I don’t like kids. Or at least, that’s what I thought. I’ll sit and talk to you for hours about theology or why my man crush is Soren Kierkegaard, but ask me to babysit or hang out at a playground with first graders and I loose my mind. Also, I’m not the biggest fan of hot places. I spent most of my life in Atlanta, so now when I travel, I prefer Alaska to the humidity of the equator. Yet God and His divine sense of humor had other plans for my last week of summer than for me to wear flannel in the mountains and discuss existentialist philosophy. He sent me to Nicaragua to play with small children (and in case you didn’t know- the equator PASSES THROUGH Nicaragua).
As our 737 glided down over volcanoes and touched down in Managua, I thought about the absurdity of the situation. There were just three of us going on this little adventure, two close friends and myself, none of us spoke Spanish. We weren’t going with a nonprofit or organization, we had no plan. All I knew is we were going to a remote village north of the capital. If “excited” is synonymous with “anxious” then yes, I was excited.
After clearing customs, three hours later, nearly to the border of Honduras, our taxi pulls off the side of the highway and announces our arrival to the village of El Chonco (it should be noted that there was not, in fact, a village anywhere in the visible vicinity of where we had stopped). Confused, I soon learned El Chonco doesn’t have a road… so the last ten miles or so is via a dirt trail (it wasn’t actually ten miles, but you come lug a 50lb duffle-bag down it and see how you feel). Down this rocky path into the darkness of the jungle we march, soon arriving to El Chonco, a village of about 300 families that rests precariously at the base of an active volcano.
My friends had been to Nicaragua before, and I had the opportunity to meet their friends Abraham and Erica. Abraham works for a nonprofit and Erica stays home with their three children. I’ve been to thirty-five countries across five continents and I have never seen poverty like I witnessed in El Chonco. Yet, the tin-roofed home of Abraham and Erica was full of more love, joy and hope than most of the ostentatious brick homes that sat in the gated communities where I grew up. They are two of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my entire life.
As the week continued, we had the opportunity to spread joy, share hope and show love to a community that has been wrecked by poverty and disease. It was liberating to wake up each morning in my hammock with no agenda but to live, love and pray our new friends would get to glimpse the goodness of Christ through us. I don’t think nonprofits are bad, but in the words of Bob Goff, “Organizations have programs. People have friends and friends trump programs every time.” I may destroy the Spanish language when I speak it, but the beautiful thing about friendship and love is it’s an action, more of a sign language than something spoken outright.
One particular afternoon, I went to catch up with my friend, who had left to take the kids to play on the soccer field. As I ran to catch up, I saw one of the littlest kids had fallen behind the group, a five-year-old boy named Andres. Andres is one of six, he doesn’t know his father and his mother is a prostitute in the village. They live beneath a tarp not far from where Abraham and Erica live.
Andres is covered in dirt from head to toe, has lice crawling through his hair, snot and tears running down his face, and, to top it off, couldn’t get his overalls off and wasn’t wearing a diaper. Confession: I didn’t want to pick up this child. However, I bent down and tried to pick him up in spite of my reservations. To my surprise, he didn’t want to be picked up. A minute later though, the crying got harder and he lifted his arms in surrender. I took his hands in mine, and put him on my back and in that moment, I felt God say… “That little boy is YOU, JohnMark… ” I began to weep. He’s so right. I may not have lice, but I’m covered in my own dirt and often don’t want to be picked up. My prideful heart doesn’t want me to raise my arms in surrender. Yet the most beautiful thing about Jesus is I don’t have to wash my hands before I come back to Him. I just lift my dirty palms in surrender and He’s there, sweeping me off my feet and washing me in His everlasting ocean of amazing grace.
As I travel and experience grace in new ways, I’ve concluded God isn’t going to directly tell me where my life is headed. One day He might, but more often than not, He just leaves me clues, puzzle pieces. Taking what I know about Jesus, what He says about Himself and what He says about me, I can begin to string together the pieces and get a rough outline of where He’s leading. Additionally, discovering my passions; the things that break my heart, can be hints as to what makes me feel whole. Poverty and injustice have always broken my heart… but it goes deeper than that. It’s about people, not programs. Jesus knows my name. If I want to be more like Christ, I need to stop trying so hard to fix people and start learning their names. Names like Abraham. Erica. Andres. Maria. Sarita. Alesandro.
One of my favorite things about love is it multiplies. When love is genuine, people want to be a part of it. If you want to be a part of what God’s doing in Nicaragua, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below. Pray. Donate. Come. I used to think you needed to be special for God to use you… Now I know you just need to say yes.