OANSA and iPraise 046Two years of my life.

For the month of July, I will be running Mi Esperanza’s OANSA program located at another site. After July, well, I will be returning to the States. Last week, my loving army of small hooligans and fellow leaders threw me a surprise farewell party on my final Saturday OANSA in Primero de Marzo, complete with ham and cheese sandwiches, frosting and sprinkles, presents, and adorable overload.

It was a wonderful morning of celebrating two years worth of ministry and two years worth of invaluable lessons learned about myself and life in general. The cherry on top was getting to share such a special day with a team from my home church in San Diego. Writing home about the things the Lord has been doing is one thing; being able to show them and match faces to stories is something else entirely.

But even more than this, it was a morning reflecting on the trust gained, rapport established, and friendships formed with the kids, and for me, that was really what made the celebration. Recognizing the Lord’s goodness in the way these kids have allowed me into the inner rooms of their lives was humbling and, yes, I’ll say it, fulfilling. There have been hard times in Paraguay, but these moments overshadow the valleys of anguish a million fold.

Words of affirmation is already my dominant love language, but I am sure letters of this quality and caliber would make even an ice queen’s heart melt.

Take a look at these precious nuggets (and get the tissues ready):

oansa 012Eight years old and ValeNtina still can’t spell her name correctly. I love her anyway.

oansa 008“ILY. I’m Raquel. Loren, the best mentor I have ever known. Thank you for advising me in OANSA. Thank you for everything.”

oansa 011“Thank you Laurren [sic] for teaching me how to cook and to play the guitar. And for everything you taught me and all the advice you gave me. I love you very much. You are one of my best friends. Never forget me. By: Teresa. THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.”

oansa 004“Hello Loren. Thank you for being in OANSA. We love you very much. May God and Jesus bless you always and protect you in every moment and may your trip be an adventure. And we will always remember you. We will all miss you. Signed: Evelin and siblings.”

And then the best letter ever from Tara:oansa 003“Loren, you were the best cooking teacher and I wanted to say I hope you have a good trip. I know you love us all the same and us you, but I want to tell you that I love you more than all the others. You are the best friend, mentor, and cooking teacher. We all love you soooooo much, but I love you the most. I hope you have a wonderful trip. ILY, Loren!”

Bah.

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.

Cooking Class 023A world of crazy.

“You know, I’m going home in less than four months,” I casually dropped to the kiddos after I asked many of them where they had disappeared to over the summer. An obvious, guilty silence fell over the room, bringing pause to the cookie rolling and evasive alibis they tried to feed me.

Then all at once, they started back up, “Are you serious?” “Forever?!?” “Will you come back?” “Why??”

Over the din of a thousand questions, S laid them all to the wayside with an incredulous and borderline frantic, “WHO IS GOING TO TEACH COOKING CLASSES THEN???” This was S, who in a country where boys tend not do anything in the home and especially not “womanly” tasks such as cooking, and who a year ago, had never cut a tomato in his life, expressing regret that these culinary workshops had a rapidly approaching expiration date. My heart overflowed.

These cooking classes have been my pride and joy, and more than that, a saving grace. To put it crudely, they feel like the only thing I have done here that someone else hasn’t ruined for me, and I cling to the victories they bring. They are a reminder that even when there is not much immediate fruit in the seeds I’ve planted these past years, there is still the chance that these kids will find better things in their future because they were loved in this time in their lives. Love covers over a multitude of terrible things (and perhaps not coincidentally so do cinnamon sugar doughnuts).

But truly, it has been a privilege to couple a passion with a unique opportunity to form meaningful relationships with teenagers we have struggled to reach. Perhaps unorthodox, perhaps not so sustainable as a ministry, but somehow still a channel to speak cupcakes, cuisine, and most importantly, hope into the lives of the young and vulnerable.

This past Monday was the first class after a frustrating hiatus of absence and what seemed like apathy. But then SEVEN kids showed up, including a teenager I have been trying to get into the church since I arrived in Paraguay. Everyone was on their best behavior, and some were even demonstrating to other less frequent attendees, how to level off the flour cup and how to test the concoction in the oven for doneness.

