Alternately titled: A Random Day I Don’t Want to Forget So I’m Writing About it Here.

Our last day in Honduras was spent driving to a beach on the Caribbean. Having never seen the Caribbean, I was excited about this adventure, even though it meant three hours of driving and a 4 pm beach arrival. As we drove through the industrial port town where we would be having our “relaxation day,” I realized I might need to adjust my expectations of “an afternoon on a Caribbean beach.” Sure enough, Joe summed up our experience of the beach nicely as we surveyed the less than pristine shoreline: “If someone had told me to imagine the worst beach possible, I still wouldn’t have pictured this.”

Selegna, our staff member from Panama, had other words comparing this Honduran beach to Panamanian beaches, but they were even less uplifting than Joe’s evaluation. We didn’t get in the water.

We spent the night on the floor of an old conference room on a navy base. There was a large rottweiler roaming the base, hardened looking men in camo perpetually flicking the safeties on their semi-automatic rifles, and electric razor wire surrounding the whole scene. Before we headed to “bed” at midnight, the project leader from Honduras warned us to stay on the base. “There is nothing good out there for you,” he said, pointing towards the street on the other side of the fence. “WHY in the WORLD would I consider leaving the base?” I asked Selegna later, completely incredulous. She laughed, and told me that this town was known for its discos, and we were on a trip with 40 college students. Oh.

Regardless, Easter morning dawned. Our 3:45 am leave time had something to do with the Guatemalan border crossing opening at 6 am. I would’ve been more bothered by the fact that my alarm was blaring at 3:30 if I hadn’t passed the night on a peeling linoleum floor. I started out the resurrection celebration like a good Presbyterian, gently shaking Kristen’s shoulder. “He is risen!” I said. “He is risen indeed,” she answered, rubbing her eyes and shaking her head.

I moved on to Jenna. “Jenna, good morning! He is risen!” “PTL (Praise The Lord),”
she said, her voice flat. It’s hard to muster spiritual joy at before dawn.

“Selegna! He is risen!” I said, cheerily greeting a very weary looking Selegna who had forgone sleep altogether. “I’ll pray for you,” she answered, slowly blinking at me like the room had started spinning. I glanced back at Kristen with a confused smile. Alright then. Maybe a nap on the bus, hmm?

“Jeff, He is risen!” I said, throwing my pack into the van. “And so are we,” he answered. Heh.

And finally there was Joe, who closed things out nicely with a rousing 4 am “He is risen indeed!” I guess the Mennonite Brethren clan knows their Easter greetings. Peace be with you, Joe.

The sun rose as we crossed from Honduras into Guatemala. I spent several moments pondering the geography of traveling back to El Salvador by way of Guatemala from Honduras, and then gave it up as one of those things best left to a person with a map and a vaguely functional sense of direction. Instead, I looked at the rows of banana trees slipping by and tried to calculate the probability that I had eaten a banana from any given one acre grove in Guatemala. “I could’ve eaten from that exact tree,” I thought to myself, “Or that one.”

And I sang softly to myself. “Christ the Lord is risen TOday, aaaaaaAAAleluia.” I murmured the words that my grandma would sing with such vigor every Easter, pounding the piano with determination. He is risen.

Bean and I often marvel at the way we’ve developed our own language with Jenny. She understands our Spanish like no one else does. She barely speaks a word of English, so we’ve been forced to push through again and again. She listens to our mangled words and criminal grammar and gently extracts the meaning we were going for from the start.

Of course, we know her Spanish, too. I’m continually surprised at the way that knowing somebody’s voice makes them so much easier to understand. I may not have mastered this language yet, but I’m fluent in Jenny. I’m also proficient in American voices speaking Spanish.

Today at lunch, our server saw our Bibles spread across the table and came over to investigate. He ended up sitting down with us for a couple of minutes to see what we were doing. He studies at a university where we had an active presence at the beginning of the year. I told him I’d hook him up with some of the students who are still a part of that ministry. We talked easily with the help of Jenny, our Spanish to Spanish translator. He’d say something, speaking quickly, slurring his words. I’d look to Jenny for help. She’d repeat his words in Spanish slowly and clearly. I’d answer in mostly functional Spanish with a few grammatical quirks. She’d repeat what I said in a form that was nearly unrecognizable, meaning grammatically correct.

