Friday, July 31, 2015

Pure Religion - Looking After Orphans

Blog post written by Alyssa Rikimaru

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this; to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." - James 1:27

On Thursday, six of us got the chance to visit children at a Catholic orphanage while the rest of the group went to visit a girls' detention center. To my excitement, my group had the opportunity to help with the babies. When we first walked into the building, my first thought was how nice this orphanage was compared to some of the others we had previously visited. Next came the babies. My heart melted when I saw them and I instantly shifted into "baby mode." All the women on staff were very kind, allowing us to pick up the babies and help change and feed them, and I could tell that they truly cared for the children. Other orphanages and government centers in El Salvador aren't as fortunate to have this kind of care.

As I was holding a baby girl who looked to be only days old, I couldn't help but think how someone could give up their own child, especially a newborn baby. Just imagine holding a feather-light human being in your hands. In that moment, all you can think about is how precious that life is and how you want to do everything you can to make it feel comfortable and safe in your arms. As these thoughts came into my mind, I wondered how God must think of us--His children. For Him, the adoration, affection, and most of all, never ending love, surpasses any feeling or emotion that we could ever experience.

The verse at the top, James 1:27, says that true religion is to look after orphans and widows, and to stay unpolluted from the world. I felt that we carried out God's definition of religion in those moments where we clothed and fed those kids. The night before we went to the orphanage, people were deciding whether they were going to the girls' detention center or the orphanage. I didn't choose because I decided that wherever I would end up going is where God wanted me to be that day. Just loving on those babies, I felt so much joy and peace in my heart. That was confirmation enough for me that I was meant to be there. I saw Jesus shine through my teammates that day and I caught a glimpse of the compassion and love God has for us.

A Universal Language

Blog post written by Lindsey Warneke

"A warm smile is the universal language of kindness." -William Arthur Ward

One of my favorite things about serving in El Salvador is playing basketball with the kids in the government centers. While soccer is the sport of choice by almost everyone in Central America, there are always a few boys and girls who are quick to jump in to a game of 5-on-5 (or 7-on-7, in today's case) on the court. After bringing a number of players from the basketball program at Crean Lutheran High School in 2014, I looked forward to being here again.

The language barrier between the Salvadorians and our group from the United States was a challenge at first. Even though my Spanish is limited, I understand one thing very well: a simple smile makes all the difference. I quickly learned that we could reach out to those who played with us through smiles, fist bumps, and "high-fives." Basketball gives me a way to connect, and I love every minute of it.  Throughout the day I observed our team members playing soccer, basketball and cards with the kids.  Language was not required, love communicates all.  At the end of our afternoon, I was privileged to share my testimony with the kids (through a translator) and encourage them with the hope of the Gospel.

My life is a testimony of the power of faith and family. I grew up in a family with a mom and a dad who loved each other very much, and two brothers who are my best friends. It breaks my heart knowing that there are so many around the world that have a different experience. This is why I love serving alongside Sus Hijos: we are able to share the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. While many of these children we serve may never know an earthly father, I am grateful that I can play a very small role in sharing the love of the Heavenly Father. As much as I look forward to eternal life, I am just excited to see those who have lived without a family be part of our home that awaits us in Heaven.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why I Went to Prison on my 17th Birthday

Blog post written by Claire Campo

When you hear the word "birthday," what words come to mind? Celebrations, presents or cake? Well, today is my birthday and I was privileged to do something totally different than most people experience on their birthdays. I visited a girls' “detention center” in El Salvador, and I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else.

When we arrived at the prison, we had to enter through the guarded gates. As we entered the facility, we all experienced a thorough pat down. After entering, I looked to the left and saw young women smiling at us behind bars. To my surprise,  the girls were wearing everyday clothing that you and I would wear. This was not expected because when I think of a prison, I picture everyone in orange striped uniforms. The girls didn't look any different than us and two of them were holding their babies. It made me sad to realize that these babies would spend the first few years of their lives in a prison, even though they were innocent of their mothers' crimes. What really touched my heart was the fact that one of the women was wearing a Crean Lutheran High School soccer jersey. It was cool to see that our donations from last year had been given to those in need and they deeply appreciate it.

