This is an article that I’ve printed before in a feature section of the website that will soon be going away. I didn’t want to lose the story from the site, so I’m posting it as a blog so it will stick around for a while longer. Mission Honduras: The Love of the Lord Endures (video)
THE TOP OF ROSA’S HEAD reaches no higher than my heart. Seems fitting.
It’s Tuesday, January 18, 2011. That’s when I meet her.
Our church has sent 12 disciples of Jesus—at least that’s how I think of our team—on a mission into the mile-high mountains of Honduras. Our mission has two goals:
- Scout out the needs in a community of 500 families living off the beaten trail.
- Offer the people some basic medical supplies such as parasite medication, vitamins, dental supplies, antibiotic ointment.
Eight of us come from the Kansas City area, from various campuses of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection—an 18,000-member group of congregations worshipping in about half a dozen locations throughout the city. The remaining four are Honduran-based Christians: one missionary transplanted from Texas, and three translators.
We’re an even dozen souls, turned loose on the dirt roads and cow paths of Potrerillos, a community roughly a two-hour drive from the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa.
The Tuesday I meet Rosa begins with our team setting up a temporary clinic in a vacant building near the local United Methodist Church. The Potrerillos pastor, Jesus (hay-SOOS) Mendoza, has helped spread the word that we’re coming.
Each family patiently sits through a four-page assessment survey that consumes anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour of their time. Lots of questions. Each intended to help our church evaluate the ministry needs of the community. If our church determines there are needs we can help meet, we’ll likely settle in for the long haul, sending team after team and setting up ministry services that will continue for the next several years or longer.
By early afternoon the pace at the clinic slows. Many locals are up in the wooded hills cutting coffee, while mothers and the elderly stay home and care for the young children.
Some of us on the mission team bail out of the clinic to take our survey on the road.
I’m afraid we’ll be treated like door-to-door solicitors. I should have feared not. Throughout the week I will never be turned away. I will always be welcomed. Often the hosts will bring out a chair for me, if they have one. Some don’t.
Our team leader, campus pastor Molly Simpson, asks us to meet back at the clinic by about 5 p.m., since we start losing daylight at around 5:30. The most experienced translator in the group happens to be free at the moment: Luis Rios. He spent some of his growing-up years in Chicago. The two of us climb the dirt road toward the tiny Methodist church, which crowns a hill in cement blocks at a fork in the road. We follow the left fork down the hillside, crossing a tiny bridge over the mountain stream. There’s another nob of a hill ahead before we peel off the road to a path that leads into a tiny cluster of homes—some made of cement blocks, some of adobe plaster, some of mud and sticks.
Luis calls out a greeting: “Buenos.” He explains why we’ve come. We’re doing a survey to see how we can help the community—and we have some medical supplies, which I’m carrying in a brightly colored cloth bag.
After Luis and I work through a few surveys and distribute our supplies, we head back to the clinic. It’s approaching five o’clock. We’ll get back a tad early. Along the way we see a woman in a field. The property is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, common to the area. It helps keep the right critters in and the wrong critters out.
The woman is working near a small house made of mud and sticks. If we stop to work through the survey with her, we’ll return at least a little late. But perhaps not too late. We stop.
The lady, short and thin, waves us onto her property. Luis carefully opens the small gate. It’s made of a few sticks, lashed together in barbed wire.
Our host pulls a green plastic chair from inside her dark house. She lifts it off the dirt floor and sets it outside in the cooling afternoon breeze. It’s for me. I settle in and begin asking questions.
Name: Rosa. Age 42.
Children: Five. Two boys, ages 18, 14. Three girls, ages 12, 9, 3. One is a special needs child.
Husband: died four months ago—complications from alcoholism. The baby Rosa was carrying died a short time later.
Church: Methodist. Yet when I ask her to identify the pastor, she names the former one—not Pastor Jesus who arrived a few months ago from Nicaragua. It’s as though she stopped attending church after the death of her husband and baby.
Source of income: None. At least nothing steady. As I fill out the survey, her sons are walking home from a long day of cutting coffee beans up higher on the mountain. The coffee harvest—and the tiny income it offers—extends for only two to three months.
My wife overheard a chat between a local picker and missionary Cindy Ceballos, who is helping lead our team. Cindy asked how much he gets paid. Fifty cents per pound. Some pickers have to carry their own bag down the mountain—50 to 100 pounds worth $25 to $50 for a long day’s labor. For some, the day begins at 3 a.m., with a weary climb up the mountain.