I was reminded of the kids I babysit. There is a certain stage of toddler-hood where language explodes. Kids start connecting all those meanings in their heads to actual sounds. The language that comes out is ostensibly English, but only just barely. Jenny is like the mother who can take a string of nonsense sounds and tell the waiter that her child is asking for juice. Or, you know, that Vida Estudiantil used to have a semi-active ministry on the campus where you study and we’d love to get your information and help you find a spiritual community on campus.

To make up for my silence in the last month, some snapshots from April:

The Zoo

Last month we visited the local zoo. I wondered before the trip if I would be putting the cost of my admission towards animal cruelty, half expecting cramped, bare cages and plenty of concrete. Instead, I found a perfectly acceptable little zoo. Worn down in places,  but offering large enclosures filled with the appropriate greenery.

In fact, the feeding practices in this zoo are even a bit more authentic than US zoos. As we walked toward the aviary, I saw a man pushing a wheelbarrow filled with yellow fluff. I watched as he paused by the hawk enclosure, reached his bare hand into the wheelbarrow, and proceeded to fill a bucket with…dead baby chicks. I yelped as he tossed the bucket of limp chicks into the cage. Goodness, I know it’s what they actually eat, but I just can’t imagine exposing a three-year-old to the sight of a pile of baby chicks being decapitated by hawks.

I offer mild photo evidence of the practice:

Note the cute yellow fluff.

Note the cute yellow fluff.

Honduras

We spent the second week of April in Honduras. I’ll admit that I was completely skeptical of this trip to Honduras, which was a mission trip with students involved in the Vida Estudiantil ministry from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. I had no idea if we would have any students willing to go. The trip was scheduled during Holy Week, and we would be on the road on Easter Sunday. I couldn’t really think of any girls besides Jenny that I could invite. It seemed like a major effort, and I thought the energy could be better spent in other areas. God had other plans.

I asked Jenny two days before the trip if she could make it. She said yes immediately and said she’d ask her parents that night. Her only other plan had been to go to a friend’s beach house, but everyone would be drinking and partying, and she was excited to have another option. We ended up having five students join us. We were split up into small groups while we were on the trip, and stayed with families in tiny villages.

Our group didn’t do all that much. We moved some rocks. We showed half of the Jesus film. (The pastor told us it was getting too late, and everyone was leaving, so we’d show the other half later. We never did. Oh well. :) We played with children. We led a short evangelism training. Actually, Jenny and another student Rueben led the training. They did a great job, and I was practically bursting with pride hearing Jenny explain the Gospel.

At the end of the training Jenny shared that she knew that evangelism worked, because at the beginning of the year, I had walked up to her in the cafeteria and shared with her, and now her whole life is different. Annnd, then I might have teared up a bit. I didn’t actually share with her that day, Selegna did. But she’s right about her life looking very different, and that humbles me again and again.

The whole trip was far more worth it than I could’ve imagined.

Somebody stick me on a Campus Crusade brochure:

Sharing 4 Spiritual Laws booklets with Honduran children.

Sharing 4 Spiritual Laws booklets with Honduran children.

Bowling

We went to the only bowling alley in El Salvador for a student event. I bowled a…37. My enjoyment of the night was clearly dwarfed by one of our students who noted in her facebook status the next day that bowling had been “THe bEsT NIghT of mY LIfe!!!”

Jenna rocked me in bowling. Not that it's hard.

Jenna rocked me in bowling. Not that it's hard.

Weekly Meeting

Our first weekly meeting at Matias was shockingly well attended. We had at leas 50 students there. Free pizza partly accounts for the good attendance, but it doesn’t account for the fact that a good chunk of the students who showed up are our friends. It turns out that we’ve actually developed a lot of ministry relationships over the last couple of months. There were even students from two of the campuses that we left behind. So very encouraging.

I also met a girl who came by herself simply because she saw the signs around campus and wanted to check it out. For the past three weeks, we’ve been meeting at least once a week. We’ve had some amazing conversations about truth and God.

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Bible Studies

We now have two weekly Bible studies on campus each week. God shows up when we do work that He wants done that we are utterly unequipped to do. I know this is true, because leading Bible study in Spanish is a whole different thing than meeting with a student one-on-one. It is terrifying, but also kind of thrilling. We started out with a co-ed Bible study. We’ve now added a girls-only Bible study. Last week we had to meet at Wendys because of the Swine Flu. I’m flattered, frankly, that the school considers our meetings large public gatherings. At the same time, it would be nice of them to let us meet on campus again, considering our groups rarely top 15.

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There is April. The month when our ministry really started to feel like a ministry. Not a bad month.

