On February 15, CNN and local news continued with nearly nonstop coverage of the Parkland shooting. “Valentine’s Day—and Ash Wednesday—will never be the same,” said a local. The angst of last night’s tragedy still weighed heavy. I again nixed the idea of Miami sightseeing but vowed one day to return. Staying in my hotel gave me several hours to grieve for the 17 dead students and their loved ones, time to prepare for service in Guatemala, time to rest before I met 33 fellow travelers at our departure gate.
Later, the stunning design at Miami International revived my spirits. I lunched on Cuban food and met Rebecca, a fresh-faced teenager who introduced herself when she saw my Compassion nametag. Like me, Rebecca was antsy, so we strolled the terminal and chatted. Back at our departure gate, we met Barbara, who drawled a friendly, “Nice to meet you,” and many others. Coleaders Sandeep and Emily checked us in and told us what to expect at Customs. What a great first impression, exuding confidence and attention to detail while being friendly and fired up. On the plane, I sat by Krystal, a quiet, gentle spirit who traveled with a stuffed bear. How amazing she’d be with the kids!
We arrived at La Aurora International Airport around 7:45 p.m., things proceeding exactly as our guidebook explained:
Upon exit from the plane we will proceed together through immigration/customs and collect our luggage. Once everyone has their bags, we will exit the airport together to greet the excited country staff awaiting us just outside. We will load our luggage onto the buses and drive 15 minutes to the Hotel Biltmore. Once checked in, we’ll have time to rest for the night.
On the drive to the Biltmore, I chatted with tripmates. We couldn’t believe how the Compassion staff zipped maybe a hundred bags onto the bus. Uniformed bellmen ushered us into the Biltmore lobby, where we received brief instructions about assembling in this very spot for breakfast.
After distributing room keys, most of the group headed for bed, but I had different plans. Waiting for me near the hotel dining area were Oscar and Ana Maria, friends who serve here in Guate at a local seminary. When we’d orchestrated this reunion, I’d emailed Sandeep to be sure he was okay with our get-together. Sandeep had promptly called, saying, “That’ll be fine as long as you stay here.” It was hard to imagine anything but a welcoming, safe environment, outside the wood-and-marble décor of the brightly lit lobby, but the www.numbeo.com crime index for 2017 bespoke a different story: out of 18 Central American metropolitan areas, Guatemala City ranked fifth worst.
When my friends arrived, they shared stories about trips to Switzerland, where many are coming to the Lord, and Israel, where a rabbi had proclaimed a coming messiah (not King Jesus). Hours later, it seemed we’d just started talking. I regretfully said bye and took the elevator to my single room, an amenity offered by Compassion. I appreciated the chance to decompress without disturbing a roommate.
The spotless room, the spacious bed, made me realize how tired I was. Compassion had even left a welcome kit, including a jewelry box and half a dozen water bottles. I’d never dreamed we’d stay at a three-star hotel. How thankful I was that so many—Compassion, airport, and hotel staff—labored to transport and house us safely, quickly, and in luxury, not counting the hours that Sandeep, Emily, and others had spent organizing this trip. I scanned tomorrow’s itinerary, set my alarm, and prayed. Full of gratitude and peace, sleep came easy.
For two hours, the Biltmore breakfast area greeted both early birds like me and those who stumbled in and grabbed a muffin before our trip to departamento Solola, Getsemani, Child Center 437. As I OD’ed on light roast coffee and frijoles, salsa, crema, and eggs, Sandeep flitted about, attending to last-minute details while managing a hug or “Good morning.” Coleader Emily exuded the same friendliness while partnering with Susan, a sight-impaired traveler who had a most joyous spirit. It was the first of many occasions to see Susan praising God for the weather, for the opportunity—for life!
Compassion had chartered two comfortable, spacious buses. They’d even stashed aboard coolers of drinks and snacks. A separate bus would get our luggage to our destination hotel. Why, they’d thought of everything by way of physical needs, but as we headed northwest, Sandeep alsomet a spiritual need by sharing a Bible devotion, his words containing power and passion. “I heard he was a Compassion child,” whispered my seatmate, Barbara. By the time we’d reached the center, Barbara and I had traded painful stories. In that miraculous way of the Spirit, we became soulmates though we’d only just met. It was so like the Lord to call folks into service and ask them to set aside personality differences. With one bus ride, Barbara felt like a forever friend with whom I shared the hope of heaven and service here and now.
