October 12, 2019
October 12, 2019
The following story, the beginning of which happened a quarter of a century ago, is true...with one major disclaimer. These are my memories, which may or may not be factual. Over my long life I have discovered that — for me at least — events which are very, very significant take on a life of their own. Any of my companions on this adventure might alter the narrative according to their perspective. So take this for what it is...a memory indelibly burned into the brain of a novice short-term missionary.
The story actually begins in 1994 when a parishioner and I attended the second New Wineskins ever held. Only two significant things came out of that conference for me.
First, even though I had gone to the seminary (Nashotah House) which was founded as a missionary outpost in the wilderness of Wisconsin, I had never heard of missionary work coming out of the Episcopal Church. I had returned as Rector of Resurrection, Dallas, in 1988 and realized the church needed to turn outward if it was to survive. I began the Acts 2:42 and Acts 1:8 initiatives.
If Jerusalem is a metaphor for the local parish, we had lots going for us. Too much maybe.
If Judea was the local community, the Diocese had an outreach in South Dallas, and Rez was closely connected with the leaders of that program.
If Samaria was the U.S, things began to get a bit more murky.
As for the “uttermost parts?” Here we were, surprisingly enough, on stable ground.
Somewhere around 1993 or 1994, Fr. Eapen, the pastor of the Church of South India (which is Anglican,) came to me and asked if his congregation could use our facilities to worship. Over the strenuous objections of the Vestry I said yes. It was the beginning of a fast friendship and missionary outreach to a world I would never have even thought of. That story is recorded in my handwritten diary, made during our team of five’s several trips which included starting a home and school for children of families in the nagars (slums - the poorest of the poor) in Jaipur, and funding the building of a church in the mountains of the Diocese of Kerala. (I recently received word the first child we took in had graduated as a medical doctor.)
When Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in October of 1998, it seemed appropriatel that we should go and help. But how?
And this is the second thing I had taken away from New Wineskins...SAMS...the South American Missionary Society. The organization’s work, focused in South America at the time, was astounding to me, and the staff was just as astounding. They did indepth training for missionaries who planned to spend their lives in the cultures they were going to encounter and taught them how to evangelize. Yes, the most abhorred, never-uttered-from-the-pulpit word in the Episcopal language — next to tithing.
They also trained missionaries who planned “short term” mission work, at that time considered to at least six months but preferably a year.
The director of the program was Lynn Bouterse, who is still with SAMS (and continuing to do an extraordinary job.) Memory is hazy at this point and I don’t remember whether SAMS was contemplating “short term missions” as we now know it, or if our team’s request to be trained triggered the program (perhaps against SAMS better judgment?) At any rate, they agreed to train our team in preparation for going into Honduras to help their joint partnership for Habitat for Humanity, and we became their first-ever "short term" missionary team.
I remember the training as being a blending of at least three existing missionary training programs from other organizations (whose names I no longer remember.) Other than myself, I no longer remember who else was trained, but I seem to recall several of us spending an intensive week at Ambridge being trained.
I also don’t recall who all went to Honduras — about eight I think — but I can tell you they were a mighty team, all on fire for the Lord.
When we landed in Honduras, I vividly remember looking out at the airport which, with the exception of the one runway we used, was several feet under water. I thought, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
The question was not dispelled by the next part of the adventure. John and Susan Park were the SAMS coordinators for our mission, and John took us to the home of the indigenous missionaries where we were to stay. It was a small, humble dwelling, but across the street was an astounding fortress — the home of a wealthy Honduran. Ten foot high walls topped with razor wire surrounded the compound. At the massive front gate stood two guards armed with submachine guns. Atop the wall were two more, equally equipped. The missionaries assured us they were “friendly.” It wasn’t the guards I was worried about. It was why they were there in the first place.
Work began early the next morning as we all piled into an old beat up Toyota pickup to head for Habitat’s worksite. Two of us rode in front with the missionary who drove. The rest sprawled out in the back. Conversation was interesting. Of the two of us in front, the other was, as I recall, a Wycliff Bible Translator, and spoke the best Spanish...which was virtually none. Mine was formally learned in second grade, and, informally, from the Mexican ranch hands. Which meant about 80% of it couldn’t be used in polite company. If we spoke poor Spanish, the missionary spoke even less English. There was a lot of waving of hands and SpangLish but it seemed to suffice.
I remember the drive as being about two hours over unpaved roads leading into the mountains. The roads to the back of the pasture on our ranch were better! Periodically we would pass small collections of houses which served as villages. Most were totally devastated, and once more I thought, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
The Habitat worksite was a large clearing on a relatively gentle slope on the side of a heavily forested mountain. Work had already begun as soon a Mitch cleared and what we saw was the rudiments of a neatly laid out village, lots staked out in parallel rows with a few feet in between what was to become the houses. Concrete foundations had already been poured for a couple of the houses and a course or two of the concrete blocks for the walls had been laid. Nearby was the bodega and cobertizo. In addition a large tent without walls was set up as our base of operations. It was to become a lifesaver...literally.
Needless to say, there were no power tools. Picks, shovels, and crowbars were the implements that would become our friends/enemies during our stay.
