Thursday, August 30, 2007

Want to meet me?

A question came recently on my "contact me" page that perhaps some of you have wondered as well, so I'm posting my response...

August 21, 2007 11:25 AM, Janet O'Berry wrote:

"Rachel, I've just discovered your blog (love it) and was wondering if the Spiritual Makeover Retreat in April is open to the public. If it is, how can I get more information? What I've read from you, combined with the title of the retreat, sounds like something wonderful to attend."

Most of the events I speak at are open to the public, so if ever you see one happening near you just ask me for details on how to attend. Some events, however, are closed to the public for various reasons, and that decision is made by the event coordinators rather than me. Most events are free to attend. Some require advanced registration and some have a ticket price - typically because food is served, or it's being held at an overnight retreat space. I've known women to travel from hours away to attend an event they heard I or one of my teammates will be at (which is really sweet of them) and I've noticed the event coordinators are usually thrilled to have them! So just contact me and I'll put you in touch with the right people to attend.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ecuador - meet my sponsor child Mauricio

(continued account of my trip)

SATURDAY EVENING - That afternoon, all the kids that P31 gals sponsor through Compassion were bussed in to the project where we were so we could meet them. I was SO excited about this aspect of the trip. I couldn't wait to meet the 6 year old boy our family had chosen! One by one they brought children off the bus and introduced them to their sponsors. It touched me to watch each of my teammates meeting their sponsor child for the first time. My anticipation built and built ... until I could tell there was only one child left, and she was not a boy. Turns out, due to a family emergency, Mauricio's parents weren't able to get him to the bus in time. I tried to be "a big girl" in response to this news, but my heart sank. The dedicated Compassion team quickly assured me they were trying to arrange a visit for later at the hotel.

Emotionally exhausted, we got back to the hotel around 4:00 pm and I was told to rest in my room until they called me. Mauricio was suppose to arrive at 5:00. Five o'clock came and went, as did 5:10, 5:15, 5:20 ... I finally just put the whole thing in God's hands through prayer. At 5:30 the phone rang and down I went to meet him. OM MY GOODNESS this little boy is something else! He's got a great personality, very outgoing, and quite smart too. His parents are young but understand the importance of his education. They have a vision for his life and are doing all they can to help him get farther along than they have. His dad told me, "My father tried to tell me to work hard in school and I didn't listen... now I understand why he always told me that. I'm teaching Mauricio to focus on school."

I think I fell in love with his mother, father and grandfather as much as I did Mauricio!

I'd brought Mauricio some gifts - some clothes, an I SPY book, a soccer ball and some bubbles among other things. He loved the bubbles. I'd blow them and he'd try to pop them or eat them. Bubbles are fun in any language - a universal toy. But we were sloshing bubble juice all over this 5-star hotel lobby so we headed to the indoor pool area. Mauricio was able to change into some shorts I'd brought him and swim in the pool. This was huge for him, he'd only swam in a pool one other time in his life and it was not indoors. But he knew just what to do and set about imitating the motions of free-style swimming. I kept waiting for him to give up on the trying to swim thing and just splash and play in the shallow end. Not Mauricio, he was determined to swim! Later, with a little encouragement from me, he jumped off the side into the pool at the shallow end - his father gasped and grabbed his heart. Smiles. The father was also amazed by the indoor plants and waterfall, I don't think he'd ever seen a fancy hotel like this. Mauricio was too busy trying to swim like a pro to notice.

His grandfather is from the rain forest interior of the country. He'd had a farm there but had to sell all the animals to come to the city to have an abdominal operation. He told me he wants to find work in the city because he knows "the value of work." Mauricio's father (26 yrs old) meanwhile, has found some work cleaning office buildings in the city so he can afford the $100-a-month two-room apartment the family lives in. His mother (a beautiful 22 yr old) sometimes finds work as a maid while Mauricio is in school.

After his swim, Mauricio's mother got him back into dry clothes and we all rode the glass elevator, which overlooks the city, to the top floor. He had not been in a glass elevator before (I don't think any of them had) and he held onto the handrail with white knuckles while grinning from ear to ear. This was like an amusement park to him. When we arrived back at the lobby it was time for tearful goodbyes. His parents wanted to know when would I be back in Ecuador. I figured odds were low that I'd be able to return, but I didn't have the heart to say that. They were wanting to see me again. So I simply said, "I don't know when, but I hope it's soon."

