meal. But at least we knew that this program was feeding these children regularly. The children held on to our hands so tightly from the moment we reached out to them; not to mention the firm grip they had on our hearts. We were ushered into the dimly lit, incredibly hot building and the children quickly rushed to take their seats on rickety wooden benches. Before serving the food, we were able to share with the kids how much we loved them and more importantly, just how much God loved them. We also had an opportunity to sing with them. Upon hearing so many tiny voices lifted up to God in praise, I could not hold back the tears. They wore tattered clothing. They had dirt caked on their feet. But oh how they sang.

We began distributing the food and again I could not hold back my tears. In giving the first plate to a little girl, I paused and looked into her eyes. She smiled back at me, seemingly confused as to why I was crying, and quickly diverted her attention to her plate and began earnestly eating. We also had the opportunity to give them cups of clean, fresh water. I’m not sure what they were most excited about, the water or the food. Their only source of water was a cloudy canal we passed by on our way into the village where we saw people bathing, animals drinking, and people washing clothes. Clean water on this day was a blessing indeed. Watching everything unfold, observing the process, and being pulled in different directions from kids who wanted their picture taken; was an overwhelming experience. One of the most incredible acts I witnessed in that room was when a child offered what was left on their plate to another child, as if they had food to spare. There is so much we can learn about God’s provision.

After the children had eaten, they wanted to take us on a tour of their village. They were so proud and excited to show us where they lived. As I was walking, a little girl latched on to one hand and with the other, I was able to snap a few pictures. She watched me do this a few times and eventually she started pointing to things that she wanted me to take pictures of. She pointed to a few stray pieces of rice on the ground, she pointed to a mother and child taking a nap on a tattered blanket, L'Artibonite 9she pointed to hut with a caved-in roof. And I took it all in. I wasn’t just able to capture what I saw but I was so humbled that she allowed me into their space, to capture the village through her eyes. I thought the joy might burst right out of her.

As we were leaving, through blurry, tear-filled eyes I watched out of the van’s back window as the kids chased us and their silhouettes grew smaller and smaller. God is doing amazing work in Haiti. But as we made our way back down the bumpy dirt road, I didn’t feel like patting myself on the back. I didn’t feel like rejoicing for the good deeds that were done. But rather, I had an intense feeling of determination to leave behind the selfish inclination to live for myself. God pressed on my heart that day that I can be doing so much more and I’m so excited to see where He leads. God is good. All the time.

A team that prays together, stays together

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Photo by Irvin U. Rios

We were on our way home from Haiti last week and for probably the first time in my life I was at a loss for words. I tried to write and I came up with nothing. For those of you who know me well, you know that this does not happen very often. When people ask me how my trip was I have been responding with, “I cried everyday”. They were tears of joy, sadness, hope, and of absolute love.

Haiti broke me in the best way possible.

I’m currently working on recapping the rest of our trip on this blog, but I just wanted to take a moment to express how amazing our team was. I’m pretty new to Highlands and to Arizona as I just moved here from Canada this past September. I felt so incredibly welcomed into this group of people. They truly are a representation of the body of Christ and I’m so encouraged after spending a week with them.

One of our contacts at Chances for Children couldn’t express how thankful she was to have this team come and be so willing to jump in and love.

“Thank you for giving them your heart.”

When you have a team representing such a wide age range, it gives you an opportunity to see the world differently. Your perspective completely changes when you can look at a town that is so downtrodden in poverty, through the eyes of a 12 year old and still see joy. God used the knowledge and experience of the older generations on our team combined with the youthful spunk of the kids to change lives. The fact that this is just a tiny portion of the greater body of Christ is inspiring! One of the greatest things about a mission’s trip like this is not just the impact that God made through us but also the impact that was made on us.

Bringing us Together

Every morning the medical clinic next to the Crèche opens their day with prayer and singing. This week they invited our dental team who was sharing the clinic space, to join them. It was a touching example that they wanted to start their day with God and they were so thankful that we were there to support them. Someone from the medical team said they wanted to be able to bring America and Haiti together. And as they stood in a circle and began to sing, English and Creole melted together through the beautiful melody of Amazing Grace. God is so present here.

Photo by Irvin U. Rios

Photo by Irvin U. Rios

Our dental team from Highlands is a husband and wife team on their second trip to Haiti. They’re already planning a return trip in the fall and you can see in their eyes that they have a heart for this work. They would bring each kid into the room, plop them down on the chair, and write their name and age on a paper bib. Then Dr. John would show them his light and special glasses fixed on his forehead to make sure that they weren’t afraid. Throughout the week they saw almost 50 children; some from the orphanages, and some had never been to a dentist before. Their uncertain expressions were enough to bring a person to tears. But the most important thing our team wanted to communicate to these kids was that they were cared for and loved. And the kids usually left happy with a smile, a new toothbrush and toothpaste.

