Here we go again!!!

Five years ago, Leo had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia with a team of folk from different Vineyard churches and do a week-long training on worship. He loved being able to use his gifts and pour into the pastors and worship leaders!

While there, we knew that some of the pastors would be coming to the States for the International conference the following summer, so I encouraged Leo to really listen to the Lord as to who he should invite to stay with us.

He invited the De la Cruz family… a family of 5 pastors from Lima, Peru.

The week they stayed with us was a blast! They would be up early for the conference, Leo and I helped run the all-day children’s ministry portion, and then we would all stay up late sharing our stories, testimonies and visions in ministry.

Around our kitchen table, the family invited us to go to Lima, spend a month, and teach their people a little more about what we were doing to train up kids in ministry. And we did! That following February, we flew to Lima for a month and stayed in their house. We had an incredible time together sharing life, training their kids and kid teams and helping with two camps.

We came away from that trip feeling like family!

So, it was a no-brainer when they asked us to come speak and help out at their regional conference in Colombia the following year (which also happened to be when we got pregnant!). I taught about kids ministry, Leo taught about being proud of his Latino heritage and how to reclaim indigenous worship. We both felt at home with these dear pastors who became friends.

We made promises to come to Bolivia as a couple for a few weeks and do similar things to what we did in Lima.

But my pregnancy was unexpected and rough… let alone trying to figure out how to be parents…

This past October, when Elias was 15 months old, we were invited to go to the same bi-annual regional conference, but this time in Ecuador. We had a blast! We spent a little over a week with our friends, reconnecting, and renewed our commitment to come visit.

We also met an incredible couple from Pallatanga, Ecuador who, in addition to running a camp and conference center, are planting a Vineyard church. And, while they are phenomenal pastors, neither of them are really musicians nor know how to help their people truly connect with the Lord through music.

The translated stuff just doesn’t cut it for their people, most of whom are indigenous.

We have experience helping different people groups, especially indigenous, find their voices and write worship music with their own melodies, chords, lyrics, etc.

We open up the Word, and create space for people to experience God. Worship always flows as a response to His presence. It’s incredible to watch it happen; to experience people connect to the Lord for the first time through song.

And we can’t wait to be a part of what the Lord is awakening in Bolivia and Ecuador this summer!

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Our immigration story part 2: from resident visa to citizenship

2010: We planned our first trip to the US for Christmas. We were told that it could take anywhere from 2-6 months for Leo to get his green card, so we worked it out for other people to stay in our apartment, take over our classes and ministry duties and set off.

Leo had a bucket-list of things to do in the snow, and he checked most of them off, including sledding, a snowball fight and peeing his name in the snow. Lol!

I had an absolute blast introducing him to my family, and we even took a road trip to Chicago to visit friends there. It was amazing!

Even more incredible, we received his green card just 3 weeks after arriving in the States.

It said “conditional”, and we honestly didn’t pay much attention to that. We were just so happy to have that little expensive piece of plastic.

Since we were truly hoping to NOT be gone 6 months, we headed back down to Colombia just 2 months after arriving in the US.

It was never our plan to live full-time in the US. We really loved our lives and ministry in Colombia, and thought we could play it right by being employed by a US mission agency for Leo to keep his residency status even though we lived in Colombia.

We knew that he couldn’t be out of the US longer than 6 months, so we came back up for the summer months, enjoying all the fun of summertime in the Midwest.

We went back to Colombia to start the school year, and then came back to the US for 2 weeks in October.

In 2012, Leo came to the US alone in March and stayed for a week in Chicago with some friends. He had a blast!

His next trip in July, however completely uprooted us.

He flew into Florida, and as he was going through immigration, the officer looked at his passport and asked

“Where do you live?”

“I am a resident of the US, but I work for a US-based mission agency in Colombia”, Leo replied.

“Sir, you were given a 2-year conditional resident visa, which means that you need to reside in the US. You need to apply to remove the conditions of this visa in a few months, and if you aren’t living here, they will probably deny your request.”

What?!?

He called me, panicked, from the airport.

We weren’t ready to pack up and leave.

But we had to.