I want to see them again too. I could save up enough money to make a return trip, but I could also take that saved money and donate it to him through Compassion and he'd be better off than if I just flew down there and blew bubbles with him.

Then again, I've come to realize in Ecuador,
relationships mean a lot more to people than money.
After waving them goodbye, I walked back into the lobby full of roses with a heart full of thanksgiving and joy. What a day - thank you, Compassion Int. and thank you, God.

Please pray for "my" Mauricio and his family.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ecuador - 1st home visit, true hospitality

SATURDAY AFTERNOON: A cool thing about Compassion International is that they partner with local churches in the countries they work in. Every Compassion project is connected to a church and the program is staffed through that church, and supervised by Compassion. All kids in the program are required to attend Sunday church. This project I was visiting the first day was a Salvation Army church. I was so impressed by the young pastor, and his wife who ran the Compassion program. I was equally impressed by the young man who oversaw this project, along with a few other Compassion projects in the area - he had been a Compassion sponsored kid himself!

The next thing we did was join the kids in their classrooms where they were drawing pictures to go with the Bible story they'd just heard. I sat down in the small chairs to talk and color with them. These kids ranged in age from 6-8 and I was immediately impressed with their perfect cursive handwriting. I've homeschooled my children for years and these kids wrote better than my own! The kids and I took turns exchanging names, discussing colors and names of colors in English and Spanish, and writing their names in cursive, print and my speciality: bubble letters. One little girl wrote that she was feeling hungry on her paper and I wondered how much food, if any, she'd had that day. We talked about what kinds of foods we each liked. They'd never heard of pizza, but they did know french fries. Little Maria shook her head no at the mention of french fries, saying that she likes to eat only healthy food. About an hour later I was thrilled to help serve the children a hot nutritious lunch of roasted chicken, rice, and peas and carrots.

While the children were eating in their classrooms, we embarked on home visits to some of the families in the project area. Leann, Carrie and I visited a family with four children. They had one of the larger homes in the area. They'd lived there 22 years and it started out as one room with no electricity, which they added on to. Now it had 4 rooms, cement walls and floors and some exposed electrical wiring. I was surprised by how willingly they gave us a tour when we inquired how many rooms it had. They shooed the chickens out of the kitchen and happily gave us a tour. It had a stove, a kitchen table and chairs, a few extra chairs, a desk and beds. It was humble by our standards, but clean. She did not seem embarrassed at all by her extremely modest home - something I would find echoed by everyone I met that weekend. Over and over again I'd be told, "Whenever you come to Ecuador, my home is your home and you are welcome here." For them hospitality is a state of mind and heart, not a state of home or menu.

Hum... I think of all the times I didn't invite someone over, or offer a tour of my home, because it was messy or I felt my home was lacking in size or presentation.

Two of the family's older children who were Compassion-sponsored showed us their prized possessions: the notebooks they kept ALL the correspondence and pictures they'd ever received from their sponsor families. It still chokes me up thinking about how much they treasured this. I thought, if only the sponsoring families could know how much their letters and photos mean to these kids! They had both created scrap books to display them in.

The boy's sponsors were a family from California who would take pictures of the family for him whenever they went on vacation. So as they saw the world, so to speak, so did he. They also sent pictures of the their pets and wrote him frequent letters. I noticed they had sent him a page of stickers, which remained in tact in his notebook. I wondered if he didn't know they were stickers but he said yes he knew, he just wanted to save them rather than waste them by using them. This was probably a nickel's worth of stickers from Walmart. When asked what he wanted to do when he grows up, he told us he wanted to be an engineer ... while looking through the notebook we learned the father in his sponsor family is an engineer. What an impact.

I prayed over the family before we left. Tears fell continually and uncontrollably from the corners of my closed eyes as I spoke. Visiting them was not at all depressing, though they were economically depressed. My time with them was moving and emotional but not depressing because they were so joyful and loving. I learned the mother had been working in the Compassion project at the church, and she and her family were mentored by the staff there. Perhaps that was the source of their joy - they were nurtured and growing in their relationship with Christ. Their smiles, the inside of their home, and those treasured scrapbooks of sponsor letters are seared in my memory forever.

