Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ruth y yo

So the second story from the DR is about Ruth. For the past year, I've been hearing the kids at Hill Country talk about "their kid" in the DR. I didn't understand exactly how it worked out that each kid from HCCSA seemed to have their own individual DR kid, and I didn't really go to the DR expecting to- as the students say- "find a kid." But "find a kid" I did- well, more accurately, she found me.

Monday was our first teaching day at the Makarios school, and I was assigned to the same group that Sierra was in because she, like Azi, was instrumental in getting me to the DR in the first place. Each HCCSA student had prepared a lesson that included a Bible story and a craft based on the Bible story. Since I was not going to teach a lesson, I figured I would just hang back and watch our kiddos do their thing en Espanol.

Days at Makarios start with singing. The PreK classes sing outside in a gazebo-like structure called the "Ranchito." PreK3 stands in one line, PreK4 in another, and they sing at the top of their lungs while their teachers and teacher's aides clap and shake tambourines. The first time I heard the singing, I couldn't sing along because I was choked up about it- I couldn't understand all of the words they were singing, but I could catch words like "El Senor" - Lord, "Palabra de Dios"- Word of God and "Verdad"- Truth, and I knew they were singing praises to God and that just got to me.

I think it was when we were walking from the Ranchito into the PreK3 classroom that Ruth's little hand first grabbed mine- I have no idea why. The Mak kids love us "Gringos" but why she picked me, I do not really know. God knows.

That day we spent in the PreK3 class, I got to see Ruth interact with her classmates. I sat on the floor beside her while she sat in her tiny plastic chair. I helped her glue pieces of colored paper onto a plastic plate to make a "rainbow" based on the story of Noah's ark, and I told her, in my little bit of Spanish, that I could only speak a little bit of Spanish. I tried saying more things and asking more questions, and though it wasn't pretty, Ruth seemed to understand me.

At recess time, I went out and played. It wasn't too long before Ruth asked me for a "caballito"- a piggyback ride, and certainly a Mak school favorite. So I ran around in the heat while Ruth squealed with delight on my shoulders or my back and commanded me to "Corre!" - run!

For the next three days, whenever I was at the Mak school, I hung out with Ruth every chance I got. I would ride her on my back, push her on the swing, and, as much as I could, I would talk to her. I learned that Ruth's best friend was a little girl names Darlin Frid, that she loves to sing, and that she is incredibly smart, and fairly bossy. The most amazing thing to me about Ruth was that the whole time- she could understand me. I still don't really get how that was possible. But I guess that the whole time, I could understand her too. Other kids would come up to me and I couldn't pick up a word they were saying. My only response to them was "No entiendo"- I don't understand. But I very rarely had to say those words to Ruth. The funniest thing of all was when another kid would come up to me and ask a question, and I would hear Ruth telling them that I could only speak a little bit of Spanish. She also would, in a really sweet and helpful way- correct my Spanish from time to time. Like once when we were on the rope swing, I was trying to say which person was at the end of the line for the swing and I used the word "ultimo" for the end of the line and Ruth looked at me and said, "Fin. Es el fin." So I quickly recovered, and called the end of the line "el fin."

When Wednesday came, I was not looking forward to saying good-bye to Ruth. Many of our seniors, who have had relationships with their kiddos for three years now, were teary-eyed from the beginning of the day. But I don't cry easily, and I'd only spent three days- not three years- knowing Ruth, so I in no way anticipated water works.

Ruth came to school Wednesday with these big blue ribbons in her hair- sort of like she looks in the picture above. And I talked to her about how pretty her ribbons were and we played at recess, as per usual. But when it came time for our team to go, people started crying, and the kiddos started getting wary. When Azi sat down in the Ranchito and started crying because he had to say good-bye to one of his kiddos, I explained to Ruth that we were leaving tomorrow and that Azi was "triste"- sad. Ruth picked up on this really quickly, and I could tell she wasn't quite as happy-go-lucky as she had previously been.

Finally, the time came for our group to leave. I got Senora Majcher to come over and explain in better Spanish than I could muster that I had to leave, but that I would hopefully be able to come back one day. Ruth gave me a big, big hug and I carried her back to her classroom. When I put her down, she said, "Te quiero"- I love you- and I said it back. Then I walked out to the bus- still no tears.

