A Tale of Two Ships

Last year, I stood on the largest ship I had ever been on. It was a giant metal behemoth, rising up out of the water with the height of a three-story building. The “Pacific Hope,” a YWAM ship, brings medical and disaster relief to ports around the world. It is 180 feet long (half the length of a football field), and weighs 480 tons: the equivalent of piling 70 adult male elephants on a scale and weighing them at the same time. How does something so massive, made out of metal, actually float?!

More impressive than the outside, is the inside. Especially a room few visitors get to see: the engine room. This is a large room at the lowest part of the ship, full of massive pieces of steel machinery, cogs and valves, pistons and pumps.

It is this room that carries the ship to safe harbor.

 

This week, as my family is traveling the U.S. visiting our friends and supporters, I feel that I am getting a glimpse of the engine room of our mission. Today, I sat with three women who meet weekly to study the Bible and pray together in Joplin, Missouri. As I shared with them the testimonies of our past year in Mexico, I saw these women smile as they began to hear how God had used their prayers on our behalf.

Every story of breakthrough, transformed life, or victory that took place last year had its beginnings in the “engine room” of prayer.

After I had shared several inspiring testimonies from the past year, these three women took my hands and prayed with me. They prayed over my family, our YWAM base, and everything that God is using us to do in Mexico. I listened as one of our dear supporters, Patty, prayed. When she began to pray for our family, she listed off my children’s names as effortlessly as I do at home when I am calling them to dinner. That’s when I had a blinding realization: she speaks their names daily, as often as I do! These prayer warriors who have committed to pray for us really DO pray faithfully and regularly for us. They say our names throughout the day, each and every day.

This entire first year as we have moved to Mexico and started a brand-new mission work in San Juan del Rio, I have been so aware of one constant: The FAVOR of God. It meets us everywhere we go! At exactly the right time, the apartment that we need will open up; we find a mechanic to work on our vehicle who does a repair that would have cost thousands of dollars in the U.S., and this Mexican, (who could see a “white person” as an opportunity to make extra money), does the repair without charging for his labor; we end up “accidentally” meeting the director of the government office, who makes phone calls on our behalf and cuts out hours of extra paper-work and hassle by personally seeing to our situation. Time and time again, this supernatural favor has met us, has overtaken us, has overwhelmed us! This is no accidental happening, no circumstance of chance. This God we serve is real, and He meets us EVERY DAY as we walk committed to obedience.

Today, I realized this favor we walk in isn’t JUST because God is good. Which HE IS!

But, this beautiful ship we are sailing is powered by a secret room: the engine room. The place where prayers are made and HEARD by Our Heavenly Father!

This engine room is staffed by people the world over, people who forget about themselves and intercede on our behalf.

This group of people is as diverse as it is committed: A woman on her knees at home, the carpet worn by her frequent visits; A young person, praying as he sees our photo on Instagram; church congregations, who join hands and lift us up, their hearts drawn by the Father’s heart for Mexico; Worship leaders, who sing over us as they pray; My mother-in-law, who refuses to take “no” for an answer, especially in prayer; People from other countries, who have never been to Mexico, but know that there are others out there who need Jesus; Widows who miss their husbands but pray for us, even as they walk through grief; Busy moms with homeschooling children bow their heads with their children in their “school-rooms” to remember us in prayer; Businessmen, pastors, lawyers, teachers, doctors, nurses, siblings, parents, grandmothers, children: this group of people who staff the engine room of prayer for us are many and varied.

In an age where it can be so easy to get caught up in our own accomplishments, successes, hobbies, pastimes, comforts and joys, there are people who turn their backs on the moment and pray into eternity.

Who does that anymore???

YOU do.

If you are reading this, chances are, you have prayed for us at least once. You are a piece of this incredible operation that God has created. Yes, we are pushing into new waters. Each day, we feel new breezes and witness new things. But, we would be crippled if it weren’t for you. The people who toil faithfully in the deep, hidden places on this mission ship are vital to us. Those who put in the time, in the dark, never to see what we get to see, but committed to the journey nonetheless.

You are part of that group. Never believe that what you do is insignificant. Your prayers keep us alive, they keep us moving, they keep us focused. Your prayers make miracles happen every single day.

