He's Here: My Journey to Colombia
Earlier this year, I got to travel with a team from my church to visit our church plant in Colombia. Many of you may not have seen the story when I posted it on Facebook, so I'm publishing it here on my blog so it will exist for all time (or until I forget to pay my website hosting fees and it disappears for all time. Either way, we're talking in terms of eternity).
He's Here: My Journey to Colombia
I saw the cute kids and was hooked. My pastors had visited our Colombian church plant in January, and they created a video update with the faces of Cienaga de Oro and the construction of their new church. I tuned out on the dirt and construction because my dad’s architect brain did not get passed on to me; I don’t relate at all to concrete and Caterpillars and construction sites and snooooze. But I do like travel, children, and languages, and I perked up when the pastors spoke Spanish, straining to unravel what they were saying before Jeremy, our DreamTeam leader and Colombia liaison, translated it for us. Pastor Johnny spoke fervently to the camera, grateful for the funding Lifehouse had raised to help them build their new church building. I picked out a kid from the Compassion International packets Jeremy passed around, vaguely aware that Pastor Johnny’s new church hosted these kids, that somehow they worked together with the Compassion project. I wasn’t clear on details, but I was impressed that my church was so closely connected to this church in Colombia. “If they take another trip down there,” I vowed, “I’m going.”
The opportunity popped up only a few months later. A group of 17 of us, from preteens to retirees, dusted off our passports and flew to Cartagena at the end of April. After a 5-hour bus ride from the coastal city, we arrived at the church in Cienaga de Oro and were greeted with smiles and hugs from the pastors, teachers, and kids who gathered to welcome us. I remembered that Jeremy had been nervous that we might offend them in some way as tone-deaf Americans, or there might be distance or reserve, but not a chance. From the moment we stepped off the bus, the smiles never stopped. I’m not sure I’ve ever been around such unending waves of smiles and joy. “What a blessing to us that you are here! Bendiciones!” This was the constant refrain in Spanish. I had brushed up on my Spanish before I left, so I perhaps got to hear this more directly and regularly than my trip mates.
We entered the main congregation area upstairs, and it was full of light, open, with natural air (read: no AC). They had prepared a big posterboard with before and after pics of the church construction. I glanced at it and thought, building got built, got it. Where are the kids? We went back outside and descended the steps around the side to the lower story. Begin the noise. A teeming sea of children, teachers and families washed around us, and we were engulfed in the flood. I had promised myself I wouldn’t be shy with my limited Spanish, so I busted through my timidity and began meeting people, speaking Spanish as best I could. If there was any hesitation in the Colombians, it was out the window as soon as they discovered a common language. I asked a boy, “How do you say…?” and I gestured with a high five. He said, “Choque cinco!” This became my catchphrase for the week, my entrée into the world of kids. I began greeting 4-year-olds to teenagers with a “choque cinco,” and soon they thronged around me and started firing questions at me. Where are you from? Did you come on a plane? When are you leaving? Are you coming back tomorrow? I found myself surrounded by a group of kids, teens, and even moms, hanging on my every word. It was overwhelming at first, as I tend to focus in deeply on what’s in front of me; I lost track of my team and anything going on around me. I had to strain to understand the Colombians, ask them to repeat, but they didn’t seem to mind. I told them I felt “famosa,” like a famous person, with all the attention, and they laughed. They asked me what I liked to eat, did I want them to bring me some mango? No no, I said, thank you. I asked them what they ate in Colombia. “Do you eat…chicken?” Siiii! “Do you eat…apples?” Siiii! “Do you eat monkeys here?” Lots of giggles and noooo to that one.
A group surrounded me the next day as well, and I made a couple of older friends, Luz and Vicky, who were able to speak Spanish slowly to me so I understood better. One of the older women said to Vicky, “Ask her if she minds that we’re crowding her.” I said, No, claro que no, it makes me happy to be able to speak a little Spanish to you! And she responded, patting her chest, “It is just that we are so blessed to have you here. We carry you in our hearts!”
