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Ecuador 2015

Last week I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Ecuador with 21 teens and three other adults to minister to both missionaries and local Ecuadorians.  The 11 days we spent abroad will likely remain a highlight of my year, and probably in my life for several reasons.  God showed up.  Here's my brief attempt to give you a glimpse of what happened.

The team we took down was comprised of 21 very unique students, most of whom were 15 or 16 (the youngest we would allow).  I was nervous about our team being young and that so many of the students had never been out of the country, muchless to a place similar to the third-world set-up we were headed into.  There were very strong personalities and more than a few quirks (including my own) that made me wonder just how well we would get along for 11 straight days.  A majority of the students come from one of the wealthiest suburbs in the metro area -- not a bad thing, just another dynamic that would push the students further outside their comfort zone in Ecuador.

When we left, our leader John showed me a picture one of our parents had posted of their student giving their dad a hug before leaving that morning.  John said, "We sometimes forget: they're just kids.  They're bigger than the kids you and I work and live with, but they're still just little kids at heart."  It was HUGE to remember that everyone grows at their own pace and responds to stress and anxiety differently.  It made giving grace much easier when necessary.

So we collected their digital devices and passports and traveled for almost 36 hours straight and finally arrived in Manta, Ecuador.  I was shocked at how much the city of Manta looked (and SMELLED) like the city of Manila.  Even one of our students who is Taiwanese commented, "Wow -- this place is a LOT like southeast Asia.  The people just look a little different."  He was right -- there were streets and houses and neighborhoods that may as well have been labeled Brookside or Cainta because it was a flashback for me of how similar it could be.

While in Manta, our group helped out with a variety of ministries and tasks: painting the building of the church that hosted us, bringing gifts of Fritos, rootbeer, and Sour Patch Kids to the missionaries who lead us all week, visiting a women's clinic and giving gifts and a Gospel presentation twice during the week, running a VBS for a neighborhood in great need, and using the relationships we built with the Ecuadorians we regularly interacted with as a way for someone else to share Christ with them.  We had taken five hockey bags stuffed full of donations for the women's clinic and we left behind another three large plastic bags of our own clothes.  We visited a home for children rescued from abusive or negligent home situations and brought them to the ocean for a party at the end of the week. We also took up donations between ourselves for a few of the needs we saw: a family in our VBS neighborhood experiencing a very tough week, an emergency fund for the missionaries who lead us to use in that neighborhood in the future, and donations toward the interns and the families who served us so faithfully and generously all week.  Our students chose to sacrifice a combined total of more than $600 -- all of it being money they easily could've spent on souvenirs or things for themselves.

But the most inspiring parts of the week weren't necessarily the tasks we completed.  For me, it's the "God Story" moments -- times when something happened that made me think God was completely and totally in control.  Here are my favorite God Stories from the trip:

VBS in Costal Azul
Amanda and Will, the missionaries we worked for in Manta, had worked very hard to reach out to the Coastal Azul neighborhood and see what needs existed.  Previously, this neighborhood was not open to people coming in, especially "gringo's" (white people).  Just a few weeks before we arrived, the president of the neighborhood told Amanda and Will she would let them in.

We showed up on a Saturday and went door-to-door with an Ecuadorian from the church, inviting the children and families to the VBS we would host on Monday.  Initially, people were very hesitant to open their doors.  My group's church member explained that often, people in the destitute state these people are in are fearful of gringos because they think we'll take their children away.  No one I asked could quite figure out why this was the logic, because not even the Ecuadorian government can take away kids for more than 6 months.  However, once we started a game of soccer between our teammates, the neighborhood figured out that we weren't there to hurt -- we just wanted to say Hi and invite them to VBS.  Within minutes, there were easily 25 kids running down the hill to play soccer with us... and beat us handily in their bare feet no less!

VBS was a HUGE success -- far greater than what even Will and Amanda expected.  Each day we had between 45 and 80 kids of all ages.  We played games, acted out a bible story, sang songs, did a craft, and of course got our butts handed to us in soccer every day.  The students formed relationships with the kids so much so that a few of our kids physically couldn't leave.  Once we would yell, "New Life-- to the vans!" the little ones would jump on the shoulders or grab the hands, elbows, and legs of their favorite students who then couldn't move without dragging 10 kids along.  No matter how many times we said, "Chao! (good-bye)" they wouldn't let go -- they'd just giggle harder.