Did you know that in the last year since we moved to Mexico, our children have not been sick? We haven’t had to take them to the doctor for a stomach illness, cold, infection, broken bone, ANYTHING. We have five kids! And they are living under the protection and covering of an engine room of prayers.

So, I’d like to dedicate this blog to you. The hidden ones in the engine room of this ship. Prayer warriors. Mothers and fathers for the next generation. You are not satisfied with the comfort and ease of everyday life. You are always looking for more. And you bring us along with you.

How can I thank you? You know my children’s names as well as your own….

I am humbled.

I am grateful.

My heart overflows.

As we share our stories and then part with hugs, I keep hearing this promise:

“I will be praying for you.”

And now I believe it. It’s just not a nice thing to say that you forget as soon as we leave.

When we return to Mexico and begin our second year pioneering our mission, I will think of you and remember:

We are not alone.

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Some of our prayer warriors in Joplin, Missouri

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Crackers and Cream Cheese

I never thought crackers and cream cheese could have any spiritual purpose. But, if there is one thing I am learning doing missions work in Mexico, is that little things can have great impact. Even a snack.

As a missionary family, we are involved in a variety of churches in our area. Some Sundays are what we call our “Marathon Sunday.” We will begin the day attending a 10 a.m. service in the town we live in, San Juan del Río. Then, we will pile into the car and drive about an hour away, to a country church in “San Francisco.” (Not to be confused with San Francisco, California. Nope. Not even close!)

We attend, and often preach to the little congregation there, numbering about 40 attendees, if you include the cows that are meandering about outside in the grass parking lot. By the time we finish the service, it is 3:00 in the afternoon, and my family (who breakfasted at 9 a.m.), is feeling pretty grumpy and faint from hunger. 

After following this routine for a couple of weeks, “Momma” got smart and decided we needed a strategy to survive “Marathon Sundays:” a snack! Now, we stop at a roadside convenient store, and purchase cream cheese and crackers. I keep a roll of paper towels and plastic spoons on hand in the car, and my family of 7 each gets a paper towel, (except for dad cause he is the driver), and a steady supply of crackers spread with cream cheese, as we travel down the Mexican highway. 

We hadn’t been doing this very long when Sandra, a friend of ours who attends church in San Francisco, asked me to meet with a friend of hers who needed help: Jane* had two small children, but hadn’t seen them for weeks because her husband was leaving her. In her despair, she believed suicide was her only option. I met Jane and began to ask her if she knew the Lord. She had never known more than an occasional religious service that held no meaning for her. 

As I began to explain to her the plan of salvation and the great love that Father God has for her, she clung to my words like a drowning man to a lifesaver, tears streaming down her cheeks. I spent some time reading verses from the Bible, and then prayed for her. She told me simply hearing the Bible had brought her peace.

When I encouraged her to continue reading, I found out she didn’t have a Bible! That week, I shopped around for the loveliest Bible I could find and brought it to her. Her smile made the two hour trip worthwhile.

Several months later, when I was visiting with her again, she committed her life to Jesus.

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Jane loves her new Bible!

A few weeks after meeting Jane, Sandra told me her mother was dying and asked me if I would speak with her. I agreed, and then Sandra cautioned me that her mother had never accepted Sandra’s beliefs and that every time Jesus was brought up, her mother would become angry and insist she would hear no more. Oh boy. Not exactly what you want to hear right before you take the plunge to share the Gospel!

Sandra’s mother is about 4 1/2 feet tall, and she was in a frail condition, bent over almost double. She was struggling to walk, and required assistance for basic tasks. But, Sandra was determined. She introduced us and I began to call her mother, “Mamita.” (meaning “little mother” in Spanish, a term of endearment here).  I began to explain to her the plan of salvation. She was agitated, moving about in her seat, running her hands over her eyes, and I braced myself for an explosion. The one advantage I had was that Mexican culture is very gracious, and it would be a serious affront for a Mexican to berate, confront, or argue with someone they had just met. So, I plunged ahead, but I could see she wasn’t happy with the conversation. 