We worked it out that he would complete his 2 week trip, staying with dear friends in Memphis, and then come back to help me pack up and move.

We had 5 weeks.

You can read more about that trauma in some earlier blogs.

We came to the US and lived out of my parents basement. Our #1 priority was getting jobs.

In October 2012 we filed form I-751, paid $595 + $85 biometric fee, and hoped for the best.

We got word in November that the conditions on his visa were not removed, but that he was given another year with the conditions.

We continued working our tails off, moved out into our own place and filed again in 2013 for the conditions to be removed. We filed form I-751 again, and paid the $680 total in fees… again.

The conditions were removed, and he had permanent resident status. We bought the house we had been renting, and continued working our butts off.

Leo’s entire family came to the US for a month for Christmas, and it was one of the coldest December’s we’d had in a long time. They LOVED experiencing snow and the cold air. We all packed 12 of us into our tiny 3-bedroom, 1-bathroom house and had a blast!

We were also free to finally travel! So the following year, we went to Colombia together. I had gone twice without Leo, and it was amazing to be able to go together again!

In 2014, in addition to traveling to Colombia, Leo was invited to travel to Bolivia to help with a conference. The weeks before he was to fly out, he was at the music store purchasing things he needed for the trip, and his wallet was stolen. It just happened to be the day after he was getting his license renewed, so his green card and license were in his wallet.

He can leave the US without his green card, but he can’t get back in without it as proof of his status.

He had to apply to replace it, which meant filing a I-90, and paying $455 + $85 biometric fee.

They gave him a stamp in his passport, valid for 6 months, that showed he had filled out the paperwork and was allowed to travel.

They said it would take up to 6 months.

We got a letter 6 months later, saying that it would take an additional 6 months. He had to take that letter to the immigration office so that they would give him yet another stamp valid for 6 months.

In 2015, we were spending a month in Peru helping with some amazing churches. While there, I got a message from the girl staying at our house saying that we received a letter from USCIS. I asked her to open it.

It said that his application for replacing his green card was denied because he missed a biometric appointment.

He had never gotten a letter about a biometric appointment, and our mail carriers were awful! We would often get mail for other houses, and neighbors would deliver packages to our house that were mistakenly delivered to theirs.

I was terrified. We were out of the country. Would we be allowed back in?!?

I put in a panicked call to the immigration lawyer at our church, and she re-assured me 3 days later when her call finally could get through.

“The green card is just proof of his status. His status hasn’t changed. It will take him longer to get through immigration, but he has full rights to come back.”

After we hung up, I bawled for an hour straight. In those 3 days, I had gone through every emotion that I went through 3 years before when we had to leave Colombia. I was willing to trust Jesus if we had to leave everything again, but still traumatized from the last sudden move.

And she was right… it took us a lot longer to get through immigration, but they let us in, and suggested that Leo just apply for Citizenship.

In all the paperwork we had looked through, it said that he had to have a physical copy of his green card, but they assured us that if we had a copy of it, that would be enough.

In 2016, we had saved up enough to file the N-400. The cost break-down: $199 for the instructions, $640 for the application fee, and $85 for the biometrics.

Leo became a US citizen in August of 2016. The ceremony was incredible, and in addition to my family and our pastor, Leo’s Mom was there to witness it.

We did all of this without hiring a lawyer. It was an expensive journey but completely worth it.

We have friends who have chosen not to get citizenship, but to renew their permanent resident status every 4 years.

We also have missionary friends whose spouses are from countries where it is even harder to obtain a resident visa, no matter how long they have been married.

Leo is also fortunate, in that Colombia and the US have a dual-citizenship arrangement. Not everyone has that opportunity. This means that he did not have to give up his Colombian citizenship to become a US citizen. This also means that our son has full rights as a dual citizen. We haven’t filed his Colombian paperwork yet, but plan to do so.

I will say that the first time we travelled with both of our blue passports was very emotional. We had taken so many trips where the immigration lines were long and the officers were not friendly.

But now, we are free to roam about the world.

Our immigration story: from Colombia to the US (part one)

When Leo and I met in 2007, we had no idea the up-hill battle that was waiting for us in regards to immigration.