But the rest of my team was slow in coming out to the bus. Someone asked where everyone was, so I went back around the corner of the school, and looked in the yard for the rest of my team. As soon as I turned the corner, I saw a practically empty courtyard- empty but for one little girl with blue ribbons in her hair. She literally ran and jumped in my arms, tears falling down her little face. I squeezed her really tight and heard her sweet little voice say in my ear, "Estoy triste"- I am sad. And I said, "yo tambien." - me too. And then there were tears.

That afternoon was the afternoon that Azi and I played in the rain in Chichigua, and on the bus ride home from the village, I thought/prayed about how much I want to improve my Spanish so that I can develop relationships with little people like Ruth. How much I wanted to be able to find out more about her life- who she was, who she wanted to become! But I hadn't been able to. I felt as frustrated at that point as I had the entire trip. I just wanted more of something- relationship, I guess, but I knew I hadn't had enough, and I was "triste" about that.

When we got back to the Mak house, everyone started unwinding and getting ready for dinner. I was upstairs chatting with a group of students, when someone said that Tito- another one of my AP Bio students- needed to talk to me. I thought, "What does Tito want?" but went down to find him. Tito had worked in the Prek3 class Wednesday morning, and had met Ruth. And that afternoon, he and some of the other HCCSA guys were working diligently to pave- yes, pave- the driveway at the Mak house. So when a little girl with blue ribbons in her hair showed up at the gate, he knew who she was, and found out who she was looking for. "Ruth is here," he said, "She came to see you."

I couldn't get around to the gate fast enough. Sure enough, there was my Makarios kid- blue ribbons and a smile. It turned out that she actually lived just up the street from the Makarios house, and attended the public school down the street in the afternoons. (Dominican schools have morning classes and afternoon classes. Ruth goes to Makarios in the morning and public school in the afternoon.) A few students and I walked with Ruth and her cousin, who had accompanied her on her bold visit to the Mak house down to the corner store, where I bought them Cokes. We enjoyed one last conversation, and I got to show her pictures of Gatsby and Daisy and Andy on my phone- something that I had been wanting to do but hadn't gotten around to yet. And just as we were saying good-bye again- this time with smiles- a lovely Dominican woman appeared in the driveway. And in a conversation that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit- I conversed with this woman- who turned out to be Ruth's mom- in fluent Spanish. She told me that Ruth had come home after school and boo-hood because her American friend was leaving. I told her that Ruth was precious and I had enjoyed meeting her and working at the school. And, again, we just understood everything that needed to be understood at that moment. She smiled, and I smiled and no one was "triste" anymore.

When I walked back toward the house, I thanked God, and I was trembling, not crying. I was overwhelmed by the power of God. The very thing that I had been craving- more relationship- the ability to communicate, to find out more about who Ruth is, what her life is like- not thirty minutes before, God had just graciously given to me. I'm not sure what all of this means. But I know that the incredible tenderness of God's heart appeared at the front gate of the Mak house wearing blue ribbons on Wednesday afternoon.

This morning, I've been re-reading Ephesians 1, and I've been struck by the word, "adopted." Ruth is not an orphan, and I'm so thankful that I can picture her mom's pretty face in my mind as I write this. But I want her to be adopted into the same family that I was adopted into 10 years ago. I want her to be my sister in Christ, and I'm so thankful that I know that as long as Ruth is going to Makarios, she's going to hear and sing and rejoice in the Verdad, and I will be asking that God will open the eyes of her heart so that she will know Him and we will not have to say good-bye to each other one day. And, from that point on, no one will ever again be triste.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Republica Dominicana

Yesterday I returned from the Dominican Republic. I was on a trip with Hill Country Christian School. Hill Country Christian School has a long-term relationship with Makarios International, an organization started by a woman named Sharla Megilligan, who also happens to go to my church. I've heard about Sharla for a long time through the foster care/adoption community at the Austin Stone. She is this beautiful brown-eyed brunette who is also the single mom of twin Haitian boys. Her boys are super cute and a little rambunctious- they're a trio whose hard to miss on Sunday mornings at Kidstuff.