I began to share with her about my own Grandma and her rejection of our beliefs. My Grandma used to become angry and lash out when I would speak to her about Jesus. But, she loved to travel and would plan extensive trips. One day, my dad asked her if she would like to plan her trip to Heaven, and began to share books with her about Heaven and the life after death. My grandma began read and consider, and over time, accepted Jesus as her Lord. 

I had just finished the story when “Mamita” looked up at me (making eye contact for the first time since the conversation had begun), and said, 

“I need to go to the bathroom.” 

My hopes for her plummeted.  “This is not going well,” I thought.

Twenty minutes later, Mamita was sitting back down again, and I was at a loss for how to proceed. I began to ask her about how she had been feeling. She began to tell me about her pain, her elevated blood pressure, blood sugars, mobility issues, etc. 

“But, you know the thing that is disturbing me the most right now are my nerves,” she confided in me. 

“Your nerves? What is happening?”

“I must be going crazy. For the last week, just as I am falling asleep, these horrible voices begin to speak to me,” she replied. “They are saying things like, ‘You belong to us.’ ‘You’re coming with us.’ I sit up in bed and look around to see who is saying such horrible things, but no one is there. I feel such terrible fear and then begin to have a panic attack.”

Chills began to run up my arms as she confided in me. I gently took her by the hands and told her, 

“Mamita, that isn’t your nerves. Those are spirits who have gathered to receive you when you die. You see, when you don’t belong to Jesus, the One who represents life, and hope and peace, there is another reality. And that is an eternity without God and His presence. These spirits represent the torment, fear, and darkness that awaits those who have not accepted what Jesus did for us to make us God’s own children.”

I went on to explain what Jesus did for us on the cross, and the power of entrusting our lives into His care. She listened with her head bowed, gazing at the ground. When I finished, she looked me in the eye again and said, 

“I’d like to give my life to Jesus.” 

Sandra was there beside us as we prayed. We were three women sitting in a circle: One woman, a daughter, berated for her beliefs, now silently weeping as she watched her mother take a step she had believed impossible. Another woman, her hands gripping mine, the wrinkles and sign of age giving way to a beautiful smile as she prayed. The third woman, looking out of place with blonde hair and light skin, praying with “Mamita” to receive Jesus in a language not her own. This moment was a little piece of Heaven on earth.

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“Mamita” is on the far right, with her daughter Sandra, and 3 of our kids. This is the day she received Jesus. Update: her doctor says she is no longer dying! She is getting better each day and last time I visited with her, she said she was feeling well enough that she was thinking about getting a boyfriend.

A few weeks after this glorious moment, Sandra wanted me to talk with her niece, Sara*. Sara has two children, is unmarried, and was not making good decisions for her life or her family.  Sara’s mother had had enough of her irresponsibility and was going to have her children taken from her. Just as I did with Jane and Mamita, I sat next to Sara and began to talk about her life, her decisions, and her need for Jesus. She agreed, and prayed with me to receive Jesus. 

She asked me to accompany her to talk to her mom and convince her to give her another chance. I did, and two hours later, her mother, (Laura*), went from raging about her daughter to me, to allowing me to pray with her and her daughter. Laura is still staunchly against Christian beliefs, but she said that if it would help her daughter change, she is not going to stop her from learning more about Jesus. 

I continue to pray for Sandra’s family, that they will ALL experience an encounter with Jesus and will be united in love for Him. The amazing part about Laura is that even though she vehemently disagrees with Christianity, she has allowed me to pray with her twice. The last time I visited her, she told me as I was leaving, 

“Katy, (what everyone calls me here, pronounced “Kah-tee”), I want you to know you are always welcome in my home. And don’t just feel like you can only come with my sister. Come visit me sometime without her, and bring your family.” 

Sandra was there when Laura said this, and told me,

“That is the first time my sister has ever opened up to a Christian. She isn’t just saying this. If she invited you to come to her house, then she really trusts you and wants you to come back.” 

Later that evening, my family arrived home from San Francisco and piled out of the car. The sun had gone down; We had spent our entire day in church, traveling and ministering to people. I was exhausted and looking forward to a good nights’ rest! 

That’s when I noticed the mess. As I began picking up trash and sweeping cracker crumbs from the seats of our car, I began to think about Jane, Mamita, Sara and Laura.

