2014 Youth Missions Blog

Day 13 & 14 – Thursday & Friday

I am sitting in a hotel room in Santo Domingo late on Friday night.  I haven’t had a chance to blog and don’t know if I’ll get a chance to get anything out tomorrow so I wanted to write while I could.  As I sit here reflecting on the trip and reading back over the blog I realize that there are some gaping holes in my picture that need to be filled in for you to better understand what we’ve been doing and why I have been writing the way I have been writing.

First let me give you a little bit of background on LeaderTreks and why we have an ongoing relationship with them.  LeaderTreks is an organization based out of Chicago that helps ministries to develop leadership abilities in youth.  Their vision is to equip youth to go home and fulfill the Great Commission.  They do this through curriculum, leadership training seminars/sessions, and mission/adventure trips.  LeaderTreks trips aren’t for every group.  They are intense and intentional.  They challenge and facilitate growth.  The reason we partner with LeaderTreks is because we share a similar vision.  At Outbound we believe that every student has been called to be a leader.  That may mean leading themselves or family members or classmates or teammates or youth group members or co-workers…but everyone is called to have an influence for Christ.  When we say leadership that is what we mean…influence.  Our desire is to challenge students to use the influence they have for Christ and advancing His kingdom.  One thing that I believe very strongly in is the idea that growth comes through challenge.  When we workout, we tear down our muscles so that they can be built back up stronger when we recover.  Our faith is like a muscle, it must be exercised in order to grow.  As we step out and take risks with our faith, we are often stretched outside of our comfort zones.  This can sometimes lead to difficulty and failure.  We set high goals that cause us to stretch (goals we can reach easily often provide no benefit) and sometimes we don’t meet those goals.  Honest evaluation helps us to learn from those times and helps us to make the difficult changes that need to occur for us to grow.  When I have talked about failure or challenge in the blog, most of the time it has been because we have set very specific goals and have failed to meet them.  If we set a goal to practice for something for 30 minutes during lunch and then we don’t practice it during lunch, we failed to meet the goal.  When we set a goal to lay a row of blog in 20 minutes and the row isn’t finished until 22 minutes, we failed to meet our goal.  Failure isn’t always negative.  It can show us when we need to reevaluate or change our approach.  It can show us when we need to work more efficiently or when we are trying to do things in our own power or wisdom.  Failure on this trip taught us a lot.  I will reflect more on that in a bit.

Another thing that you need to know about this trip is that it is an intense impact trip.  Chris and Sarah flew with me to Chicago back in February to receive training and to begin a journey of leadership that has culminated with this trip.  I am pleased to say that they will continue leading long after we return home because they have both become excellent leaders.  During that weekend they were handed the keys to this trip and given the responsibility of driving it.  They have led the pre-trip preparations.  They have led the team meetings.  They have had a vision for what God wants to do in and through the students on this team.  This has been their trip.  As such, God gave them a very specific and very challenging vision for the trip.  They came away from the weekend in February with 3 main goals…those goals shape this trip.  First, they wanted us to set goals so big that we had to rely on God to accomplish them.  They wanted to strive for excellence!  This was because they saw in our team a tendency to rely on our own abilities rather than to trust God.  Second, they wanted us to be stretched outside of our comfort zones so that we would grow in our faith and return changed.  They have seen that happen on trips in the past and really see the value in being stretched.  Finally, they wanted us to take that change home and to be able to articulate it to those around us.  This was because it can be so easy to leave an incredible mission trip experience on the field and they don’t want that to happen.  Chris and Sarah have done an excellent job of casting this vision to our team and we have all entered into the trip with the same vision and same purpose.  Because of the intense impact nature of our trip, it also means that students were assigned leadership roles early on in the process.  We have known since April what areas we would have responsibility over and have had guidance and support in preparing for the trip.  We have all been putting in effort and preparation for our areas leading up to the trip.  Because of the goals God set through Chris and Sarah, our bar was set very high.  This often meant that things that normally would be ok, were not ok.  Good was not our goal…so there were many times when things happened that were “good” but that wasn’t ok for us because we were striving as a team for excellence.

There is one final piece of the puzzle that you need and that has to do with the structure of our day and the program.  Each night we ended the day with team time.  During that time we always began with a period of evaluation.  This was a time when our team would celebrate the things we did well that day as a team and when we would talk about areas of the day that needed improvement.  We would also determine very specific action steps to help us improve the next day.  Action steps need to be specific and measureable.  The purpose of the action steps is to set us up for success in the future.  If our team would struggle with having God-focused conversations, we would set an action step the next day that each person on would ask 3 people what God was teaching them on the trip at some point during the following day.  If our team would struggle with being on time, we would set an action step that if you made the team wait for you, then you had to wait to eat dinner that same amount of time.  If our team would struggle with staying focused, we would set an action step that each team would re-cast the vision for their area of responsibility before we entered that area to remind us of why we were doing it.  Action steps help us grow and help keep us accountable for that growth.  After eval time we would always have bible study discussion and other growth opportunities.  Finally we would finish with a time of encouragement.  So every night ended on a high note with students being encouraged and affirmed.  The process of stretching is always followed with nourishment from the Word and encouragement to build up.  LeaderTreks has 5 tasks that leaders perform and there are associated character traits that go along with each task.  The 5th task is evaluation and the Godly character trait that is required for it is honesty.  Our team practiced honesty with each other this trip and we saw the benefits of it.  I write this blog for loved ones at home following our trip and praying and supporting us, but I also write it so that when our team returns home, we can look back together on how the trip unfolded.  Perhaps at times I used a little more honesty than some readers are accustomed to.  If I offended you with that, I apologize.  However, I truly believe that when our team gets home and reads these accounts, they will look back fondly at what was written because they will remember more vividly the journey we took.  I also trust that God will provide growth on a trip like this.  In order to see and appreciate that growth, we have to have an accurate picture of where we started.  I tried to provide that.

With all that having been said, let’s talk about how this adventure has begun to wrap up!

Thursday was a LONG day on the worksite but a positive one.  There were times where things didn’t go well, but the team persevered.  We didn’t meet our ultimate goal of finishing our walls by 430pm but we did persevere and completed our task.  You may ask “why are these walls important?  Didn’t you say that they already had a fence in place?”  Let me give you some background.  The wall we built was at the front of the school property, adjacent to the road.  Before our team they had a couple of sections of cinderblock walls and chain-linked fence between them.  This communicates to the community that the school isn’t really serious about being a school.  Apparently having a solid wall is symbolic of taking the task of education seriously.  So, by finishing the wall, we helped to convey to the community of Monte Plata just how seriously Kids Alive is about education and educating the less fortunate kids in the community.  It is an interesting dichotomy because EVERYONE in town knows Ramon, the founder of the school, and everyone has a HUGE amount of respect for him…yet by their standards, the school wasn’t as “legit” as it could be.  We helped address that issue!  In our push to finish the wall, I got to work a lot with Chris.  He and I had a great time and he did a wonderful job.  It has been a joy to watch Chris grow on this trip.  As a student leader, he had a lot of responsibility and challenge thrown his way.  He handled it as he does everything in life…with a smile and whole-hearted effort.  He learned how to challenge and encourage his team.  He learned how to support his fellow student leader.  He did a great job.  His leadership and steady faith is a big reason why the team grew as much as they did.  Today on the worksite we laid a lot of blocks, mixed a lot of mortar and concrete, overcame a lot of obstacles and grew a ton.  Kristen missed most of the day trying to recover from being sick and so most of the responsibility fell on Joseph as the lone worksite leader.  It was encouraging to see him grow throughout the day.  By the end of the day he was leading the worksite well.  Perhaps the greatest display of leadership from him was when he circled the team up at the end of the day.  He pointed out that we didn’t meet our goal, took responsibility for not leading us to victory in our goal and then encouraged us with the way we endured and finished the task at hand even after our goal had passed.  It was a perfect picture of what we learned on the trip.  What we had done wasn’t excellent.  We didn’t reach our goal.  But we still celebrated God’s provision and goodness as He gave us the endurance we needed to finish the task at hand.  That showed character and resolve in our team and those were things we could celebrate!

Since we had missed our time goal, we were pressed to get to dinner and we had a special dinner that night.  Ramon and Juana, the founders of the ministry at Monte Plata (both the orphanage and the school) were joining us for dinner!  Several women from the church and ministry cooked for our team and we got to sit and eat with Juana and Ramon.  We chatted about the trip and the ministry and shared fun stories.  Then after dinner, they joined us for the start of our team time.  We had a chance to hear their story and the story of the ministry.  I wish I could do justice to what they shared but I can’t.  All I can say is that we studied Hebrews 11 that night and it was fitting that after hearing from Ramon and Juana, we looked at the Hall of Faith…because they belong in it!  The story of how the school started from nothing and how God provided was incredible.  The humility and faith just oozed out of them both.  Just sitting next to them made me feel as if I were closer to the Lord.  They were so gracious and humble.  They thanked us numerous times and blessed us with their praise and their stories.  It was a treat.