As a US citizen, I didn’t realize how much I took traveling to other countries for granted.

By the time I went to live in Colombia as a 28 year-old, I had already been to over 15 countries: Haiti, Hungary and Austria when I was in high-school, Greece, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Russia and Puerto Rico (although its part of the US, it seemed like a different country!) in college… and then Russia again, Australia, Mexico, El Salvador, the Philippines, Kenya, Tanzania and India in the years between college and leaving for Colombia.

My family valued traveling and knowing other cultures, and I thought that everyone in the world would have those opportunities.

I was wrong.

The first petition: Summer 2008

Leo first applied for his tourist visa the summer after we met. We were hoping that he could just come the the US with me to meet my parents and family and get to know a little more about where I came from. It was such a fun idea!

The fee for the visa application was $225, which, when minimum wage back then was the equivalent of $150/month, was a chunk of money.

He waited in a long line that wrapped around the outside of the embassy for about 5 hours, only to be denied. They said that he didn’t have enough ties to Colombia to ensure that he wouldn’t out-stay his visa and become illegal. He didn’t own a home, a car, have a job at a lucrative company, have enough money in the bank, etc.

So, I stayed in Colombia for the summer as well, and we had a blast! We even travelled to the coast to help lead worship for a conference together, and I was even more convinced that this was the man for me!

The second petition: Winter 2008

He applied at Christmastime again for a different type of tourist visa, where our church would sponsor him to come. We had to get letters from 5 different Pastors, all explaining that they were asking him to come to speak for specific dates about the work we were doing in Colombia.

The same $225, the same long wait in a line that wrapped around the Embassy, the same answer: no.

We were crushed.

At this point, we knew we wanted to get married, and he was looking forward to asking my father for my hand in marriage in person (he wasn’t so good on the phone).

I went to the US for Christmas with a promise ring on my finger, and had a long conversation with my parents about how to move forward with what we felt like God was calling us to: marriage.

Even though they hadn’t met Leo, he sent a gift of a Bible to me and a letter to my parents. I decided to go ahead and buy my wedding dress and take it back with me to Colombia after Christmas.

We were going to try again for a tourist visa for Spring Break, but my parents said it would be better to just save our money and try for the tourist visa after we were married.

Here’s the deal:

In Colombia, there are only 2 types of marriages that are recognized by the State: a courthouse wedding, or a Catholic wedding. ALL of the Protestants who want to marry in their churches need to FIRST get married “legally”, and then have their church ceremony.

There are NO Pastors who will marry you in a church unless you are already legally married. And, we couldn’t file for a Fiancé visa if we were legally married in Colombia.

So, we took our chances and got legally married almost 2 months before our official wedding. We were not only planning the wedding in Colombia but also a wedding a month later in the US.

Yes, that is 3 weddings total… lol!

The third petition: April 2009

We got everything together and applied for a tourist visa. The same $225, for again the same answer: no.

We were outraged and so sad at the same time. When Leo presented himself the 3rd time in a year, the Consule said “it just looks like you are doing anything in your power to get the the US. If your marriage is real, you need to wait 2 years before even trying to apply again”.

What we didn’t realize is that there is an entire industry of US Citizens getting paid thousands of dollars to marry internationals for the sole purpose of coming to the US. I also heard stories when I lived in Kenya of US citizens falling in love with locals, only to bring them to the US and find out it was all a trick, and that the local only ever wanted to get to the US.

We were advised by other friends at the Embassy to wait 2 years and then apply for a resident visa… that it was extremely rare for the Embassy to grant tourist visas to married couples.

So, we cancelled the wedding in the US, and for reasons completely out of our control, none of my family could come to our Colombian wedding, and they still hadn’t met Leo.

My parents were able to travel to Colombia 6 months after we were married, and we had an incredible time together!

The fourth petition: Summer 2010

A year after we were married, we decided to give the resident visa a try. We knew it was a long process, and we figured that by the time all the steps were accomplished, it would probably be 2 years.

There were 3 basic steps:

1) filling out and paying for the I-130. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/immigrate/family-immigration/immigrant-visa-for-a-spouse-or-fiance-of-a-us-citizen.html

You had to, again, pay to even start the process. $535 for just turning in the I-130, then an additional $325 filing fee.

