I am discovering that July is quite the fortuitous month to make my departure. Schools in Paraguay end their semesters this month, giving way to two weeks of winter vacation, and since these periods of absence have a vast impact on attendance in our various ministries, Mi Esperanza parallels the breaks with intermissions of its own.

Preceding the ministry pause is always a festive clausura, which has already filled the few days of July to the brim. What a blessing it has been to be a part of these closing ceremonies because they really foster a sense of closure, particularly for me personally as I prepare to leave Paraguay.

Not to mention that up to this point, the clausuras I have participated in have been nothing but humbling sessions of seeing the Lord take the last two years of toil and transform them into His beautiful and timely creations.

It is no secret by now that La Ruta was a thorn that emanated pain in every part of my body and comprised one of the most difficult hurdles I encountered in Paraguay. Starting iPraise then in its wake was a leap of faith tempered by a significant amount of low expectations. The beginning did nothing to raise the bar.

Every single kid was tone deaf and had no musical knowledge or background whatsoever. To further complicate matters, the team of leaders I had amassed as my crew of instructors rapidly flaked left and right like a week-old sunburn (okay, gross). It was discouraging, but not altogether surprising.

But then Saturday after Saturday, word started catching and soon enough, we had scores of teenagers, many of whom were not interested in any music classes but came just to hang out. Then before long, our committed students began to hunker down and the music bug officially took hold.

The kids started initiating rudimentary jam sessions of chord progressions, and visibly demonstrated their excitement every time “their” worship song popped up in a Sunday morning set. I’d see students air guitar out of the corner of my eye, strumming along to the rhythm of the worship leader’s beat. I sang Es Tiempo maybe thirty times in a row in accompaniment one Saturday, because my students could not get over actually being able to play a song on their own. A real song! A whole song!

Their newfound capacities to blossom into a previously unheard of opportunity was their greatest Saturday afternoon happiness, and mine as well, for that matter. I was stoked. We had managed to get kids into the church (even reluctant ones who refused to come to La Ruta) and we had succeeded in giving them some tangible skills while also feeding them a healthy dose of the Word without cramming anything down their throats. They, along with the ministry, were thriving and that was more of a victory than I ever anticipated.

I had no idea the semester-end recital could top even that.

Yesterday, we filled the Mi Esperanza sanctuary with buzzing adrenaline, anticipation, and all-out accomplishment. One by one, our students ascended the stage to perform a song with their instructor. Serious concentration lined their faces during each act, but when the last chord reverberated its end, sheepish, beaming smiles would break out across each adolescent visage. Those grins were some of the best things I have ever seen in my life.

I am pretty sure that if I was not raging a fever and battling a vicious flu, I would have cried through the whole program. Our star guitar student, Gordi, returned to his seat next to mine after his performance with his classic but now supersized teenage smirk, and I could have squeezed his clammy hand the rest of the day in sheer joy. When the grand finale group song evoked a standing ovation, everything about Lauren Hui’s Paraguay blurred into this one euphoric moment of incomparable jubilation. Never have I been so proud of anyone or anything as I was of all our students that afternoon.

Thank you, Jesus.

OANSA and iPraise 050Simon at rehearsal with Sylvia, practicing an OANSA song.

OANSA and iPraise 052Romina (left) improvising her own introduction.

OANSA and iPraise 053Gordi proving his musical chops.

OANSA and iPraise 054Ali showing the world how it’s done.

OANSA and iPraise 081There are no words.

OANSA and iPraise 082I feel like a proud, braggy parent.

OANSA and iPraise 078Los alumnos de iPraise.

OANSA and iPraise 080Students and teachers.

(Videos to come!)

OANSA: Growing Up.

June 27, 2013

May 005So so so proud of this kid.
He is leading music time at OANSA on Saturday, and I cannot even wait.
This is the future, people!

iPraise: HECK YEAH.

June 22, 2013

Our youth group failed. Miserably. Its screeching, grating dysfunction made 2012 a year of excruciating frustration, and so it was with both sadness and relief that its official closure was received.

The conundrum that followed was that we still had a group of teenagers we wanted to keep within our reach. The volatility of adolescent years and the disproportionately vulnerable environment in which our kids live made especially necessary the need to keep shining light in their lives.

By way of this necessity was birthed the concept of music discipleship, and out of that, an uncertain new ministry whose initial outlook was admittedly dismal. A severe lack of staffing and a variety of other factors beyond our control projected yet another failure, but against all hope, we launched Saturday afternoon workshops because losing these kids for want of action still held prospects far worse.

