Once Again to Colombia

Christianity has to be disappointing, precisely because it is not a mechanism for accomplishing all our human ambitions and aspirations; it is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God.
—Simon Tugwell

It’s spring, 2011, and I’ve just agreed to join a team to help construct a medical clinic in Colombia. What am I thinking? I’ve got everything I need for this trip—except passion, skill and strength! I’m feeling exhausted—I even made a cardiology appointment. And yet in a way I can’t explain, I feel called. I guess callings are cruciform, but strange, and they sometimes go against common sense.

Now our Avianca 737 is touching down in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, the former jewel of the Spanish Main. Five hundred years ago, Pedro de Heredia founded this city and built its surrounding wall, now worn and pitted by sea salt breezes. When we face questions going through customs, I try to explain in Spanish, “That nail gun doesn’t have any bullets.”

Nostalgia envelops me as I think back forty years ago to when our family lived here in Colombia. We got robbed. I crashed the mission airplane. I writhed on my bed delirious from typhoid fever. Above all, I remember the enervating heat and humidity, and feeling like a failure. My happiest day? Boarding a Boeing 747 in Bogotá and flying our family back to Miami. So reprise Colombia? Why this calling to return?

Soon we’re inside the walled city, and our yellow van maneuvers to avoid the careening cars that race through narrow, crazy quilt streets. White-faced mimes and break-dancers plug the intersections as they run up to the van window for tips. Tentacular bougainvillea climb the cast-iron window bars of the stuccoed houses. We drive by the high-arched colonnade of the Government Center, and look opposite to the yellow wall of the cathedral where for centuries priests have baptized, married, and buried the faithful. Now we park and exit the van, elbowing our way past street vendors selling bracelets, stone carvings, leather belts, paintings, and food. I inhale the smell of fresh arepas (corn patties), salchicha (spicy sausage)—and acrid diesel exhaust. We pass a graceless beggar who sits on the sidewalk with a misshapen face and shrunk shanks, reaching his hand out. But in spite of the chaos, I harbor no second thoughts. I guess when you receive a calling, you don’t need anything else. I somehow know I’m supposed to be here.

We drive down to the dock and smell the sea. Waving palm fronds frame the distant sailboats. Pelicans swoop down, fishing the waves, while split-tailed frigate birds with angular five-foot wings soar overhead. Pure tropicality. We walk out on the dock to pile our luggage into the small fiberglass launch that will carry us to Boca Chica. As we lurch out from the dock, I don my lifejacket and grip the gunwale until my hand hurts. The bow of the hurtling boat hangs high above the water, but when it slams down onto the wind-wrinkled waves it crunches every vertebra.

Arriving in Boca Chica

After a half hour, the hills of Tierra Bomba Island rise from the water ahead of us. On the ocean side of the island live the super-rich, some of them fattened by drug money, snug behind their chain-linked, guard-dogged, servant-tended houses. But we approach from the bay side, where to our left we can make out the tiny San Luis fortress, part of Cartagena’s history. When Lord Vernon attacked Cartagena in 1741, San Luis brandished forty-nine cannons and three mortars.

After battling for weeks, Vernon departed in disgrace with fifty ships lost and 90 percent of his navy dead from combat or yellow fever. One of Vernon’s sailors was Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George. When he returned home to Virginia he named his small plantation “Mount Vernon” after his British admiral.

When we dock at the forlorn town of Boca Chica, we’re met by taxi motorcycles and donkeys with wooden carrying frames on their backs. A local tells us, “The children beat the donkeys, and sometimes they light firecrackers and stick them up their anuses.” These humble beasts bear their burdens through the town’s potholed, dirt streets, streets that turn into rivers when it rains.

The little town seems poor, the kind of place that destiny has a serious grudge against. We walk uphill into the town past half-finished cement-block houses. A few years ago the government laid an underwater power cable from Cartagena, and now satellite dishes sit on the laminated asbestos roofs. It’s dusk, and a solitary lightbulb glows in most living rooms, several of which double as bars. These offer Aguila and Pilsner beer while their huge speakers boom out salsa and cumbia music. A couple slow-dances in one of the small open rooms, her arms up around his neck.

Most people here are slave-descended Afro-Colombians. A tall, short-skirted woman walks by, her kinky hair kerchiefed atop her head. Another woman carries an infant on her hip and trails a toddler behind. Other kids run around wearing dirty underpants, or less. Down at the water, five brawly fishermen in shorts and T-shirts push off in a small motorboat that carries a hundred-meter-long net with bobbers and sinkers, evincing a threadbare hope of success that burns like hot coals under the ashes of their poverty.

