Who am I?

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Monrovia, Liberia
I live in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa with my wife and youngest son. We are recently arrived in Liberia where we are serving as missionaries with Evangelical Church Missions working under the Liberia Evangelical Mission. For most of the last thirty years we have served under ECM in Bolivia, South America. We are the happy parents of four children and the proud grandparents of two grandchildren.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Good Things Come In Three's

When thinking what to write about it came to me that three good things happened this last week. Maybe none of them in themselves are terribly exciting but put together they helped make one good week.

1. My birthday. September 24 was my 55th birthday. Niki fixed all my favorite foods for supper - fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots, biscuits and salad. For dessert she fixed a really great cherry pie and black bottom pie as well. So what could have been better. Maybe pie for an appetizer? Wait, that's exactly what happened. About an hour before dinner time I got a phone call. "Pastor can I come visit for a little bit?" Now I knew it was getting close to dinner and I kind of thought that there was company coming (although I didn't know exactly who) so at first I tried to discourage him a bit but soon decided that this was a visit to bring birthday greetings. And sure enough. Just a few minutes before dinner time the doorbell rang and there were seven hermanos at the door with a lemon pie, bottle of juice and a whole lot of birthday wishes. So we ate lemon pie and drank juice. Quite a good appetizer I'd say. I wonder how I could get that again tonight . . .

2. 24 de Septiembre. Every department in Bolivia has its own anniversary which are usually celebrated with as much gusto or more than Bolivian independence day. Santa Cruz Day is, that's right, September 24 which just happens to also be my birthday. I tell the hermanos that I am a real cruzeño. The day is celebrated with a lot of things (some things not too positive - lots of booze) but among other things many of the schools have special activities to mark the day. I was doing something earlier in the week in the house when I thought I heard drums. I went out into the street to see what was happening and sure enough there was a parade practice going on. Around the corner from our house is a guardaría (day care). They were out practicing for their Santa Cruz Day March. The day of the march was on Thursday and the kids were all decked out in special dress in honor of Santa Cruz.

The guaradía had borrowed a band from a nearby school.

The kids marched behind the band.

Then a short ceremony was performed. The Santa Cruz hymn was played.

A little guy read a poem in honor of Santa Cruz. A young girl sang part of the song Viva Santa Cruz.

All in all it was quite fun and heartening to see that even little children can be taught to be grateful for their country.

3. District junta. On Sunday was the third quarter district junta for the churches in Santa Cruz. It was held at a church with no bathroom and a building that only holds 40 or so people. I wondered why they were doing this. I was asked to teach the children, something I have not done for quite a long time. So I put together the story of Nebuchadnezzar and how he had to learn that God is supreme over nations, gods and people. The kids were fairly attentive (there were over 70 of them) and the helpers helped. And I learned a new Bolivian game. It was a hot day and not nearly enough shade but we had water for everyone.

When all was said and done it was a very good junta in spite of the limited facilities. Maybe someday I will finally learn that those things are not nearly as important as I tend to think them to be.

Good things come in three's. Thank God that they do and did. (I suppose that I could mention other things as well like winning three games of Settlers of Catan but that's another story.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tooth Brushes, Kids and Youth

Why should you brush your teeth? Because if you don't "Those Icky Sticky Smelly Cavity-Causing but ...Invisible Germs" will get you. that was the message I tried to give the kids at the House of Prayer church following Sunday School. It is a sad fact that in Bolivia lots of kids have mouths that are full of rotten teeth, in many cases simply because they do not brush their teeth. When the work team from Fort Valley, Georgia brought a bunch of child sized tooth brushes and toothpaste samples with them to give out to children I was very happy. So this one Sunday I read to the kids at church a story about brushing your teeth,

then demonstrated to them the correct technique

 and gave them all tooth brushes and toothpaste.

It was a lot of fun. Thank you Fort Valley for making these smiles possible!

This last Sunday I was invited to go out to where our district youth leadership were having a one day retreat for prayer and study getting ready for the upcoming district youth camp here in Santa Cruz. I was invited to teach on the topic of spiritual warfare. Another invited pastor also taught on the related subject of spiritual beings.

The spot they chose was maybe an hour from town up the river. We found a shady spot (as long as we kept moving with it) along the fence of a cow pasture in which to sit down.

The time was spent in singing, sharing, questions, teaching and prayer.

I am thankful for the quality of youth leadership we have in the district and give thanks to God for their commitment to him and to the work that he has called them to.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hebrews 13:3

I am going to prison. This will be my first time to be inside Palmasola, the main prison in Santa Cruz. I am going with the pastor of the church, and, it turns out, with some others as well, to visit the husband of one of the young mothers in the church. I am not sure why he is in prison. I only know that he has been in for several months. It really doesn't matter. I am going half out of curiosity and half out of the desire to meet him.

