Sunday, February 7, 2016

#Vanhunt: A faith Story Written by God

I've told the story of how we received a 1997 Chevy Express 15 passenger van, but I've spent the last few weeks trying to use my imagination to see this story from the point of view of the only one who knew how so many threads would come together to form this strong weave of faith, need, and experience. This is how I believe the story was written by the One who began to author it long before we were aware.

Forest Park, Ohio / Argentina / Chile : February 2015
Pastor Tim Kufeldt, Glenn & Brenda Bridewell  Scott & Christi Kramer, Robert & Nellie Scobie, Nancy Hulshult, Jen Walton, and Felix Escabar form a team that originates from multi-national connections from their past. They decide to come and serve with our family and Catalyst Resources International.

Guatemala : July 2015
The team arrives and notices our need for a van. We explain that the cost is simply not in our budget at this time. After a beautiful week of serving together, Glenn presented me with a single US Dollar, stating that it is given in faith as the first dollar towards our new van. They tell us that God as already given it to us, we simply had to claim it.

Ansonia, Ohio : November 2015
Pastor David Hackney contacted me to tell me that they had heard of our need of a van, and had decided to contribute $5000 towards its purchase. He encouraged me to challenge other churches to match their funds.

Guatemala : November 2015
Kevin Hall, a childhood friend of mine, now a Pastor with the United Methodist Church, contacts me with an idea of a "Banana Box" fundraising drive.

I wrote blog, put together a video, and launched a social media campaign to raise the remaining funds. There was absolutely no response. From all our contacts, not a single dollar was contributed. I made a list of people and churches to call, but felt very clearly that God was saying, "No." I abandoned my pursuits and waited.

Indianapolis, Indiana : December, 2015
Christmas week, Kellie (my wife of 20 years) and I were contacted by old college friends, Brendon & Jennifer Harbron. They asked if they could donate $1,000 towards our van. We were stunned! That single dollar from July now had 6,000 friends. The FirstGiving account had gone from ZERO to $5,000. Still... God was saying, "Wait."

Guatemala : January 8, 2016
Worried that perhaps I'd missed out on the funding from Ansonia, I contacted the pastor and asked David if he'd be willing to go ahead and donate the $5000 on the FirstGiving account so that I could show progress. He agreed.

The following week, while working with a team from Mt. Victory and Ridgeway United Methodist churches (introduced to our family by my childhood friend, Kevin Hall), I suddenly felt a strong compulsion that I knew was God to make a call to Pastor Tim Kufeldt of Dayspring Church of God.

I felt so strongly that I immediately sent a Facebook message to pastor Tim with a simple message...

Hey Pastor Tim... I'd like a chance to bend your ear. I have an idea I would like to discuss. 

Nineteen minutes later... I received a phone call from Pastor Tim. He said that I had been on his heart and he was just thinking that we wanted to talk to me, and then he received my message. Within a few short minutes, he had agreed to present our request to their mission board and suggest they contribute $5,000.

I hung up the phone and walked around that village hillside with tears in my eyes. I felt God telling me to next call Pastor Duff with the Breiel Boulevard Church of God. I sent essentially the same message to him that I'd sent Pastor Tim...

Hey Brother... I want to bend your ear for a moment. I have an idea.

I felt a little silly, and I busied myself with the project. One hour and ten minutes later, I received his response, "alright, let's do it." Like with Pastor Tim, Pastor Wes' response blew me away. He said that it was funny that I'd contacted him, because I had been on his mind. He promised to take our proposal to his mission team and also ask for $5000.

After the phone call ended, I was bursting with enthusiasm and started to message a third pastor... and again, God impressed deep and powerfully in my heart, "Enough. Just wait on Me."

Guatemala : January 16, 2016
Utilizing social media as a platform, and with the full confidence of the Holy Spirit in my chest, I set out with that original dollar in my pocket, my friend Antony as translator, Meme the CRI mechanic and bus driver as my wheels, and we set out to visit every car lot we could think of in the city. 

We came up with nothing as I tweeted live video updates throughout the journey. Towards the end of the day, we found a possibility on an online classified. It perfectly matched what I'd been looking for, an old Ford F350 Econoline. I'd had previous discussion with two different people, and I'd envisioned this very van. The only issue was that it was at a mechanic's shop with a bad fuel injector. We made a call and scheduled to see it the following morning. Tag line #VanHunt would continue the next day.