Just like the many crumbs, we are scattering seed on so many hearts and lives, and we are seeing miracles take place!

Our Sunday snacks are messy, and it’s not always easy to spend the day driving out to the little group of believers in the country town. But, I certainly wouldn’t trade this for the world. And the crackers and cream cheese? They are truly a life-saver. In more ways than one.

*Names changed to protect individuals’ privacy.

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Joey enjoying his cracker/cream cheese snack in the car.

Heroes of Faith

We met the most extraordinary couple last week. Pastor Antonio, and his wife, Gregoria, stand at just about 5 feet tall. They smile a lot, and their hands are roughened by hard work and sacrificial labors. He is a bricklayer by trade. They met and married when he was 20 and she 15. As a young man, he managed to enter the U.S. and began working, and that was when Christians began to share the Gospel with him.

Pastor Antonio and Gregoria are from two very small villages in the Mountain range of Queretaro state in Mexico. He is from a village called “Jabalí,” and she is from a village called “Florida.” (Not resembling in any way the state of Florida in the U.S.A.!) Their villages are literally built on the sides, ridges, and summits of this arid mountain range.

We met them by “happenstance.” We had been looking for a way to access the villages and people who live in the mountains that surround the valley where we live. No one we knew here had any contacts for us. Our team of volunteers arrived December 27. On January 15, we still had no pastor or contact for the mountain ministry and I had exhausted every lead I knew.

Then, my phone rang, and Pastor Antonio (“Tonio”), was on the other end of the line. He had originally said they were busy the weekend of our dates and couldn’t host us, but he called back to say that we could go ahead and come. He assured me he had a church building we could sleep in, a bathroom (with no running water), and he could even provide us with a gas stove-top to cook meals on!

We set out with our first YWAM team to explore the mountains of Querétaro with my family of seven, 3 Australians, 4 YWAMers from the base in Bocas, Panama, and one Mexican volunteer. I drove my minivan, and Rob drove his big, white truck. His truck was loaded with 5-gallon bottles of water, food, and provisions for the next three days. In addition to food, we had ministry supplies like puppets, speakers, and instruments. Bedding was also an important commodity, and we packed stacks of blankets. The temperatures in the mountains during this time of year dip into the low 30’s at night, and there would be no heating to keep us warm.

This was a camping trip on steroids!

We met the pastor in a town called “Cadereyta” and followed him up the winding pass into the mountains. The paved road gave way to dirt and ruts, and I was glad it was the dry season and the dirt road was not muddy.

I steered my weighted-down van carefully over the rocky, rutted road, and tried to avoid scraping the underside on the rough terrain.

My time playing “MarioKarts” with the kids came in handy during this driving challenge! After a slow, forty-minute drive on the dirt road, we arrived at the village of Jabalí. We were amazed by what we saw. This village is nestled on the side of the mountain, and wherever you stand in the village, you have the ability to see for miles as the valley below the mountains stretches out before you.

Pastor Tonio began to point out to us the villages in the distance, telling us how far it takes to walk, and which ones still have no church. It reminded me of the quote that David Livingstone heard that impacted his life’s work in Africa:

“In the vast plain to the north, I have sometimes seen, in the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages, where no missionary has ever been.” -Robert Moffat

As the valley stretched before us, broken up by the occasional village, my heart burned for the people who live so far away from our modern civilization who may have never heard the Gospel, or have gone their entire lives without ever experiencing the tangible love and presence of God.

Our team of YWAM volunteers was incredible! They carried all of our supplies down a winding dirt path to where the church stood. The path was a bit steep, and you had to take care to dodge the sharp cactus needles and animal droppings. We found out later the most common animal to use this path was a herd of wild donkeys that traverse the narrow mountain paths at night!

The little church was built on a flat terrace of land on the side of the mountain. It was tucked up next to a wall of dirt that led upwards, with the other side of the church built on the edge of the terrace before it drops away down the hill. You can stand in front of this church and see for miles into the valley. In the distance, more mountains rise up, layer after layer, representing other villages and people who are even harder to reach.