While we mingled with kids and parents outside, the two lower-level classrooms were conducting their program for the day (not every child was enrolled in the Compassion program). The students were laughing, fighting, waving at us through the open-air windows, but were soon corralled into rows of chairs so their teachers could bring them snacks. (The teachers put hygiene masks and gloves on a few of our team members and let them pass out snacks, too.) It was loud and lively. We arrived on a Saturday, so maybe this was more of a casual day, or maybe it was because they had visitors, but the teachers would float in and out of the classroom, greeting us, bringing out individual children to their sponsors to meet and take pictures. Some of the parents were there, too, eager to meet their “padrino.” Some were shy, but mostly it was a noisy throng of excited people and sweet smiles. Our team handed out donated YMCA jerseys to the boys and beautiful hand-sewn dresses that Laura and her Life Group had made for all the girls. Some of the kids put theirs on right away, and throughout the week, we’d see kids walking down the roads in their barrio, dressed in their new clothes. The energy was nonstop, bubbling over. There was no dip in the atmosphere, not one second that our Colombian brothers and sisters exuded anything but bright joy and excitement. And always the repeated phrase: “What a blessing that you are here with us!”
We stood outside for two hours, and the weather was hot—not scorching, but with a humidity that drove rivers of sweat down our shirts. I will never complain about Texas summers again. (I might be lying about that, check with me in July). We were drenched in the first five minutes, but it was like a block party, so no one complained. We finally said goodbye and loaded the bus to drive to Monteria, 45 minutes away, where we were staying in a hotel. We needed our sleep because we were due back at church the next morning at 6am. We were scheduled to attend two services—one at the old church in Cienaga, and then the very first church service in the new building. They had waited for our team to arrive to christen the new church building.
6 am saw the sun up and shining and our team traipsing into a church service that was already packed and worship that was well underway. (Pastor Ryan, I figured out how to get people in seats before the church service begins—get rid of the foyer! You walk in the front door, boom, you’re in church, get clapping.) The worship was loud and fervent (6 am, guys. 6:00 am.). They had the words to some of the songs up on a projector screen, and even though we didn’t understand most of it, the Spirit was palpable. It became apparent that the body of Christ is the same the world over. The language might change, cultures may vary, but the Spirit is the same. It could easily have been a Spanish-speaking church in San Antonio. This unity attests to the universality of the body of Christ. Man can’t invent this kind of cross-culture unity. (Maybe Scientology can. I’ll look into it.)
Pastor David, Ryan’s dad, had been invited to preach, and he delivered a rousing message on the paralytic who was lowered through the roof to get near Jesus. Our incredible interpreter, Emilio, kept up admirably, translating the entire message for the congregation, then turned around and did it again when Jeremy preached at the next church service. Then spent the entire week translating menus, instructions, and navigating for us Americans. I never saw him falter in his patience and good humor. (I also discovered that Emilio is my brother from another mother. By the end of the week, we had dissolved into delirious silliness, with his screeching Elmo voice, singing Lionel Richie together, and our favorite phrase of endearment: “I truly hate you with the love of the Lord.” Sometimes you have to travel to South America to find family. And speaking of familia, not one person stumbled over my name, “Ochoa.” It is as common as sunshine down there. No one asked me if I was Irish, said “ohhh-chuh,” or asked if it means “eight” in Spanish. One week. One glorious week.)
My biggest takeaway from the trip, however, was the impression the Compassion International program made on me. What had been distant pictures and vague ideas before the trip came to gripping, specific life in front of me. I had chosen my Compassion child a couple of months before, and I already have a sponsor child through World Vision, so the concept of sponsorship is not new to me. But my impetus for signing up has always been basic. I love kids, I love Jesus, Jesus loves kids, so sure, I’ll contribute to a kid’s food and survival. What an eye-opening experience to visit this mission in person! Compassion’s living, breathing, colorful program does exactly what their mission statement says it does.