One series of questions in my survey of Rosa’s family churns up a combination of answers that stagger me—like sucker punches to the gut. I read through a list of food. Rosa is supposed to tell me how often her family eats each item: daily, 2-3 times a week, once a week, once a month.
Frijoles (beans): daily
Corn tortillas: daily
Bread: never. Never? Our survey doesn’t have a category for that. I write it in.
Soft drinks: never
It’s tough writing that many nevers without crying. Yet there’s a question that I find even tougher. Translators say they hate asking it:
“Does your family have enough to eat?”
Usually, the family is standing right there. Sometimes the entire family. Often, I can see hesitation on the face of the mom or dad or grandparent answering this question. They seem conflicted. I wonder if they’re like most people I know—proud and hardworking. The kind of folks who wouldn’t want others to know they can’t adequately provide for their family.
Most say “yes.” Some qualify it: “yes, barely.” “yes, sometimes.”
Rosa says “no.”
The small dog that lives with them bears witness. More than any other dog I see during my visit, it most resembles a walking skeleton.
When Luis and I finish the survey, I give Rosa what I have to offer—pills, vitamins, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. One for each family member.
I almost reach into my pocket to take out the Snickers Marathon snack bar I’m carrying. But I don’t know how her children will tolerate the sugar content.
I leave, knowing they’re hungry.
But not before saying something I tell no one else among the dozens I survey. I have no idea where the words come from.
“I want you to know that I’ll tell the pastor your story. And I’ll make sure the pastor’s boss knows, too.”
What on earth am I thinking? They won’t even see the surveys. Our pastor will bring them home with us, to study in the States.
Perhaps thinking on earth has nothing to do with it.
How to get to the pastor’s boss
Missionary Cindy, who shuttles us the mile between our sleeping quarters and the clinic, accidentally locks her keys in the van that day.
The only person available to drive two hours from the capital city to bring the extra keys is the pastor’s boss—district superintendent Rev. Juan Guerrero. He arrives that evening. I meet him in the dining center.
“Juan,” he says, introducing himself to each of us.
Our team has already eaten supper, but we saved a plate for him.
Most of the team leaves to go shopping for more medical supplies in a town down the mountain; that’s because after only two days we’re already running low. Several of us stay with Juan, including Pastor Molly and Luis—who will translate the conversation that’s coming.
I sit across the table from Juan, closer to him than anyone else. Like Pastor Jesus, Juan is new at his job. He moved here from Colombia in December. So I ask him what he thinks he’ll be doing as a superintendent, besides making deliveries to missionaries who lock their keys in their car.
He chuckles. He says that one thing on his to-do list is to provide companionship for pastors because many are lonely. I had met Pastor Jesus earlier in the week, so I know that he works two churches—one down the mountain in a town with paved streets, and this one many miles up a dirt road. His transportation is a bicycle.
“Pastor Jesus wouldn’t be so lonely,” I said, “if you got him a motorcycle.”
A quick wit, Juan replies, “Riding a bicycle is good for the cholesterol.”
Ours is a pleasant talk. Until I mention Rosa.
I tell him about the food list, and about having to repeatedly write in the word “never.”
When I start to tell him about Rosa’s answer to the hard question, my voice breaks. It won’t work anymore.
It does that when I cry. There’s a joke about people who can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. I can’t cry and talk. That’s just the way it is.
“Sorry,” I whisper, as I wait for my voice to return. I look up at him. He’s staring at the table. Pastor Molly is crying silently. Luis looks intent, sharply focused.
“All I wanted to do,” I say, “was go out and buy her some groceries. Get her some food.”
Juan’s reply rattles me with his first phrase.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” he begins. “But she shouldn’t know where her help comes from. She should know only that it comes from her church family.” He says that even Pastor Jesus would have to be careful to let her know that any gift she gets doesn’t come from him, either.
“Si,” I say. I absolutely agree.
A bag of groceries, however, won’t solve Rosa’s problem for more than a day or two.
Rosa had an instant answer for the survey question about that. When I asked her how the church might help her, she said she could use their help in building a house. She’s renting the tiny mud house she lives in now.
Back to Rosa’s
Pastor Jesus returns on Thursday morning. He will work with our team all day and then lead a worship service in the church that afternoon. He tells us that Rosa’s story sounds like that of a woman he has heard of in the church—a woman who became depressed. The church had bought her family a plot of land—for $50. But she couldn’t afford to do anything with it. So she lived on rented property.