Tampa, Florida : January 16, 2016
That evening, friends of ours who had been among our very first donors and have since developed into key partners, contacted me to pledge $2,000, payable in March. What a powerful affirmation this was! While we were only $1,000 off of the purchase price, the reality is that we'd need to pay a mechanic to inspect the engine, purchase tires, a luggage rack for the roof, and reinforced steel for the bumpers. God had provided us confidence for the future.

Mt. Victory, Ohio : January 16, 2016
After being encouraged by my friend, Kevin, I make a call to Steve White, who was with us on January 8th, the day I was making calls to Pastors Tim and Wes. We joked about the trip and all the hard surfaces in Guatemala: chairs, buses, beds, concrete, etc. I joked that if his church would be willing to donate our final $1,000, I'd honor him by declaring the shotgun seat of the van to be the "Steve White Seat". I assured him that it was the softest seat I'd ever encountered in Guatemala! He agreed on the spot to raise the funds!

Guatemala January 17, 2016
The day began with Twitter videos as folks shared with me this walk of faith. I felt energized like I've never known. I was confident that God was guiding my steps. 

And then I saw the van. After following a man on a motorized bicycle up a mountain highway and down back alleys... the white Ford van was an absolute mess! It wouldn't start because it's parts were strewn all over the ground and inside the cab. It was dirty, nasty, and dented. Even so... I was sure that it was our van and so we began to negotiate price.

That's when a notification hit my phone. It was my friend, missionary Britt Harman. He said, "Hey man we have an '07 Chevy 12 passenger van in our neighborhood if you're interested in it. I think they want like 12 grande or something." At first I thought, "Naw, that's too much... and we have a van right here." But then, I decided to message my mission director, Fontaine, and bounce the idea off of him. 

He was sharper than me in the moment and I was thankful that I had him to keep me from making silo decisions. We got the number of the van, made a call, and set out of the city towards Jocotenango. We found the van... and it was everything I'd hoped to find. It was beautiful. It looked pristine. It was a 15 passenger rather than a 12. 

We test drove it and began negotiating price. Of course this was a complicated matter. The guy who showed the van was an intermediary. The owner lived in Canada and his mother held the power of attorney... in the northernmost tip of Guatemala.

Puerto Barrios, Guatemala : January, 2016
Teresa Lopez had been praying. She was a Christ follower and she'd had her van for sell for over two years. She was in need of money and she'd been praying that God send someone to buy her van. It wasn't advertised, it had just been sitting at a property that her son held about six hours south.

Guatemala City, Guatemala : January 19, 2016
The night we exchanged check for title in a parking lot inside Guatemala City, we shared our faith stories and embraced as we realized that God had met each of our needs. This is the type of story that only God can author... unknown people from across the globe, being aligned by His voice, in His timing, to work our divergent paths according to His purpose.

Mt. Victory, Ohio / Mixco, Guatemala : February 2, 2016
I receive a Facebook message from Jeannie Brill of Mt. Victory and Ridgeway United Methodist Church, with the anticipated news that the Church had raised the final $1,000. After celebration with her via Facebook chat, I contacted my director, Fontaine, to let him know that all funds are now secured. 

Beginning with a single dollar, eight months ago, this faith journey, this #Vanhunt has been completed. 

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:6

To read the full story as it unfolded, follow it all right here:

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Sacred Exchange

Maybe it's just the reminder that were not so different in what we need, it's what we have that divides us. When we make ourselves vulnerable enough to give to someone who has less than us, we are forced to acknowledge that we have more. It's only natural at that point that we begin to self-examine and we feel both the weight of what we have, and the vacuum of what we lack.

There is a sacred exchange that occurs when we give with intention and naked sincerity. It's more than writing a check or tossing candy to children as if they were chickens scurrying for feed.

It's what happens in that moment when you kneel in the dirt to look a nearly blind women in the eye, knowing that your connection with her is more important than the stain that you'll get on the knees.

You feel it course through you when you take that small hand that is gnarled from decades of forming tortillas and frying them over a smokey wood and cinder block fire. The rough and split texture of her skin rests against your sanitized hands. There is somehow a deep knowledge and wisdom that bears evidence through the pain of her broken grip.

The world somehow comes into focus through the smoke-hazed air that is illuminated by sunlight breaking through the dry-stalk walls. A single lightbulb hangs at the end of a bare-tipped wire. Worn and old photographs hang with evidence of smoke and water damage. The dirt floor is swept smooth and yet dust clings to your leather shoes. 