Even the small gift of a new toothbrush was enough to bring the most precious smiles to these kids’ faces. There is so much contrast between the over abundance we have in North America and what little some of these kids have in Haiti. One of our team members was walking down the street one day and he had some stickers that he started giving away. Once one child saw the stickers, he was bombarded with kids that were straining to reach for just one more sticker. They couldn’t believe that he was giving them so many of one thing, that they could keep for their own. He even had to recruit the help of another team member to help him give out the rest of the stickers to the other kids hanging on him and laughing. After giving what seemed to us like such a small gift, we got to witness a group of children running around with stickers all over their faces and radiant smiles for the entire day. These kids are so thankful for what they receive and they are amazed when we have an abundance of anything. The fact that we could have enough stickers to actually give away hundreds; is totally lost on those who have so little.

Photo by Irvin U. Rios

Photo by Irvin U. Rios

At one point, we were sitting outside with the kids waiting to see the dentist. They were so content just to sit with us and be held by us. We had been asking them to sing for us a few times and they were always a little shy. But on this day, without any coaxing, one of the little girls started singing, “Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain. We all have sorrow. But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.” They all joined in with “Lean on me. When you’re not strong. I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on” and it took my breath away. As I expected, these kids have blessed me in so many ways. I only hope that they are able to feel just a portion of the abundant love that God has for them through our actions this week.

Beautiful country. Beautiful people.

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Photo by Irvin U. Rios

“It’s beautiful here. The TV only shows all the bad stuff about Haiti. But look, it’s beautiful.”

A simple conversation between one of our team members and our van driver speaks volumes to the misconceptions about Haiti. The van driver explained that he is from Haiti, his family is proud to be from Haiti, and it truly is a beautiful home. He seemed disappointed that the world’s view of Haiti was so negative. I think that should disappoint us too.

Even in just the short 10-minute drive from the guesthouse to the Creche everyday, we are able to see just how gorgeous the Haitian countryside is. There really isn’t any other way to describe it. The rolling hills go on for miles. The fields of luscious crops cover the land in green. The people filling the streets are truly beautiful.

I feel so blessed that this is our setting this week.

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Photo by Irvin U. Rios

Our team is running a few programs throughout the week, including optical and dental clinics and bible training for pastors in the surrounding communities. On the optical side, we screened over 140 people for distance and reading glasses on Monday. We divided up into teams to cover stations for eye measurement, to gauge reading distance, and to fit for frames.

People of all ages and stages in life were lined up out the door and down the walkway towards the rusty red gate. It was a line up of intense stares. Haitian people are not afraid to look at you and stare at you as you walk by. But the moment you speak to them or greet them with a quick “Bonjour”, their eyes light up and their expression completely opens up to show their joy.

When they entered into the clinic, they sat patiently on the rickety benches and you could tell that they were just happy to be there and to be cared for. They were even still smiling after one of the benches broke under the weight of too many people. They also continued to smile as we fumbled through trying to communicate with them using our hands. They showed us such incredible grace.

Something that our pastors have encouraged us this week is to seek out the “Jesus” moments in everything we do. So whether or not it is preforming vision screenings, fitting people for glasses, or simply showing an orphan God’s love, it is in those moments that we see Jesus.

Sometimes the practical side of this kind of trip can cloud our ability to see God’s impact. I think that is because of the overwhelming feeling that we can’t possibly change the circumstances in this place in one trip or even 50 trips. Even in doing hands-on clinics and programs, it can feel like it’s just not enough. We won’t ever be able to come into Haiti and fit everyone for glasses. We won’t be able to provide dental care for everyone. We won’t be able to share love with every orphan. But there is absolutely no doubt that we can see Jesus here. And the people we can help, the lives we can touch, the smiles we can give are the ones that will make a difference and change us into the hands and feet that God has called us to be.

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Photo by Irvin U. Rios

 

Mothering the Motherless

It was a sunny, beautiful mother’s day in Haiti and we were dressed in our best for church. For some of us, this would be our first Haitian church service and we really could not be prepared for what we were about to experience. For others on the team who had made the trip before, they looked forward to the familiar joy they would feel as soon as they entered the church.

Music floated down and across the street as we unloaded from the vans and began walking into the church. We were greeted with singing and shouting and friendly faces as we walked down the center aisle of the church and sat in pews at the front. The entire service was in Creole. We were able to listen to the sermon and prayer time with the help of a translator speaking through headphones that were passed around. But the immense love they poured out to God that morning needed no translation.