Today (Friday) was a day of transition but we are still on mission!  We started out with breakfast and a final time of devos before packing and cleaning our living quarters.  Floors were mopped, trash was picked up, toilets were scrubbed…we wanted to convey our love and appreciation for the ministry by leaving things in the best condition possible.  Then we loaded the bus and headed to Santo Domingo for a day of team bonding and site seeing. We ate lunch in a square and then joined a tour guide for a trip around the historic district of Santo Domingo.  He was AWESOME.  He rattled of dates and facts as he walked us around the city.  We went into the first cathedral in the west.  We climbed to the top of the fort, learned about Christopher Columbus, saw the building that was the first university in the west and many more things.  We had a chance to get some souvenirs for loved ones and even toured the chocolate museum.  It isn’t as big or as fancy as the ride at Hershey chocolate world, but it told the same story.  We even got to see cacao plants and try some hot tea flavored with chocolate.  Then we returned to the same square where we started and enjoyed a nice meal as a team.  After the meal we headed by bus to the hotel and had a great final team time together.  We celebrated all the wins throughout our trip, worshipped, studied Hebrews, and had a final time of encouragement through beads.  It was a powerful and encouraging night.  God is good and has certainly blessed us on this journey.

 As I look back now, still in the DR, still with trip left to experience, I’m in awe at how much God has done.  It may have appeared like a rough trip from the outside.  It was.  It may have appeared that we struggled as a team at times.  We did.  It may have not seemed very positive to those who weren’t here.  That is far from the case.  For every failure we had, we saw growth.  Most of our greatest moments as a team and as individuals came in response to times when we failed.  There is evidence of growth all over this team.  Every single person is coming home changed.  Every single person has been encouraged and built up because of this trip.  We have a unity and a bond as a team that is special.  Relationships were deepened.  Faith was challenged and because of that strengthened.  God did some really cool things in our hearts.  I can’t wait for your student to get home and share all the stories with you.  I want to leave you tonight with a verse that I believe will be the lasting memory of this trip for our team.  Hebrews 12:11 says “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”  God disciplined our team on this trip and we will reap the fruit of righteousness because of it.

Prayer Requests

  • Pray for traveling mercies tomorrow as we head home.
  • Pray for final deep conversations as we continue to grow, even as we travel.
  • Pray for opportunities to share our journey and experiences with people around us.
  • Pray that we would take our changes home and that people around us would notice a difference.
  • Pray that we would be bold in sharing that change with people.
  • Pray that we would continue to live life on mission.

Day 12 – Wednesday

Today was an average day…but average isn’t good enough for us.  We had periods of good work and periods of bad work.  We made progress on our goals, but not as much as we could or should have made.  Conversations were encouraging and focused on Spiritual topics but often only occurred in spurts.  Today we suffered from lack of ownership.

The best way to encapsulate our day is to share what happened right before lunch.  Things were moving along at a slow but somewhat steady pace.  We should have been moving faster, but there wasn’t any urgency and there wasn’t any ownership.  The mortar team had spent most of the morning keeping a batch of concrete fresh because we made too much and other projects weren’t ready to use it.  This wasted a lot of energy and effort from the mortar team as we waited on block teams to be ready to pour more concrete.  We also had to make mortar during this time so the block teams could continue to build the walls.  As lunch approached we needed to finish one more row of block to use up the mortar we had and to be able to break without wasting material.  The last row of block was laid in a very sloppy and careless manner…to the point that when it came time to put the last block in place, there wasn’t space.  Instead of properly solving the problem, people, along with worksite leaders, decided to just try and force the last block in place.  It wasn’t an acceptable choice.  As we started to be released for lunch, the adults had to call everyone back together and give voice to the problem.  The student leaders weren’t having a voice for the level of care we were showing, so the adults had to.  We ended up having to remove nearly the entire row of block, scrape off the mortar and start again after lunch.  It was discouraging and frustrating.  The workers didn’t care enough to do a good job.  The worksite leaders didn’t care enough to call their team to a higher standard.  The student leaders didn’t care enough to speak up and challenge the worksite leaders to lead.  Everyone just tried to pass the responsibility on to someone else (or to the piece of rebar in the middle of the wall that had contributed to the problem).  After lunch things picked up a little bit, but the pace and urgency weren’t there for all teams and as a whole we just didn’t excel.  By this point in the trip we know what we are doing and we know why we are doing it.  We should be doing better than we are.  The cool thing is that when this is pointed out we are taking responsibility for our lack of ownership and are taking steps to change it.  My prayer is that tomorrow we won’t have to point things out…we will own them right from the start.

Health update…our team continues to struggle with heat, sickness, and stomach stuff.  Allison had a rough morning but by mid afternoon was back with the team and is at 100% again (praise the Lord)!  The cool things about talking with her is that the joy she had before getting sick is still there and God is still doing cool things in her heart.  This sickness didn’t derail her growth!  Sarah was down for the morning, rallied, went back down briefly, and now is back to 100% as well.  Her lack of leadership and voice were noticeable on the jobsite this morning.  We are all glad she is back and that she didn’t get sicker than she did.  Late this afternoon Kristen went down too.  She seems to be dehydrated.  Hers doesn’t seem to be the same or as bad as Allison’s was, so hopefully a good night of rest will help…and perhaps she’ll be back with us tomorrow.

Dinner cleanup is becoming a strength of our team.  After dinner each night a team is assigned to clean up the kitchen and meeting area from the meal.  For the past several nights we have had additional help and the process has become enjoyable and efficient.  Tonight we had nearly the entire team helping out and things were finished in record time.  It was even better than last night!  It is such a joy to see all the students and adults working together to accomplish a task, with encouragement, goal setting and urgency all present in our team.

By far the most encouraging part of our day was during worship.  Throughout the trip we have been practicing and preparing for a “hymn challenge.”  We were broken into 3 groups and each group was assigned a different hymn (Be Thou My Vision, How Great Thou Art, and Crown Him with Many Crowns).  Our challenge was to present the hymn to the group in a way that would encourage us to think about the truths contained in them and to worship God through it.  Each group took a different approach and it was neat to see.  The Be Though My Vision group had someone sing their hymn while the other team members acted out bible stories that tied into the theme of each verse.  Afterwards we got to guess what each story was.  They did a great job.  Then the How Great Thou Art group played guitar and sang the hymn while the students in the group provided and interpretive dance, acting out the messages.  It was very powerful and cool.  The joy on their faces as they acted and sang was great.  Finally, the Crown Him With Many Crowns group presented an open mic night, flashing between a modern spoken word presentation of the hymn and an ancient traditional reading of it.  Through it all we saw our team engage with truth and worship God.  It was a really unique and awesome experience.

Prayer Requests

  • Kristen’s Health—she still isn’t back to 100% this morning.  Pray that she would drink and get rehydrated and back to feeling well asap.
  • Focus—we need to be focused tomorrow to finish our job.
  • Endurance—Pray that we will have endurance to finish this trip strong and relying on God.  We want to excel, not just finish.
  • Growth—Pray that all the lessons and things that have been happening on the trip would come together and form a complete picture in the hearts and minds of the students.  Pray that they would see what God wants and would have the courage and faith to act on it!
  • Worksite—Please pray that things would go more smoothly on the worksite tomorrow.  We have made it all this way without any drama or interpersonal problems on the trip.  Pray that the worksite would go well and that we wouldn’t stumble this close to the goal!

Day 11 – Tuesday

Today was a better day.  It wasn’t without hitch, but it was much better.  Before I get into today, there is one more thing I should share about last night…

I mentioned the change that seemed to happen with our team after returning from VBS.  Hearts were softer and exhortation was given and received with love.  This change coincided with the weather.  God brought the rains as we returned.  It was almost as if he was voicing His displeasure and frustration through the massive thunder and intense lightning.  I have experienced large thunderstorms before.  I have been in storms where the heart of the storm passed right over the area I was in.  This was different.  It wasn’t a raging monsoon.  The winds weren’t uncontrolled or dangerous.  It was just very intense rain (HUGE drops) and very, VERY loud thunder.  I can’t recall feeling thunder before…but that is the best way to describe it.  As the thunder and lightning passed, the rain continued.  Before long we looked outside and realized that the street outside the school was flooded…like several feet of water flooded!  It was only inches away from reaching the level of the basketball court and spilling over into our area.  I felt as though God had unleashed and then decided to relent at the last possible second.  I asked Jose, one of the guys who works at the school and is always around, if the rain ever comes over the basketball court.  He said, “Oh yes, if the rain keeps coming and God is angry enough.”  The floods crested at the highest they could without spilling into our area.  Whenever trucks or motorcycles would drive by (yes, they drove with water ABOVE their wheels) their wave would flow onto the court.  The local kids were all out trying to ride bikes through the water or running and playing.  Our youth wanted to go out and join them, until we reminded them of the open sewage troughs that line the street and pointed to the floating trash and sewage in the water where the kids were playing.  It was heartbreaking to see kids joyfully splashing amongst trash, debris and water that had been flowing through their sewers.  It felt to me as if, along with the rain, we also received a healthy dose of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  That most certainly is what changed our perspective and our attitudes around after such a rough day.  One of the by-products of the flooding was that we couldn’t go and get water as normal in the afternoon because the streets were flooded…that came back to bite us later…

On to Tuesday…

Today was a much better day for us.  Yesterday we were only able to lay 4 rows of block.  Today, in the same time we laid 7.  We took ownership of cleanup and everyone worked hard.  In fact, we didn’t need any help from the Dominicans and we received a “well done” from Juan Bautista!  We finished on time and were much more organized today.  I’m very proud of Kristen and Joseph for being more organized today and having an effective plan.  They set the rest of the day up for success and also accomplished a fair amount of work.  Morale was high and it was great to see everyone bounce back from a rough day on the jobsite yesterday.