We arrive at the prison somewhere around nine in the morning. There is already a line at the gate waiting to get in. I go to the line of men along with the other three brothers from the church. The ladies and children get in on of the two lines made up of women. The wind is blowing like crazy and I feel as though I am being sand-blasted in preparation for a new coat of paint. The line gets longer but no one is allowed inside. The word filters out (I don't know if it is true or not) that the delay in admitting visitors is because there is a prisoner unaccounted for. And so we wait. But Bolivians do not always wait patiently. There is the usual chorus of complaints and demands that the gate be opened. Every now and then a car arrives and the gate opens to admit it. Finally the first visitors are allowed inside. Only a small number are admitted at a time. I find out that it really does not matter. Once you are inside the gate you continue to wait in a line. Outside there is the shade of the wall. Inside there is sun so it is better to be outside than in. Finally I am getting close to the gate. But when it is opened and my group starts to go in a rush of other people cut into the line and I am left behind along with one of the brothers. I have a bit of a sinking feeling only because I do not know what I am supposed to do once I get through the gate. I am finally admitted. I hurry inside and find the next line that I am to get into. I think it has been about two hours of waiting so far.

The inside line is routed through a small office. Before entering the office I am frisked by a policeman and have to empty my pockets and show my wallet. "How much money are you bringing to the prison?" I am asked by the guard. "Not much," I respond. It is now my turn to enter the office. I show my ID card. Also I am asked if this is my first time to visit the prison. Yes. Who am I visiting? The brother with me responds. And, he adds, he is in area number 4. How do we know that since we are first time visitors, the guard demands. The brother again responds by explaining that we were given the information by another. I am told to stretch out my arm. I am stamped with the guard's stamp and then he writes two numbers on my arm with magic marker, one showing where I am authorized to go and the other showing what number my name is on his list. I am told I can go. I walk out through the back door of the office into the courtyard of the prison. It is big, a lot bigger than it seems from outside.

The first thing I see is a huge empty lot with horses running around in it.  I spot the others from the church and join them. We are the last ones through and they have been waiting for us. Now we begin to walk to the area where we can visit. Off to one side we see a chain link fence with barbed wire on top. It is the women's section. There are children and women, some who are calling to us through the fence to give them an orange. On the other side of the field we see another huge solid wall, much like the outside wall of the prison. It is the maximum security area. We are not going there. We continue to walk and we pass the kitchen and a patch that looks to be mostly weeds but has a sign in it declaring it to be an organic garden.

We finally arrive at the entrance to the part of the prison where we will be visiting. I am searched again, my ID card taken from me and another stamp and number written on my arm. Then I am admitted.

The first thing I see turns out to be the market area of the prison. Here there are restaurants, a pool hall and other establishments that I was unable to identify. It is mostly young men that I see out in the street. We continue walking past this to go to area 4. The ground is cemented and fairly clean. There are no obvious guards in sight. I past inmates who are displaying their wares for sale. There are drawings, cars made out of pop bottles, wooden trucks and cars, watches, and other items for sale. Sort of like a tourist market, I say to myself. At last we come to area 4. As we walk through the gate the first thing I see is the front of a large building with the name, Living Hope Church, painted on it. From inside I hear the sounds of a band practicing. We sit down on the porch of the church while an inmate goes to find "Mario" (not his real name), the husband of the young woman from church. In a few minutes he arrives, a very pleasant young man. (I later find out he is 27 years old.) He is very hapy to see us and greets us like old friends although we have never met before. He also greets his wife and two sons who are also in our group. He is obviously happy to see them. His wife smiles broadly and the older son stands close to his father.

Our new friend begins to explain to us that there are three or four churches in the prison. This particular one is preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary the next day. I see young men painting window sills on the church. He takes us inside. We sit down and listen as the band finishes its practice. Our friend tells us how his life has changed. Upon entering the prison alcohol was about to destroy him. But through the ministry of the church he has come to know Jesus and his life has changed. Another believer joins us and shares his testimony. "Outside I was a prisoner," he says, "but in here I am free." He too was saved through the ministry of the church. Eventually we meet the pastor of the church as well. He, too, is a prisoner. I don't ask if he was a pastor before entering prison or was chosen to pastor the church by the brothers. Our friend tells us that there are around 200 believers now that attend this church.

We pass the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon visiting in the church. We then go to one of the restaurants to eat lunch with three of the inmates. The food is good and probably a step up from the normal fare.

It finally becomes time to leave. (There are set times for entering and leaving. Once you are in you stay until the set time for leaving.)   As we were leaving the church one of the brothers calls out "Hebrews 13:3."  Our friend walks us to the gate and we say good bye. I have to show my arm to get through the gate. I retrieve my ID card and we head back to the main gate. There I re-enter the office through the back door and have another mark put on my arm to show that I have been checked out. I leave, amazed at what I have seen. I remember what the one brother said. "Outside I was a prisoner. In here I am free." I feel that I will be back. Now that I know the reality of Palmasola I cannot simply put it out of my mind.

Pray for Mario and the Living Hope Church. Pray for its pastor and the believers who worship there. Pray for many other lives that need to be touched. And pray for me to know how to respond to what I have seen.