Relationships Built Without Technology
One of the single biggest blessings on this trip was seeing who the students really are when they're away from social media and their phones for an extended period of time.  I was amazed at the metamorphosis that happened when there was no longer an option to Instagram the moment or send a funny picture to their friends who were stateside.  Instead, they were forced to unplug and live in the moment.  This meant that for the tasks which were repetitive or time-consuming, there was no music to be played.  So the girls started singing anything and everything they knew -- Frozen, camp songs, VBS songs, bible-ized versions of dirty pop songs, and the screaming version of all of those.  The boys sang a parody to a song from LOTR and a wicked awesome a capella version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" complete with falsetto from the youth pastor.  Never once did I hear anyone say, "I can't sing." They just did!

I noticed that a few of the students who were more withdrawn before the trip or who had attitude problems started to leave behind their old mindsets and fit into the group.  We went from a conglomeration of 25 people who easily split into 5 groups and became a family with lots of quirks and lots of room to laugh with each other.  Besides a few situational instances, there were never any out-right fights or known hatred or even kids who were consistently ostracized.  Let's be honest -- that just doesn't happen with kids at this age.  The group dynamic was truly a gift from God that continued to blossom the entire trip.  There's no way this could've happened if they'd had their phones on them or earbuds blasting in their ears.

Protection from Harm and Illness
Disclaimer: Parents of students on the trip: Yes, these things happened.  No, we did not share with the whole group, so it's possible your student didn't know.  Yes, we're all okay. :)

Situation 1:  Ecuador currently has no law that prohibits prostitution and/or sex slavery.  Consequently, there are literally hundreds of "motels" where people go to hook up very openly and at very low cost. (One of our intern leaders said generally the cost is $5/night for a motel room, which is the distinct difference between a hotel like we stayed in and a "motel."  In the States, there's not much difference, but in Ecuador there is.  One of these places was on our route to and from the church (a path we walked at least 3 times a day).  While most of our team members couldn't read spanish, there was no denying that the scantily clad woman on the billboard was advertising for something we shouldn't be part of.  God always protected us from the traffic going into and out of that building.

Situation 2:  Any time westerners come into a situation like we faced in the VBS neighborhood, there's a high risk of illness or weird ailments, simply because EVERYTHING is dirty.  Think about it -- with no running, clean water, there's no toilet, no sink or shower, no tightly sealed houses to keep dirt out when the wind blows, and no way of knowing much different.  Thankfully, we were kept healthy, even after the soccer ball fell into "the pit" over a dozen times. (The pit is where everything goes when the community is done with it, including human waste, trash, old clothes and rags, and miscellaneous items that have literally just blown over the hill from the landfill a quarter-mile away.  It is wretched and deep, and the kids walk around the walls of it for fun.  They're completely unafraid of jumping into it to rescue a soccer ball.  It was unreal to see.)

Situation 3: Scorpion in the shower...  One of the students went to shower and noticed a little too late that he was not alone -- a scorpion had crawled up from the drain and found the water threatening.  With a very level head, the student then woke up his leader, who stumbled downstairs to ask me, "Uh, hey, Jacque... so, what should I do with a scorpion in the shower?"  I looked at him and said, "You mean besides killing it with your size 16 shoe?"  He didn't like that option, so he went and got the owner, who killed it with a newspaper and no fear whatsoever...  Crisis averted.  But we waited until we checked out 6 days later to tell the kids. :)

Situation 4: A drunk man stumbled onto our private bus on the way to the airport to return home from Quito.  After the bus driver physically embraced his arms with fear in his eyes, John moved to the front of the bus in case he needed to "bounce" this guy out.  Thankfully, the bus driver was able to talk him down and out of the bus with no harm done.  We asked our team member who was fluent in Spanish what he had said during the altercation, and he replied, "He's super mad because this isn't the puppet bus.  He's looking for a bus of puppets."  ...It might have been morning before this poor guy realized there is no such thing as a puppet bus... We had a good laugh once the door was closed and were we moving again.