After lunch we headed off to our last day of VBS.  It was a MUCH better day and a great way to wrap up the week.  We saw more focus and more intentionality from our team.  Students were more engaged with the kids and things ran much more smoothly.  Rachel did an excellent job of using the rainstorm last night to prepare for the day and was able to bring buckets of water with us so that we could let the kids play a sponge relay.  Water here is a valuable commodity, so being able to play with it was a neat treat for the kids.  They ran and splashed and had a great time.  At the end of the day it was hard to say our goodbyes and to send the kids out the gate with hugs and smiles.  We had formed bonds with these kids over a short period of time and had genuinely grown to enjoy them.  For craft the last day we had the kids make a 2nd bead bracelet.  They had made one for themselves the first day of VBS.  This time they made one to give away to a friend.  The neat thing about the bracelets is that they use colored beads to explain the gospel.  It was neat to see how many of the kids immediately gave their bracelet to friends or family members who were meeting them at the gate as they left.  The kids also received 2 copies of Charlie the Gospel Worm in Spanish—one to keep and one to give away with the bracelet.  Charlie tells the story of the Gospel using the corresponding colors of the bracelets (which happen to be the colors of his body segments).  There was a sense of joy and sadness as the kids left.  Sadness in knowing that our time with them was done, but joy in knowing that we had shared the love of Christ with them and had done it well.

Two powerful examples of God’s grace came out of VBS.  The first was with Allie.  She was able to rally and felt well enough to join the team for VBS.  This was neat because she had really developed a bond with a couple of the older girls in the group.  God gave her a window of health to be able to finish the week strong with them and share the love of Christ with them until the very end.  I don’t think they ever knew she was sick.  (She went back downhill at the end of VBS but has been improving and we hope another good night’s rest will do the trick).

The second God-moment came from Juan Carlos.  He is the boy who wanted to talk more about the gospel yesterday.  Kristen (Kids Alive) and Ellie had a conversation with him yesterday and had encouraged him to go home and think about things because he was still affirming salvation through faith + works.  When he arrived at VBS today, he was smiling.  Part way through the day I walked out to the steps and was greeted by Kristen, Ellie and Juan Carlos.  As I passed, Ellie told me “Juan Carlos just became a Christian!”  I was shocked!  Yesterday Kristen had been discouraged and sure that he wasn’t there because his answers were all about works.  She told me that during their conversation “he really got it!  His answers were spot on and he expressed his desire to be saved by faith alone, and not by his works.”  He had gone home last night, just as they had asked, and thought long and hard about what he knew about God and what he felt that God was telling him.  He came back today a changed young man!  What a cool picture of God’s grace.  The most incredible part is the healing that this helped to provide for Kristen and the Kids Alive staff.  If you remember back to the beginning of our trip, I shared about the difficulties that the ministry was facing with the death of Argentina and the death of a little boy in the river.  His name…Juan Carlos.  How fitting for God to bring Juan Carlos into the family at this point in time.  The connection wasn’t lost on Kristen and I really think it has helped her to process through the events of the past couple of weeks.

All in all, we served our missionary partner well through our VBS.  Anytime that a missionary can say “you’re team made my job easier these past two weeks” that is good!

The low point of the day for our team was definitely Allison getting sick again.  Although she rallied for VBS, she was back down for the evening.  Hopefully sleep tonight will help.  Her spirits are good, but it is always harder to be sick anywhere but in your own bed!  We are praying for her quick recovery but trusting that God has a purpose in allowing her to remain under the weather.

The high point for us as a team (obviously not the same as Juan Carlos accepting Christ but that was a God thing, not an Us-thing) was dinner cleanup.  The whole team pitched in and we set a goal and exceeded it.  It was probably the best 20-25 minutes of the trip for our team.  We saw joy, communication, service, teamwork, challenge, goal setting, purpose and urgency all in play at the same time.  It was a great way to end a good day.

I’m praising God for small mercies today.  We have had clouds at times and rains came right before bedtime and cooled things off.  Finding an extra pair of clean underwear or a clean shirt that we didn’t know we had, good food, Gatorade, a few free moments filled with a deep conversation, fresh mangos falling from the trees around the property, etc…all these small things are reminding me of how good God is.

Prayer Requests

  • Health—Allison and lots of the team feeling worn out and on the verge.  We need some rest and some good food and lots and lots of water!
  • Strength and Endurance—we now face two long days on the worksite, trying to finish our walls.  We need God’s strength to push us through these next couple of days.
  • Depth—one of our  action steps heading into tomorrow is to each find a question of the day to ask our teammates while we work.  The hope is that we will go deeper in our conversations.  Pray that God uses the time while we work to also impact our hearts.
  • Focus—we are getting close to the part of the trip where everyone longs for home.  We still have a lot of trip left and a lot to accomplish, but it can be easy for hearts to wander.  Pray that we would remain focused on what is happening here and now.

Day 10 – Monday

Sometimes I hate being right. Today, I was right…and I didn’t like being right. Satan showed up in full force today and our team crumbled. To say it was a rough day would not be adequate. Literally NOTHING happened on time or how it should have. Let me give you a brief taste of what I mean.

The day was bad before it started. The power went out for about 45 minutes at 6am. That means that fans stopped and people tossed and turned…losing the last bit of sleep from the night…and we needed the sleep! Breakfast was late and didn’t use all the supplies intended for the meal. Cleaning up from breakfast was late. Devos started and ran late…but not because of great spiritual insight or connection with God. Worksite started flat. We accomplished one task quickly and then fell apart. By the end of the work day most of our team was standing, watching the Kids Alive staffers do our work for us. The jobsite foreman and worker missed the start of their lunch because we were late. We had to find frivolous uses for the extra mortar we had made because we didn’t communicate well or set good goals on the worksite. We ended up over an hour late for lunch, pushing us to get to VBS on time. We ended up starting VBS late. The day did NOT go well…in fact VBS was a disaster compared to the previous days…and this was on “commitment day!” We had 1 student who wanted to talk more about a relationship with Christ, but even that conversation fizzled as it became clear that his view of salvation was one of Jesus + good works and not faith alone. VBS leaders had been given specific feedback and instructions to follow through in order to make tweaks to their original plans so they would work in the setting here and would support the ministry of Kids Alive at the orphanage. They never followed through on them. We were disorganized and had no passion or enthusiasm all day. You can get the picture. Satan certainly used Monday to break in and disrupt our team. Very few conversations were focused on God and things just didn’t run well. Everyone returned from VBS deflated. Then God got back in control.

I wish I could paint the remainder of the day as one of glowing success and incredible turn around, but I can’t. What I can point to is the hope that everyone on the team has right now. As teams debriefed from the day, we began to see really incredible growth happen. Sarah and Chris, who’s lack of leadership and voice throughout the day were noticeable as their team sank, began to speak honest truth in love to the other team leaders. They provided the pointed and hard feedback that was needed to grow and to improve today. As Sarah in particular began to do this, a strange thing happened…her teammates began to nod. She spoke truth to Kristen and Joseph, who had really butchered the worksite. They accepted it with gladness and worked together to find strategies to improve today. She spoke truth to Rachel and Ellie, who’s lack of follow through and lack of leadership really hindered VBS today. Rachel and Ellie thanked her for the feedback and furiously wrote notes so that they could improve for our final VBS session. (as a side note, they also had a very pointed and tough debrief time with Kristen the Kid’s Alive missionary after VBS was done and they received her suggestions and exhortations with grace and humility…and a smile!) Chris and Sarah finally began to enforce some of the rules we have in place and enacted some of the consequences in place for breaking those rules (over half of our team had to wait to eat dinner because they had made the team wait at some point during the day). Evaluation during team time was tough because everyone felt the weight of their failure for the day. We walked through all the different people impacted by our lack of ownership at various times. We named over 40 people who were impacted along with the overall ministry of Kids Alive and the Eva Russell School. It was an eye-opening discussion as students began to realize that their lack of responsibility had far-reaching impact. Despite the difficulty of the discussions and the toughness of the day, I can say that the day ended with everyone encouraged and hopeful for the remainder of the trip. Well, almost everyone. Allison went down this afternoon at VBS with stomach stuff and dehydration (in fact one of the byproducts of our lack of ownership was that we didn’t provide her with very good team care or comfort as she began to get sick and suffered with an uneasy stomach). She got some sleep last night but still isn’t back to 100% this morning. We are praying for her and trying to get fluids into her…the irony of the water team leader (who has been doing an incredible job) getting sick from dehydration. I can definitely see improvement today and trust that she will be back to her smiling self soon.