I've heard the story of how Sharla adopted her boys, and I knew she was involved in starting Makarios, but I didn't really understand the work God's doing through Makarios until this week. Makarios is the Greek word for "blessed" and that meaning became abundantly clear during our school trip to Makarios this week.

I'm still not completely clear on how we- Hill Country Christian School- got intertwined with Makarios. But it doesn't really matter. I'm learning about the depths of connectedness within the Body of Christ. People say that the world is small- the community of believers is even smaller. Getting involved in the work God is doing inevitably brings us into contact with other people doing God's work- and we are all intimately connected- almost eerily so.

Here's an example of what I mean. At the Austin Stone, we drink Dominican Joe coffee on Sunday mornings. I've been drinking Dominican Joe for two years. Dominican Joe is an offshoot of Makarios- the proceeds of that coffee go to Makarios International. After a year of drinking that coffee, we got involved in the foster care/ adoption community- where I first heard about Sharla. Then I started working at Hill Country- and found out that they go to the DR every year. Then, to bring things full circle, when I got to Makarios, I met a staff member who was in the Austin Stone storytelling class with me last year, and the host family who lives at the Makarios house- where our group stayed- just moved to the DR from North Carolina, where they attended Colonial Baptist Church- which is where my aunt and uncle currently attend! We are a connected people, amen?

Anyway... getting back to the trip. I went on this trip because of two of my seniors. Even with all of the circumstantial connections to Makarios, I didn't really feel personally connected to the work because I'm a high school teacher and a BSF leader, and those tasks have been so consuming this year that I haven't really been able to think much beyond those two roles. But as a high school teacher, I do things for my students, even when I don't really understand why- and that's why I went to the DR. I have two students in my AP Bio class- I'll call them by their Spanish names in this blog- who really wanted me to go on the trip. Azi and Sierra were insistent that I go on the trip, and asked Senora Majcher, our Spanish 3 teacher, if I could go on the trip, even though I was way behind on the fund-raising and team-building process involved to make this trip happen. She said "yes" to their request and they came into class one day sometime before Thanksgiving and announced, "Mrs. Wermel, you're going to the DR with us." And that was that. God provided the money that I needed almost immediately by allowing Andy to sell his old truck, and by giving friends and family the desire to give financially so that I could go.

But honestly, I was consumed with work- as I have been all year- up until the time we got on the plane last Thursday. I've never had such a stressful school year, and the week before the DR was one of the most stressful and defeating weeks of all. I didn't really understand why I was going. Our students are the ones who are meant to connect with the kids at the Makarios school- and there were plenty of parent chaperones. I was just this random science teacher along for the ride.

But once we got to the DR, God made it pretty clear that my primary role was to tend to the physical and emotional needs of our students while they loved on and connected with the kids at Makarios. There are two words that describe this trip best- relational and emotional. Our school, with all its various strengths and weaknesses- is peculiarly good at relationships. Our students are incredibly relational- and they seek out connectedness with each other and the teachers on staff. It's hard to describe the connection I have with my students. We aren't exactly "friends" because I'm their authority figure, but we are really close, and God just brought us closer together on this trip.

It would take a long time to describe all that God did in the DR, way too long for one blog, so I'll break it down into two stories. One story involves how God used me to minister to one of our students and I'll tell that story here, and the other story is how God allowed me to connect with a precious Dominican little girl named Ruth- and Ruth gets her own blog.

So the story about how God used me to minister to the needs of our HCCSA students is about one of the students who was instrumental in getting me to the DR- Azi. Azi is, if nothing else, persistent. So persistent, in fact, that sometimes I want to throw things at him. I actually have a thin wooden stick- one of those wooden things that you stir paint with- that I keep handy in AP Bio so that I can pop Azi on the top of his head when he's driving me insane. Not hard, of course- the teachers out there will know what I'm talking about. Nonetheless, I love Azi, and he knows that- I'm pretty sure of it.

Azi loves sports- but soccer particularly- and since Texas is a football state and Hill Country is a football school we are the only real soccer players in our little community. So this is one thing that connects us. Azi loves to play soccer in the DR. This was his third trip, and in addition to getting to hang out with some kiddos at the Makarios school who are super important to him- Azi loves playing soccer in one of the Haitian villages that the Mak staff, and our group minister to while we are there.