Open Doors for Conversations
This is probably the biggest way I saw God move.  In literally dozens of situations, God had positioned people and events so that they were ready to talk or find answers.  One of our team leaders had 4 different conversations about faith and Jesus over the course of the trip and in every situation, God gave him the words and the right questions to ask to be able to get to the bottom of why they don't believe in God.

The VBS neighborhood was a large source of conversation topics ranging from basic understanding of the needs this community had, to education and its importance for kids, to human trafficking, to the difference between domesticated animals and the guard dogs at these houses.  In one case, a small group of our students had knocked on a door to a house to invite the kids to VBS and discovered that the family was in a crisis situation.  Throughout the week, Amanda and Will were able to talk with them, meet with them, bring them groceries, and comfort them in a very hard season -- none of which might have happened if God hadn't timed our arrival and collaboration with Amanda and Will as He did.

I personally had two conversations that made the whole trip worth it -- although it was worth it to begin with, I felt like God set these up just for me.  One conversation was sparked by the question, "Why aren't there any girls around here that are our age?"  She was 15 and she was right -- there were easily 40 kids under the age of 10 with only slightly more boys than girls, but after that, most kids over the age of 10 were boys.  We met two girls who were 14 and 17 -- the 17 year old was married and very pregnant.  I talked about how I didn't know for sure, but in a situation like this, many times the teenage girls have a job that's meant to earn extra income for the family. Different neighborhoods I knew in the Philippines had similar observations made and when the right people finally asked the right questions, we found out that often the oldest girl is often traded for money and sold into either forced labor situations or human trafficking.  The student was mortified -- how could someone sell their own kid?!
This lead to a deep and tough discussion about how poverty is so much more than "not having money," but it's a mindset that messes with one's judgment of right and wrong or okay because the will to survive is simply stronger.  The other conversation followed immediately after with another student who had been listening and processing the observation of no teenage girls.  She talked about how she always knew God had a plan for her, but she didn't know what it was, so she just told people she wants to be a make-up artist when she gets older.  She said that after hearing and seeing the life that these people are living, she wants to pursue anti-trafficking as a possible career path.  What an awesome moment of revelation!!

I would also like to add that one of my personal favorite moments of the trip was the inevitable "pillow talk" that happens late at night when we all know we should be sleeping, but talking is just too much fun.  The girls in my room and I shared one night where they asked me all kinds of questions about God, how I ended up in the Philippines, boys I've dated, etc. Without sharing too much, I can say that it meant a lot to me that they listened and could also see God working in me by the way I've lived my life so far.  I loved being able to be open and honest, even though life is hard sometimes, because I've expected nothing less of them.

Additionally, I think it's fair to say that the group of adult leaders I got to be with were some of the best God could've picked.  Each of us had different gifts but similar senses of humor, which made getting along very easy and a lot of fun.  Some of my favorite moments are the talks I had with each one of these leaders both individually and as the 4 of us after everyone went upstairs.  Each one of them could challenge my thinking enough to make my head hurt and likewise, my input did not go un-noticed.  I was so blessed by each one of them.

But I think the single greatest way I saw God move was in how He steadied my heart.  I can't tell you what was happening in my heart in the months leading up to Ecuador.  I had so many questions about how I would react: how similar would it be to Manila?  Am I going to be a know-it-all?  What if the kids actually drive me crazy.... But from the moment I woke up on the 16th to the moment I got home, there wasn't ONE moment of wishing I was anywhere else.  There were maybe two hours the whole trip where I felt overwhelmed or needed a break, but even so -- that's nothing close to what I anticipated.  I had SO much joy and energy that I don't even know what to compare it to.  One of the leaders commented early on, "Jacque, you look like you're in your sweet spot."  So right.  I was actually LESS stressed out than when I'm teaching preschool, and I was in control of almost nothing -- me, a control freak, not stressed out during 11 days of not being in control.  I thought it wasn't possible!  This hard working mission trip became a time of respite and healing for me in ways I couldn't have imagined.  God knew what I needed and He met me there.

All glory to God for His provision, protection, guidance, comfort, power, and sufficiency.  Praise God for a great trip to Ecuador.


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