Frank Smathers

Frank Smathers

Early this morning, my grandpa died. I told Jenna that it feels like anything could happen right now, like everything is completely out of my control and in any moment everything could shift.

“Brenna, that’s always true,” she answered.

“I know. But it actually feels like that right now.”

I knew that he had passed as soon as I got the voicemail from my mom this morning saying I needed to call. He died at home. My mom was with him in the final moment.

He’s been ready to go for awhile now. My uncle died last year. A month later, my grandma died. His weekly bowling group, turned lunch group with close friends, shrank dramatically in the last few years. He watched his granddaughters grow into adults. He saw his own independence disappear in frightening chunks, each hospital stay robbing him of another piece, until he couldn’t lift his own legs into bed.

I would call, and he would stay on the phone for maybe thirty seconds. Still, he loved to hear my voice, and would tell all the nurses that his granddaughter had called from El Salvador. He was thrilled when Matt and I got engaged.

A few days ago, I emailed him a few lines telling him I was praying for him, and that I loved him. I guess that was my goodbye. I could wish for a million more things. That I could’ve seen him one more time. That I could’ve danced with him at my wedding. That I could’ve told him in person what a good grandpa he was, and how much respect I have for him. But somehow, right now, that simple email feels like a blessing enough.

Grandpa, me, Molly, Kelly, Grandma

Grandpa, me, Molly, Kelly, Grandma

“God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the

earth gives way,

though the mountains  be moved into

the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble at

its swelling.

Be still and know that I am God.”

Psalm 46:1-3, 10

Five minutes after I said “yes,” I couldn’t remember the sequence of events that ended with a ring on my finger.

“Did you…put the ring on my finger? Or did I take it from the little box?”

“I put in on your finger, remember? Right after you said yes?”

Saturday morning at 5:30 am I drove out to the airport with my team to pick up the students on the Cal Poly Spring Break trip. I was feeling a little bit sad, seeing all these friends and familiar faces, but knowing that Matt was spending his Spring Break in San Francisco.

I was actually feeling a little bit annoyed that Matt had forgotten his phone charger at home. Which meant I would only get to talk to him when he could make it to a coffee shop with an internet connection. I tried to remind myself that it was only a few days, and that I would be busy with the Spring Break trip.

I got home from the airport and sat on the couch to chat with Trevor, who hadn’t made it to the airport that morning because he wasn’t feeling well. Then I got a text message from Matt saying he was at a coffee shop with internet, and that we could talk on Skype.

I ran upstairs to my room, shouting, “Matt’s on Skype! I’ll be back later!” I heard Jenna explain to Trev that Matt had forgotten his phone charger, so I was eager to talk to him.

I ccalled Matt and spat out a stream of excited words, “Hi! How are you? I miss you because I just got back from the airport and saw everyone and it made me sad that you forgot your charger, but I’m happy to talk to you.”

“Hi, lemme go grab my webcam,” he answered, very much used to all my words.

And then he was walking in the door of my room, down on one knee, asking me to marry him.

“Will you marry me?”

“Oh…my…gosh…”

“Brenna, will you marry me?” He asked again. I could almost hear the “girl, snap out of it and give me an answer” tone in his voice.

“Yes.”

There was clapping from downstairs, my team waiting to hug me and tell me the rest of the story. Which is that they all knew that this was going down. The whole Spring Break trip knew–Matt had told them in the airport. Trevor and Kristen had known for two months, and were key in helping him pull it off.

Really, I’m shocked that I didn’t know. I would guess most people pride themselves in being hard to fool. But I really feel like I know my boyfriend (fiancé, weird), and I know his ability to lie right to my face. Except apparently not, because I had no idea.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy.

Happy.

Editor’s Note: The flowers aren’t actually from Matt. Someone handed them to me as a prop to use with the ring shots. :)

The ring.

The ring.

The ring belonged to my grandma who died last year. The stone is a ruby, which is my birthstone. There’s also that one verse about a wife of noble character being worth more than rubies…aw.

More happy.

More happy.

On Wednesday morning, my teammate Marijke went home. She has had some ongoing medical issues, and on Tuesday night, her doctor recommended that she get back to the States within 24-48 hours. To Crusade’s credit, she was on a plane within twelve hours of that recommendation, escorted by our team leader, Kristen.

The news was sudden, surprising, and terribly sad. Marijke will not be back for the rest of the year. We are now a team of nine. On Wednesday night, the team minus Kristen and Marijke went out to Bennigan’s to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (yes, there’s a Bennigan’s in El Salvador). When we got home, Kristen and Trevor told us we would have a quick team meeting before the guys went home. Brandon turned to be and said, “I think our whole live might be about to change.”

