Stories from a foot soldier for Jesus who eats mangu with salami, loves orphan kisses, walks with clowns on unpaved roads, sings on stages under tin roofs and believes baseball is awesome but the best people that God is sending out of the Dominican Republic are not baseball players. They are missionaries.
I am with the disciples walking by the man born blind from birth. The natural reaction might be to pass and avoid the disabled. But not Jesus. He is supernatural. So here is a man is that is blind, but Jesus sees him.
And just like the disciples, I want to know the cause of suffering. This man is blind from birth. It was no accident that caused his sight to be taken. He was born this way. So we need an answer here. What caused this disability?
And Jesus answers our questions but his answer is not in the same category. The explanation for this man's blindness is not found in looking for a cause but it is found by looking for the purpose. Verse 4:
“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (ESV)
Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. (MSG)
And all the while I have been asking Why? Why God? Why the suffering? Why so many disabled? Why don’t you heal them? Why the poverty? Why the disasters? And I have missed looking for what God can do. I have missed purpose.
And Jesus heals this man. But he doesn’t heal Paul with the thorn in the flesh and yet the thorn had purpose too. Healing or hurting. Cured or captive. Pain or pleasure. The point is not in the rescue. The point is the purpose.
I usually beg God for the rescue but what if I prayed for the purpose. What if I asked God SO THAT his works could be put on display, whatever that looks like?
And I think of my friend Laura* who so desperately wanted to walk, even run and her body was just crippled. Her legs are lame. Her mind is captive. But there is no doubt that Laura* lives with a tremendous purpose. There was that day when she told me in her slow speech that required so much energy, “I want to talk to you.’ And we sat by the lake with the beautiful Wisconsin breeze blowing on our faces and we looked eye to eye. And I saw Laura* with all her beautiful purpose mixed with suffering, hardship and affliction. I really saw her. I could see her soul. And Laura* saw me. She could see my soul too. And she said the most beautiful words ever. Laura* spoke the words but in reality I heard my Savior.
I told everyone that I was going to Brazil to see my son get married and then I was going to see Jesus. So as we entered into Rio, we immediately began to search every mountain top, hoping to catch a glimpse of Him. This beautiful city with the mix of mountains and beach is absolutely stunning. The Brazilians say that it took God 7 days to create the world but on the 8th day he created Rio de Janeiro. And on one of these magnificent mountain tops stands one of the 7 wonders of the modern world; the statue of Christ the Redeemer.
We spent a couple of days sight seeing in Rio, taking the cable car to the Sugar Loaf mountain and there in the distance we saw Him. What a sight! It was a cloudy day and the clouds hovered over the statue and at times it looked as if Jesus was standing on the clouds. I thought of Jesus coming back for me appearing in the clouds.
The very next day, with a beautiful clear sky of blue, we ascended the Corcovado mountain to see Jesus. We arrived on the mountain top with hundreds of tourists from all over the world. We heard the languages of the world there at the feet of my Savior. And while the statue is just a lifeless representation conceived in the imagination of a man, I wondered about the significance of the statue for the people that stood with me with cameras and selfie sticks snapping pictures of themselves mimicking the Christ with outstretched arms.
For me, seeing Jesus in Brazil would be so much more than my visit to the top of Corcovado mountain. I would see Jesus in my new family; Izolis and Manasses, the parents of our new daughter in law Sameah. Izolis loves children and everywhere I went with her there were kids running up to greet her with hugs. She started a school in the ghetto of her neighborhood that now reaches over 400 kids for Jesus. Manasses, Sameah’s father is an Old Testament scholar. His love for the word of God, the church and people was so impressive and another way that I would “see Jesus” in Brazil.
I saw Jesus in Brazil in the church. There were churches on every corner and I would often hear the music flowing out into the streets and the people gathered for worship. I saw Jesus in my friend Everly as she shared her love and passion for the children of her church. I saw Jesus in the beauty salon as we got ready for the wedding! Josie, a sister from the church and my hairstylist introduced her talented family to me. We ended up gathering together we singing songs of worship while my hair was getting fixed. While Josie’s husband and son played guitar, we would sing “Alleluia for the Lord God Almighty reigns.” in a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and English. As we sang, there in the beauty shop, Jesus was larger to me than any earthly representation of his likeness.