Today was a tough day for our team, but it was a necessary one. God restrained Satan so that he was only able to disrupt but not destroy. Team morale and unity is still high and there is a resolve today to rely more on the Lord and to work unto Him. That was the root of things for Monday…we reverted back to doing everything in our own strength. We didn’t look to God for guidance or rely on Him for strength. We did it ourselves and it showed. As parents and loved ones at home, please know this: I’m being gentle with my description of the day. Abbey had to call Ellen and I out for stuff and I had to call Abbey, Justin and Ilana out for things. NO ONE was immune from Satan’s snares today. Please know that days like today are necessary. They are part of the growth process and they are part of being conformed to the image of the Son. We are stubborn people. We don’t want to be changed. We don’t want to let God have His way in our hearts. We cling to our sin. Today was a day where God showed us what happens when we cling too tightly to it. He showed us that what He offers are better things. Better things is the title of our trip devotional, based out of Hebrews. Today we settled for those “other things” and they weren’t even good. We are hopeful that tomorrow will bring better things. In fact we are expecting and anticipating God to provide those better things. Pray with us along those lines.

Prayer Requests

  • Allie’s health—Pray that she would recover quickly and be able to join the team soon. Pray that the medicine she has been taking will work and heal her!
  • Focus—Pray that our focus would return to God.
  • Follow-through/Ownership—Most of our issues are because of lack of follow-through. We know what needs to be done, the adults have provided adequate encouragement and guidance, we are simply choosing to ignore their help and do what we want to do. Pray that we would be humble and would receive encouragement and direction well.
  • Unity—Pray that our team unity would continue and that we would continue to grow closer as a team.
  • Growth—Pray that God would continue to work in hearts as He has been doing and that students would be challenged to fall more deeply in love with Him.
  • Time—I would like to get each student to give you an update in his/her own words…but finding the time in the schedule to get 10 other people to write something can be challenging. Pray that God would provide the time needed so you can hear from each of your students in their own words.

Day 9 – Sunday

Today was neat. We saw God show up in several ways. It definitely provided some of the high points for the trip. It was also a challenging day for me as it was my anniversary. I found it very difficult to keep my heart into things throughout the day as my thoughts drifted to my wife and then my girls and then the Dayton team. Trust is something that God has been working on in my heart this trip. I have had to trust that He is in control…even when I don’t see it. During our quiet time this morning I wrote down an action step: today, whenever I begin to worry or take control, I will stop and I will pray, asking God to remind me that He is in control. I didn’t have to wait long before I got to implement it!

We got up extra early because we needed to eat and be ready to head to church earlier than normal. Everyone was dressed in their nice clothes and we headed out for a short, 10 minute walk to the church. It was neat to walk through the streets of town as we had never been through that part of town. It was very quiet and tranquil. Not many people are up early on Sunday morning and headed to church. The few people we did encounter were sweeping their sidewalk or gathered together as a family sharing a breakfast snack. Church was a neat experience. We sang songs, followed along as scripture was read and explained and really enjoyed the presence of the Lord. I was particularly encouraged because I was able to understand most everything that was said. At the end of our time in the service, Ramon got up and shared several announcements with the church. He mentioned the memorial service for Argentina, the lady who had passed away the Thursday before we arrived. He also welcomed our group and shared about the work we were doing at the school and at the orphanage. He thanked God for us. He even said “and I hear their pastor Jose understands a little Spanish, is that right Jose?” His smile and wave from the pulpit when I acknowledged that I had understood by smiling and waving warmed my heart. It was easy to see the spirit of the Lord at work through Ramon. After lunch we loaded the bus and headed back to the grocery store to purchase food for the remainder of the trip. This was one of the many areas of our trip that needed improvement from the first time we had gone. Lily, our food team coordinator (her partner is a bum and never helps her out because he is always blogging or doing other things!) was ready this time! She had the team broken into groups and had detailed lists for each team. She set a time goal and everyone headed off to get the things we needed to eat well for the last week of the trip. The first chance for me to trust God and not freak out was during shopping. We had been having trouble finding tortillas. I know! We are in a Hispanic country and can’t find tortillas! It was crazy! Last trip we gave up and didn’t get any. We had been assured that they were there but no one knew where they were! This trip, we were determined…but after many fruitless efforts, we were about to give up. I could tell that Lily was defeated and frustrated. I was feeling it too. As I was walking through the aisles looking I remembered my action step. We knew we needed to move and needed to get things to the front…there was no more time to look. I began to pray to myself, trusting God to provide an alternative solution. As I was almost back to the team, I glanced to the side and BOOM! There were tortillas and shells of all sorts, along with salsa and dips. How we missed this section, I’m not sure, but there it was! We were able to get our tortillas and even a few extra snacks and other enhancements that we didn’t think we’d have! Praise the Lord.

My second chance to trust God wasn’t far behind. We loaded all of our groceries on the belt and began to check out. As the seemingly never-ending line of food ended the cashier hit the total button. Lily had done a great job of getting all that we needed and it was time to pay. Abbey presented her credit card and that’s when the drama started. It wouldn’t go through. We had already taken a couple of carts out the door and loaded them into the bus. The final two carts were held hostage while we tried to get the payment worked out. Abbey went to customer service, tried making phone calls, tried other cards…nothing worked. She couldn’t get calls to go through and then when calls did go through, the people we needed didn’t answer. After 10-15 minutes of waiting (already behind on our time goal because of the tortilla drama and longer than anticipated checkout lines) things started to become worrisome. Abbey had gone off around the corner, presumably to try and get cash from the ATM and Ilana, Ellen, Lily and I were waiting while the rest of the group was outside with the bus. But that was when I remembered my action step. As I stood with Ilana, waiting to see what would happen, I said “let’s pray about this.” So I did. A couple more minutes passed and still no Abbey. I decided to walk down and see if I could find her and if I could help in any way. As I got to the ATMs I found Abbey and asked how things were going. She said they were working out. She had been able to get money out of her account and out of her team account and had enough cash to pay for things. She then shared how it was a miracle that she even remembered her pin for the team card…she prayed “God, please let me remember my pin” probably at about the same time I was praying with Ilana that God would work things out and we would have a cool God story as a result of the drama! God answered our prayers even as they were being spoken! How cool is that! We quickly prayed and then headed out with the final groceries to load the bus and head back to the school. Conversations on the bus (another 1 hr ride) were again encouraging and focused on the Lord. There are a lot of neat things happening within our team. We got back, quickly put the groceries away and quickly headed into our cleaning task…much delayed now because of our unexpected drama. It was great to see the whole team working together and with purpose and excitement. We were able to get the cleaning done as needed. Dinner prep was able to start early (and we needed every second of our time) and the night continued back on schedule thanks to our teamwork and good leadership from our cleaning and food teams.

The final God moment for the night happened during team time. One of the students came to the realization that they hadn’t been committed to the Lord over the past year and realized that they wanted to be. The student prayed to rededicate their life to Christ and was excited to serve Him and to be identified with Him. It was a very neat experience. I won’t go into more detail than that, because the story is the student’s to share, but know that God has been working in incredible ways in our team and this was just one of the ways we’ve see the fruit of it.

As we head into the final week of the trip, there is a lot still ahead of us. Our team still has gears that we haven’t reached and we have potential that we haven’t tapped. I am excited to see God push us and stretch us over the next week. I think there will be many changed hearts coming home and I am excited about that. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers over the next week. I have the sense that Satan is getting worried by this trip and that he is going to try to derail things. I trust in God’s protection and am asking Him to keep us free from the snares of the devil. Please do the same.

Prayer Requests

  • Transition—pray that we would transition well back into the routine of work and VBS. It is easy to get out of the swing of things over the weekend and we really need to transition back into things well.
  • Focus—pray that our conversations and motivations would remain focused on the Lord.
  • Growth—pray that we would find another gear tomorrow. I’m worried that we may “downshift” instead of going to the next gear…pray that we would accelerate!
  • Ellen—pray that Ellen would not get a migraine. She went to bed tonight with the start of one. Sometimes she can sleep them off and sometimes they are still there in the morning. Pray that she would wake up without one.
  • VBS—tomorrow will be gospel presentation day at VBS. Pray that God will work as He sees fit and that kids will hear the message of Truth clearly. Pray that they would respond as God leads and that we would be able to celebrate new brothers and sisters tomorrow!
  • Endurance—pray that we would approach this last week with passion and fervor and that we would endure till the end.