When we pull out the survey and tell Pastor Jesus her last name, he confirms it. Rosa is that woman.
Pastor Jesus agrees to walk with me to her house. Luis the translator comes, too. I ask Pastor Molly to join us, and she does. She brings along a brightly colored church bag with some tortillas and cheese she saved from lunch. We add some power bars from the stash of supplies for our team. We’ll give Rosa everything, including the bag.
Rosa recognizes Luis and me.
She welcomes all of us, pulling out both of her green, plastic chairs. She invites Pastor Molly and me to sit.
Luis translates for me.
“I promised you that I’d tell the pastor and his boss your story. I want you to know that I’ve done that. I spoke with his supervisor the night I talked with you. And now I want to make sure you meet the pastor.”
Pastor Jesus spoke briefly to Rosa. I don’t know what he said. It didn’t seem appropriate to add a translation hindrance to such a personal conversation between a troubled lady and her pastor—not for the sake of English-speaking visitors.
Pastor Molly, who speaks a little Spanish, reads aloud a couple of verses from Pastor Jesus’ Spanish Bible:
“The Lord is a place of safety for those who have been beaten down. He keeps them safe in times of trouble. Lord, those who know you will trust in you. You have never deserted those who look to you” (Psalms 9:9-10, NIRV).
I ask Rosa a dumb question. Journalists do that. We’ve got to get the answers on the record, even when we know what the answers are.
“With the income that your sons bring into the household, are you able to save up enough money to buy supplies to build a house on your property?”
“No,” Luis translates. “She says it takes everything they have to survive.”
I ask what rent she pays. Two hundred Lempira a month: $10, at the going exchange rate.
As I stand to leave, I make Rosa a promise: “We’re going to be praying that God provides a way for you to get a house.”
Pastor Molly adds a request, “You and your family have touched our hearts. May I take a picture of you?”
Rosa agrees. Holding a suddenly wailing three-year-old, Rosa stands beside me and Luis and Pastor Jesus, while Pastor Molly captures a few fleeting moments on video—the only images I have of this stranger who has captured my heart.
Our mission team gathers for worship in the church at 3:40. I sit in the back and videotape the small room. Five rows of pews—two on each side of a narrow aisle. Four Americans per pew would quality as a tight pack. Each pew would comfortably seat three.
Sometime just before the service begins, and without me noticing, a little woman wearing her hair in a bun sneaks in. She sits in the second row on the other side of the aisle. Her two youngest daughters sit with her.
Pastor Jesus begins the worship service with prayer and songs sung to a guitar he’s strumming. He sings with his eyes closed.
His sermon is short, visual, and on target for the 20-30 souls in the room—Americans and Hondurans, alike. He tells the story of Jesus sleeping in the boat while a storm rages and his disciples grow terrified.
“We face storms, too,” Luis translates for Pastor Jesus. “And sometimes we think Jesus is asleep, paying no attention to us. We need to remember that Jesus is in the boat with us.”
I glance up at Rosa during Pastor Jesus’ closing prayer. Her eyes are shut. Her head is bowed. And her face lies upon her folded hands. I don’t believe that her mind is here. She looks as though she’s somewhere else, talking or listening.
The service ends and Rosa files out with the others. As she does, she looks back and catches my eye. I smile. She takes another step or two. There’s another look. Again I smile. And she’s gone.
Her face is frozen in my memory. It’s the look of “What next?”
Swear in front of the pastor
That evening, Pastor Molly leads the team devotional. She asks us to read something together, out loud. It’s “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition.” She wants to know if any phrase jumps out at us.
The prayer reads like this:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
To thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
I don’t want to open my mouth. I know what will happen if I do.
Others speak. I keep quiet. For several minutes. No more.
“Let me be full, let me be empty,” I read.
“I am full and they are empty,” I say, beginning to sob. “And I’ll be damned to hell if I don’t do something about it.”
I don’t mean I think God will send me to hell if I go home and forget all about this. What I mean is, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anybody keep me from helping.” But the pastor’s sitting six feet in front of me, and that sounds too much like swearing. So I edit myself.
“I can’t let go of this,” I tell the team, “because it won’t let go of me.”
Everyone knows I’m talking about Rosa’s story. And everyone in my line of sight is fighting tears, too.
One member of the team, a physician named Joe, leans forward and looks directly at me.
