Fifteen years ago today, I became a missionary in Guatemala.
October 1st, 2002 we boarded a plane from New Orleans to Guatemala, the start of a journey that would change our lives forever. I was 20 years old, had been married for three years, had two daughters, and didn’t speak hardly a word of Spanish.
The plan was to go and serve for three months with some missionaries we knew. For several years we had been going on mission trips to Central America, working with a ministry out of New Orleans called Cheer Up Missions. We had been to Honduras, Belize and El Salvador, and now Guatemala awaited.
Prior to my first trip to Honduras in 1999, I had never been to a “3rd”world country. After helping to load containers of humanitarian aid and wheelchairs for people affected by Hurricane Mitch, I decided it was time for me to go on a mission trip. While sitting on the plane the team leader told me that since I didn’t speak Spanish, and wasn’t part of the Gospel Clown shows they would be doing, I would be Santa Clause. At 120 pounds I was a little light, but with the help of a few pillows the next day, I was ready to climb onto a 20ft float, drive across town in 100 degree heat while waving and saying “Feliz Navidad”, and present gifts to hundreds of children who had lost their homes and were living in shelters.
I remember clearly when one of the kids came on stage to get a gift, tugged my beard half off and promptly yelled that Santa was a Gringo. Another kid wanted to sit on my lap and proceeded to pee, but seeing the smiles and joy in the children’s eyes, children who had lost everything and were so grateful to be receiving a Christmas present, had a profound impact on me.
For some reason, I kept making mission trips.
It was in late 2001, after I found out I was losing my job due to fallout from 9/11, and was visiting with my in-laws in New Orleans for Thanksgiving, that we were invited to go serve in Guatemala. We were sitting around the table after the meal, and some missionaries were sharing about the work they were doing, and how they needed help. For some reason I told them that I had been pink-slipped and was trying to figure out what to do, when they said “Why don’t you come down to Guatemala?” I don’t know what came over me, but for some reason I said yes. We had done week long mission trips, so why not three months.
Looking back, I can only say that the Holy Spirit influenced me, I didn’t even ask my wife or consider the fact that we would have baby that was only a few months old. If I had been older and wiser, I probably wouldn’t have “known better”, but in that moment I said yes.
The next 10 months were full of challenges, relocating back to New Orleans, getting temporary work, the birth of our second child, dealing with her health complications in the first few months of her life, and finally just going ahead and buying the tickets, regardless of how ready we felt.
The day of the flight came, and 10 minutes before getting in the car to head to the airport, I got a call from my grandmother. We were staying with my in-laws and where she got the number from I will never know. She had never called me in my life! I would call her on her birthday and Christmas, but that was it.
She was not a believer, in fact she still is an atheist. So when she asked me what we were up to and I responded that we were heading to the airport to do mission work in Guatemala, her reaction was less than enthusiastic. She promptly offered me a house to stay in for free, assistance with college and anything else I might need, if only I would not go to Guatemala.
Needless to say, it was a tempting offer. I remember telling her thank you, and that I would call her in three months when I got done with being a missionary. Needless to say, that call never happened.
We arrived in Guatemala late at night after almost missing the connecting flight in El Salvador. The missionaries who had invited us were there to pick us up, and as we drove through the traffic and chaos of Guatemala City, I never could have imagined that this is where I would dedicate my life to serving the orphaned and fatherless. Traffic, pollution, cement walls, barbed wires, and poverty everywhere, it didn’t really appeal to me, but I knew that God had brought me here, and I was going to give it my best shot.
As the days flew by, little by little I started to see the people as people. As I talked to them and heard their stories I saw lives in need of the comfort and hope that is only found in the Gospel. Slowly but surely a change began to come over me. It wasn’t based on passion, love or “a call” to service, it was grounded in a conviction that Christ had already called me along with every other Christian to a life of service to those in need, that the heart that He had for the for the orphaned, downtrodden and vulnerable was filled with love and compassion, and there was work for me here, if I would just say “Yes”.
A key moment for us was when I realized that our return flight was coming up and, the airline wouldn’t let us change the date without a big fee. I remember praying and telling God that if he could do a miracle and help us to change the date on the tickets, for free, then I would take it as confirmation that he wanted us to stay.
I went down to the airport and was promptly told that there was nothing they could do for me. However, the missionary who was accompanying me suggested we head to the airlines main office to talk to a manager. Upon getting there and explaining that my wife and I had come here to volunteer for a few months, but upon seeing a need that was so great we were committing to serving long term and wanted to postpone our return flights. The manager asked me for my tickets, checked something on the computer and told me that I could pick any date I wanted and she would be happy to change our tickets at no cost in appreciation for the work we would be doing.
I remember walking out of there with a sense of confidence that I had felt few times in my life. Even though we had no support, I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know exactly where or how we would serve, we had said yes to God.
To be honest, I didn’t have a precise moment when I felt “the call”, I had simply accepted The Call that is given to all followers of Christ when Jesus himself said in Matthew 28:19 to go and make disciples of all nations, reinforced by the His words in John 14:15 that if I love Him I will keep His commandments, and clarified further by James when he tells us that caring for the orphaned is on par with pursuing a life free from sin.
I came to the conclusion that being a missionary isn’t a calling, it’s an answer.
The first few years we struggled trying to figure out just where we fit in. The missionaries who had invited us down, ended up leaving after a few months. I knew that I wanted to have an impact in serving vulnerable children, but didn’t know how to go about it. What started as birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese for kids from orphanages, trying to bring them a measure of happiness, led to us serving one particular group of 12 girls at a small orphanage run by a single mom with a disabled son.
I worked hard at getting other missionaries involved, but finally accepted that God had called me, and I had said yes, therefore it was my job to serve them regardless of whether or not anyone else did, and so we did, walking alongside them all these years.
It has been quite a journey! I remember when I started out serving orphans it wasn’t that I didn’t know anything about serving them, but it was that so much of what I knew was wrong. My assumption was that simply throwing time, money and good intentions at the problems these kids were facing, was enough. Thankfully, God saw our heart and honored our efforts. We made mistakes, we learned from them and tried to be intentional about finding the best ways to serve those God had brought us to, as a result our ministries have continued to grow.
Looking at where were are now, running a community center in the slums of the city which serves over 125 children and their families, a daycare for the profoundly disabled, vocational training programs that serve orphans, the many children that we have discipled and the many ministries we have assisted over the years. I find myself looking back at how we got here, and I’m reminded that it came down to one key thing, we had to say yes, not to a call, but to The Call.
By the grace of God, we did and I am amazed at all that has been accomplished by God, for God, through God and for His Kingdom.