Day 8 – Saturday

Today was nice. We got to sleep in! We woke up, had a late breakfast and a quiet time and then got ready for our trip. We loaded the bubblegum bus and headed out to a local waterfall oasis. After about an hour or so ride we arrived and ate lunch. Then we walked down some stairs through the forest and arrived at an awesome site. Three waterfalls were plummeting down the side of the gorge, creating a pool at the bottom. There were people enjoying the cool water, playing in and behind the waterfalls and enjoying nature. We spent the day splashing in the water, climbing around, smearing ourselves with mud, jumping off of rocks (only 5 feet from the water, don’t worry!) and having a generally good time. One of the highlights of the day for me was when I got to engage with a local Dominican man named Freddy. Freddy was about to jump off the rock so he tossed his glasses to his son/friend (not sure which as they had about 20 people with their group, mixed friends and family). However, the toss was short and the boy didn’t catch the glasses and they quickly sank. Freddy frantically tried to encourage the boys around to get his glasses but they couldn’t seem to find them. After a few minutes Joseph and I decided to swim over and see if we could help with the search. We dove down a few times trying to see if we could locate the glasses. Finally, a member of Freddy’s group came up with them and everyone was happy. Freddy jumped in and came and grabbed the glasses. He then swam up to me and said Thank you. He was obviously the elder statesman of his group and the common link between many involved. He could tell that I was the oldest and apparently the “leader” of our group. We stood for 15-20 minutes talking. He asked about our group and I asked about his family. We talked about the US (he’d been in New York for 20 years) and about the DR and Haiti. We also talked about God’s creation and I had a chance to briefly share a part of my faith with him. He invited me to eat lunch with his group but I politely declined…although the pork and rice they made smelled heavenly! It was a neat conversation and another reminder of just how good God can be. It was also symbolic of our group’s day. There were a ton of deep conversations and challenging talks. The cool water was nice. It even helped Kristen get almost all the way back to healthy by the time we left. The bus ride home was filled with deep conversations about the Lord and about faith and how we were being stretched. It was great.

Team time started early and was interrupted by a late pizza dinner. All in all the day was one filled with encouragement and excitement. It was a good day for our team and a good day for our growth. Hopefully we will see the benefits of the conversations throughout the remainder of the trip.

Prayer Requests

  • Church tomorrow—pray that we would enjoy it, even though only a few of us will be able to understand anything
  • Focus—tomorrow is a very mundane day…easy to lose the purpose and mission that we are on…pray that we would do everything as if unto the Lord.
  • Rest—everyone is tired and feeling the effects of hard labor, emotional challenge, spiritual growth, and playing hard. We need good sleep!

Day 7 – Friday

Things have been so crazy that I haven’t had a chance to sit down and reflect on what God is doing. It is now Monday morning during worksite time…so I will do my best to recount all the highs and lows from Friday and the weekend. A LOT has happened and God has been doing cool things in our group. On to Friday…

Friday started out focused on God and my first conversations of the day should have clued me in to what type of day it was going to be. One of the students had approached me before breakfast about needing to talk to me about something. As I finished breakfast and the student was sitting across from me I asked if she wanted to talk now. We went outside and sat on a bench and began to talk. She shared with me how she felt something was holding her back from God and from growing as much as possible in her faith on the trip. We talked about forgiveness and confession and God’s heart in the matter. I had a chance to encourage and challenge and also to pray. The student shared some very deep and personal things with me and we were able to work though some issues together. All in all it was a cool God-moment and I really enjoyed the talk. We were both so engrossed in the talk that we didn’t even realize we had missed our chance to make a sandwich for lunch. But the greatest thing was: our team recognized what was happening and made sandwiches for us…exactly the type we each would have wanted!!! We are starting to see God flip the switch for this team and students are starting to “get it.”

On the worksite, our job focus shifted to building a wall at the front of the school. There is currently a chain-linked fence with a few “pillars” of concrete block between them. We need to make the entire wall a block wall…and increase the height by a few rows all the way across. In order for this to happen, we have to move a LOT of cinder blocks. Our team spent the morning “swinging block” and did so very well. No one was injured (although all were sore the next day!) and very few blocks were broken. One fell apart in Lily’s hands and a handful of others came off the pile in crumbles and had to be discarded. We worked hard and well as a team. We definitely shifted into another gear on the worksite today. Goals were set and they were challenging. For the first time all trip, we worked hard together as a team and still couldn’t accomplish our goals. We tweaked and adjusted and prayed and attempted again. Working and breaking for water and working and breaking for water we slowly found a rhythm. The bar kept being pushed and we kept meeting it. It was great to see the team working together like we did. By the end everyone was exhausted but excited. We moved 368 blocks into place to be used for the rest of the week. We have some more to move, but not nearly as many!

VBS also went well today. We went longer and were even more organized. At one point something needed to change midstream and team members jumped in and did exactly what was needed without missing a beat. God was at work throughout conversations, not just between us and the kids but within our team as well. I had the joy of watching God work in another student’s heart during VBS as He broke the student down and then began to build that student back up. God is so good and I am excited to see how the conversation at VBS translates into growth for this student. Another thing that was noticeable was the change in relationship between our students and the kids at VBS. They were much more natural today and much more engaging. What a joy to see kids laughing and smiling and being silly together. Also, most every kid could answer our questions about what we had been learning and about Christ. Hopefully things won’t be forgotten over the weekend and next week will continue the momentum. We still finished early and still had some areas that could be tweaked, but all in all things are going well at VBS. We are at a point where we are trying to figure out how to take things from acceptable to great…and I trust in the VBS team leadership to take our team to that next level as they continue to grow and trust God!

Today was a good day for our team. We saw a lot of positives and we are really getting into a smooth rhythm as a team. We will see how things transition through the weekend…I expect good things to happen!

Prayer Requests

  • Kristen got sick this afternoon and went to bed early. Pray that she would wake up tomorrow morning healthy and back to normal.
  • Focus—pray for our focus as we go into the weekend
  • Depth—pray that the good conversations started today would go even deeper as we have more time over the weekend.
  • Purpose—pray that God would remain at the center of what we do, even as we take a different approach to the weekend and have some more “team” time.

Day 6 – Thursday

Mission trips are interesting animals. Things happen slowly and then all the sudden hit warp speed. It takes a couple of days to find a rhythm and when you finally get into that groove, it feels like it is time to leave. This morning at breakfast (Friday) someone remarked…wow, it is already Friday! I remember someone saying yesterday (Thursday) that things were going so slow. Last night, Rachel even remarked “This trip needs to slow down.” Indeed today (Thursday) was that rhythm day for our team where things start to come together and finally run smoothly. To refer back to the other day, the car is finally in the correct gear and we are starting smoothly down the road. The key now is to accelerate and get up to top speed.

I’m going to try to keep today’s blog shorter so I can get back out to the worksite and help the team. I want to highlight a couple of things and I’ll also try to post pictures to our facebook group. If you aren’t a member, you can go to facebook and look for the group named Outbound to find us.

Worksite—we continue to have slow and steady progress with periods of success and periods of lull. Today was again chatty and encouraging and positive—at times. It was also a day with standing around and waiting as project responsibilities changed. The worksite team needs to do a better job of knowing what we need to do BEFORE we arrive and then knowing what is coming next so that we can transition people efficiently when they finish a project. We finally moved down to the main part of our project…changing the chain-linked fence into a cinderblock wall. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll get to start some good work on it.

VBS—one thing I forgot to mention yesterday in talking about our VBS was how efficient it was. In fact, we were so efficient that we finished an hour early! Yes, our planned 2 hour long Bible study was finished and cleaned up in under an hour. While what we had done was done well, we realized in debrief that we needed more. Today we made several intentional changes to try to lengthen the experience while at the same time increasing quality. During game time we earned the privilege of using the playground at Kids Alive. This was because of how well we ran things the first day and how well behaved the students had been. So today we split the group into 3 groups during game time and rotated through the playground. The other two groups shot baskets on the basketball court while the 3rd group was at the playground. It was a huge success! Later, during craft time, it was shared that most of those students had never played on a playground before. They had never had a chance to slide down a slide or two swing on a swing. These are 12 yr old kids we are talking about! It was wonderful to watch the pure joy on their faces as they played for 10 minutes on the playground. Craft time was another area where we tried to lengthen things. We encouraged our team to engage more with the kids while they were sitting and doing their crafts. It was neat to watch our students communicate with the kids even though there was a language gap. Those of us who know Spanish engaged in conversations and had a great time. It was a very positive and encouraging time for all. We are already making plans for Friday’s VBS to improve even more!