Then T smoothed the icing on the cake of an extra sweet afternoon, “It’s been so long, [Lo]. I’m sorry. Can we make doughnuts next week?”

Cooking Class 017Terrifying.

Cooking Class 009A wonderful sight to behold.

Cooking Class 016I still don’t get who Marcos is?

Cooking Class 001Workin’.

Cooking Class 020Coco balls.

La Ruta: The Gift of 2012.

January 15, 2013

2012 was a difficult year for youth ministry at Mi Esperanza. For me personally, it was frustrating to see a promising group of mildly excited (which seems to be the optimistic norm—Bieber fever aside) teenagers dwindle down to a bare bones lackadaisical attendance. Towards the latter months of the year, a dismal average of just two or three were showing up on Saturdays. This drop mirrored the unfortunate regressive pattern of leaders as well.

It was not simply about the numbers either. Kids, many of whom were displaying rapid growth, started falling out of our contact and defaulting instead to apathy or worse, destructive behaviors, despite my best efforts to keep in touch.

Youth group was such the foreign concept to these kids to begin with, I was aware it would be an uphill battle. But pouring blood, sweat, and sometimes tears week in and week out, and seeing little fruit if not big steps taken backwards can be disheartening in spite of that predetermined knowledge. Not to mention, adolescent ministry is in no way a natural strength of mine, so this year was certainly a stretch and a glimpse of learning to love those who can be difficult to love.

To be honest, by year end, I went in each week expecting the worst, if anything at all. Every time I made any plans or dared to envision something better for the week’s objectives, leadership and ministry hiccups and cultural norms would disrupt everything and leave me entirely disheartened.

For one, I set out this year to revamp or create, really, the role of Game Master. I took it upon myself to come up with innovative and engaging games that would involve the teenagers and show them activities that could actually be enjoyable. For months, the kids hated me and that treacherous half an hour of “fun.” Why the F (to use inappropriate young people lingo) was this crazy American girl forcing the group to engage in ice breakers requiring critical thinking or even worse, orders to pass a grapefruit chin to chin without hands? But though it frustrated me that so many would refuse to participate in even the most innocuous of games, I kept at it, concocting relays and activities ever more embarrassing than the last.

Slowly, they started warming up to the concept of organized group games, and each week, another individual would dare join in. On one particular instance, I noticed the entire group enthusiastically competing in the impromptu Around the World basketball game I’d taught them and set up with a rubber ball and a wicker basket. We played it every week for two months, which they initiated! Occasionally, even a too-cool-for-school dude would assent to shovel cereal down his throat while blindfolded or scream like a little girl in the name of winning, and dare I say, enjoy themselves while doing so. Talk about internal happy dances.

It was a yearlong journey of ups and downs with a predominant predilection for less than positive results. When it came time to plan our big year-end bash before adjourning for summer break, I was excited about what I had on tap but expected nothing.

And then I got the surprise of my life. Everything went according to plan with participation success far surpassing even my wildest dreams.

I began the afternoon with a holiday-themed activity and challenged the kids to create a nativity scene using two rolls of bread. Much to my delight, the most unruly, non-participatory teenage rascal not only willing jumped in, he got so involved with his project (that may have included interpretive elements like magic carpets and headless turtles), he ended up taking home the prize! Never did I think I’d live to see the day as he proudly paraded his chocolate bar of a trophy. A crackly race of unraveling tape balls filled with treats followed as teens competitively tore at the sticky tape and good-natured trash talk wound about the table. Silly string attacks and sugar cookie decorating brought on ever more laughter and camaraderie.

And then came 2012’s crown glory: the first ever La Ruta White Elephant gift exchange. I had explained the rules the previous week and strongly suggested everyone bring a small wrapped item. Again, I expected this endeavor to complete fall through, but as alluded to previously, everyone was mysteriously in top form and each little individual showed up with a package to contribute to the pile. I have never been more proud or more astonished.

I think in the end, I was left with a pencil pouch and a packet of dried out markers, hardly a brag-worthy stash of loot. Oh, but the joy and experience of seeing an entire group of my Paraguayan teenagers happily, actively involved and having fun…easily one of 2012’s best gifts.

Thank you, Jesus.