And I saw Jesus as I watched my son gazing upon his bride as she walked down the aisle. While everyone was snapping pictures of the bride, I was taking a picture of the groom, my first born son. I wanted to catch his expression. I saw his eyes were twinkling with awe at his first glimpse of his beautiful bride. And I thought of my living, death-conquering Jesus on that day when he first sees His bride, the Church. Perhaps more significant and magnificent than the soapstone statue on top of he Corcovado mountain was seeing Jesus in the eyes of these two young lovers on the day of their wedding.
While I was seeing Jesus everywhere in Brazil, I wonder how many live in that marvelous city of Rio only know Jesus as a lifeless statue that attracts tourists. I wonder how many get up each morning and rarely even raise their eyes to look at him on that mountain because he is no more than an icon to them? Jesus as a statue is nice to see, but honestly, after you take a few pictures, the wonder begins to fade. But when you see Jesus represented in the beauty of his people, his Church, there is an awe that cannot be captured with a cellphone and a selfie stick.
On the day of that the Cristo Redentor statue was dedicated, way back in 1931, the cardinal spoke these words of proclamation for the people of Brazil “Christ wins! Christ reigns! Christ keep Brazil from all evil! “ Now as I leave the beautiful country and people of Brazil, I pray for the people of Brazil and especially Rio de Janeiro. I pray that they will not just see the statue of Jesus, but that they will see Him like I saw him in the beauty and love of His people. It is a shame that we often misrepresent who Jesus really is. I am praying for the Church in Brazil today to be an adequate representation of Christ the Redeemer. Without a doubt Jesus is at work in Brazil. I know it! Because I really did see Jesus in Brazil.
is from a coastal town in Dominican Republic. Before he enrolled in our
missions training school (Comisión de Maestro Quisqueya - CMQ), he had never flown on an airplane, never even
experience an extended road trip, and never walked very far to get places.
There was always a mototaxi to get around town. Yet as a third year student in
our missionary training program, his mission would take him by airplane to the
far away jungles of Ecuador to live among the Shuar Indians. He would walk up
to 6 hours on foot just to reach their villages and preach in their tiny
churches. And though electricity is scarce in the DR, Arismeny spent six weeks
in places so remote that only solar panel provided the meager moments of
is six feet tall, a dark skinned Afro-Caribbean young man. For the Shuar, he
was a foreigner in every sense of the word. When he first arrived to serve the
Shuar tribe, the Indigenous people had difficulty pronouncing his name, so they
would call him "Negro." Arismendy felt so out of place, and the
kids would often make fun of him as he tried to learn to play soccer. Soccer
was new to Arismendy since he grew up playing only baseball and basketball in
knew that he needed to connect with these kids somehow and win their respect.
So he became determined to love the things that they loved. This meant that he
needed to learn to play soccer and he needed to eat with them. Arismendy would
learn to eat grub worms and play soccer for hours. The day he made his first
goal was significant. After that day, he began to hear the kids calling him
"Pastor" instead of "Negro." The more time he spent with
them listening to their stories, eating the grub worms and drinking chicha* the
less he heard them calling him “Negro.” Though he had walked for hours to
preach in the pulpits of the jungle churches, it was not eloquent preaching
that won him the title of “Pastor.” It was eloquent loving.
Chicha-makers grind the maize and then chew it to moisturize it. After the
human saliva breaks down the starch, the balls of chewed maze are put in large
clay vats and warm water is added. After several days of fermentation, Chicha
is ready to be consumed.
We woke up the next day, the Lords day, and attended church with the Alderman's at Brussels Christian Center. We all decided that it felt like heaven there, the congregation was made up of Africans, Latinos, Europeans, and Americans and even some Asians. It was the world gathered in Brussels together for worship.
We spent that Sunday afternoon exploring and the ruins of an ancient abbey. It was such a beautiful day and I was struck by the glory of the cathedral that “once was.” The structure was still there, but it was falling apart. The fact is that Europe is FILLED with glorious cathedrals, but it is EMPTY of churches. Still I am convinced that the Church of Jesus Christ is more beautiful and glorious than any of Europe’s cathedrals. The Church is not a structure that will fall apart as centuries pass. The church is a movement, it is a peculiar people that cannot be defined by four walls and that afternoon as I pondered that beautiful thought, little did I know that I would find the glorious church in the most peculiar places of Europe...to be continued...
