August 23, 2013

I have been back in the United States for nearly one month. Although I’ve been jetting around and haven’t exactly settled in San Diego yet, there are a few things I have observed about my readjustment so far.

1. I cannot cross the street properly. Cars waiting to turn right on red hate me for my nervous indecision, because I still assume anything with four wheels WILL hit me.

2. I cannot flush the toilet properly. I keep panicking when I actually drop my toilet paper in the toilet for fear that those four squares will clog the entire city’s plumbing.

3. Picking produce at the grocery store is revelatory. I am used to scouring endless land mines of rotten tomatoes and repulsively bruised mangoes that unsuspectingly ooze fermented juice all over my hand only to come away with nothing because everything is spoiled.

4. No matter how safe the city (seriously, Fremont and Cambridge?), I still walk around on survival/attack mode. My code red cynicism is still alive and burning.

5. Speaking of attack mode, orderly lining up has become a foreign concept to me. Any time a queue is formed, my instinct is to rush forward, elbows out. Apologies to the grandma at the grocery store yesterday…

6. Taking showers and lying in bed may be commonplace routines, but for me, they have become awe-inspiring highlights of my days. I am pretty sure I have thanked the Lord for shower curtains, water heaters, H2O that doesn’t smell like sewage, and real mattresses more than anything else…even time with B.

7. I heard this one from many a Peace Corps returnee, but I am still shocked by the excess of choices and options and how easy it is to spend money here. The credit card may be America’s greatest weapon.

8. Last Sunday was my first week back at Existence Church, and I hit culture shock so hard. More on this to come, but, GEEZ, money everywhere.

9. The more I travel, the more I LOVE San Diego. What kind of crazy person would ever leave this paradise heaven-land?!

10. Food is delicious.


Lo’s Despedida.

August 22, 2013

Shortly before I crossed the one-year mark of my commitment in Paraguay, I hit a dark spell. I was coming off a month of delighting in the wonderland of San Diego (seriously, what kind of crazy person voluntarily leaves that paradise?), including celebrating my bff’s wedding, and I did NOT want to be back in Asuncion.

Life in the Southern Hemisphere had been rough, and upon my return, it only seemed to get harder. Ministry frustrations were rampant, I had a run-in on the street with some indecent human beings, B and I were stuck in a miserable six-hour time difference rut, and then my grandmother passed away.

Between subjecting B to a lot of tears over Skype and trying for once in my life to exercise the sadness away, I contemplated going home with serious intent. Home offered an escape, and frankly, quitting was tantalizing at that point.

Still, I had committed to two years, and I wanted to be a person of my word. Not to mention, the prospective mess of returning financial support was a nightmare I dared not face. So I forged on, and with tidbits of Psalm 27 tossing around in my head. I am confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Fast forward to the very last month of my two-year commitment, and although I didn’t deserve it, the Lord was outrageously gracious in pouring out moments that made me overwhelmingly grateful for sticking it out. Somehow, somewhere, in the midst of the madness, friendships were formed, ministries were kick-started, and living in Paraguay became so much more than simply surviving.

Mi Esperanza hosted a farewell party for me shortly before my departure. I was humbled by the ways the Lord had moved in the hearts of children and adults alike, because it was so clear that any visible transformation of lives was nothing I could have done but miracles He had worked. In spite of my bitterness and sadness and doubts, He used weakness to create triumph, and it was a privilege to witness His glory in victory.

Cheers to two years.

Misc 028Playing the ninja game I introduced during the days of La Ruta.

Misc 040Announcing the winner of the marshmallow-spaghetti Eiffel Tower contest.

Misc 056Performing a new song he learned post-iPraise!

Misc 058If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth a million.

Misc 044Misc 046Lining up for the merienda.

Misc 080The Alvarenga family.

Misc 079The Caceres family.

Misc 083The Enciso family.

Misc 084A few of the Baez and then some.

Misc 078My girls.

Misc 082My boys.

Misc 088Sweet, dear friends.

Ah, I made it!

Growing up, I always lugged around an enormous sense of guilt. I lived in self-inflicted shame for having such a privileged life, and the summers I spent in Honduras, though they were the love of my life and extremely formative, were also times when my confusion unfailingly came to a miserable head.

I would enjoy the lavish dinner parties complete with live music, boisterous dancing, and guests of high societal standing. The gigantic compound on which we lived was an endless store of adventures and treasures galore. The beautiful pinatas and even prettier cakes that appeared every July on my birthday were the delight of the year. I loved it all with my whole being.

But amidst the glitz and glamor, the dusty beggars who would aggressively attack our car, hawking their wares in impoverished desperation did not escape me. Nor did the images of infants sleeping in dilapidated cardboard boxes. Nor did the heart-rending stories I eavesdropped about J and G’s home life. Their mother B was one of the house maids. The boys were also my best friends.