Team time—our team time tonight was encouraging and positive. We have a good time evaluating and discussing the bible study for the day. We took a prayer walk to pray for things in and around the school…it was a very powerful time. A time to talk through our growth journal and beads were also encouraging and positive. All in all it was a good experience.

Highlight of the day—for me, the high point of the day was returning from VBS. Although we went longer than yesterday, we still finished 30+ minutes early. When we got back, we did some team meetings and organizational stuff and still had free time before dinner. I pulled out my speaker and kindle and began to play some songs to worship to. It turned into an impromptu time of worship for our team. As the 2nd half of the team returned (half had left from VBS while the other half remained and debriefed the day with Kids Alive and LeaderTreks staff) we all gathered together for praise and worship. It was a refocusing on God that was much needed. Until that point, much of what we were doing had been compartmentalized. We would talk a lot about God, but only during devos and Bible study. We weren’t bringing Him into the entire experience. Worship seemed to pop that bubble…at least for last night. I noticed a chance in conversation topics after worship. Hopefully things will continue to trend in the right direction.

Overall thoughts—things are going well but still not great. We are still lacking some passion and urgency. We are not doing things for God but still for ourselves. Hopefully that change was made during our time of worship and we’ll see the impact of it going forward. Everyone is healthy and in good spirits. We are getting along well as a team and pushing through the challenges presented to us well. We are excited about what God is doing and looking forward to more growth.

Prayer Requests

  • Abbey’s continued recovery—she still isn’t all the way back and has to duck out here or there to make sure she isn’t over doing things. Pray for relief from pain and a clear head.
  • Focus and purpose—pray that God would continue to improve our focus and remind us of our purpose for being here.
  • Depth—pray for deep conversations and deep change. We are finally starting to get below the surface and starting to deal with deeper issues. Pray that this would continue.
  • Brokenness—I say it every day, but we are still doing things in our own strength. When pushed the students are still working out of their own abilities and not trusting the Lord…this leads to difficulty and a desire for things to be “easier” or more “positive.” We are not striving for excellence but are content with just getting by.
  • Energy and sleep—we are at the point of the trip where we need to recharge. We have that chance over the weekend, but we need to push through before we can get there. Pray for our strength and energy to hold out till we can recharge.

Day 5 – Wednesday

This is a really tough blog for me to write. I’m not sure exactly how to capture what happened in our day in a way that will translate to home. One of the challenges in being on a mission trip is that no one can truly understand what you are experiencing unless they are present. In fact, I had this exact conversation with Kristen, the Kid’s Alive missionary. She remarked how nice it was that her father had been able to come down and see things and live with her for a couple of days. It was nice knowing that she had someone at home who could relate to what she was sharing…someone who could help supporters and loved knows appreciate the updates she was sending home. I wish I had that person for today’s recap.

Today was like previous days…hit and miss. The cool part about the hits today is that they were totally God sightings. In other words, when things went well, they did so because God did something cool. When things didn’t go as well, it was because we were relying on our own strengths to attempt to accomplish them. Things on the worksite seem to be finding a better rhythm. Today we had good work and positive experiences. Nothing about the worksite was exceptional, but we worked hard and made steady progress. Team care on the worksite has been decent but we still lack passion and urgency. We are not working as if working for the Lord, we are still working for the sake of working. Projects are getting completed, but not at an astounding rate or with exceptional precision. There has been a lot of encouragement within the team and it has been nice to see the team working together and cheerful, despite challenging conditions. Today on the worksite would grade out as average…however average isn’t good enough.

Average isn’t good enough because that is the vision that Chris and Sarah have provided for this trip. They have three main goals for the team: 1.) Set goals so big that we have to rely on God to accomplish them. 2.) Everyone will be stretched outside his/her comfort zone to grow in his/her faith. 3.) To take the change home and be able to share it with those around them. In summing things up the team has a motto and a slogan: “Go big, then Go home! Greatness never came from average.” Because of this mindset, just getting things done isn’t enough. God isn’t pleased with just getting by, He demands our best and our whole heart. That is what we are striving for and what Chris and Sarah are demanding.

With that in mind, our day progressed to VBS. This was a source of anxiety and trepidation for many on the team. In all honesty, coming into the trip we were nowhere near ready to run VBS. If we had had to execute VBS on Monday or Tuesday afternoon, it would have executed us. We would have failed. Everyone on the team knew it. Our VBS leaders put in a TON of work on Monday night and Tuesday and early Wednesday. As we left for the site, I can honestly say that we had improved but I was still significantly worried. Things didn’t start out well. We pulled up to the gate and the first thing Kristen said to us was “you are later than we thought you’d be!” It is never a good sign when your missionary partner is concerned before you even drive through the gate! We got out of the pickup and headed up to the room while the Kid’s Alive missionary and interns kept the peace outside of the gate and waited. We quickly set up tables and chairs and frantically tried to get the room set up quickly. As we received last minute instructions we realized that we left the storyboard back at the school and didn’t have it. We finished setting up the room and people took their positions for the start of VBS. Some people went outside to welcome at the gate and get students signed in. Others remained in the room to provide guidance as students entered. Still others scattered in between to help provide crowd control and organization for the process. I sat in the corner, reading my material for the day and praying that God would show up and things wouldn’t be a disaster. Rachel was a nervous wreck and was praying the same thing. He heard those prayers. Moments later the students began to file into the room in an organized, calm line. They sat at the tables quickly and quietly and eagerly awaited the start of VBS. Things were off and running and they went very well! The day wasn’t without hiccups or areas that could improve, but God showed up and blessed our efforts. The kids were very well behaved. They did what they were asked and seemed to have a great time. Our team engaged well with the kids. All of the things that Kristen had warned us about avoiding, we avoided. All the things she asked us to do, we did. God brought things together in an incredible way. The leadertreks staff was surprised with how well things went. The Kid’s Alive staff was surprised with how well things went. The student leaders and VBS leaders were surprised with how well things went. God definitely blessed.

When we talk about VBS, there are a couple of things you need to know. First of all, we have mentioned that most of the kids are from the surrounding neighborhood, not from Kid’s Alive. This is the first summer that Kid’s Alive has attempted this and only the 2nd vbs where community kids have been invited to be a part of the vbs (last trip’s vbs was the first). Previously there were significant problems with behavior and crowd control and organization. In order to address that, Kid’s Alive decided to make some changes for our VBS. They only allowed 22 students through the gate and those had to be students who were not here for the previous week. We ended up having to close the gate on bunches of students from the community who wanted to attend but had already attended last week. Also, because we were late, Kristen and her staff had been able to help sort out which students had already been and which were new. They also had a chance to learn names, which can be difficult with the neighborhood kids. As a result, our registration process was simple and efficient. We think the fact that this week was limited has helped cause the students to want to behave, to ensure that they keep their space! Hopefully the rest of the week will be equally as successful.

Another highlight of the day was dinner…when Abbey returned to the team! She isn’t 100% yet but has improved a lot and looks like she will be able to resume leadership responsibilities and be with the team. At dinner we spent a lot of time catching her up on what has been happening and how VBS went. Ellie began to explain to her about our VBS and the vision and plan they have and how things went and how they want to improve and what they have planned for the rest of the week. It was a beautiful sight! It was EXACTLY what the adult leaders have been pushing her and Rachel to provide to the team (and they hadn’t been able to until that point). She articulated the big picture vision of what was happening and why. She articulated the purpose behind Charlie the gospel worm and accurately and completely shared the message of the gospel in doing so. She concisely talked about how things would run and what areas they wanted to improve upon. She excited talked about seeing God work and answer prayers and how excited she was to see Him continue to do it! It was INCREDIBLE! Then Rachel chimed in and began to talk about how she was praying and saw God answer her prayer. She remarked about how she usually doesn’t pray like that and never expects to see God answer her prayers and so because of that she just doesn’t pray much about things. She went on to talk about how excited she was to see God answer her prayers and how she wanted to pray more about things so she could see Him answer more prayers! It was a really cool conversation! What was really encouraging for me was to see the students say “if God hadn’t shown up, we would have failed with what we had, but He showed up and because of that it was a success!”

After dinner was team time. Team time was long. We got into some very important and deep issues. Motivation for attending the trip was challenged. Desire to grow was questioned. There were many long, awkward silences as penetrating questions were left hanging to pierce to students’ hearts. It pushed people to very challenging places. For the first time on the trip, we saw students’ hearts exposed and challenged. I think it will be the foundation for some pretty cool growth. However, last night was exhausting and awkward. (as I finish and post this blog on Thursday morning, I can already see a change for the good on the worksite…I’m excited to see what the rest of the trip brings!).

Prayer Requests

  • Justin and Abbey’s continued healing—both are back and doing well, but both are not at 100% yet. Pray for their continued healing and relief.
  • VBS—we don’t want to get complacent after a decent first day…we want to excel!
  • Hearts Attitudes—we have begun to get deep into heart issues with the team and that can be scary and tough. Pray for honesty, openness, and trust as that process continues.
  • Brokenness—at team time one of the areas we saw was hardness of hearts and attempting to do things in our own strength. Many team members need to be broken and humble and relying on God, but they aren’t. Pray that God would break us as a team to rely on Him and trust in His provision.