A small fire burns in preparation for lunch tortillas and the smoke makes your eyes water and throat burn as you notice the blackened walls and ceilings. You her them breath the black air and you cough as you imagine the condition of their lungs.

They exist on so little. In such a small place. 

And then you're destroyed as you realize her generosity, offering you a chair while she sits on a block, or asking if you'd like a tortilla. You can't help but notice her feet, bare in the dust... and yet, you are amazed by the skill evident in the woven textiles wrapped around her waist and the intricate patterns of her shirt. She is beautiful.

You see her somehow different as the sunlight sparkles off of her dark hair, braided with a ribbon. She has lived in this place, filling it with warmth, making it a home. She has labored with gathering, cutting, and carrying wood every day for longer than you can imagine. Each morning she carries water from a source down the road. Every act intentional. Every thing you take for granted, come with a high cost for her. And... here you are, being made welcome in her house.

The sounds of cooking fill your ears from neighbors whose small adobe and stalk house rests on the land only a few feet from where you stand. Hens cluck, roosters grow, and skinny dogs stand in the doorway. You are overwhelmed by your senses and emotions. Communication is nearly impossible since the older generation here speaks one of many Mayan languages. You look to Antony and Pastor Salomon, and you are desperately aware and thankful that they can translate.

Introductions are made as you tell of where your from and try to articulate somehow who you are and why you're here. You listen with silent horror as you learn about the condition of lady that you've come to meet. Suddenly things are very real and raw. You're not "ministering" to the "poor" as a "missionary." Suddenly you are a human who is engaging another human with sight, touch, and sound as she tells you that her hip is broken, her children have abandoned her, and she explains that her entire body hurts when she tries to breath. 

You think of all that you have and your life feels measured by this moment. You see her pain and you are somehow powerless and accountable. Your voice just sounds ridiculous when you ask her, "May we pray with you?"

She says, "Yes, please," with tears in her eyes that spill down her cheek. Your body betrays you as feel your own eyes moisten and your breath gets constricted. You start to pray.

You start to pray and you just feel like a fake, a loser, a hypocrite, and really all you want to do is leave this place. But you can't, because everyone is watching and so you just keep struggling to find the right words.

And that's when it happens.

In your desperation, you reach out to God. You are shocked to find how present He is there. He fills you with His spirit as He tells you that He loves her. He sees her. He comforts her. Her faith is mighty. You know this as you hear her weeping and crying out to God. And... God tells you that He also loves you. He sees you. He loves you, and now you tremble as you realize that He is also here to comfort you. 

We really are not so different in what we need.

You realize that something has changed. Something indescribable has been torn away. It's no longer them and you in this place, but you realize that she is your sister. She is your mother. She is just as desperate as you are to find something real, true, and meaningful in this broken life.

You are emotionally stripped as you let barriers fall and you embrace her, no longer aware the care of getting your clothes dust covered. Somehow... she has given you a fresh breath, a renewed vision, and something that you can only describe as a cleaner soul. 

You remember the 30 eggs and the box of oil, rice, beans, oatmeal, salt, sugar, noodles, powdered nutrients and fortifications, paper supplies, and soaps. You see the intense gratitude in her eyes as you carry it to her and you are crushed with intense emotion as you count the days until what you give her will run out. It is impossible to keep your composure. You recognize the stark dichotomy of your life and hers again.

You cry out to God to have mercy on her in her poverty, and also for Him to have mercy in your own. Silently you wonder if the condition of her soul might be better of than your own.

You gather for a photo, final hugs, and then you walk out of that place, clearing your lungs, knocking the dust off your pants, and you walk in silence up the dirt and rock road with your friends.

Your silent because you're trying to pull yourself together... you've got five more families to meet. The day is difficult. However, even giving life to this thought makes you feel unworthy. You've never had to live like that.

But you also know that this day is worth more value that you can conceive. God is speaking to you. He is breaking you. He is allowing you to see people like He sees them. He is also showing you that He sees you the same way. 

This is a day of miracles. You'll hold it in your heart forever. After you go, your memory will remain. They'll remember your faces, your touch, your tears. They'll remember that their bellies were filled for many nights because of you. They'll give thanks to God that you came. They'll never forget that He sent you from across the ocean just to acknowledge that they are there.

We all are one family. We all need to be restored to Him. Our poverties are different, but our salvation is the same.

Thank you to Ansonia Church of God for coming to press into the lives of the beautiful people of Guatemala. All of us who were there on this day: Alisa, Caylee, Antony, Sophie, Donavan, and Pastor Salomon knows the individual stories represented in each photograph. 