I wonder, what is the Good News for these people? What difference can our small team make? What if I can’t tolerate this heat? What if I get sick or lose my hat or my sunscreen? Or money, passport, or car keys? How can I muster enough love? How could I be called to come here?

Living at YWAM

Several young men wheelbarrow our baggage through the streets, and then stop at Youth With a Mission (YWAM), a closed compound where broken glass sticks out the top of high cement-block walls. The steel gate creaks open, and we enter an oasis of green plants and flowering shrubs.

Marlea, YWAM’s accountant, greets us, and says, “I grew up here, but I’m from Montería.”

“Montería!” I say. “Our family lived there for three years!”

We become friends. Her fiancé, Samy, an orphaned island boy “adopted” by YWAM, works maintenance here. Another Colombian, Alexandra, is the cook, and Blanca Rosa serves as the resident pastor. YWAM is international and multicultural—their slogan: “Encounter God, Find Purpose, Serve the World.” Four twenty-something Germans all speak excellent English, and two of them, excellent Spanish. Kati and Leni are nurses and hold regular clinic hours. Anita works in the kitchen. Christian tells us, “The German government’s paying for our service year here.” Three North Americans complete the YWAM team. They all show great hospitality, leading us to a large dorm-type sleeping room. We’re soon in bed, lying exhausted in the humidity, listening to the cumbia music from the neighboring loudspeakers.

The next morning, the Germans prepare us fresh-brewed coffee and milk that we sip from little plastic bags. A big breakfast—plantains, hot arepas, chicken, white cheese, and tasty arroz chino (Chinese rice). They set and clear the tables and wash our dishes—every day. One day ten Korean YWAMers show up. They work in Cartagena with university students. We listen to them yodel as they sing Korean and English praise songs.

A few days later, one of my worst fears comes true—I’ve lost my car keys. (Why did I bring them, anyway?) I search all my pockets and look around my bunk bed, and cannot find them. But that evening Mari appears at the YWAM porch holding something. “Could you check and see if these keys belong to anyone in your group?”

I tell her, “Son míos. ¡Mil gracias!” I can’t believe she found them.

Years ago, when a Mercy Ship docked in a small Mexican coastal town, they hired on Jorge Silva as a mechanic. He became a believer and soon met his North American wife, Karen, on the ship. They have no children, but they midwifed the YWAM work here in Boca Chica in 1997. He explains, “I used to be a communist. At first, that made it hard for my wife’s parents and her church to accept me.”

Fortyish, about five-foot-two, Jorge has dark skin, jet-black hair, mustache, broad neck, and a smile that flashes white teeth. Think Pancho Villa without the ammunition belt. He walks through the village like a male Mother Teresa—caressing children’s hair, chatting up the townspeople, and greeting everybody. I think, I love this guy!

He tells me, “When a visitor calls and asks how many people we have room for, we say, ‘That depends.’”

“Depends on what?” They ask.

“Well, we can take ten Latinos or two Anglos!” Apparently Anglos such as us need more living space.

Jorge is a self-taught mason, carpenter, and electrician and, unlike the stereotypic Mexican male, isn’t afraid to dirty his hands. He’s patient, and sensitive to God’s fecund possibilities. In the face of fierce headwinds, he began building a YWAM medical clinic her ten years ago. Our mission this week—to help him finish it.

Each night we sleep in bunk beds. I smell the the dust, the damp, and the smell of perspiration. I look out the small window and see the slight moon with upturned horns. A tiny fan by my head drones in the dark, while outside donkeys bray, roosters crow, dogs bark, and the loud bar music jangles.

The next day we watch a barge bring in fresh water from Cartagena. Since the island has no water wells, a gasoline-driven engine pumps YWAM’s cisterns full for about $100.00. Other islanders transport their water in plastic jugs tied over the donkey’s backs.

Karen tells us, “We can’t wash clothes in the bay water because most of the town’s sewage empties into it. Look over by the dock there—those rusty tin shacks hanging out over the water are outhouses and their effluvium goes straight into the bay. YWAM teams have built over a hundred cement latrines on the island to try to improve sanitation. Samy collects seawater from the port in five-gallon jugs and dumps it into large plastic drums—we use it to bucket-flush our toilets.”

The girls of Isla Rosarios

On the weekend our team travels by motor launch to beautiful Rosarios Island, passing on the way an old mansion. Jorge says, “That’s where Pablo Escobar, the drug lord, used to live.” Arriving at Rosarios, we defend ourselves against the ubiquitous vendors who press their wares on us—carved stone artifacts, coconut candy, arepas, and deep-fried lobster and shrimp. A feast for the senses. The white beaches here draw many Cartageneros, who snorkel, visit the aquarium, eat seafood meals on the beach, or watch the thonged girls walk by.