Day 4 – Tuesday

I remember when I was first learning to drive a stick shift alone. I pulled up to a stop sign, put the clutch in and rolled to a perfect stop. I put my blinker on and began to make the right turn I needed to make. Suddenly, the car started to lurch and jump and stop and quickly died. I was in a panic. I didn’t know what was wrong. All I could think was “ca-chunk, ca-chuck, ca-chunk…I just killed my car! What went wrong?! I know I didn’t pop the clutch. I know I was pressing just the gas pedal. I know I was doing everything right…what happened? Maybe I’m out of gas.” I tried the ignition and the car fired right up. I was still in gear so I tried to start going again. CA-CHUNK, CA-CHUNK. I started to coast as I quickly put in the clutch to keep from stalling again. As I slowly started back down the road I suddenly realized my problem…I was in 3rd gear!!! I had forgotten something basic and was trying to start from standing still in 3rd gear! Now that I am a more skilled and experienced driver, I know that it is POSSIBLE to start from that position, but it isn’t easy. It certainly is a challenge to do so smoothly. I think my stick shift experience is a great way to sum up todays experience: moments of success followed by moments of failure and inconsistency caused by overlooking basic, fundamental things. Let me explain.

Our morning started out with an earlier breakfast and a great time of devos. As the team headed out to the worksite I sat down to try and get the previous blog out to everyone (at the start of the worksite time each day seems to be when I’m going to be able to get away and get internet access the best). When they first arrived on the site, the work team and team leaders gave instructions and work started. Apparently it was slow, and there wasn’t much energy, effort, passion or team care. So, they started again. The work team and student leaders called everyone back together. They had “take 2” and cast the vision and inspired the team much more successfully. So much so, that I noticed the difference in the room. As I was sitting and blogging I began to hear voices echoing across the property. “Come on Ellen, you’ve got this!” “Way to go Alli! You can do it!” “Let’s go Jo-Lowe! Woot woot!” For the next hour or so, there was constant cheering and chatter and effort. Work was accomplished at an incredible rate and the team was hitting on all cylinders. But, like my brief success in the car, things quickly turned the other direction as the last half of the morning energy was lower and quality control suffered. We “finished” a job ready to head to lunch but the job was not finished. The task had not been accomplished well enough and we hadn’t done what needed to be done…and yet everyone was patting each other on the back about how well we did and how great it looked…and it didn’t look great! There were glaring areas where the ramp we were leveling were nowhere close to level. The area that we were taking the dirt from in order to build the ramp was also supposed to be level when we were done…it was not even close. As the students stood around cheering each other on as if they had just won the world cup, the adults and student leaders talked about the trip thus far. It was a tough conversation. It was a necessary conversation. After lunch we saw more of the same. Moments of brilliance on the job site followed by moments that leave you scratching your head. At one point we had a student receiving instructions for the next phase of the project from an adult turn and walk away in the middle of instructions and then begin to explain to someone else what needed to be done…incorrectly!

After the worksite we had a really neat opportunity. Most of the children who will be attending VBS starting tomorrow will be from the nearby neighborhood. Only a few will be the actual kids from the orphanage. This is because many of them have already had LOTS of VBS this summer and many of the others are away at a camp. So late in the afternoon we loaded up the pickup and had a chance to drive through the neighborhood next to the orphanage. As we turned off the paved road onto the dirt street the team was shocked. Calling the buildings huts would have been generous for some. Adults and kids alike were lounging or playing in the street as we drove by. They would often look and yell out “Americanos!” as we drove by. Many were excited to see us. The poverty and oppression really impacted our students. There was also a huge difference between the kids and the adults we saw. The kids were laughing and smiling. The adults were downtrodden and sullen. Rarely did we see an adult smile. Rarely did they wave. The lack of hope was thick in the air. After a quick tour through the neighborhood we drove up to the orphanage. There were kids there waiting for us to let them in…hoping that VBS would start. We had to encourage them that it would start tomorrow. Our day ended with dinner and team time. Highs and lows throughout the rest of the night were common…as with the rest of the day.

We are overlooking basic things and trying to do too much right now. We have moments of success and brilliance and then moments that leave you wondering. I am trusting that God has a purpose for our team and will continue to cause growth. One of the coolest parts of today was the way the students responded when critiqued. As we pointed out areas that were lacking or things that needed improvement, students were quick to offer suggestions, eager to try again and to grow. Even when the critiques were hard to hear, students listened, clarified and dove right back in to improve those weaknesses. I am encouraged by many of the conversations that are happening and the attitudes of students. As a team, and as individuals, God is positioning us for growth over the next couple of weeks. I’m excited to see what happens!

Prayer Requests

  • Abbey’s health—she is doing better but needs to fully recover soon J
  • Justin’s health—today he went down with exhaustion and achiness and a head ache. Hopefully tomorrow he’ll be fine after an afternoon of rest and a good night’s sleep.
  • Ilana—because of Justin and Abbey getting sick, more and more has fallen on Ilana. She has done an awesome job. Pray that she’ll stay strong and healthy and continue to do a great job.
  • Consistency—we need consistency as a team. Moments of greatness aren’t enough, we want to sustain it!
  • VBS—VBS starts tomorrow and we still have a lot of work to do as a team. The VBS team improved a TON today and has gotten us much closer to where we can succeed, but we still have a few things to improve upon before tomorrow afternoon.
  • Brokenness—we are still trying to do a lot of things in our own strength and not relying on the Lord. Pray that He will show us our need for Him!
  • Conversations—pray that we would continue to have opportunities for awesome conversations and that God would use those conversations to grow us.

Day 3 – Monday

Today was our first full day in the DR. We finally got a chance to get to the worksite and also to visit the orphanage where we will be having VBS. All in all it was a good day, but it was also an eye-opening one. Let me share.

The morning started with breakfast and devos and we quickly gathered on the worksite to jump into work. We learned that we have a few small projects and one major one for the week. To start we are helping mix move and pour concrete to help with drainage around the new preschool expansion building. They are almost finished with this new building and we get to help. Our main project for the week will be tearing down a chain-link fence and building a wall in its place. The time on the jobsite was rough, as expected for a first day. There was a lot of standing around and a lot of wasted effort as we learned what needed to be done and found more efficient ways to accomplish those tasks. We were waiting on materials, direction, instruction and vision. Things were not going well…and then everything changed.

Abbey walked up to me and handed me a cell phone and told me that her boss wanted to talk to me. As I spoke with Dan, it was easy to tell he was concerned. Abbey’s sickness can be pretty debilitating and pretty painful. It takes a while to get over it and requires a lot of rest. Dan knows Abbey and knows she will fight and push through. Dan and I began to discuss options and pretty quickly both came to the same conclusion: we need to make Abbey rest. If we don’t force her to do it, she is going to linger and linger with this sickness. As of now, our plan is to confine her to her bed for a couple of days and to re-evaluate. This means that she won’t be building relationships with the students, she won’t be leading the team, she won’t be facilitating anything. Justin and Ilana, our interns, will be running that. It also means there could be some more responsibilities on me, as the trip leader. This was an easy decision to come to and I’m glad that I had a chance to talk with Dan about it…I had essentially told Abbey the same thing the night before, but it was great to have Dan backup the advice and make the official call! Please be in prayer for Abbey and her health. She has chickengunya (I’m sure that is spelled wrong but that is how it is pronounced). She is in good spirits, but these next couple of days are going to be a challenge for her. She is a lot like me and like the control and the influencer role. Since she cannot have that and has to rely on God, it will be tough for her.

After getting off the phone with Dan I knew that things needed to change for our team. We provided some more direction and encouragement and the team took off. The 2nd half of the work morning was much improved. We saw teamwork, urgency and care. There is still a lot of room for improvement, but it was encouraging to see God already growing and developing our students.