We stayed there for three days, ministering to the villagers and their children. We shared a bathroom with one toilet, which wasn’t bolted down, so, at one point, a team member accidentally knocked it over while using it! She simply picked it back up, positioned it over the drainage hole, and proceeded to finish. We slept under layers of blankets and struggled in the morning to leave our warm “nests” to dress in the cold morning air.

My favorite part of the week was the first morning we were there. Rob and I sat outside in the early morning mists with Pastor Tonio while he continued telling us his story:

Upon receiving Jesus, he returned to his village, and began telling everyone he knew about Jesus. The villagers were angry; they wanted nothing to do with Jesus or anyone who talked about Him. He began receiving death threats. Six times, people attempted to kill him. Two of the attempts were made by his own family members. Once, when he was preaching in the town square, a man came up to him with his machete drawn and said,

“I’m going to kill you right now. We won’t have any more of this Jesus talk.”

Tonio began to weep as he shared:

“I didn’t feel fear in that moment. I only felt mercy for him. I cried out, ‘Father, forgive him, he doesn’t realize what he’s doing!’’  As he prayed this powerful prayer, following Jesus’ own example, the man was literally thrust backwards onto the ground! Tonio saw no one, and as he watched, the man scrambled up and ran off. God miraculously spared his life numerous times, and he continues to preach in his village and in the ones nearby. Slowly, people began to listen to his message, and began giving their lives to the Lord.

They needed a place to meet, so Pastor Tonio began building a church. They didn’t have enough money to build the entire church, but they decided to start anyway. The first thing that needed to be established was a foundation. Now, that was something they could begin right away, because it didn’t cost any money to dig. The new believers arrived with shovels and pickaxes, and began to excavate a place to lay the foundation of the church. As money came in, they purchased materials. They had to carry, by hand, the construction block, bags of concrete, and even water, up the mountain to the terrace where the church was being built. It took them five years.

Tears moistened my eyes as I realized our team was sleeping, eating, and ministering in a little building whose foundation was dug by hand; whose walls were built, one slow stone at a time, by a small group of believers in a mountain village. Believers who wanted a special place to honor and worship God. Who wanted a building that was not a shrine to the virgin of Guadalupe, or to a dead patron saint. They wanted to worship a living God, whose name is Jesus!

The stray dogs traipse in and out of the building, sniffing about for something to eat. The neighboorhood drunks come and sit in the chairs, and hold their head in their hands as they blink away their drunken stupor. Families wander in, holding their bundled babies, searching for meaning in life. More importantly, Pastor Tonio and his wife are there, talking with people, loving them, praying for them, sharing truth with them.

Until just a few years ago, Pastor Tonio and his wife would walk five hours one way EVERY WEEKEND to minister to their church people. He lives and works in a town about an hour’s drive away. He and his wife and his five children would walk five hours, minister in the church, and walk the five hours back home. They have been faithful to what God has called them for 16 years.

As we further got to know them, we found out that he has a fifth-grade education, and she was only able to study until the third grade. He has another church in a village that is about a 2-hour walk from Jabalí. Sometimes he drives there. Other days, he walks.

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Pastor Tonio with some of the children from the villages.

He is still passionate about the communities and people who are unreached. He has invited us to come with him deeper into the mountains in order share the Gospel with them. Pastor Tonio and his wife, Gregoria, and their family, are heroes of the faith. Life hasn’t been easy for them, but they remain faithful to the Lord and to His call.

Hebrews 11:1-2 speaks about a great cloud of witnesses. Those who have gone before us: men and women of faith, who, having passed into glory, are urging us on as we run our race of life. I have always imagined the “greats:” men like Father Abraham; Moses, who divided the Red Sea with his rod; Stephen, who was martyred by stoning.

But, the more I meet people like Tonio and Gregoria, the more I am certain that there are so many who are cheering us on whom we have never heard about. Men and women of great prayer, sacrifice, and love for Jesus who never got to graduate high school, who never owned a car, who never wrote a book. People who poured out their lives, year after year, for the cause of Christ. Who, after witnessing for years, maybe only saw one convert; who, after traveling miles and visiting many, died in poverty and obscurity. Who, through sacrifice and hard work, built the a little church for believers far from modern conveniences. Though they may have been poor, they loved richly. They lived their lives driven by eternity, as this quote states so well:

“We shall have all eternity in which to celebrate our victories, but we have only one swift hour before the sun sets in which to win them.”