Compassion International is a Christ-centered program that seeks to come alongside children and communities living in poverty and offer them consistent help in training and preparation for a higher quality of life. They partner with local churches and work with pastors and teachers who intimately know their communities to provide a place where children (and their families) receive constant support: food, hygiene training, Bible teaching, tutoring, medical attention, and games, arts, and fun. It is not school, but rather, they supplement the community’s school education with their after-school program. We toured the facilities in two cities, Cienaga de Oro and Monteria, and both were in or next door to the church. Very simple buildings, but clean and full of color and posters, like you’d find in a school or a Sunday School classroom in the States. I noticed the continuous theme of the posters and the kids’ presentations: “I have rights.” The message was repeated often, worked into the kids’ atmosphere and beliefs: “I have rights: I have the right to health, to respect, to a family, to being treated kindly.” There was a large sign painted on the wall instructing teachers how to identify and report child abuse to CDI. I thought, to my shame, how unexpected it was to see this message among the impoverished, but how necessary and life-giving. In a community that lives hand to mouth, in dirt floor dwellings, with very, very few material possessions, their children are being trained in health and dignity, taught to see themselves as valuable, worthy of respect and entitled to “rights” of proper treatment. Not only does Compassion go to bat for the kids, but they teach the kids themselves to view themselves as precious people, worthy vessels of honor. This shouldn’t be unusual or remarkable, but I admit that it arrested me, made me look at my preconceptions. Often, when we are confronted with pictures of poverty, the harsh black and white photos of stick-thin babies, crying mothers, flies on faces, lethargy and distended bellies, you don’t think “dignity.” You think “despair.” There can be a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. Maybe we feel a twinge of guilt, send some money here and there, but in the end, what can be done in that fly-infested hovel? How can you hope for long-term change with such corrupt governments and societies? Perhaps we feed the poor a few times, but ultimately, the millstone of their plight seems heavy, drowning, unstoppable. I imagine we don’t often think, “I’m changing a life, and possibly an entire community, forever!”
And yet that’s what I saw in Colombia, with Compassion International. The teams are in place, the programs are funded, and training for better opportunities is happening. Children are happy, they’re honored, they’re full of love. Adults are watching over them, loving them, giving their hearts and souls to care for them. And I was amazed (again, ignorant but whatevs) by the way life is simply life down there. It didn’t feel foreign or alienating to me. The moms on our team shook their heads in sorrow at the level of poverty these families lived in, overwhelmed by one dirt floor shanty after another. We ambled down muddy roads, leaping over deep potholes as mopeds sped past (most drive motos if they drive anything at all), sweating buckets and chatting, and families would be lounging on makeshift hammocks together, little faces would pop out from between disheveled fences, grinning and curious. To me, it didn’t feel dirty or hopeless at all. I felt at peace, and even a twinge of sorrow for myself (never a bad time for a pity party, I like to say). I live alone. I don’t chill with my neighbors. And let me catch a stranger peeking through my fence so help me…! We said “hola” and people said “hola,” gazing in amusement at the gaggle of white people tramping down their roads. Nothing felt unhappy or fearful, just a day in the life. Do I know that these people face physical struggles I may never experience? Yes. Is there a vulnerability living in shanty houses that barely have doors, much less lock at night? Of course. But life goes on, it seems, and people love their people, and they make it work with what they have.
As we walked, the program teachers would speak rapidly in Spanish, pointing and relaying to Emilio that “Anjelica lives over here, this way.” They knew every child, every home, and they’d wave to the sponsor to come with them. They were so eager to connect the kids and their families with their sponsors. While waiting outside one house, a group of us glanced next door and saw an adorable white puppy with one ear floppy and one ear sticking straight up. A little girl appeared at the door and picked him up, smiling at us. A giggling threesome of shirtless brothers followed us a few houses down, curious about the visitors to their barrio. A wiry, mangy, coo-coo-eyed cat limped by that none of my teammates would let me touch. You know, life. Neighborhood. Friends, family. Cats I can’t adopt.