Since 2012, the United Nations marks 11 October as the ‘International Day of the Girl Child’. It is a day to promote girls' human rights, and addresses the various forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the world. It seems like today is an appropriate day to give voice to the silent stories of my girls in Dominican Republic; to proclaim that in the midst of the injustice of poverty, abandonment, and abuse; THERE IS A REDEEMER.
And this is just one story.
It is one story, with a hopeful ending. It doesn't end all beautiful and perfect but it there is hope. And in the midst of the story, I still have questions, and I still worry about the future, but I still have hope. So I offer this one story of one girl. one Pastora. and One AMAZING Redeemer.
She was just 8 years old when I met her.
Grandma was her primary caregiver, and had been sentenced to 7 years in prison for drug trafficking. Every Wednesday, the ladies of our local AG church in Santo Domingo join Pastora Ketty (my ministry partner) to minister at the local woman's penitentiary. So when the Pastora met Grandma, she begged Pastora Ketty to go and find Sonali, who was all alone living in one of the most dangerous barrios of our metropolitan city. We found her and brought her to the girls home and Sonali grew up going to church, going to school, and her life was on a totally different trajectory. She would not be vulnerable to the drugs, prostitution, and abuse that infested her former neighborhood.
And then everything changed.
Grandma completed her sentence, was released from prison, and returned to the barrio. She asked that Sonali be permitted to come home with her. So we had to let beautiful Sonali leave the safety of our cocoon. It felt too soon, too harsh. We worried that she wouldn't go to school. We worried about how she would eat. We worried about how she would adapt after so many years in the home.
Our worries weren't unrealistic.
As an ex convict, it was impossible for Grandma to find a job to support them, to put food on the table, or to put a roof over their heads. There is only one possible solution in the barrio for a woman in this situation. If they were going to eat; prostitution was the only answer. Grandma, however was old, her body was hardly marketable. This left Sonali at 15 years old, to sell her body on the street, so that they could eat. For eight months, she suffered horrible abuse by the johns who paid her less that $5 a trick for a couple hours of narcissistic pleasure.
She would go to the church in that barrio seeking Jesus, looking for an escape from the condemnation that swirled in her mind and heart. No one knew what she was suffering, how could she tell them? She was all alone. Her whole world was on the other side of the city and there was no way to go back to Bethesda, not now after selling her body.
One day the john took her to the other side of the city.
She knew she was so close to Bethesda. And she knew that she had to escape. She asked God to help her. She told me that she knew that if only I can just get back to the home, there will be hope. There will be food. There will be a real future.
And she returned.
Ketty took her in, gave her food to eat, clothes and shoes. She took her to the doctor. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief to know that she did not have AIDS after all that she had been through. Still there was a long road ahead.
She was pregnant.
I sat with Sonali on the bed and she told me her story. She left our home a little girl and came back to us as a woman that had her childhood stolen from her. An orphan herself, she cannot imagine what it means to be a mother, and yet that reality is confronting her everyday. My heart grieves that little girls can be stolen from cocoons before they are ready to fly. I don't understand why there are places in this world in which the only way a girl child can eat is by selling her body. I cannot fathom this injustice.
I WANT TO SCREAM HOW THIS ISN'T FAIR.
Still in the mess of this sad story, hope is blooming. Sonali can feel the hope that protects her, feeds her, and redeems her sadness. It is the presence of the Redeemer in the middle of our story, in the middle of the stuff we cannot understand, or even explain, and yet He has not abandoned Sonali. Maybe her mother left her, maybe her father left her, maybe Grandma exploited her, and society used her BUT Jesus came in the middle of her story and redeemed her.
I know that my Redeemer lives in the midst of injustice.
If anyone understood injustice it was Job of the Old Testament. Job wanted to scream too and yet in the midst of his messy, he said these words. "But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and he will stand upon the earth at last." I think the key for Job is that our hope is certain because we know how the story ends. We may not be sure of the middle, we may even be disappointed in the middle, but our middle is being redeemed. We can be sure of it. Because our Redeemer lives. WE know it. Not that we feel it, not even that we understand it, we just know it.
And still I ache because I have walked in the barrios and brothels of Santo Domingo and looked in the eyes of too many girls that have yet to encounter the hope of redemption and experience the presence of the Redeemer. Job goes on to say: "And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!I will see him for myself. Yes, I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought!"
This is the kind of hope that helps us in the middle.
*names have been changed.