They were passionate, reaching just one more life for Jesus; they were faithful, ignoring society’s definition of success; they were genuine, loving even the least of these.

What an amazing place Heaven will be, as we spend eternity meeting such incredible people! As I think about men and women such as these, unnamed heroes who watch our progress through the veil of eternity and cheer us on, I find myself wanting to “run” all the more harder.

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Praying for Pastor’s wife, Gregoriana. Such a precious woman!

My Grandmother’s Stethoscope

Two years ago, my Grandma’s stethoscope saved a little boy’s life.

The boy’s name was “José,” and he lived on the island of Bastimentos in Bocas, Panama. My family of seven was on the outreach phase of our YWAM (Youth With a Mission) Training.

On that trip I kept thinking, “I can’t believe we are doing this!”

We arrived at a rickety boat dock to take a water taxi to the island. We had an incredible pile of luggage, 11 adults, 5 children: and only one boat available to take us across the ocean channel to the island. My prayer life grew in intensity that day as our boat floated about 8 inches above the water and we thrummed through the waves to the island. I realized during that ride how desperately I wanted us all to live to see another day!

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The blue boat behind us was our ride: 11 adults, 5 children, and all our luggage!

Once arriving, we stepped off the boat and began a trek up the hill to the house where we would be staying. Suddenly, invisible needles began poking me from every direction. I began frantically slapping my arms and legs and wondering if I was losing my mind. One of the volunteers on the island laughed and said,

“Welcome to Bocas. Those are chitras.”(pronounced: chee-trahs)

Chitras are tiny insects, like miniature mosquitos, which are barely visible, and they strike in large numbers. Literally, you will feel yourself being bitten/stung by 10-20 insects at a time. It is maddening, because you just can’t seem to make them stop.

They would be a very useful tool to employ in terrorist interrogations: A few minutes with a “herd” of chitras and you would be willing to betray National Security in order to be left alone!

In addition to the boat ride and the evil chitras, Bocas islands boast a humidity not of this world. In our short two-week stay, with our sheets and clothes in a state of constant moisture, my family’s skin began to itch due to fungal infections. This “island paradise” looks amazing in photos, but it is no easy place to do missions!

Meeting José and his mom, Lorena, was my favorite memory of our trip to Bocas. One night, we shared a time of worship with the nearby indigenous community. A small boy, about 6 months old, was coughing and struggling to breathe. Holly, the director’s wife at the base, approached the mother and we began trying to investigate how long the boy had been sick. He had contracted a cold and it was getting worse. His mother faithfully banked a fire to create smoke at night, in order to keep the chitras (bugs) away from her little family. The smoke was irritating José’s airway, and his symptoms were worsening. She told us he had been awake the entire night before, coughing and running a fever.

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I examined José in a wooden hut; the homes are built on stilts so families’ homes stay dry even when there is flooding from frequent rain.

We gave the boy a breathing treatment, and his wheezing eased. We prayed for him and his mother took him home. I slept fitfully that night, worried for baby José and praying every time I thought of him.

Babies will battle sickness and lung/airway challenges bravely, but once they run out of steam, their condition can deteriorate quickly and death comes quickly.

It was a long, dark night and I was anxious to find out if he was alright the following morning.

What I saw the next day made my stomach clench. He was limp, lying in his mother’s arms. The boy who had struggled the night before in not letting the white women get near him now no longer cared who touched and held him. His mom, Lorena, told us that he had slept “better” the night before. That also worried me: He was getting sicker, not better.

As an afterthought, before setting out on our two-month outreach, I had packed my Grandma’s 30 year-old Littman stethoscope in my bags. I went to get it, and listened to José’s lung sounds. As much as I wanted to, I could hear no air moving in the lower lobes of his left lung. The upper lobes were full of crackles. I am no doctor, but I was concerned he had pneumonia, and told his mother she needed to get him medical treatment immediately.

Every minute that went by, José’s lung infection was causing his body to fight for oxygen and he couldn’t keep this up indefinitely.