Marijke told us the news. A Crusade staff member called in the middle of our meeting to say that Kristen and Marijke would fly out at 7am. At that point, it was clear that no one was sleeping that night. We had a mini debrief–a time of prayer and encouragement. Then the packing frenzy began.

In times of stress, I need Something To Do. I baked cookies, packed plane snacks, and furiously cleaned the kitchen. At 2 am Brandon wandered into the kitchen looking aimless. “Can you dry those dishes?” I asked him, my voice strained with urgency. A few minutes later, I stopped for a moment, looked at Brandon dutifully drying dishes, and said, “Um, you probably came into the kitchen for something else, didn’t you?”

The drive to the airport was quiet. The drive home was silent. I thought about the way that we gather for team meetings every morning, each of us glancing around to see who’s missing. The way that our group of ten feels so small, and that nine feels so much smaller. The way that one person’s presence, or lack there-of, completely shifts the dynamic of the team. I also thought about my friend. Marijke and I are running partners. We’ve spent hours in our neighborhood running and talking. On long car trips, we listen to This American Life together on my ipod, sharing a set of headphones. After Matt (my boyfriend) visited in December, I slept in her bed for a week, because I was sad and didn’t want to be alone.

As I scrubbed the countertops the night before she left, she came in and gave me a hug, and I cried. “I don’t want to do the rest of this year without you, Marijke.” “I know. But it will be okay,” she said.

It’s already starting to be a little bit more okay. We are ridiculously busy, with the Spring Break team coming from Cal Poly tomorrow morning, but in some ways it’s a good distraction. Our house has felt surprisingly peaceful. Our times of prayer have been deep and comforting. I feel purposeful.

I got back from the airport, exhausted and depleted, walked into the kitchen, and laughed. There is so much sadness…but at least the kitchen’s clean.

volcano-sunrise

Marijke and I.

“Everything sad is going to come untrue, and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.” –Timothy Keller

Yesterday, Jenna came back from a run in our neighborhood and asked if I’d seen the dead pigeon.

Me: What dead pigeon?

Jenna: It was on the hood of a car at the end of the flat street.

Me: No, I didn’t notice it.

Jenna: I didn’t see it the first time I passed the car, so I think it must have gotten there between my first and second lap. It was weird, it’s neck was all twisted like somebody killed it and put it there.

Me: You think somebody killed a pigeon and put it on someone else’s car?

Jenna: Well…the elections are coming up soon.

While I’m not so sure about the neighborhood pigeon conspiracy theory, Jenna’s right–the elections are coming up, and they are a little bit scary. After more than 20 years of far-right rule, the far-left FMLN party is favored to take the presidential election on Sunday. Now, the FMLN party is a kind of soft-communist party, and no one is quite sure what their government reforms would actually look like. I loved this quote from the Washington Post, “The FMLN candidate is a veteran TV broadcaster and morning talk show host, Mauricio Funes, whose Facebook page lists his political views as ‘other.'” Hee.

The scary part as I understand it isn’t necessarily what the FMLN party would do with their power, it’s what the country would do in response to the election of a “communist leader.” We considered serving as international observers for the election, looking for fraud, but, we’ve been told by Salvadoran friends to stay inside and off the streets on election day.  Instead, we’ll be having a breakfast party and movie day at our house.

During the time I studied in Thailand, the government made a crucial political decision about whether to dismantle one or more of the political parties. I don’t even remember the result of the decision, but I remember the dire warnings on the news that the peace could turn into violence in an instant. I remember the heavy feeling that mere blocks from where I was staying, people were rioting (peacefully at that point) in the streets. Of course, Thailand is famous for its bloodless coups and shockingly peaceful political upheaval. El Salvador is famous for its…civil war and persistently violent social unrest. Hmm.

Right now, the situation doesn’t seem overly tense. I’m not concerned for my own safety, but I am worried on behalf of my friends who will actually venture outside of heavily guarded neighborhoods to cast their votes. Please pray for peace this Sunday, March 15.

And this is why I love my favorite coffee shop so very much:

kitty latte

Marijke’s cousin, Mrs. V, teaches 4th grade at a Catholic school in Orange County. Every year they adopt a class missions project or missionary to sponsor. This year, our team has been adopted. Apparently, this means that every couple of months we get a big package full of adorable cards and a random assortment of food. I say a random assortment, because we’re pretty sure that half the kids just grab something from their lunch bag and toss it into our box on the day that the package is being assembled. Which, yay! Princess fruit snacks! Gushers! Spiderman fruit roll-ups! Little Pringle packets!