We arrived in that city expecting to hear “Bon Jour!” and see the blue eyes and blonde hair. I was sure that I would finally feel like I blended in after somany years living in a country where I was the one who always stood out. Instead I heard Arabic and Italian, Spanish and Chinese. It was a potpourri of culture and language. Here I was in Brussels, Belgium on the other side of a missions team, as the guest, not the host. The Aldermans greeted us at the airport with their Niceville smiles. Though our origins were the same, our destination has been in different hemispheres. Yet this week, by God’s grace our worlds of service would collide and I couldn’t even begin to imagine the JOY we would share in this “same-kind-of-loving” that we have been called to do.
The Speed the Light vehicle drove through the European city and I couldn’t help but just smile at how the light is speeding throughout this WHOLE WORLD in these vehicles bought with squished dollar bills found in teenage pockets. Our weary bodies arrived at the Continental Theological Seminary, thankful for a place to lay down our heads, as we tried to adjust our nighttime longing to the light of day. The Seminary was nice, rich in history, and I thought of my parents who painted those walls over twenty years ago. The seminary students are all on their summer break, so we enjoyed the peaceful campus that was only sometimes interrupted by the flock of geese that populated the front pond. Their honking made me think of the “Wild Good Chase” that the Lord has had us on this past year. I couldn’t help but smile as the honking became my 5:30 am alarm clock. Roosters and geese sound so different, still, I have actually missed waking up with open windows.
For the afternoon, we had the privilege to see the National palace. It was the special time of year in which they open the palace to the public. It would be impossible to describe the beauty in each room. However, one room stood out. This one was decorated with green beetles. The green of their wings looked like jewels that decorated the ceiling and the chandelier. Someone actually saw these beetles as more than a crawling insect and made them into jewels fit for a palace. And I thought about the prostituted women of the red light district of this city. Our mission in Belgium would be to serve the Breaking Chains Network ministry. How sad that the labels that we give people often block our view of the beauty of the image of God in each and every person in this world.
It seems incredible that God would give me the gift of this beautiful redemption story, that I would be a character among many, as he would display the wonder of the Gospel in the hearts Alondra*, Ricardo* and their children. And yet I know that I am just one of the many characters in this story that started in an ice cream shop on Good Friday.
Alondra was in a desperate situation when she came to me on that Good Friday, and because of the Spirit’s prompting, we helped her. Honestly, I never expected to see her again. Three months later, I find that God has completely transformed her life and her whole family. She was faithfully attending our church and was in the new members class to be baptized.
Since she and Ricardo were not legally married, they were not able to be baptized right away in our church. First, they had to get married. This, however was no simple matter. You have to have paperwork in order. Having paperwork (legal birth certificates, divorce documents, etc) can be an enormous obstacle for the people of our country. This is why so many couples never really get married legally, and families that are formed with two people who have not made a legal covenant suffer horrible consequences like violence, infidelity, and poverty.
This is where THE CHURCH of Jesus Christ has a powerful influence on SOCIETY. In order to get baptized and become members of the church, Ricardo and Alondra needed to get legally married. So the CHURCH rises up! A lawyer from our church donated services to work on paperwork, and finally after a long process, on April 26, Ricardo and Alondra got married! Ladies from the church put together a beautiful reception with a gorgeous wedding cake!
Two days later I had the privilege to serve with my Pastor as he was able to baptize the entire family. (except the younger children) Ricardo testified that he was a drunk before he came to Jesus. He said that he would buy alcohol before he would buy food for his family. Since giving his life to Jesus, and coming to our church, God has completely taken away his desire for rum and alcohol. He is a new man and the GOSPEL has taken them out of the misery of poverty. The day before he was baptized in water, Ricardo shared that he received the baptism in the Holy Spirit at church in the evening service. Now the power of the Spirit is as work on a whole new level in their family.
When I saw Alondra the day they were legally married, there in the white dress with flowers in her hair I was overcome with emotion. That beaming face, with a white gown, did not bear any resemblance to the desperation of the woman in the ice cream shop on Good Friday.
The Lord did a miracle for Alondra to find a beautiful wedding dress. She told us that she found it in a pile under the bridge where they sell used clothing that comes from the garbage dumps of clothes that are leftover from goodwill in the US. She said it was black with dirt, but miraculously there was one dry cleaner that was willing to clean it for her. As she told the story, the tears streamed on my face. For it was the metaphor of what God had done for Alondra and her family. Like her wedding gown, she was a treasure in midst of garbage of life and Jesus gave me the joy to help her get cleaned up. * names are changed