2) After his form was received, he was given a case number and a date to appear at the embassy. He received a list of things he had to compile and bring with him:

Medical records (for which, he had to go to one of the US-approved doctors for a complete physical exam, full x-rays and blood work. That cost $100 ( I know… cheap compared to the US, but expensive in pesos!)

Paperwork from our sponsor

Civil documents: police reports (or paper stating that he has no record), birth certificate, marriage certificate, Colombian passport

Passport pictures

He appeared at the Embassy with all of the documentation, and they asked him a few clarifying questions.

3) They gave him another date with another list of items to provide to verify our marriage.

Anyone who has ever married a non-citizen has “The Book”. Some are more organized than others, but ALL contain:

-Pictures together. We chose pictures where also had different hairstyles to show the progression of time of our 3 years together

-proof of joint bills (which was really hard for us, because there was only 1 bill in our name… all the rest were in our landlord’s name)

-proof of residency (we had to get a letter from the school where I worked who had a contract with the landlord, stating that we had been living together and paying rent since we were married in May of 2009)

-proof of marriage (we had to compile letters from friends and family who had known us from dating to marriage to verify that we were indeed a couple. The Embassy asks for 2-3 letters, and we had over 20)

-proof of joint bank accounts (which was super tricky because Colombian banks didn’t allow for joint accounts then… we had to open one at a bank with ties to the US, and even then, we barely had enough money for the minimum amount to open the account)

We also chose to include our ministry letters from when we were dating to the current time, sharing with our supporters about the work we were doing together in Colombia.

We arrived for our joint interview at 7am. It was a beautifully sunny day, and we were told to sit in a nice patio area with benches and a clear roof, in front of some darkened windows. There was a coffee and bread station nearby where you could spend $5 on bread that cost $.50 out on the street.

There were 3 other couples also sitting nervously with their “books” in hand, waiting.

I honestly think that we were being watched for the entire 6 hours we were made to wait.

I had brought a book, and we passed the time talking, eating expensive bread and trying to be patient.

One window slid open, and a man called out a number. Then another. Two couples were called up. It was obvious what was going on. One was given their visa, and the other was denied.

We looked at each other and knew that this was it. Either way, this was the day we would know, for sure, whether we would be able to go to the US together.

Our numbers were called, and we stepped up to the window.

We handed over our book.

The man leafed through it, and stopped on one of our support letters. He asked about the kind of work we do, and shared that his parents had been missionaries in Thailand.

I honestly can’t remember all the specifics, besides the fact that he spoke to us together and separately, and then gave Leo his passport, saying that his visa was approved. We had 6 months to get to the US for the next steps of the process.

We waited in another line for about an hour for them to put the official visa in his passport, and walked away from the Embassy crying… but this time, happy tears!

Wednesday, April 4th in 2 de Mayo

For pictures from 2 de Mayo and the river village, you can go to:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151471705950215.840641.741380214&type=3&l=6671fd9562

Waking up this morning, my first thought was the girls on the porch.  I hoped that they hadn’t gotten wet in the storm that lasted all night.   Sure enough, they were completely dry!  The plastic that Neil hung up just before the storm came completely protected them!

As we were all waking up, we had a great conversation with Neil.  I asked if he led family devotions every night, or if it was just because of the movie.  He smiled and said that they’ve done it every night for the past year.  With a huge grin, he started telling us this story:

“You see, I used to say I was a Christian.  I went to church, prayed, sang the songs, did everything I was supposed to, but I also had my other life.  I would drink with my friends, and even stay away from home sometimes.  Last year, a woman at the church had a word from the Lord, saying that He wants His church to be pure and spotless… that He wanted us to turn away from our wicked ways and give all of our lives to Him.  This word also came with a warning: that if we didn’t turn away, He would bring judgment on us.   My friends and I didn’t believe this, so we continued doing what we had been doing before.  After 2 weeks, all three of our families got sick.  We all knew at that moment that the word was true, and that we needed to really give our lives over to the Lord.”