After a few more home visits, a few more dirt roads, passing a small house with a man sitting inside, a few curated items on a table and a squawking parrot pacing nearby (sign on door: “Tienda del Pajarito—Store of the Little Bird), we came to a long dirt road leading back up to a main street. I noticed the yellow back of a building at the end. Pastor Johnny said to me in Spanish, “And there’s the church.” I said, “What church?” He replied quickly, and I caught “this morning.” I struggled to understand. “You…built a new church this morning? What?” No, he explained, and then it dawned on me. Oh, that’s THE church. The one we went to this morning. The one we helped build. The one that serves all these kids. I only share this fantastic lack of observation in my spatially-challenged brain to highlight the fact that I did not understand that the church plant was literally planted at the edge of this shanty community. I’m sorry, yo soy Americana. I drive to church. I don’t live, eat, fellowship, play, and worship in one place. It never occurred to me, when we drove around to the barrio to begin walking to houses, that we were still in the same area. I am wonderstruck by the fact that this church exists to serve this community. As we walked back, we ran into a group of girls from the day before, hanging out together at one of their homes, just yards from the back of the church. It must be a haven, this church, a hub of social life in this barrio. And I thought, this works. This is the church, the hands and feet of God. What a wonderful light to the people in the community. It’s right here. You cannot miss this church your neighbors are gathering at. You cannot miss the effect of classes that are teaching the children to respect and love themselves because God respects and loves them. How can that not permeate a community?
As we drove away, we passed bars and restaurants with people lounging, cackling, playing pool, and it didn’t feel the same. Different atmosphere. But to me, in this simple, open community, it was easy to see the difference between this and that. So when the pastors share that their vision is to see the entire community, heck, the entire city, come to Christ, I see how this just might be possible. Everyone knows everyone, life is shared, news travels. Something new taking place, light that is shining, lives that are changing, cannot help but be seen. No one is jumping in cars, planes, traveling miles for work, spending hours alone, and returning at night to a silent, gated community. They are here. Connected. Together.
I noticed (Architect Dad, you’d be proud) that the very construction of the simple, flimsy buildings means there is little space between people. In America, we love our space, and we can afford to make it happen. In this community, you can’t help but live right next to people. Houses are up on the road. Among the poor, there are no winding drives, no thick walls, no privacy. That might drive us crazy, but what a marked contrast to a life of nothing but space. My family of four lives in four different homes. That would be unheard of in this community. I run errands alone. I don’t walk to my church. Our communities are made of the places we drive to, the choices we make from a web search, not who we live next to. In this Colombian community, you don’t have a choice. Your neighbor is your neighbor, 20 feet away. Your church, thank God for your church, it’s right down the road. This patch of land might be the only place you ever live. This is it; this is your place. If God didn’t come and set up house with you, where would you go to find Him?
I pulled up the Compassion website when I got home, and checked off the list: everything they say they do, I saw it being done, down to the detail. They come alongside. They work with the pastors and the community. The classrooms are organized, the teaching is taking place, by Colombians. No executives with laser pointers commandeering the proceedings. It was organic, it was by the people, for the people. The kids are happy, lively. They got ice cream while we visited, seated in their organized little rows. They wouldn’t share it with me (might need to work with them on the whole “sharing is caring” thing). In Monteria, our team was introduced to the children, and they were told to go give “abrazos” to their special guests. You didn’t have to ask twice. They jumped up from their chairs, and the room became a swirling chaos of children wrapping their arms around every new person they saw. I somehow (and not because I instigated or encouraged it) got ensconced in a group of boys who thought it was the height of hilarity to throw confetti on me over and over again. One of them found me later and wrapped himself around my leg, laughing at my struggle to walk. A teacher chided him to let me go, which was for the best because I would have kept walking and taken him home with me.