I could never comprehend how I was chosen to be born in the United States to a middle-class family and why my lot was so comfortable when all around me I saw people mired in poverty and stuck in lives of hardship. How did God decide that I could literally have my butt wiped by any number of these individuals, many of whom could never comprehend even a fraction of the opportunity I would encounter in my lifetime. I certainly did not deserve it any more than the next person, so why me?

Somewhere along the lines, I managed to convert much of that shame into a sense of duty; a burden of responsibility that drove me to be accountable to the blessings I enjoyed.

But on one of my last nights in Paraguay, I felt the guilt return. I have heard it said that the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair. But once again, I was unable to reconcile why grace had picked me out of the crowd to crown with this life and not, say, I and N.

I and N are two young adult students who attended the English classes I taught at Mi Esperanza. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone with sweeter dispositions than these two dear girls.

Several years ago, their mother was involved in an accident that left her in a vegetative state. I and N were forced to drop out of school in order to provide the around-the-clock care their mother required. Although the mom has shown small degrees of improvement, it is unlikely she will ever progress beyond toddler-like capabilities at best. I and N also have a younger sister, who is physically handicapped with a condition that requires corrective surgery.

Together with another older sister, these five grown women live in a tiny studio in an apartment building full of violent drug addicts. I and N spend their days trading off caring for their mother and younger sister, and commuting an hour by bus to work evening shifts in the food court of a fancy shopping center.

They wanted to hang out one last time before I left Paraguay, so we arranged to meet at the food court on a busy Friday night. I expected a simple coffee date and relatively detached goodbyes.

Instead, I and N proceeded to lead me through an evening of premeditated generosity and sweet friendship. First, they refused to allow me to split the dinner bill with them. After a large and delicious meal, we strolled over to a fashionable clothing store so I could see I’s place of employment. As we sifted through the racks of trendy blouses and colorful skirts, the girls giggled and accosted me with “We want you to pick something out for your [belated] birthday.”

Although the store was by no means high fashion couture, it wasn’t the 99 cent store either. I was mortified by the thought of the girls scraping together their meager income to purchase something for me. I repeatedly declined, hoping that if I continued to politely refuse, they would drop the subject matter. Unfortunately, they persisted and claimed they would be offended if I left empty-handed. As I frantically searched for the cheapest item in the store, they kept pulling things off the racks—scarves, earrings, handbags—accessories to complete an outfit. I felt distressed yet extremely humbled.

And somehow, it still didn’t end with a long, blue skirt I’ll treasure forever. From there, we hunted a location to take a photograph of our trio, which the girls paid to have printed, and then we entered yet another store to purchase picture frames for the photos. At every step, they adamantly refuse to let me contribute my share of the bill. I could not imagine the portion of their monthly budget they had spent on me that night.

Throughout the night, they chatted about visiting me in California one day, asking endless questions about airplanes and airports and how much money they would have to save. “You have such a beautiful life,” they said earnestly to me. Their sweet naivete broke my heart.

I thought about their cramped apartment and the corrective procedure their sister couldn’t have because the oldest sister accidentally got pregnant and how I and N couldn’t go to school even though they desperately wished to study more than anything else. They have so little, but here they were schooling me in the art of giving and giving well.

I have received inordinate amounts of love in my life, and yet, I felt I knew nothing about giving it. I have been stunned by how much I have learned about generosity in the most dire, unlikely places over the last two years, none more humbling and apparent than this evening with I and N.

“We hope you will always remember us,” they said.

Oh, that I may never forget.

OANSA: Catcalls.

August 22, 2013

Misc 017

During my last month in Paraguay, I ran the other OANSA program, which is held at La Plazita–a small triangle playground area sandwiched between three busy streets.

On one particularly chilly Saturday morning, I sat on a bench with 11-year-old J waiting for the other children to arrive. In the short span of fifteen minutes, nearly every passing truck, car, and motorcycle manned by a male driver had either blatantly checked us out or hollered something explicit.

After two years in the country, this sort of thing had become commonplace for me, even if not comfortable. But the nonchalance with which J laughed off the advances still disarmed me. She started telling me these crazy stories about men, young and old, who drive-by catcall, often times going so far as to double back several times in their vehicles to get a few more looks and comments in while she innocently sits on the swings or kicks around a soccer ball.

One afternoon, she was at the park (she lives only a few small houses away), stationed on the very bench we were seated, and fiddling with a borrowed cell phone. A police truck drove by, caught sight of her, circled back around, and parked. Several officers filed out and sauntered over to her. They attempted to cajole her into sharing her name and giving them her phone number. They told her to call them for a good time or come with them now for an extra special treat. The police force of Paraguay, everybody.


I hate that these disgusting things happen to 11-year-olds, and I especially hate that children are recounting these events casually as if they were just another day in the life.

So much to pray over these kids.