Lorena called José’s father, who told me there was no reason for his son to go the doctor. I found out that many of the indigenous go to clinic to be seen and the doctors often don’t even physically examine their patients; if they do, they prescribe medicines the indigenous are unable to buy. I argued with José’s father, emphasizing the danger his little baby boy was in. I assured him that we would help his son get the medicines he needed as long as he would give Lorena permission to take José to the doctor. He finally gave his consent, and I was relieved. Lorena would not have taken her baby to the doctor without her husband’s approval.

Once we had permission, Holly (the YWAM missionary at Bocas island) moved heaven and earth in order to find a good doctor who would agree to examine José.  Once she located a doctor, she then had to arrange to transport Lorena and José to the main island by water taxi. Several hours and many phone calls later, we had everything arranged and José was going to see a doctor.

Lorena and José returned that afternoon, loaded down with five different medications. José did indeed have pneumonia, and the doctor agreed that his condition had been serious. Because of everyone’s efforts, José was able to get the care he needed.

The best part of my trip was taking my battered grey stethoscope that had belonged to my grandmother, and hiking to the village every day to listen to José’s improving lung sounds.

The last day before I left Bocas, his tiny brown hands grabbed the stethoscope and held it as his big, dark eyes gazed up at me. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about how close this precious baby had been to death.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Bocas island. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hike over to the village and check on José and his family. He is a happy, thriving, almost three-year-old. He now has a baby brother named “Tom,” who was named after Holly’s husband. I gave some snack bars to the children, and José happily munched on one, oblivious to the fact that 2 years ago he was fighting for his life. Before I left, I prayed with them and thanked God for His love and protection over this little family. I know he probably didn’t understand me, but I hugged José and told him that he is special and that God has a big plan for his life.

José is alive because of God’s amazing grace, the untiring efforts of willing missionaries, and my Grandma’s battered 30 year-old stethoscope.

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December, 2017: José and his family. He is the little guy in the orange shorts and teddy bear shirt.

Little Ones: Big Purpose

I’d like for you to meet Monica. She is a school-teacher in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Her day-job teaching at a Christian school isn’t enough for her. She has a burden for children, and she has decided to do something about it! On Saturdays, instead of enjoying her day off from the noise and chaos of working with children, she hosts a Bible club for the kids in her neighborhood.

Our family got to spend a day with her, and we have nicknamed her the “Pied Piper.” She goes around the neighborhood, knocking on doors for one hour, extending invitations for the children to come to Bible Club. Over the course of the hour walk (and about two miles of terrain), she has a group of about 30 children trailing after her, following her to Bible Club. Upon arriving, she teaches them a Bible lesson, sings songs, plays games, and feeds the children a snack.

Monica spends her evenings baking cookies, banana bread, zucchini bread, carrot bread, etc, to feed “her kids,” as she likes to call them. She also makes them “juice:” water, sugar, and whatever fruit she has on hand, blended, with the pulp strained out, all mixed together. Monica is not wealthy, but she radically gives what she has. No one pays her to do this; she supports her little children’s ministry with her personal income. Monica has a passion for children: she ministers to them, and she personally sacrifices in order to share Jesus with them.

People like Monica bring to the forefront God’s heart for our young generations.

It’s so easy to overlook the importance of children’s ministry, or even to rank it as “second place” to adult ministry. 

This brings me to my second introduction: Pastor Bruno. He has been pastoring for over 25 years in the most dangerous neighborhoods of San Salvador, El Salvador. This city has been distinguished as the “death capital of the world” because of gang violence. Pastor Bruno’s church has about 35 people. Of those 35, 25-30 of these church members are children. He has literally pastored a church of children for 25 years. Children make up the largest population of his church for several reasons:

1. Adults are afraid to go where his church is located. It is just too dangerous.

2. The majority of his church attendees are the children of the gang members and prostitutes where he lives.

3. Children love to go to Bruno’s church, because he values them, he teaches them, and he patiently disciples them.

4. All his ministry teams are made up of children: Prayer Team, Praise & Worship Team, Ushers/Greeters, Evangelism Team, etc.  Kids know that when they go to Bruno’s church, he will teach them to lead, and he will hand them a microphone and LET them lead!