Our pastors were given the chance to share some words with the congregation and since it was Mother’s Day back home in the USA, they wanted to bring a special blessing to mothers. In Haiti, they honor their mothers with a special day at the end of the month, but they were very enthusiastic about honoring our tradition together. And as a way to do that, since it wouldn’t be possible to publicly honor every mother in the tightly packed sanctuary, Pastor Jason asked if they would identify the mother with the youngest child. The congregation looked a little hesitant at first, but then from the back we could see a small baby being lifted into the air in true Lion King style. We took a bouquet of flowers to the mother holding her precious child and her eyes lit up with the love and pride she felt for her baby. Then Jason asked that they would identify the woman who has been the mother the longest. There was some debate about this one, as a few numbers were tossed back and forth. Eventually, an elderly woman came forward. This beautiful tiny woman caught my attention from the moment I sat down as someone who worshiped God with her whole body. As she was accepting her flowers, she was asked how many years she had been a mother and the answer was 56. The large round of applause echoed the selfless way their community cared for each other and surrounded one another in love.

Haitian church is an experience that is based on expression and a steadfast commitment and acknowledgement of who God is. Their hands were raised, they shouted and sang at the top of their lungs, they rarely glanced at a songbook and they smiled with their entire body. Everything about their service was directed back to God and the worship of him. Honestly, it made the North American church look a little distracted. I think we can get so bogged down with the lights, sound, and music style that we can actually miss our true focus. We can learn so much from our brothers and sisters in Haiti and I feel so blessed to be in this place with them.

But not everyone we saw that day was fortunate to have a loving and caring mother like the ones that were honored in that packed church on Sunday morning. After church we visited the Chances for Children Creche for the first time. As soon as we walked in, we were met with hesitant but smiling faces. We played. We laughed. We held these beautiful children. During our debriefing later that day, an emotional comment was made about the significance of being at such a place on Mother’s Day.

It was an unbelievable privilege to mother the motherless on this day.

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Photo by Irvin U. Rios

Sharing God’s love in this place is a privilege. It is an emotional roller coaster. But that’s part of what is so amazing about God’s grace. No matter what our circumstances, God’s enduring love needs no translation.

Sitting, waiting, wishing

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You pack. You plan. You make lists. But I’m not sure you can ever fully prepare for this kind of a trip. We are on our way to our first stop in Miami before heading to Haiti tomorrow morning. I asked a few of our team members to describe the way they were feeling in one word. I’m sure I’ll be able to pull out some more eloquent quotes from our team as the week progresses but for now we are pumped, excited, relaxed, and great.

Anticipation is an incredibly strong emotion. Today it is combined with butterflies, excitement, and the constant inner debate of who will end up more changed; us or the people we encounter. I’m going to preface our trip by acknowledging that God has an incredible plan and that there is no chance that we will leave Haiti unchanged. He is good. He is faithful. All the time.

Thank you in advance for all your prayers and support of this team. We look forward to sharing our journey with you!

The important things I learned from my youth band kids

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“The soul is healed by being with children.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There is this amazing group of kids at my church back home that has taught me some incredible lessons and left a lasting impression on my life. Since moving away from them, I realized just how much they’ve inspired me. They came to our group wanting to know more about music, worship, and leadership. And just as the cliché would have it, I learned more from them than I could have ever hoped to teach. These are a few things I’ve learned from those awesome kids:

-Age isn’t an excuse to stop learning. I had far less motivation to really learn music when I was their age and they truly impressed me during every practice. Whenever I would say something about wishing I could play my guitar better, these kids would come back to me saying, “So, why don’t you just practice?” …Yup.

-They surprised me with their persistence and desire to serve God every time we took that stage. Simply learning to play their instruments was a demanding task on it’s own. But learning to play and worship in front of a crowd was a challenge they met with an incredible combination of uncertainty, vulnerability, and gumption.

-When there are problems, politics, and gossip in the church; kids notice. This group cared when people weren’t singing along with them. They cared about the words of the songs and the meaning behind them. They desperately wanted to be used by God and that left me feeling amazed and absolutely blessed.

-The gaps in our generations are a great reminder of the fact that although we are always changing; God is unchanging. I firmly believe this is where we find opportunities to see God’s humor at work, and ultimately to see Jesus more clearly. People of all generations in our church supported these kids, watched them grow, encouraged them to lead, and laughed at our silliness. And in turn, God used these kids to lead and to teach all ages. To all the naysayers out there, there is always hope for the next generation. They just need a little investment from us.

-Kids aren’t going to be leaders simply by listening to what we say. They are watching, they are noticing, and they are waiting for someone to invest in them. The couple hours a week we spent with these kids wasn’t the only investment. It was about being intentional and knowing that the time I spent with them was valuable; not because of what song we were learning that night but because of who those kids are and who I am because of them.

-They get this “God stuff” too. Some of my most spiritually exhilarating moments of the past two years have been while watching a group of kids realize that there is more to life than what is in front of them and that they truly matter in the eyes of God. These kids face a terrifying world in which their faith will be questioned even to the point of mocking and yet; they stick with it.

When I left my home and moved 5000 kilometers away from my family and my church, these words from a 14 year old comforted me in ways I cannot express. “It’s different without you here but it’s okay… God has something else planned” That little piece of wisdom encouraged me in my uncertainty and allowed me to catch a glimpse into God’s plan for my life. Amazing.