After we met the girls behind bars, we went upstairs to get ready for the Bible study.  The girls entered into the room with warm hugs and smiles.  Some of the women sang the song "Oceans" as we started the presentation. Not only did they sing in English, but they had several verses prepared in Spanish. After they sung, two of our team members gave testimonies of how Jesus healed them from brokenness and abuse in their pasts.  One of the testimonies was about a broken relationship with her father.  Despite the abuse that this woman experienced as a child, the Lord had given her the strength to extend forgiveness.  Although I was unable to understand the message since she was speaking in Spanish, it was obvious the that girls were touched.  After the testimonies, one of the Sus Hijos missionaries gave a Bible study about forgiveness, which correlated directly to the testimonies.  It was a powerful experience to watch the teenage girls hearing testimonies and a teaching from God's Word on forgiveness, especially since they come from traumatic pasts.  I'm so thankful that I was able to be part of the amazing ministry that the Lord is doing in El Salvador on my seventeenth birthday.  

Note: we were unable to take photos in the prison.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Moment a House Becomes a Home

Blog post written by David Anderlik

Today our team had the opportunity to finish a house building project for the Hernandez family. This is an awesome family that loves the Lord and shares a ton of love within their family. They live in La Libertad, a beachside community outside of San Salvador. Our team was in charge of painting, and though many of our team members came back to the mission house a beautiful shade of beige, most of the paint made it on to the house.

It was also their oldest daughter’s 15th birthday, and we were able to have a mini-celebration with cupcakes and a mostly on-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.”  

Our team was awesome! We worked together well in tight spaces and had a blast transforming the house from cinder-block gray to beige. The Sus Hijos team had a special surprise for the family as well, and the Hernandez family was excited to see brand new furniture enter their house. For the first time, each of the 3 children will have their own bed to sleep on, and the parents will have their own separate bedroom.

Once the house was finished and we all had lunch with the Hernandez family, it was time to dedicate the house to the family and hand over the keys. I was blessed with the opportunity to pray for the family and their future in their new home, and Kurt, who has known Miguel for 13+ years, dedicated the home with some wonderful, heartfelt words. I was blown away by the humility and thankfulness of the family, and the joy and excitement was clear as they entered their new home for the first time. They cried, we cried, it was unforgettable.

It’s amazing how God chooses us to be a blessing to others, yet it ends up being us that are just as blessed as those that we are serving. God doesn’t necessarily need us to do His work: He is more than capable of completing His work without us. But He chooses us to help because He knows that it will draw us closer to Him when we step out and put other’s needs in front of our own. I am so thankful that I was a small part of this experience, as well as the so many other awesome experiences this week that God has allowed us to enjoy. Praise be to God!

Why I Need El Salvador More Than El Salvador Needs Me

Blog post written by Jenni Ramsey

"Each one of them is Jesus in disguise."  
-Mother Teresa

It has often been said that missions trips are life changing.  Leaving a familiar comfort zone to serve in a foreign land with unfamiliar smells, customs and languages can definitely cause a person to rely on God and to question their own customs and traditions.  For the past twenty years, I have had the privilege of leading missions teams all over the world.  I've seen firsthand the power that a missions trip can have on an individual.  Many of my team members have returned home and made life altering changes.  Some have gotten involved in ministries in their own communities, others have changed directions in their careers, studies or families, some have adopted children and others have even moved overseas to serve.  Are missions trips life changing?  Absolutely!  

While serving in El Salvador, I have been honored to organize three quinceaneras for teen girls living in orphanages.   Each one has been unforgettable.  Last night was our first opportunity to host a quinceanera for women with special needs and the gala far exceeded my expectations.  I am still struggling to find the words to describe what we experienced.  But the bottom line is this.  I need El Salvador more than El Salvador needs me.  The Salvadorian people are constantly teaching and changing me.  And I desperately need them.  

In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks about the final judgement.  He tells his followers that they will be rewarded for caring for the least of these, and that by caring for his people, they care for him.  

"But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, the he will sit upon his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goat.  He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.  

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you fed me.  I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.  I was in prison, and you visited me.'  

Then these righteous ones will reply, "Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you?  Or thirsty and give you something to drink?  Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing?  When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?'" "And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!'" - Matthew 25:31-40

These verses remind us that Jesus' sheep love him and his love flows out of them.  Last night we had the unbelievable opportunity to be his hands and feet and there was truly nowhere else in the entire universe that I would have rather been.  As I watched our team members give hugs, paint nails, prepare make up and hair, and dote on the guests, I experienced Jesus.  I felt the presence of Jesus as I observed men on our team gently lift women out of their wheelchairs, fix their hair and sweat on the dance floor. These special ladies are truly the "least of these" and I felt his pleasure as we celebrated their beauty.  In a world that values outward beauty, independence, success and power, these women are often rejected. However, they are absolutely precious to Jesus and he has not forgotten them. Having the ability to communicate his love for his princesses last night was overwhelming.  In caring for them, we cared for Jesus. 