Rob and I met with Bruno and his family three weeks ago. We treated their entire family to a pizza party at the Pizza Hut in El Salvador. My kids had to coach their three-year-old grandson on how to play on the indoor playground. He had never been in a place like that, and wasn’t sure what to do.

We ordered too much food, in order to send them home with leftovers. Bruno, his wife, and his four children are modern-day heroes of the faith. Two years ago, gang members surrounded Bruno’s house, threatening to rape his daughters and kill them all. Bruno and his family knelt on the floor in their home that night, placing their lives into Jesus’ hands, and committed to staying and ministering there, no matter what happened. God supernaturally intervened, and they weren’t harmed. In fact, the local gang leader found out what happened, and the person threatening them disappeared.

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A visit with Bruno’s family

In the last six months, Bruno’s family has been working in Tonacatepeque (say that three times really fast without stuttering, lol). They drive 1 1/2 hours to hold a children’s program at a church where the church’s own pastor refuses to go because it has become too dangerous. They have had more than 100 children attend their “training,” and have graduated 62 students. These children can “graduate” if they don’t miss one session for 12 weeks, and they can recite 20 Bible passages. Pastor Bruno awards these children with a certificate of completion, a small toy, a children’s devotional, and their very own Bible.

Bruno does all of this by faith. The children he ministers to don’t have money. The churches he visits can’t afford to give him an offering. He has been driving the same beat-up van he had when we met him sixteen years ago.

He is not living for this world’s definition of success or accomplishment.

He is being faithful to Jesus’ entreaty in John 21:15, “[if] you love me… then feed my lambs.” 

In the past six months, our outreach teams have seen more than 600 people pray to commit their lives to Jesus. Over half of these people are children. In a recent study, The Barna Group pointed out that what a person believes by the age of 13 will carry into the rest of their lives. Ministering to children isn’t “mini-ministry,” or a “stepping-stone to REAL ministry.” It has the potential to literally transform entire communities and cultures.

Just the other day, we were readying our family to go do a children’s program. I caught myself thinking, “This is the LAST thing I want to do today!” I had a list a mile long of things to get done, like laundry, prepping for a Bible-school class, translating audio-visuals, and preparing for another children’s ministry on Sunday. To top it all off, I simply wanted a “day-off.” I was immediately convicted when I felt Holy Spirit reply to my attitude:

But this is what I want to do today.”

Once we arrived at the location, we spent an hour inviting kids. This actually means we spent an hour knocking on doors, waking people up, and inciting all the local dogs into a barking frenzy. People in Panama drink into the night on Fridays, and don’t like to rise much before 10:30 or 11 am on Saturday mornings. We really stirred up the pot knocking on their doors at 9am!

We gathered a crowd of about 35 kids, and then began our program. We had songs, games, dramas, and a Bible lesson. At the end, I was sitting on the ground, coloring in the midst of a group of Panamanian children.

Suddenly, God’s heart for them began to overwhelm me. I had been chatting with a boy and girl, and as they began to describe their home life in matter-of-fact tones, I realized that THIS was the most important thing I would do all week. Today may be the only day that little Carlos would have someone look him in the eye and tell him “Jesus loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life.” This may be the only time this week that 10 year-old Aurelia will feel safe and not fearful of what an adult may do to her. My heart melted as I took in the sight of chubby, brown hands gripping a crayon for the first time, uncertainty replaced by confidence as we assured him that he was doing a good job.

So many children, all over the world, wake up in the morning and then go to bed later that night without ever being hugged, encouraged, shown affection, or given value. As my legs went numb from sitting on the dirty concrete, I realized that this was a holy mission. I was a living extension of the Father’s heart. Who will love His children? Who will kneel in the dirt and show them value? Who will give of themselves and embrace the chaos and joy of spending time with Father’s little ones? Who will feed His lambs?

Children aren’t an afterthought to God. They are His first passion.

My prayer is that my life would reflect this truth.

As we left the children’s program that day, we were mobbed by the children hugging us goodbye. Aurelia shyly told me, “I can’t wait for you to come back.” As I hugged her, fervently praying for her future safety, I felt Father God’s love for her break my heart.

I can’t wait to go back, either.

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Jesus loves the little children!