We eschew the brazen massage girls who approach us. They walk barefooted on the sand, and their black bodies glisten. They wear cutoff jeans, halter-tops, and hair bows. When they start massaging my shoulders, I try explaining in Spanish that my wife didn’t sign off on massage girls. I feel their strong fingers on my muscles, smell their perfume. They tell me, “Hey, we have to make money too. Let us give you a massage.” I wonder what all is included…. After fifteen futile minutes, they give up and leave.

On the boat trip back, our team leader, Marcus, tells me, “Blanca Rosa wants someone to give the sermon Thursday night.”

I hesitate. “Let’s wait for someone else to offer. I’m not a preacher.” But in the end I say yes. That Thursday, the lambent light of dusk illuminates the barefoot children who arrive first for the service, followed by the women carrying their babies. Lastly, a few men come and the place begins to fill up. All sit on benches under an asbestos roof in YWAM’s tile-floored reception area.

Kati leads the singing. Samy plays guitar as we sing familiar worship songs. I feel joy and gratitude.

I walk to the front and begin my talk about God coming to earth—”El viaje más grande de la historia (“The greatest journey in history”). I read from John 1: “La Palabra se hizo hombre” (“The Word became flesh”), and “La luz brilló en las tinieblas” (“The Light shone in the darkness”).

Just then I hear distant thunder. The squally sky darkens and soon the roaring rain starts bouncing off the laminated roof. A flash lights up the compound, followed by a huge thunderclap, and all the lights go out. I think, What have I said? Is this a sign? A few of the town’s bars have electric generators, but YWAM does not, so I finish the talk by flashlight. We have no electric fans that night and no electricity for the next two days. The people don’t seem to mind—they’re used to the electricity failing.

 

 

YWAM’s medical clinic—a flat-roofed, U-shaped cement block building with a metal front gate—sits about 200 yards from the YWAM compound. Jorge tells us, “Supply boats brought out construction materials to the dock, then volunteers shouldered things and brought them up here. I poured each cement block using a wooden form. There’s no other permanent clinic here.”

Fierce dogs nip at our ankles as we walk over to the clinic. Rebar stubs stick out of the steep entry steps, waiting to impale anyone who slips. The sightless eyes of the unfinished window holes stare at us. Our goal: plumb the bathrooms, stucco the walls, hang drywall ceiling, and install doors and windows. I think, Americans work their way to heaven by completing their to-do lists!

Jorge works alongside us and directs the building. It seems that the installed bathroom plumbing don’t meet code, so Travis works all week jackhammering concrete. Plus, the block-layers had cut openings in the wall before measuring the new doors and windows. So Travis expands the concrete holes. I can still taste the cement dust.

Dale deftly hangs drywall while David, sweat running down his tattooed legs, helps Curtis hang drywall in another room. Marcus and I hurl dollops of white stucco against the inner block walls. I wear earplugs (against the jackhammer noise), and a face mask. Sweat soaks my head kerchief and drips down onto my shirt and pants. None of us complain.

Curtis nails ceiling supports into the concrete while he stands on a scaffold that any liability lawyer would drool over. When it threatens to collapse, we prop it against the wall. Vigorous, confident, he says to me, “This half-inch drywall needs more support. Could you cut me nine-inch hanger pieces from that right-angle aluminum stock?” I cut.

But just as often, I stand, or sit, drained of energy, just watching. I was determined to get out into the village in the evenings, but my flagging strength keeps me sitting in the YWAM patio, scratching my itchy “no-see-um” bites.

 

 

In the end, we’ve plumbed the bathrooms, stuccoed the walls, hung drywall, and installed the vinyl windows and doors. Jorge’s eyes dance: “Next week the clinic will receive its first patients—right here!”

I feel like a turtle on a fencepost (I didn’t get here by myself; I was called). In spite of my fatigue, I feel great. I muse over the topography of my inscape. I’ve had enough strength for each day and I’ve made new friendships. I preached. I even did a little construction. Because of my “curious calling,” never during the whole time did I question my decision to come.

*                    *                      *

 

Later, while I’m sitting in the Miami airport Starbucks inhaling my first latte in two weeks, Marcus shocks me when he says, “This trip really stretched me, and we could never have done it without you.” I wonder if he means the translating help I gave, not my construction abilities. I feel so grateful for this strange calling, and I realize again that, against all odds, grace happens.

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