Cheers greeted us as we rolled into the student center. Beautiful children and their leaders led us into a chapel adorned with flowers and a stage on which were set musical instruments. We sang to the accompaniment of piano and marimba, enjoyed a rousing performance of “Fur Elise,” which struck a memory chord as it was my first keyboard attempt at a classic. Boys wore pressed dress shirts and dark trousers while girls wore multicolored skirts. They and their parents told of Compassion’s help with school lessons, with medical bills…with life, all to the glory of God. Many referenced the love, the hope, the friendship they’d found in the local church. I rejected the idea that the smiles and joyful remonstrations were a front to impress visitors. Everything pointed to Compassion’s goal: church-based, child-focused, Christ-centered service (www.compassion.com/about/what-makes-us-distinct.htm).
After a delicious lunch prepared by aproned women who fussed over a Liberty Bell-sized pot in a lean-to kitchen, we walked a half-mile to our first home visit. A mother of three girls and a baby boy told of Compassion’s prenatal care and provision of medicine for her daughter’s skin ailment. She asked for prayers that her husband could find time to finish a well-digging project as they desperately needed water. Despite her burdens, the mom joyously prayed for us. Shalom peace reigned in this home that was simple by earthly standards but rich in fellowship and faith and love.
Later, the children played with bouncy balls. We toured a cooking class where today’s lesson was baking banana bread and visited the prenatal center we’d heard about. Before goodbyes, we were gifted locally woven wall hangings. As we left, we also received their hugs, their thanks; in some cases, their tears.
With hearts full of gratitude, we headed for Panajachel, a town abutting majestic Lake Atitlan. While my fellow sojourners oohed and aahed at the simmering water, I closed my eyes, knowing we’d get a better view in town. I daydreamed about the center’s vibrant children, each uniquely made, all stamped in God’s image, who’d dashed about the courtyard during that free play.
Porta Hotel Del Lago proved to be even nicer than our first hotel, with a gift shop and lakeview dining room. My balcony overlooked a gorgeous pool and the world-famous lake that already had wowed our group. As I rested before dinner, a couple on the lawn two stories down said their wedding vows.
Tonight’s catered dinner in a hall adjacent to the main dining room provided an opportunity to make deeper friendships, especially with Carol, Judy, and Kelli, women who like me had made the trip without our spouses. Again we were served amazing local cuisine, this time buffet style. As we enjoyed dessert, Sandeep went to the podium. In his clear, excitable voice, he transported us to the place of his childhood, the Calcutta dump, where he, alongside others scavenged to survive. Sandeep shared of his birth into a low caste, of his life of constant hunger and rejection. In fact, Sandeep once scaled the wall of a school, his eyes wide with the amazement of seeing children running about, laughing, for some reason chasing a black and white ball. The children wore identical clean uniforms, which made Sandeep wonder, “Where do you get such nice things?” A caretaker on site hissed “Get out!” at the raggedly dressed little boy. “You don’t belong in such a place.” Ashamed of his looks, ashamed at his longings, ashamed of himself, Sandeep retreated into familiar territory: the trash. Years later, after Compassion staff offered Sandeep his fill of bread, he received the eternal gift of Jesus, the Bread of Life, and to his amazement found himself one day within the very school gates that had once barred him as unacceptable.
Few people remained dry-eyed at our fearless leader’s confirmation of Compassion’s fulfillment of both meeting physical and spiritual needs, one child at a time. It is stories that touch my heart, not the esoteric discussions that define poverty. Sandeep’s story reiterated the Biblical truth that every human being is made in God’s image and is designed for a future that will bring prosperity, not always in the monetary sense, but in the sense of work for the kingdom of heaven.
Years later, Sandeep not only attended that “you-stay-out” school but now serves Compassion…serves me. I couldn’t wait to write his story!
After dinner, the young crowd, including Sandeep and Emily, challenged us oldies to a water volleyball match. Several hurried after their swimsuits. Though the water and the twinkly lights across the lake beckoned me near, exhaustion pressed in, as did crowd fatigue. I needed to decompress, to count my blessings, to ponder all the things God was teaching me about Compassion’s work. I would enjoy the swimming pool, as much as is possible, from two stories up.