After lunch we had a chance to go visit the orphanage and to see where we will be running VBS. We also had a chance to spend more time with Kristen, the Kids Alive missionary who lives at the school. She shared with us about the poverty and abuse that many of the kids in their program face. She also shared with the team the fact that one of the students who attends the school, a 2nd grade boy, drowned in the river on Thursday. He was down by the river collecting firewood so his family could build a fire in their backyard to cook and eat. Later that night, one of the volunteers and dear friend of the school lost her battle with cancer. They are dealing with 2 deaths less than 12 hours apart. It was a sobering and heartbreaking reminder of how much they need the gospel here. Our trip to the orphanage was cool. As we drove up, we were met by a swarm of kids from the neighborhood. They were hoping that VBS would start today! We had to tell them that it wouldn’t start until Wednesday but to come back. They promised they would. The orphanage is really nice. They have 4 houses, although only 3 of them are currently being used. The fourth house was damaged in the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and has never been fixed. There is no urgency to make the repairs at this point because they don’t have enough children in the program to need it or another house parent to live in the house. They also lack the funds. They have a small grass field and a basketball court to play games on. They recently finished a big community building and that is where we will get to host VBS. While we sat up there and learned all about the policies and procedures with Kids Alive, it began to rain. It was HEAVY rain on a tin roof. This is apparently a typical afternoon thing. We need prayer for loud voices if it rains…it was nearly impossible to hear! With a better understanding of what we have to work with, we headed back to the school to prep and run a mock VBS. The 4 adults (me, Ellen, Justin and Ilana) got to be students and act like the kids will act on Wednesday…Justin and I had WAY too much fun! Our mock VBS was disaster…and that is putting it nicely. Our team has a lot of work to do between now and Wednesday if we are going to have a successful VBS program. During our debrief of the event, an important point was made: the effort and preparation has provided potential, but something else is needed from our team to make it work. As with just about everything so far on the trip, our first try was rough and we need to improve. However, there is also hope because we can see glimpses of success and the potential is great. There have been a lot of great things so far and I don’t want the message going home to be one of doom or defeat or despair. Everyone is in good spirits and the team is getting along great. We haven’t had any drama and everyone is encouraging and starting to find their groove. We are only through one full day and we have a lot of time to go. I have a feeling that God is going to do some pretty incredible things and so I want to paint a detailed and accurate picture of the “before” so that when we see His finished masterpiece was can truly appreciate the transformation. With that in mind, nothing has failed completely, but nothing has happened well enough to be applauded. We are still trying to do things in our own strengths and abilities and then justifying the poor results. We need to set the bar higher and trust God to provide what is needed to get us over it. As with VBS, the potential is there, God is going to have to show up and do some incredible things to push this group further…I have a feeling He will!

Prayer requests

  • Abbey’s health
  • Team urgency and passion
  • VBS prep
  • Continued growth
  • God’s presence and Spirit to move within our team
  • Our brokenness. God can’t build us up into what He wants until He tears down what we’ve built ourselves. We need to be broken.

Day 2 – Sunday

After finding our hosts in the airport lobby, we quickly dove right into Dominican culture as we loaded a “bus” and headed to the grocery store. Our bus was decked out with pink curtains and smelled of bubble gum. We had to load our luggage in an enclosed trailer being towed behind the bus. Driving in the DR is like driving in many other foreign places I’ve been: traffic laws are suggestions and drivers do what they want. It can be intimidating at first, but ultimately is not that big of a deal. The roads were well maintained and the outskirts of Santo Domingo were relatively clean and well maintained. We made our way to La Sirena, a local version of wal-mart. There we enjoyed our first authentic Dominican food and did some shopping. As with everyone thus far, our first attempt was a little rough, but we are hoping for improvement. We sent students out with a time goal and a specific food need to accomplish (you guys are in charge of pasta. We need angel hair, penne, elbow macaroni and fettuccini noodles for 14 people. Be back up here by 1:15.) We got most of the food we thought we needed but didn’t do it as quickly as hoped. We also didn’t think through all of what might be needed for certain meals so we are missing some sides and spices and things like that. All it all it was a good first try but has left a lot of room for improvement.

After lunch and shopping we jumped on the bus to head out to Monte Plata. It was a little over an hour away. The roads were fine and the trip was relatively quick. We got to see several different sections of the DR as we drove. We spent time in the city, drove through rural towns and even went through agricultural areas. We could see mountains in the distance and even a few bolts of lightning. The most significant thing about the trip to Monte Plata was the attitude of the team. Conversation was chatty and light and focused on very frivolous things. Several times I looked at Abbey and we exchanged glances saying “if things are going to be like this, it is going to be a LONG two weeks.” Spiritual, serious questions from the leaders quickly disintegrated into jokes and hashtags and social media quips. They actually exclaimed “we don’t have access to twitter so we have to tweet out loud.” As we rode I couldn’t help but look out the window and wonder what God has in store for this trip.

Exhaustion and heat overwhelmed our team this afternoon. We arrived, got the lay of the land, ate some dinner and had a brief team time. We also discovered that Abbey, our trip leader, has contracted a sickness that causes fatigue and extreme joint pain. She has tried to push through it but you could tell that it was taking its toll on her by the end of the day. Bedtime was 830 tonight and it was much needed. Despite the loud music, everyone fell asleep quickly and slept through the night. The temperatures dropped nicely during the night and several of the girls even woke up cold and grabbed blankets to snuggle up for the rest of the night.

There are two important things to know about our living conditions: 1.) they are loud. Roosters and motorcycles create a constant noise during the day. At night we are flooded with music from the house across the street. That house is the local brothel. The music begins in the afternoon and plays, LOUDLY, until nearly midnight. If we hadn’t been told about the source of the music, we would have assumed someone was having a long party. The music reminds us constantly of the need for prayer and the gospel in this community. We are staying at the Eva Russell school, a school for orphans and oppressed children in the community and right up the hill is a brothel. People don’t have work and are lounging around the town, but not around the school. Everyone knows the school and the orphanage and is appreciative and supportive. In fact, I asked one of the missionaries if she worried about theft or problems here. Her response was not at all…if someone ever did try anything there would probably be 10-15 people who would “try something on them” in response. Ramon is the founder and head of the ministry here and he is known throughout the country. He is respected and his name has helped the missionaries out of difficult situations on more than one occasion. 2.) It is hot and sticky. The heat is not overly oppressive, but combined with the humidity creates a heaviness in the air. We have no AC but ceiling fans moving the air helps an incredible amount. We sleep under mosquito nets to be safe and thankfully the air movement moves through them. We hear that afternoon thunderstorms can help cool down the temperature as we are in the rainy season. Just sitting makes you hot and any activity results in sweat. Wifi here isn’t great so I don’t know when I’ll be able to post this blog, but hopefully soon.

Prayer Requests

  • Pray for rest
  • Pray for our focus and attitudes
  • Pray for Abbey and her health
  • Pray for God to do amazing things in our hearts over the next two weeks!

Day 1 – Saturday

If preparations and heading out for the trips are any indication, we are going to have a great time. Gathering 23 people and loved ones together to load up, pray, say goodbye and head off can be a challenge. It was such a neat treat to be able to hug family and friends and then watch two teams head out in different directions but with one purpose. We have already spent a lot of time praying for the Dayton team.

Travel to and through the airport was as smooth as could be. Below I will share Joseph Lowe’s thoughts from being in the airport for the night. He claims he tried to write as if it were me…and he did a pretty good job. Here is what he had to say:

“Hello Pa residents, we have successfully landed in Miami and all is well. Our flight was the best that could have been expected, considering we flew with American airlines. Security was a breeze and went without a hitch. A group of eleven is not always the easiest to keep track of in an airport, especially with a few new fliers on board. We can already see God work in great ways, and his presence is very known and evident among the group. After we were settled in at gate D44 team time began. Chris and Sarah lead the team through the leader treks packet which included, video clips, bible verses, and interactive team building exercises. It was quite a funny sight watching 9 teenagers try to get in number order with a blind fold, and strict instructions to not talk. After a failure we came together as a team to discuss the most important issue that was present, which was communication. This lead to a deep conversation about what it meant to have wholesome and honest communication. This specifically seems to be a big issue with our group, and to have a successful 2 weeks in the DR communication will be very essential. AT this point it was about 1:30 AM and I could see people were getting tired, so we ended team time with 3 praise songs and prayer. It was great to see the group bond and get excited for God has in store for them in these next couple weeks. We leave tomorrow at 9:05 AM and arrive in the DR around lunch time. We will miss everyone and hope to return home safely.”

That is a pretty comprehensive and accurate summary of our travel experience. Team time in the airport was unique and fun. I have a feeling that what we experienced during team time will become a theme for our week: things started out a little rough but by the end were soaring. It definitely feels like we are having a hard time getting into the rhythm of a mission trip. It still feels like vacation based on how the team is behaving. I trust that God will get our focus sharper and we will have more urgency and purpose, but for now, we are lacking in that. Not that it hasn’t been present at all. In fact, during team time and moments of getting through the airport, the team care and focus has been excellent. Our time of worship was particularly neat. We used a wireless speaker to play a few praise songs and to sing and meditate as led. There were airport workers cleaning the floors and emptying the trash in the terminal during our whole team time. Several of the workers actually stopped and listened and watched our group when we began to worship. It was cool to have the name of Jesus Christ being blasted throughout this airport terminal and to see it draw people in. Everyone (except me!) got at least a couple of hours of sleep…on the floor or snaked around benches in our gate area. We boarded our plane, got to DR with minimal turbulence and landed with excitement and anticipation brimming. Customs and immigration were a breeze and we quickly and easily located Abbey, Justin and Ilana. Our DR experience had begun!

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