“You’ve accomplished something, Steve. You got her to church.”
That hasn’t occurred to me. I’m so focused on what I need to do that I miss what God has already done.
Rosa has, in fact, taken the first step back to reconnecting with the very people who can help her most. Yet even as Joe speaks, I’m feeling an unearthly passion to do something more.
I’m afraid the team might think I’ve shifted to some kind of fundraising mode. So I assure them that I don’t expect anyone else to feel what I’m feeling.
“It’s me God put on that dirt trail two days ago. It’s me who sat in that plastic chair in front of her mud home. It’s me who walked away when she and her family were still hungry.”
I look down at my hands and see one of my contact lens on the tip of a finger.
“Crap,” I say right out loud, in front of the lady pastor. “I’ve never cried out a contact before.” I leave the room and switch my contacts for glasses.
The next morning I take the first step toward getting a house for Rosa. I don’t want to ask Pastor Molly about it because I don’t want to put any pressure on her. She’s had a tough year raising money for a church building; we’ve been meeting in a school for four years, and our congregation needs a home, too.
But Pastor Molly’s dad, Kip, is fair game.
He’s on our team. And he’s active on committees at the main campus, instead of at the outlying campus where Molly pastors and where I attend. I ask Kip were I should start. He suggests I start with the missionary, Cindy. We’re in this community partly because the mission folks are wondering if this is an area they need to target.
If they agree it is—and based on what we’ve seen throughout the week, I’m expecting they will—perhaps they’ll point me to people with the tools and skills for building a house.
Cindy shocks me with her reply.
Luis the translator has a summer job. He leads youth teams that build brick and cement block homes for needy people. Especially for people like Rosa: single mothers with a big family and no regular income.
I ask Luis about it. His organization, the Sierra Service Project, often teams up with the Methodist Church. So I shouldn’t have to fight the battle of plowing new ground.
Luis says his young builders follow a simple floor plan. They build a cement block house, some seven meters square with a couple of side rooms, a metal roof, electrical wiring, plumbing, and an indoor toilet. Rosa’s house has no toilet, inside or outside.
Luis says they could probably add a laundry facility like those common in the region. The main feature looks something like a cement sink with a built-in cement scrubbing board.
I’ve paid that much for a computer.
What I need to do is get the approval of the organization’s board.
But I also need the support of Pastor Jesus.
Now it’s Luis’ turn to shock me. He says that while we were all walking away from Rosa’s house yesterday, Pastor Jesus told him it would be wonderful if someone could find a way to fund a house for Rosa.
Perhaps I should have said, “Luis, you’re looking Wonderful in the face.”
But all I was feeling—and still am feeling—is anxious.
If the people who know Rosa best agree with what I sense God’s Spirit is trying to hammer into my head—that Rosa needs a house—I want nothing more than to help work out the details.
Back to America
I’m home now. A beautiful home.
Luis writes me on Monday, January 24. He tells me he sent his boss, Rick Eaton, an email explaining my desire to help Rosa. Luis wrote, “We will actually be talking about the projects for this year on Thursday the 27th. I already gave him your contact info as well, so I just need to wait and see if he will contact you or how it could work better for you to communicate!”
Rick calls me on Thursday afternoon. Thumbs up, so far.
But they need to check on several things first:
- Teams. They need enough youth to sign up for the teams this summer. Rick says he doesn’t anticipate a problem.
- Land. Rick needs to confirm that Rosa owns the land.
- Local approval. Rick wants to involve the locals, to make sure Rosa is the one who should get this first house.
- Missionary approval. Rick wants to check in with Cindy and her husband David.
I know Cindy is willing. So is the local pastor. As for the rest, I’m still waiting.
Good Lord willing, perhaps sometime soon Pastor Jesus will be able to ask Rosa if it’s okay for her church family to build her a house. Maybe, too, Pastor Jesus can lead the local congregation in throwing her a house-warming party, Honduran-style.
I think that would go a long way toward convincing Rosa that what Pastor Molly read to her from the Bible isn’t fiction:
“Lord . . . . You have never deserted those who look to you.”
A final note: Volunteer mission teams built Rosa a house later that summer. Several people who had heard Rosa’s story decided to help pay for the home, though I never asked anyone for it. Luis arranged for the house-warming party. I wanted to go, but sometimes it’s best to celebrate from a distance. I think Juan would have approved.
Copyright 2011 Stephen M. Miller