“We went in front of the church and confessed our sins, and then truly turned away from our wicked ways.  We’ve seen the Lord’s blessing and protection ever since!  We have even started going to other villages to tell them about Jesus!”

He excitedly went on about his passion for the other villages to know the power of believing in Jesus, and we listened to every word.  It was amazing!

Last year, we found out that Neil and some of the other men, aside from making money from their hand-made crafts, were also growing coca (the plant that eventually gets turned into cocaine).  The houses and boats of these men were the finest in the village!  When Neil said that he turned away from his “wicked” ways, he later explained that all the men stopped growing coca.  That is a very bold step, because in these villages… if you’re not growing coca, you’re against it.  The guerillas and other para-military groups depend on the villagers’ “willingness” to grow coca for their own financial needs, and in turn, the groups “protect” the villagers.  Last night, when Neil was praying for protection for his family, he was praying against a very real threat since he has stopped growing coca.  The love that we already had for Neil just kept growing deeper and deeper as we talked this morning!

We all had to get to the pastor’s house for breakfast, and it was tricky!  Our morning routines were a little off, anyway.  With the river being so high (and there being no latrines), we literally had to pee off the side of the house.  For guys, this is pretty easy… for girls, however, not so much!  I mean, it’s easy as long as you get over your need for privacy and realize that your butt is going to be hanging out for anyone to see!  The problem with peeing in the river is that there are little fish that follow the flow of urine up into your body and then attach themselves with little hooks to your urethra…. not very pleasant to think about!  But we were told that if we had our bathing suits on while we peed in the river, we’d be fine.  So, with my bathing suit on, I sat on the submerged front step of Neil’s house and peed into the river.  Not even 5 seconds later, there were fish all around me.  SO GROSS!!!

Anyway, most of us ended up walking through the river to the pastor’s house for breakfast, and when we got to his house, we found out that the lower level got flooded during the night!  The lower level is where the girls were camping, too!  They told us that because they could already hear the water hitting the floorboards when they set up the tent, as soon as they heard the thunder they decided to move it… it was a crazy complicated process as they had to wake everyone up and re-arrange everything.  But, at least they were dry!

Liz and Lauren said that a few of the days on the trip felt like we lived 3 days in one… and this day was no exception!!!

After breakfast, we loaded everything up in the boat and headed over to the school.  We yelled out to everyone as we were going that we would be setting up the medical brigade and the kids’ ministry stuff… so everyone was welcome to join us.  Ruben and Andrew pulled us over, and as soon as we got to the school, we realized that it was locked!  As we were waiting for the schoolmaster to come with the keys, the kids slowly started showing up.  They were really shy, and didn’t speak a lot of Spanish.  They would just look at us, covering their smiles with their hands.  Kylie found one of the sponge balls that we brought with us and started playing with them, throwing the ball back and forth in the little cement space outside the classrooms.

The boats kept coming, and the cement space quickly filled up!  The schoolmaster came with the keys, and was able to unlock the room for the medical brigade, but the room for the kid’s ministry had some kind of lock on the inside.  A kid climbed up the wall and reached through with a piece of wood and got the door open.  All the kids entered the room at once, yelling and running in circles.  They were SO happy!

And, this is where it started to get interesting.  Literally, a few of the kids understood Spanish… but the rest… not so much!

I found one of Leo’s friends, Nehemias, and asked him to help translate for us.  He was more than willing!  We started out playing one of our favorite games, “come, little sheep, come!”.  Daniel and Sara are amazing at this game!!! We then talked about how Jesus is the good shepherd, and how He protects us from all the evil around us.  We taught the kids how to draw a little sheep head and the had a good time gluing cotton balls on their little sheep bodies.

As we continued with our childrens’ ministry, it got even harder to work with a translator.  Personally, I LOVE that our students have to struggle with this!  They are so used to BEING the translators for teams and preachers that come to visit, that the experience they have actually needing to be translated for is so valuable!  My favorite part was when we were teaching the kids how to say John 3:16.  Nehemias would say a part, and then the kids would repeat after him.  They repeated everything… the words and his vocal inflection!  The Tikuna language is so beautiful!