The kitchens have signs instructing and insisting on cleanliness and hygiene. They wear face masks to hand out snacks. The entire program is one of health, respect, and love. Precisely the way Jesus’ hands and feet should be handling little ones the world over. I didn’t sense an ounce of hopelessness in the sweaty classrooms. The teachers smile and care and cried when we walked in…grateful that we were there, but shoot, they’re doing all the work! And it does bring hope and better opportunities. The kids have, I believe I read, a 50% higher chance of completing school, and a high chance of moving into white-collar work. Some go on to college. It is not merely survival mode, a bowl of rice here and there. It is consistent support and a hand up to a better life. There might be extreme levels of material poverty, but there is no poverty of spirit in what I saw.
I secretly hoped they’d come find me in my lonely little apartment and sign me up for the program. A joke, maybe, but there are plenty of wealthy Westerners who are poorer on the inside than these kids are. Doesn’t Jesus say that in Revelation? “You think you’re rich, but you don’t see the truth, that you are wretched and naked and poor.” I look at these passionate pastors and huge-hearted teachers who squeeze our arms with tears in their eyes, repeating that it is such a blessing to have us, insisting on serving us graham crackers and little soda bottles that had to have cut into their tight budget. I think, What is there to feel sorry for here? These servants will probably rule over greater portions than all of us in the kingdom to come. They have been faithful with what they were given; they are pouring themselves out for the work of Christ in these little ones. I send $40 a month, and they can’t stop crying that we traveled all this way to visit them, that we “remember them.” I’ll gulp down my tiny Coke and try not to be humbled by that.
On the last day, I did get to visit my little “ahijado,” Juan, and his grandma in their home. Up to that moment, I had been intimidated to meet him. I had only started sponsoring him weeks before, and I hadn’t even sent him a letter yet. As we walked through the barrio and met other sponsor kids, my teammates were mostly families from the States that had already been writing their child as a family. Jeremy and Amy’s sponsor family even had their picture framed and hanging in their thatch shack.
I know it sounds strange, but I felt inadequate as a sponsor. I felt awkward. Like, here I am, single girl from the States, it’s just meee! But when Yamile, Juan’s grandmother, greeted me with tears, saying that she had prayed and prayed that God would give him a sponsor, my discomfort faded. I saw the truth: she prayed for a sponsor, and God chose me. I knew the instant I saw that adorable face on the packet that Juan was my kid. In that moment, I became the answer to a pleading grandmother’s prayer. Me, not someone like me, not someone more “legitimate.” Even though Juan was terribly shy and barely gave me a “choque cinco” before I left, I was confident he was mine. And I knew we’d build a relationship as he got older through writing letters and praying for each other. He’s 4. I’ll cut him a break. I will win him in time. My sister doesn’t call me the “Child Whisperer” for nothing.
There were other fun events on the periphery of our journey, like eating and the beach and making new friends in the back of the bus (which was so rough in the back that we caught air several times and my roomie Jan came down on her arm and started bleeding and I couldn’t stop laughing as I went up front to ask for Neosporin because I was delirious from five body-thrashing hours on an old bus and also because I’m a huge jerk). Our Colombia trip was full of laughter, days that blended into each other with pouring sweat and full hearts, new perspective, the world opening up a little bit more with every new corner I venture into. This adventure felt, to me, almost normal; it felt like home. I know that’s due to all of the prayers that were lifted up for us. I’ve discovered being covered in prayer doesn’t always mean eye-popping miracles as much as consistent ease of travel, protection, and a joy in reaching out. And all that prayer turns us into one big family—even across cultures. You wouldn’t have known the difference, if you’d closed your eyes and everyone spoke the same language, who was from where. That’s unity. It’s not some magical, weird, or even cult-like phenomenon. It’s just a kingdom, a culture, a body that is bigger than nations and politics. It can look so normal as to go unnoticed. Then we go back home, and life goes on, and the body of Christ continues to take root and reach out and multiply. Jesus saves people, and we serve people with dignity and respect, one precious person at a time. We wait for Jesus to come back, of course. But then again, He’s already here. He’s in Juan, He’s in Anjelica, He’s in us, His hands and feet. We serve Christ now by serving the least of these. He’s here, if you know where to look.