The women that we threw the party for oozed with gratefulness and joy.  They were not fussy or demanding.  They would have been content with any dress, any hairpiece, any nail color and any piece of jewelry.  Their thankful hearts were humbling and I found myself constantly convicted by my own attitudes. This is why I need El Salvador. I have encountered some of the most beautiful people that I've ever met in the orphanages, barrios and prisons of this country.  Though they have experienced indescribable horrors, they are incredibly joyful because of their love for Jesus.  They have an eternal perspective. They teach me over and over again about what really matters in life. And I am deeply grateful to know them.  

The story that gripped my heart was that of two sisters, who had been separated into different orphanages due to their ages.  The girls had no idea that they would encounter one another and their reunion was like a scene from a movie.  They screamed with glee, grabbed one another and didn't let go the entire evening.  I sat near them during dinner and was captivated by the way in which they caressed each other and even fed one another.  I have never witnessed that much affection and joy between two people and it was absolutely breathtaking.  These girls taught me how to value and appreciate the people I love.  I'm so thankful that the quinceanera brought together two heart broken sisters, who miss each other deeply.  When the younger sister turns eighteen (in about five years), she will be moved to the center where her older sister resides.  What a day that will be!   

I desperately need El Salvador because as a North American, I tend to be distracted by things that don't really matter.  I worry about issues that are fleeting.  I care too much about how I look and what people think of me.  I complain.  I get easily annoyed.  And discontentment haunts me.  The Salvadorian people have taught me to be grateful in the midst of trials.  They have shown me how to dance even when I'm separated from those that I love or I'm grieving.  They remind me that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  While the world values the outward appearance, Jesus cares more about the beauty of our hearts.  

It has truly been an honor to serve alongside Sus Hijos/His Children this week on my twelfth trip to El Salvador and I do not deny the fact that our team has changed lives.  I am proud of our team and overwhelmed by the things that I get to do as a Missions Director. I love the fact that we make a difference when we serve.  But let the truth be known.  The Salvadorian people have touched me more than I've touched them.  They have changed me.  They've placed an imprint on my soul and I will never forget them.   Missions trips are undeniably life changing because the people you encounter have the ability to touch you in the core of your being. The absolute truth is the fact that I need this beautiful country to make me more like Jesus.  And I become a little more like him every time I serve.  

"I Saw What I Saw" by Sara Groves

I saw what I saw and I can't forget it
I heard what I heard and I can't go back
I know what I know and I can't deny it

Something on the road, cut me to the soul

Your pain has changed me
Your dream inspires
Your face a memory
Your hope a fire
Your courage asks me what I'm afraid of
(what I am made of)
And what I know of love

We've done what we've done and we can't erase it
We are what we are and it's more than enough
We have what we have but it's no substitution

Something on the road, touched my very soul

I say what I say with no hesitation
I have what I have and I'm giving it up
I do what I do with deep conviction

Something on the road, changed my world

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

My First Time Visiting an Orphanage

Blog post written by Claire Campo

This is my first trip to El Salvador, and Sunday was my first time visiting an orphanage. I did not know what to expect and felt led to blog about my time at the orphanage with you. On our first day of ministry  we visited a government center where we were able to connect with the children, teen girls and teen moms. When we got to the orphanage,  we were given a tour of the whole facility. The facility was able to fit many people in tight corridors. It was sad to see the way they were living, but the children were all full of joy and laughter. I donʼt think there was anyone on the team who did not receive a hug from the children. 

Half of our team went to hang out with some of the teen girls, and the other half hung out with the teenage mothers and their babies. Mrs. Anderlik and I automatically knew we wanted to go wherever the babies were going because, who doesnʼt love babies? During this time, I fell in love with one of the babies, who we will call "Ryan." Ryan was five months old and the cutest baby I have ever seen. I did not expect to bond with one of the children, especially the babies with whom you can not quite communicate. It really touched my heart to see how close all the moms seemed to be with not only their own children but also with other moms and their babies. The mothers would come up to Ryan and play peek-a-boo with him.  He had the biggest smile. He especially loved when I picked him up, put him over my head and brought him down like he was jumping. Saying goodbye to him was very difficult for me because I had felt like we bonded in the four or so hours that we spent together.

Some of the team members who threw a quinceanera for the teen girls two weeks ago were able to distribute photos of the girls from the party.  Needless to say, the girls were thrilled to receive their photos!