  • This is the family with us outside their home: the mother and father on the left with Leann, then Carrie and I in the middle, the two Compassion-sponsored children on the right, and the two youngest front and center looking cute as can be.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Me and Johnny

Johnny was the very first boy I met at the first project I visited in Ecuador.
He took my hand and walked me into the church.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ecuador, the first morning

Continuing account of Ecuador trip with Compassion Intl. & P31 Ministries:
(again, sorry for the length of these posts)

SATURDAY MORNING: We woke Saturday at 6:00 am, and the first thing I did was open the curtains to see the city. Off-white, mostly-square-with-flat-roof buildings stretched out and up the mountain side in every direction I could see. The very tops of the mountains, however, were unpopulated and bright green without trees. Morning patches of fog floated about the city, later to burn off. I can tell you that there was not a single place I went in my entire time in Ecuador that didn't have an amazing view. However, most of the buildings wound up looking better from a distance.

The shower had the strongest water pressure of anywhere I've been - loved that. We dressed in layers, packed our tote bags with plenty of hand sanitizer, sunscreen, and some gifts for the kids, and headed to the hotel restaurant for breakfast.

I forgot to mention in my last post that when we arrived at the hotel Friday night, they had a tray of cold juices awaiting us - one red juice and one white. The white one looked like a pina-colada, which intrigued me so I tried it. Yum! It was made from a local fruit that we do not have. Sweet, cool, tropical and refreshing. The next morning at the breakfast buffet I found it again, along with a stunning array of fresh juices: various melon juices, papaya juice, mango juice, pineapple juice, watermelon juice, etc. And just as many selections of fresh fruit. There were lots of other offerings but I made my breakfast most days of yogurt with granola and fresh fruit. Oh and the coffee ("cafe con leche") was delish. There were no Starbucks in Quito, but their local coffees were very good.

With full bellies we boarded the bus to head to Compassion project EC-108 "El Rancho." The bus took us up winding roads into the steep hillside. I talked with Paul, the photographer with the cutest dimples you could imagine, who was sitting across the aisle from me. We had both been to journalism school and he was a freelance photojournalist. He'd been on other mission trips like this one and said Quito looked a lot like Mexico City. We noticed that the wealthier folks live in the valley close to the city center and the less wealthy live on the outskirts up on the hills overlooking the city. I didn't see a single house I would deem a "rich home" the entire time I was there - but surely there are some somewhere.

As we rode, I faced Paul across the aisle from me. My back was to the mountain side. Over his shoulder I could see the city and tell that this winding mountain road we were on ended just a couple feet from the edge of our tires. There were no guard rails either. I'm not afraid of heights and I love roller coasters but honestly I was getting a little nervous and could feel my heart dropping into my stomach. As cute as Paul's dimples were, I had to force myself to look at them and quit looking past his shoulder where certain doom loomed large over the edge of that cliff! After a while, the roads turned from old pavement to dirt, with many potholes. I honestly don't know how they drove this bus through that area. We bumped and bounced in our seats, periodically tossed to one side or the other as we made sharp turns around shabby buildings and finally stopped in front of a cement structure with dozens of smiling children lined up out front to greet us. My heart dropped once again as I stared out at the children and surroundings

As I stepped off the bus a cold wind greeted me, along with the smell of something burning nearby. I'm told they burn the dead grass on the land in hopes of stimulating new growth. I knew the "dead grass" of poverty that I was encountering had the ability to stimulate some new growth in my heart if I'd let it.

A little girl, about 5 years-old, stood holding a rose to give to me. She and another young boy named Johnny took my hands and led me into the church building. Their hands were cold and the brown skin on their faces were chapped, turning their cheeks whitish pink. They were dressed in their finest clothes in preparation for our visit. I was dressed in my jeans in preparation for their dirt and dust, which I was told the night before that we'd encounter.

Inside the modest church building I sat in plastic chairs with the the children. Quickly I realized I should've taken some Spanish classes before this trip. I knew how to ask the children their names in Spanish, how to tell them my name - I was "Raquel" all weekend - how to ask them how old they were, and if they had any brothers and sisters. I knew how to ask "where are you from" but that was not needed as all of them had lived on this hill all their lives - as had many of their parents. I knew how to ask where the bathroom was, that's always a need-to-know phrase. The only other thing I really knew how to say to them was "you are beautiful" and that is a sentence I would utter a 100 times a day to the people in Ecuador. Really it was the sentence I most wanted to tell them, other than "Dios te ama mucho," which is, "God loves you very much."