We remember the smiles, the laughter, and the tears. Each powerful encounter was life changing for us all. I am awestruck at the depth of this experience and the sacred exchange that we were allowed to have as we glimpsed into the lives of these strong, wise, and beautiful men and women, our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom. It was such an honor to welcomed into their homes and personal space. 

I know I'll spend many days and hours contemplating these encounters. Be blessed.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Small Prayer with Big Expectations

How do you begin an impossible journey? 

Our departing team last week had a backpack seized at the airport security checkpoint. They sent word to us via Facebook message to their daughter, Alisa, and her friend Caylee, who remained to serve in the village and orphanage. All we had to do was go and pick up the backpack. Of course, it just isn't that easy.

The first attempt to grab the bag was Sunday afternoon... and the airport said that they do not return items on Sundays.

Monday afternoon, my friend, mission partner, and translator, Antony took Alisa and Caylee into the Mayan village where we met up with our local pastor and delivered much needed food and shared in times of prayer and moments of genuine life on life, mutual compassion.

And so after a powerful, yet emotionally exhausting day of praying with sick, malnourished, and critically ill families in the village, my friend Antony and I took Alisa back to the airport to made a second attempt. 

Thus began the impossible journey.

I knew some things before we left. Important things like, identification is needed to enter the airport, and in order to pick up luggage, your identification must match the baggage tag. Without ID, we had no right to claim the bag.

This was problematic for three reasons: (1) my Passport was at the attorney's office, (2) Antony's identification was across town in Kellie's car, and (3) Alisa's identification would not match the baggage ticked on the backpack that was registered under her mother's Passport. 

Even so... off we went. 

We were quickly stopped at the outer door of the airport. As expected, Antony and I could not enter, and although Alisa could (since she had her Passport), the office had closed five hours ahead of schedule. Antony persisted with the security guard and so he told us that we could walk out of the airport to the administration building and go up to the third floor to plead our case.

Of course we were met with more security there who again stopped Antony and I from entering. I gave Alisa my phone so that she could talk with Antony who would help her with translation. After 30 minutes of discussion between Alisa and the official inside the building, and Antony standing with me on the street, things were not looking good.

The official told us that we would need a hand-signed letter from Alisa's mother that indicated her consent for us to pick up the bag. It is about three hours round trip to get to the airport. If we had to return the next day, we would have to cancel our appointment to serve at a local orphanage. 

Even though I'd known the chances of us getting that bag were slim, I still felt crushed that we'd failed. We agreed to try again the next day. I walked away from the guard shack that was detaining us and just stood at the curb.

I began to pray.

"God... I know this is just a little matter. Still, I think you care about the little things. Here's the deal, maybe you want me to learn more patience, or humility, or maybe there's just a lot that I don't know, but I'm just going to ask. Can you please do something to help this? I'm tired. I'm frustrated. If we have to come back tomorrow, then we can't go and hold those babies. We can't help the staff at the orphanage, and I'm going to have to send this team back to Ohio without giving them an opportunity to serve those kids. Maybe great things could happen tomorrow? Maybe hearts and lives could be shaped for your purpose? I just don't know. God, I know this isn't life or death, or some major thing... but I'm just asking. Please make a way. Help us get this bag today."

I don't think I even closed it out with the expected, "In Jesus name I pray, amen." I just gave it to God and honestly, I felt better about it. 

The phone rang back. As Alisa was leaving, the guard said, "Hey, there is another backpack in the office in the other building. I think they're closed, but you might just go and try." Of course, this was the first building where we had been refused entry. Our little group discussed it when Alisa came down to meet us. I thought of my prayer and allowed myself a little grin while I told Antony, 

"You know, I've been praying about this. Let's try one more time."

Antony led us up to a different security agent at the gate who again said, "They're closed. There's no-one up there." Antony asked him if we could just try anyway. The guard agreed and let Alisa enter the airport. 

Antony and I waited outside as she boldly went in. Alisa crossed the corridor and made her way up the offices. Standing outside the locked glass doors, she could see her mother's backpack.

A couple of airline employees walked by and she tapped on the glass. They came over and she asked them to hand her the backpack. Foregoing all security precautions and violating airport procedure, they opened the door and gave her the backpack. Amazing.

How do you begin an impossible journey? You just start taking steps. 

There's really only two things to remember: it all depends on God, and we have to put some sweat into it. 

Oh yeah... it also helps to pray small prayers with big expectations. He really does care.

I think sometimes He just wants us to ask.