But on the third day of the trip, Azi hurt his ankle really badly while playing football on the beach in Caberete. He ended up going to the ER when we got back to the Mak house, and the doc there wanted to cast it. He argued his way out of that- persistent, remember- but came home on crutches with his ankle wrapped up and instructions to stay off of it. Well, after about a day of that, persistent Azi went to work trying to talk his way out of staying off his ankle. And was so persistent, in fact, that one night after devotions, his persistency was completely exasperating Senora Majcher and Senorita Inks- our two gracious and amazing Spanish teachers who have both lived in the DR and manage this trip for us. I saw them talking and knew that I needed to step in. So I asked Senora and Senorita if I could talk to Azi alone.

Azi wanted to play, despite his injuries, despite what people were telling him was good for him- and this I completely understood because I am the same way. So I talked to him- not just student to teacher, but player to player, and told him that I knew how he felt. But the truth is, I don't know exactly how he felt. Azi has been through stuff in his life I've never experienced. His life is his own story and his heart is a unique canvas for God to do His work. But on a basic level- a level of wanting to play but needing to submit- I understood where he was coming from. We probably talked for 15 minutes- about Azi's plan for this trip versus God's plan for this trip, about submission, about obedience, about faith. I challenged Azi to stop arguing and submit for 24 hours- to agree to use the crutches, to not try to play injured and to see what God did. In 24 hours, if the ankle looked okay, I agreed to vouch for him to play on our last day in the DR. And Azi, for the most part, did that. He was still persistent, and still "played" the next 24 hours, but played what he called "handicapped soccer" - which was basically a shoot out with his good foot- on crutches. But, for all intents and purposes, Azi submitted- to the Lord, to his leaders. He didn't argue with us more, that I am aware of, and after another 24 hours, his ankle was no longer swollen, and on the last day, we gave him the okay to play.

That last afternoon, I was with him in Chichigua- the Haitian batteye (sugar cane village)- where Azi most loves to play. The "field" there is a bumpy stretch of trash, manure and a little bit of grass. The goals are tall sticks sticking up from the ground. But the players are incredible. They play without shoes on this field of rocks, trash and shreds of sugar cane. They play beautifully. And they beat the mess out of us- winning 15-3. We played for two hours, through the rain, slipping and sliding in the mud and manure and Azi and I both finished the game injured and dirty, but it was as it should have been. After two hours, I sat down on a piece of cinder block and watched Azi as he sat in the middle of the field and cried, his Haitian friend and opponent- Renald- at his side, his arm stretched around Azi. Renald is an amazing player- I'd say he's maybe in his late teens or early twenties and he's played with Azi these three years. It's amazing that, even though an ocean and a language and a socio-economic gap as wide as they get separate them- they are connected in that way that is so difficult to describe.

This morning, as I've unpacked and caught up on the business of life in Austin, I've seen that image of Azi and Renald over and over again in my mind. I read Psalm 113: 5-6 this morning and cannot think of a better description of that moment in time-

"Who can be compared with the Lord our God, who is enthroned on high? Far below him are the heavens and the earth. He stoops to look, and he lifts the poor from the dirt and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, even the princes of his people."

We were in a Haitian village a couple of days ago in the DR, and God stooped down and looked. We were in garbage, but we were clean. We were crying, but we were healed. We were among the poor, but we were the ones who recognized our poverty. God lifted a Haitian soccer player up, and set him with one of his princes- Azi, persistent, broken Azi- who is learning, hurting, healing, growing.

When we got to the DR, I didn't really know how God was going to use me. I didn't really expect to see Him move. I was so tired, and wondered why I had committed to do something that would surely exhaust me more when I craved rest. But God refreshed me with His grace, with His far-reaching hand, with His persistent work in my persistent student. How blessed we are, how blessed I am to be a part of His work, a part of His people.

The pictures from this blog are from the Makarios International website.

The first image is not our team, but you get the idea. Below, Renald is the guy on the left. He makes rings from dominican pesos. I'm wearing one on my right hand as I type this.