Inside the room, a big sign on the wall behind the "stage" read "Bendiciones Proverbios 31." They had a vacation-bible-school-like show planned for us with several of the kids singing and dancing. The first dance was to a worship song, in Spanish. The other was a native dance to a Bolivian song, with the kids in traditional costumes. They were precious.

The place was clean - obviously well cared for - and prepared for our arrival. But it was also quite old. They had done a good job keeping it fresh with paint. The windows had black iron bars across them, the floor was covered with reddish brown linoleum tiles. The only furniture was the white plastic tables and chairs - the kind we would buy at Wal-mart to put on our patios. A podium stood up front on the right of the stage, a bucket of roses sat on the left. The walls were a very pale color and the ceiling had some cracks and a few moldy spots. The most striking thing in the room was the children's big brown eyes ... and the atmosphere of excitement and expectation at our presence among them.

All of these kids were very well behaved!

After the show, the pastor and his wife greeted us and dismissed the kids to their classrooms. "My" little girl accidentally ran off with the rose in her hand and I smiled as I watched her out the window because I really wanted her to have it. She stopped when she realized she had the flower, turned and brought it back to me. My eyes welled with tears for about the forth time already that day.

Being early August, school was not in session yet and this is a place they come on school days or Sundays, not on Saturday mornings. Many of them walk quite a distance to come here. But these kids wanted to come on this Saturday to meet us. So the project planned some activities for them to do while we looked over their family, school and medical records Compassion keeps on each child. I could tell the pastor and Compassion staff were eager for us to view these records of their activity with the children, but I had already seen what an impact they were having on these kids. These kids had hope in their eyes, despite their circumstances. One girl I met that morning - Gabriella who was about 10 or 12 years old - had even received heart surgery thanks to Compassion.

These particular kids had hope because they knew someone cares
about them ... someone who actually has the means to help them.

Isn't that the function God has in our lives too?

I wondered how many kids in the nearby neighborhoods feel like there is no hope - no one who cares about them, or at least no one who cares who also has the power to do something for them. Standing in that place that morning a series of questions ran though my mind, thoughts that would reoccur through out my trip:

Who am I ... who am I that they would insist on serving me? I should be serving them. Not once have they asked me for help, yet they are in obvious need. Why was I born into comfortable conditions in the United States, and not into these sweet but very poor families on this mountain side in Ecuador? What responsibility do I have to do something with the "status" and "wealth" I happen to have? What can I do for these children? What can I learn from these people?

How can I honor Christ in them?

Just returned from Ecuador

Hola, Amigo! Yesterday I returned to the States after an amazing trip to Ecuador with Compassion International. Its hard to put in words all that I saw and its impact on me - when I try I just well up with tears and mumble about how thankful I am and how humble I feel. But I will try to describe it in my next few posts. Forgive me if the posts run long, I want to chronicle my trip plus I'm processing as I write.
THURSDAY: It was 97 degrees here in Wilmington with a heat index of 106. I'd checked the weather forecast for the city of Quito where I was going and the highs were expected to be around 67 degrees. That's a 30 degree difference! I just couldn't figure out what I'd need to wear while there... its been months since it was 67 degrees in this beach town. Ecuador is on the equator (hence the name) but it has three distinct regions as you move from west to east: the coastal plains, the highland mountains, and the rain forest jungle. We would be very high in the mountains so it would actually be cooler than here in Wilmington. In fact, the Capitol city of Quito where we stayed is about 9,300 feet above sea level - that's nearly twice as high as Denver, CO!

I travel quite a bit with my speaking ministry and my family is accustomed to that, but this trip both my kids were anxious about my going. They had been with me to the Health Dept a few weeks earlier where I had to get various vaccinations (yellow fever, Hepatitis A, malaria, etc.) so they knew this trip held dangers my other trips did not. We had looked at Ecuador on a world map - its on the west coast of South America by the Galapagos Islands - so they also knew I was going farther away from them than I had ever been. When I tucked them in bed on Thursday, they both cried. All Caleb could do is cry and hold me. Alaina cried and told me she did not want me to go. I told them God could take perfect care of me, that this was an opportunity to pray and to trust Him. We prayed then together. I also told them to look at the stars and moon each night and know that we were looking at the exact same thing even though we were many miles away.

I wound up running to Walgreens at 11:00 pm because I'd forgotten to buy some disposable cameras for the trip. I fell into bed just after midnight wondering exactly what lies in the days ahead, and prayed for divine appointments to be the hands and heart of Christ to the people I'd meet.


