Tonight we were in a meeting at the church where the group is doing the children's program and adult meetings. Every night the seats are packed. The pews are long and almost touch the walls on either side of the church. When there is someone in the aisle it is difficult to push past them. The inside of the church is terra cotta brick that is unfinished. There was an attempt at one time to whitewash the section of wall adjacent to the pulpit to make the front look more finished...it was only an attempt.
The bare metal tin roof still radiates heat from the afternoon sun though it is cooling a bit from the simultaneous sunset and start of the meeting. Fortunately the church is on the corner of the block so the long side of the building is able to catch an occasional breeze. The pews have three slats to sit on with a four inch space between each one. There is no way to really be comfortable but the people sit motionless, riveted to the message of hope that they are hearing.
When the bus drives through the community, the children run to catch us. Children wait for specific people to come off the bus and some of the smaller children dance with delight as their new "gringo" friend appears in the doorway. There are four fluent Spanish speakers in this group plus the translators, so there are dozens of conversations being repeated in two languages and many more with sign language; spastic hand gestures mixed with lots of laughter fly back and forth. Hugs are universal, readily given and easy to understand.
There are no fans in this church, just naked light bulbs, a front and back door and steel decorative iron on the windows. Behind the church is an overhang where the children meet during the regular church time. There are no chairs, just one bench and a table for the leader; the kids have to stand or sit in the dirt. There is no bathroom of any kind, which presents more of a problem for the volunteers than the locals.
During the children's program hundreds of kids sit and listen. The air gets thick with the smell of dirty bodies. Little girls with old dresses sit cross legged with bare feet tucked under. Matted hair and snotty noses are common. Having done medical clinics in these neighborhoods, it is impossible to ignore the rashes, infected bug bites, or scabies on the child seated in front of you.
Mixed into the group are children who are clean and well kept. In some cases the little girls are overdressed for the informal meetings with craft projects and stand up-sit-down songs. Their mothers have taken great pride in putting on the best dress they have after a good bucket shower and scrubbing. There is no running water in this neighborhood and several times a week the tank truck pulls up beside the church. People run from the surrounding blocks to get in line with every water container they can carry. This water service is not consistent and they never really know when the truck will arrive again.
When the kids sing there is a freedom and joy that you only hear in countries like this. Their voices sound different because they sing with force. They want to be heard, even if they are not sure of the words. Sometimes, when the picture on the screen changes their lips stop moving as they stare at the new scene. I often wonder what they are thinking about when they see the children in the pictures who always have clean clothes and both parents helping them with projects or doing family activities. So few of these kids come from that kind of home. Here, a reliable father is difficult to find.
When the children's program is over the crowd is dismissed, but maybe twenty-five percent stay for the adult meetings. This requires enduring the slats from six pm until nine pm. Sitting this long, some of kids fare much better than the volunteers.
Tonight I sat between two teenage sisters. One of them is the new Mechanical engineer student that Krista is sponsoring. They are such a nice family. Their mother was with them. She had polio and walks with crutches. She is beautiful and takes great care in her presentation, but the crutches have been her companion for many years and have caused her family to suffer. The father of her children ultimately abandoned her for a more able bodied woman.
I had my arm up on the back of the pew and the little girl behind me kept playing with my hand. She was probably three years old. The dirty T-shirt she wore and torn short pants were threadbare and the flip flops were worn to a wafer-thin edge. She had a round face and short hair with the bangs cut straight. Her olive shaped eyes and large forehead hinted of the Down syndrome status she will carry her whole life. She was with her grandparents, who look like they have some Jewish-faith influence. The elderly gentleman had a long white beard, not common in this place. The woman had a simple, modest dress and braided salt and pepper hair.
The more I played with the little girl’s hands, the more she stood up on the back slats of the pew, pushing herself against the girl in front of her. The grandmother kept telling her to get down but it was a losing battle. About the time I would forget she was there, she would slap her chubby hands down on top of mine and laugh when I would hold on.
Every night local people present special music for the meetings. Most of them lack any real musical ability, but they are passionate about the message of their music and the audience is always blessed and appreciative.
Our marketing campaign here was pretty simple….and cheap. We drove into the neighborhood, set up a sound system and projector and started to sing. Some of the group members walked in four different directions and invited people to come. Within twenty minutes the church was filled. Each night the volunteers have been presenting a message to these people that we have heard our whole life. Why do people pack a small, hot church with back breaking benches and poor lighting? Why do so many children stay for meetings even after the craft projects are finished? Each night more people have come to the front of this primitive church to give their lives to Jesus. Why is it so difficult in our country?
The only answer I have is that they recognize real value. The people in Peru have suffered, struggled for survival long enough, and have seen the devastation of disease and poverty since the day they were born. Too many mothers have held their dying babies and had no money for medicine. Too many fathers have given up the idea of ever supporting their family with more than day-to-day survival. Children who longed for an education find themselves as young adults, years behind in school. Dreams die daily in Peru along with the poor and the weak.
I guess the opposite is true in our country. Things are just going too well. We suffer when our discretionary money gets tapped because our jet ski needs repaired or our lawn service raises their price. Sacrifice means we shorten our vacation because gas prices are high or the kids need their back-to-school supplies.
I am reminded of the scripture in Revelation that says, “I am rich, I have everything I want, I don't need a thing.” Of course, after that, God tells us that we are wretched, miserable, poor, naked, and blind. He goes on to advise us to buy gold from Him that has been refined in His fire; then we are rich. He wants us to have white garments of His righteousness so we won't be shamed in our nakedness, and He wants us to have the salve for our eyes so we can see what is really important…the eternal things.
God’s last command in this passage is simple. He tells us to turn away from our indifference.
Now, I sit in the back of a crowded church packed with people who have nothing material. They are worshipping in a church with no creature comforts, sitting on slatted benches for hours, simply to learn things eternal. Now I ask, “Who are the truly rich among us?”