The heat was intense. We were unprepared for the Honduran day. In the States, even in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico, the day begins cool, warms up to peak temperature in mid afternoon, and cools again toward evening.( ‘Cool’ and ‘warm’ are relative terms.) We were accustomed to temperatures going into the high 90s, low 100s with nights typically cooling at least into the 80s. Not so in Honduras. In addition to the humidity the day began almost unbearably hot and stayed the same until evening when it ‘cooled’ a few degrees. It doesn’t seem like much on paper, but the former cycle allows you to acclimate as the heat increases and decreases. Again, not so in Honduras. This was to cause problems for all of us, but for me especially.
After meeting the Habitat team (a couple of whom spoke relatively good English) we picked up our tools and went to the lot to which we had been assigned. Habitat’s custom is for the new owners of ta home to help, thereby by investing “sweat equity.” This was not the case. There was no 'new family.' This was a new creation, not the reconstruction of an existing village, the nearest of which was several miles away.
The work was heavy duty as you can imagine. Our team dug the trenches for the foundation and then the laid substructure. The architecture was rudimentary at best. There were no utilities. Each house consisted of four rooms...a living area, kitchen and two bedrooms. The walls were concrete blocks and the roofs were corrugated metal.
Our team was made up of mostly 30 year olds, about 50/50 men and women. I was especially proud of our women who labored shoulder to shoulder with the men. One of the team, who had a nursing background, made sure we stayed hydrated, took breaks in the shade, bandaged blisters, etc. We all tried our best to stay healthy, but about the third day she came to me and said, “Father, come to the tent immediately.” When I hesitated, she said sternly, “Immediately.”
When I got to the tent she made me lie down on the cot and began packing me in wet cloths. Without realizing it I was suffering from intense heat stroke which sidelined me for the rest of the trip, much to my embarrassment (shame isn’t too strong a word.) In retrospect, my usual “macho” approach got me in trouble...an out of shape 60 year old trying to keep up with the “young’uns.” I’d like to say I learned from the lesson, but…
A couple of funny things from the trip...on myself:
The Milk Can:
The missionaries with whom we were staying had several milk cans by the door. I jokingly told the husband, “They’re turning these into fountains in the US and charging over a hundred bucks for them.” I said something about buying one and taking it home and forgot about the incident. The night before we left the Lord woke me up in the middle of the night and said, “He’s bought one for you. Pay whatever he asks.” Seemed reasonable enough, so I went back to sleep. The next morning I put some money in an envelope to say ‘thank you’ for their hospitality. After breakfast he proudly showed me a brand new milk can. “How much do I owe you,” I asked. “$100,” he answered. I swallowed hard. They were selling for about $35 in the States at the time, and…after their gift, the $100 was everything I had left.
“Pay whatever He asks!!” “Yes, Sir.” So I did.
I now had two problems...I was flat broke, and I had a milk jug to get home. You should have seen the confusion at the airport when customs (on both ends) tried to figure out why I was bringing an ordinary milk can home from Honduras. I didn’t even try to explain.
On the way to the airport, the team wanted to stop and buy authentic Honduran guayaberas. I was too broke so I passed.
On returning home, we had a fiesta so the team could share their stories. To my great surprise, one of the team had taken a picture of me in all my glory...My belovedTilley hat (circa 1982?) had made three Canadian fishing trips, four trips to India, and numerous other misadventures and was, well, ratty. Below an unkempt beard was a nondescript T-shirt, over a pair of shorts which, after the work, looked even less respectable than either the hat or the shirt. And what was left of my tennis shoes...anyway. They had blown the picture up to a full size cut out and, as a team, set it in front of the podium with great glee. Andrea immediately claimed it, and to the best of my knowledge it’s still stored somewhere in Chris’s home. By the way, she never wanted me wear that Tilly hat in public again in spite of my strenuous objections that it was just getting broken. I finally relented and bought a new one, but it was never as good as the original.
As the picture will attest, she won the battle...but I won the war.
By the way, following their description of the milk can incident, they gifted me with a beautiful guayabera (for which they had pooled their money,) and which I proudly wore for years.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Thanks for yonderin’ with me.
For the curious, the contents of the milk can are as precious to me as the can itself.
HIdden at the back is a flimsy walking stick with a bicycle rear view mirror, an "oogah" horn and a tag that reads. "If the bearer of this card appears lost and confused please return to his wife." (I still think she meant just the card.) Just in front of it is a hand-carved bone-handled genuine Irish shillelagh which had belonged to the late father on one of my parishioners. Given to me at my retirement over my strong protestations that I looked like a bishops crozier, she insisted it was for "the shepherd of the flock." Next to that are two hand made diamond wood walking sticks, one for Andrea and one for me, given to us by our good friends Jamie and Vic. The parrot just "appeared" in my collection. The curled ram's horn is called a shofar and I used to blow it at the celebrations we held of the Jewish Festivals in honor of our heritage. The red material wrapped around the metal poles is the 4'x6' flag I used to wave during our liturgical dances, Behind the Hiking Hunger walking stick (which I've used on my last several adventures) is a cane with a brass head, hand turned by Lonnie (a machinist) and a hand carved stick stripped and polished by le (yes, lower case,) his wife. It is my "go to" cane when I'm out in public. Note the luggage tag that’s still on the handle of the milk can. I took it off of my suitcase because it had such a sturdy strap and I figured the milk can was far more likely to go missing than my luggage. The fact that it's a gold card American Express seemed to cause great consternation among some of the customs agents..