Mrs. V usually throws in some extra goodies from Trader Joe’s, and we all end up feeling very loved and well fed. And then there are the cards. Oh how I do love the cards. One card was covered in an explosion of fireworks, each firework made up of painstakingly tiny lines connected with dots. And while it’s pretty obvious that Mrs. V writes a few “suggested phrases” on the board for the kids to use in the cards, they still manage to excercise their creative writing skills.

Three of my favorites:

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The one on the left is pretty typical. The same “Happy New Year,” and “Thank you for spreading God’s word.” But I love this one for all the little encouraging exclamations scattered throughout the card, including: “go team,” “you are the best,” “you are the light of the world,” and my personal favorite, “you can do it!”

The middle one reads: “Dear Marijke and her your team, Happy New Year! We are all praying for you. Thank you for spreading gGod’s word. That is so nice of you. Love, Hayley.” But that’s not even the best part, the second page of the card has an acrostic poem for Marijke:

trying to Make people believe in God

hAve to eat wierd food

doing the Right thing

God is lookIing out for you

Just believe in God

being given snacKs by Mrs. V’s class

want to, but can’t comE home for a year.

The one on the right alludes in comic form to the gift that came from this little boy:

Character 1: “What are the three words you say when it’s 2009?”

Character 2: “Truffles are good.”

I think I’m going to adopt that as a kind of mantra. Because you know? Truffles are good.

As an honorable mention, another card read: “We are praying for you, and so is God.” So, thank you Mrs. V’s class. And thank you God.

After we got back from Costa Rica, Layo (the director of Campus Crusade in ES) told us about an opportunity to pass out school supplies to kids in rural villages. Campus Crusade has a poverty ministry called GAIN that connects believers in the college and professional ministries with opportunities to serve the poor. As our ministry grows, our team is so excited to take students out with us to serve the community. It’s part of the vision of our ministry: that the transformed lives of students would lead them to serve others and change their country. Also, we were pretty sure that this trip would involve playing with cute children, and that was enough to sell at least half the team.

Remote villages, it turns out, are kind of hard to get to. I was surprised that we were only visiting three schools, when we had several hundred backpacks to pass out. It all made sense once we started driving. Our fifteen passenger manual van just barely made it up towering mountains, through narrow roads littered with rocks, and around hairpin blind turns bordered by cliffs. At one point, half of us had to get out and pack into the other vehicles so that the van could make it up a hill. At another point, Jeff had to walk ahead of the van down a road and coach Brandon over sudden two foot drop offs in the pavement.

At each school we watched the kids line up, shyly watching us with curiosity. The Salvadorians who were with us performed skits and gave instructions. The backpacks we passed out each contained a school supply pack, and a note from the family who provided the backpack. I peeked at some of the notes and photos that families from the US had sent off to these kids in El Salvador. The notes were so kind, and it was a little sad to know they would almost certainly never be read. They were all in English. Still, I felt to lucky to watch these kids proudly try on their new backpacks.

At the final school, I somehow ended up in front of a classroom of fourth graders entirely alone. I had wandered into the room, and the teacher immediately handed over her class. “Uhhh…um…buenas días!” I stumbled. “¡Buenas días!” they replied brightly and obediently. I looked to the teacher standing off at the side of the room and she only nodded for me to continue. I asked what they were studying. Math. I asked what their favorite subjects were. I asked their favorite colors. I asked if anyone had family in the United States. That one got me a bit of mileage from one talkative boy with an uncle who lives in a state he couldn’t remember. The teacher eventually came to my rescue, explaining to the class that I didn’t know very much Spanish, just like they didn’t know very much English. I know a bit more when I’m not put in front of twenty 8-year-olds with no idea what I’m supposed to be saying, but I gratefully conceded the point and took the opportunity to wander about the classroom talking with students one-on-one.

The whole day made me excited for the point in our ministry when we can bring students into this kind of service. We’re not there quite yet, but it’s a least exciting to see a clear path to another part of our vision in the work that we’re doing on campus.

Also, Salvadorian kids are darn cute.

Kids lined up waiting for our arrival.

Kids lined up waiting for our arrival.

Kristen giving out a pink and purple backpack.

Kristen giving out a pink and purple backpack.

Proud backpack owner.

Proud backpack owner.

Brandon triumphant over the boxes of backpacks.

Brandon triumphant over the boxes of backpacks.