After we had spent time with the teens and babies, we all met up and were able to distribute a whole suitcase full of jerseys.  We were able to give out a jersey and a pair of shorts to each kid and they loved it! Some of the boys were showing us their dance moves via cartwheels and breakdancing. It touched my heart to realize that although these boys have it rough, they are all so full of love and compassion for each other.

Everyone on our team was assigned a verse to remember and pray over during the week. My verse relates directly to the time that our team served in the orphanage

 “Learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” ( Isaiah 1:17 ) 

This verse relates directly to my experience because it talks about helping anyone in need, no matter what the case. We should learn to do what is right in God's eyes, which includes becoming accustomed to helping others.  I'm so thankful that I've had the opportunity to love and serve orphans this week!  

Monday, July 27, 2015

Feeding His Peeps

Blog post written by Lexi Ramos

This is my second time coming to El Salvador to serve on a mission trip. Last year feeding the homeless was one of my favorite parts of coming here. As we drove down the street last night, the reality hit me that these people had no where to go home to, no bed to sleep in, no food except for what we brought them. I may go home at the end of the week but this is their life every day.   This was so sad to me even though I saw it last year, it wasn't until now that I fully understood the gravity of their situation.  Each of these people are precious in God's sight. He knows their names and stories, even though we may not. He has not forgotten about them and cares deeply about each of them every day.

I was surprised by the thankfulness these people expressed even when we ran out of bags of food. One man in particular thanked us for thinking of them even though he received nothing. This was convicting to me and caused me to reevaluate my attitude about everything. I often find myself upset when I am in an unfair situation. The people we served were humbling to me and made me realize the importance of thankfulness, even when it's not the normal response.   Even though I was able to feed the homeless last year, nothing can prepare you or make it any easier to see such brokenness. I pray that these bags of food not only meet their physical needs but also their spiritual needs and that they are able to see Jesus through us. It still broke my heart but filled me with joy to be able to serve.

Upbeat, Downbeat, Right Beat, Wrong Beat

Blog post written by Lauren Ludovico

Yesterday morning's church service revolved heavily around music. I may not understand Spanish, but music is a language I can definitely speak. Last year when I came on this trip I had the privilege of leading a few worship songs in the service. Needless to say, it was truly a blessing to perform and share my heart with such a beautiful group of people. 

During the time that I wasn't performing last year, I sat back and observed the congregation during the rest of the Spanish songs. I was excited to see how Christian mass was run here in El Salvador, as I grew up with the unwavering traditions of Catholic practice, which can admittedly make worship rather monotonous. And what I experienced that day was something that completely blew my mind. I'm not sure what I was expecting, exactly. But I can tell you how I reacted. 

I looked around to see people passionately dancing and clapping along to the music. You'd figure, "Oh how nice for them to help keep the beat!" But that wasn't the case here. I saw people clapping on the up beat instead of the down beat. People were clapping on 1 and 3 instead of 2 and 4. Some people weren't even clapping on beat at all. Such things make no difference to just any person, but after a lifetime of meticulously studying music theory, I couldn't let this go unnoticed. I felt a cringe make its way onto my face in response to what I perceived as a cacophony. 

But amidst the loudness of the guitars and drums and disorganized claps, I heard God's voice. "Do not judge my children," He said. "There is nothing wrong with the way they have chosen to worship me."

This made me think about my own culture, and how I was bred within it. We as Americans are so hung up on two very dangerous concepts: conformity to expectation, and never making mistakes. This is especially true for someone in the performing arts like me. As a performer, perfection is crucial to my existence. And although true perfection is never really obtainable, my entire life spent trying to nail down my songs, dance pieces, and writing pieces has taught me that mistakes will haunt you forever. So you can imagine how hard it was for me to see the church not conform to each other's claps while also not clapping "correctly". 

But I realized something so beautiful about it: everyone was doing their own thing because they are all their own people. They have their own lives to live. Their own journeys to take. Their own feelings to feel. Their own songs that God wrote for them, and their own ways of expressing those songs.

In that moment, I let go of my rigid opinions of how music should be embraced. The El Salvadorian church was praising God and having an absolute blast doing it. Who was I to criticize?

Fast forward one year. Yesterday when I entered mass, I expected nothing more than the same disorganized beat-keeping that had me so baffled a year ago.  And surely enough, that's what I got. But this time I couldn't cringe. This time I couldn't reject it. This time I could embrace it. Because this time I appreciated it. And I challenge you to do the same. 

Put your hands in the air, and clap to the beat of the song that God wrote for YOU.