For the last few months, we have been trudging along. While no Mozart has emerged, we have nonetheless been pleasantly surprised by the sheer numbers who attend weekly. Even scores of those not old enough for classes come to fraternize, and the group has naturally formed a sense of camaraderie that was so anxiously pursued yet never attained last year.

The musical side of things has seen no miracle with maaaybe one student showing promise. Maybe. But nevermind the lackluster progress of musical talent. Mostly, we have been contenting ourselves with the fact that average attendance hovers around fifteen and the majority stay to listen raptly to the Bible study portion. Again, such a marked departure from La Ruta, and a cause for celebration at any cost.

But today, something shifted in the musical realm. We scrapped together an ensemble practice in preparation for our semester-ending recital two weeks away. In the moment, I heard tone-deaf singing, out of sync strumming, and a lot of chaotic background screaming from the hoards not participating in the rehearsal. Not exactly what I am hoping to debut for what will already be a reluctant audience.

Yet in the wake of the first few stanzas of discord, a palpable excitement was ignited. Suddenly, my lagging, struggling student would not stop playing, beseeching me to continue accompanying her halting chord progressions with my pitchy singing (the song is definitely two keys too high for my lacking vocal range). In a matter of twenty minutes, she had transformed from a giggling, flighty participant to a focused pupil intent on mastering her first song. And she came pretty dang close to doing so if you ask me.

I thought my pride could not swell any higher, and then my star student sauntered over, casually joined the jam session, and picked up Es Tiempo for his first time, flawlessly. As the last notes died away, the electric and well-deserved grins irrevocably commandeering their beaming faces filled my heart to the overfull. T even gave me an impulsive hug. I may have shed an invisible tear or two.

With just 37 days left in Paraguay, my waking moments are wracked with paradoxical feelings. I am torn between the lure of comforts that await at home and the bittersweet knowledge that I’ve made more friends than I think and tough goodbyes will be in no short supply. But for tonight, I am thankful, simply thankful to be witness to these moments of breakthrough and revelation for kids who truly deserve it the most.

Birthday Bitters.

May 15, 2013

Hiking 008He was so embarrassed about me asking him to smile for the picture.

I pulled up in front of the rickety green gate and stepped out of the car, leaping over an enormous puddle of sewage. The humid air was dank and putrid—pollution, poop, trash, and the nearby meat-packing plant combining forces to concoct a pungent aroma. I approached the gate with my usual hesitation as the E family guard dog is a rabid snarling beast (no exaggeration), and clapped for anyone in the family to come out.

The mom emerged in a ragged nightgown with no under garments and looking worse for the wear. Still, she greeted me with a welcoming smile. I have invested years and countless visits for this smile, and on a gloomy morning, it sure was bright. I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day, I asked her how she is holding up, and inquired about each of the eight children.

She sighed wearily and gave my questions brave answers. Then in a quieter voice, she continued, “Today is J’s birthday. He remarked to me, ‘Mom, I almost died [from a severe asthma attack] a few months ago, and look, I’ve made it to fifteen.’ I asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and all he told me was, ‘I don’t want anything. We don’t have enough for me to want anything.'”

J used to drive me CRAZY when La Ruta was still happening. He is the quintessential teenage rascal, aka: pain in the derriere. For some time when I was first getting to know him, it was extremely difficult to demonstrate love and patience with his antics. But as time has passed, he has become one of my greatest lessons on not judging a book by its cover. Or even by its Table of Contents.

The E family father is a piece of crap deadbeat. He suddenly abandoned this family of nine, and left to sleep around town and eventually start another family with another woman, who already had other children. Occasionally, he pops up to seize what little money has been accrued by the mom and oldest son, and to eat greedily from the bare bones stash of food. It makes my blood boil.

The children often ask their mother why he will take care of some other woman’s handicapped child (such a stigma here) but wants nothing to do with them. I have seen the abandonment issues manifest in each child in a wide range of ways, some violent, some desperate, all heartbreaking.

I handed over the cupcakes I made for J. A paltry offering, but one I hoped would remind him that he has so much worth.

Mrs. E revealed that both abuela and tía had called to wish J a happy birthday that morning. J then proceeded to sob and in his anguish, tore down the decorations his sisters had put up the night before, popping balloons and tossing crumpled signs outside to disintegrate in the rain. “WHY HASN’T DAD CALLED?!” he kept repeating angrily. Then he had an asthma attack.

She continued to tell me that when J was asked how he wanted to spend his day, maybe at grandma’s house for a meal, maybe across the street to hang with some friends. He simply stated he wanted to spend every moment inside the cramped quarters of their two-room house. Mrs. E looked at me hollowly and said, “I think he is expecting his father to show up. We all know he won’t, but J still hopes he might.”

My heart breaks.