FRIDAY: I flew from Wilmington to Atlanta where I met up with the rest of the P31 team going on the trip: Lysa, LeAnn, Luann, Van, Tracie, Charlene, Carrie, Amy, Melissa and Glynnis. We all wore matching P31 shirts so the Compassion Intl. staff that was taking us - Rich Van Pelt, Julie Johnson and Mike Johnson - could find and herd these 10 talkative women. The Compassion staff were awesome people who loved God, had hearts for the poor, and were each excellent at what they do. We also had two videographers, Pete Gannon and David Hames, as well as photographer Paul McEntire join us for the trip. I had a window seat on the plane in the row with Melissa and Rich. Melissa and I talked so much - pumped by the opportunity to sit together and by the Skittles Melissa had brought - that Rick eventually gave up on us, put his headphones on, and drifted off to sleep. His sleep would be interrupted many times by our need to go to the bathroom. Don't you just love those tiny toilets on airplanes? Little did I know those would seem luxurious compared to what I would use in days to come!

Just as I had prayed, we arrived safely that night in Quito - with all our luggage. The first thing I noticed was a HUGE bouquet of roses in the airport. They looked so perfect I had to touch them to see if they were real. They were, and they were gorgeous. I'm talking like 60 roses in this single vase. I wondered about the airport's budget because I'd see two more bouquets like that before I made it through customs and to the chartered bus awaiting us. I kept thinking, "I can't believe I'm standing in South America."

Once on the bus, we met the "country staff" meaning the Compassion staff who are from that country. The Ecuador staff who spent the weekend with us - Roberto, Omar, Sixtoe, Joy and Veronica - were each outstanding people and each consummate hosts. The entire trip I was taken with the integrity and hearts of the staff both at Compassion Intl. and Compassion Ecuador. I adored each of them - they've left a sweet impression on my soul.

They took us on a 20 minute bus ride through the city of Quito to our hotel. We stayed at Swissotel in Quito. It was a fabulous 5 star hotel. When I walked in, sleepy-eyed, to the beautiful lobby, the first thing I saw was another HUGE bouquet of roses. Perfect, just like the ones in the airport. Two more arrangements, similar in size but with different colors of roses, sat near the front desk. In our room, Charlene and I found a single stem rose laying on each pillow with a piece of chocolate and a note welcoming us to Ecuador. I knew I was going to like this place! That kind of hospitality permeated our entire trip.

You may wonder, as I did, why a ministry like Compassion who helps poor children around the world would book us into such a posh/pricey hotel. Let me first say that they get a discounted rate, they called an "in-country" rate. Next, they do that for a number of reasons: 1) It helped to guarantee our safety. This hotel was in a very safe section of town and provided excellent security. 2) All the food in the hotel restaurant was safe for foreign travelers to eat. That is not the case in other places. 3) The hotel would be cleaned to standards we were accustomed to and would keep us in good health. 4) Each room had a safe to store our passport, money and things while we were out. 5) Julie told us we would likely be thrown so far "out of our element" as we visited the Compassion projects and homes that we would need the respite of comfortable, clean surroundings to come back to each night as we processed all that we'd encountered. Very wise - she was right.

After we unpacked a little, Charlene, Glynnis, Van and I went down to the "business center" off the lobby to send an I-got-here-safe email to our husbands. (Our cell phones did not have international service on them.) We could use the hotel's Internet service for 10 minutes for $1 so we all typed short, fast letters to fit within the 10 minutes. (LeAnn made the mistake of calling home to her son on the phone in her room. They talked for 10 minutes and it wound up costing her $100!!) I let Rick know I was there, felt very safe, and did not expect to be sick. I told him and the kids not to worry about me, and to pray for divine appointments and ended by sending them my love.

Back in the room I gazed out our 10th floor window at the amazing view of the city of Quito. The city is situated in a valley, surrounded by green hills and mountains. Lights dotted the landscape up the hillsides. I wondered what it would look like in the daytime. It was beautiful at night. I brushed my teeth with bottled water - we did have to avoid drinking the tap water in the sinks - and climbed into bed feeling ever-so-slightly woozy from the high altitude. I slept like a baby under the down comforter until Charlene's cell-phone alarm rang at 6:00 am on Saturday. (We weren't sure how to use the room phone to get a wake-up call so we just used our cell phone alarms... that's about all those phones were good for once we left Atlanta.)