After all the children’s ministry was over, we made sure that everyone got their oatmeal and cookies.  Then, Lili took a model of teeth and a giant toothbrush to show the kids how to properly brush their teeth.  It was precious!  She asked for volunteers to come up and model it as well, to show that they had learned.  Then, it was chaos as we started handing out the toothbrushes and little gifts.  We tried our hardest to have the kids form a line, but that didn’t work.  Then, we had them go back into the room and sit down to wait, and that mostly worked, but as soon as we gave a gift to one kid who wasn’t sitting down, we were mobbed all over again.

The little girls got beautiful barrettes for their hair, and the boys got little toy animals that grow in the water.  Some kids got little flute whistles that we could hear even late into the evening.

Once again, the students did a phenomenal job!  Diana and Mafe decided to stay with the medical brigade and help Hector pull teeth.  They were having such a fun time!  Laura was helping bathe the babies with fevers, while Lili was painting all the womens’ fingernails.   I was so impressed with each person on the team and how they found the place where they could serve the best!

All morning, we gave everything that we were to love the kids and teach them these valuable stories!   We were ready for lunch when the time came!

Once again, Andrew helped pull us back to the pastor’s house so we could eat.  Most of the people had already seen the doctors, and were just waiting in line for the dentist.  So, we decided that it would be wise for us to try to go to another village to help them with medicine after lunch.

Monica knew of another village just down-river, so we loaded up whatever medicine we could fit and were on our way.

The river was so full!  We passed house after house that the water had damaged or entered, and some of them seemed deserted.  We also passed random houses with anywhere from 5-15 people.

On our way, we had to stop at a floating police station on the side of the river.  Liz and I started sweating a little bit because we left all of our paperwork back in 2 de Mayo, and without proper documentation, they could’ve fined us!  They just wanted to see who we were, and what we were doing.  When we told them we could give them medicine on our return trip, they let us go, no problem.  What a relief!

As we rounded the bend into what should’ve been the entrance to the village, our boat got stuck.  Even though everything was flooded, the water there wasn’t deep enough for us to go farther into the village, and even though the water only came up to our waists, the current was really strong!  So, John, Pravaas, Batman and Andrew all put on life jackets and floated down into the river to let the people know we were here.  It was a really funny sight!

Slowly but surely, we were visited by different people.  They would tie their little canoes to our boat, and then come on board.  The doctors and some students were inside, running the program, while the rest of us were on the bow of the boat worshipping in Spanish and Tikuna.  It was so much fun!  We were “parked” right underneath a HUGE lemon tree… that is, the lemons themselves were gynormous!

The guys came walking back up from the village completely painted red!  They found some achiote and covered themselves in it!  They passed it around for all of us to try, and we painted ourselves silly.  We had so much fun laughing and painting ourselves before the people started showing up.  Andrew dunked himself in the water to see if it washed off, and it didn’t!  We were all freaking out as we had silly symbols painted all over our faces.  The “paint” was really oily as it turned out, and it took a little bit of effort, but we were able to get it all washed off eventually.

One of the young guys that was first to see the doctors and get medicine came back after about 45 minutes with a boat filled with women and children.  I was so happy that he had done that!  All the babies had fevers, and most of the kids had weird rashes all over their bodies.  One little girl just fought and fought and didn’t want to take the medicine!  Stefy had to try 3 different times while the little girl’s mom held her tight.  That girl was a fighter!

I imagine that we were able to serve over 60 people from that village, and even though the village is only 20 minutes from 2 de Mayo, it was obvious that the people had no hope.  There was such emptiness in their eyes.  Monica kept praying and declaring victory over abuse and depression as they were coming through the “line”.  We just worshiped and worshiped.

It was a beautiful boat-ride back to 2 de Mayo.  We stopped back at the police station, and Leo became fast friends with the police officers.  We even gave them a water-proof Bible, as one of them was a Christian.  God is so good!

We got back just in time to get ready for the evening service.  Leo went straight to the church to get the sound and movie ready (they stopped it last night about 20 minutes from the end), and the rest of us got a bite to eat… wading through the water of the pastor’s kitchen.  I figured out a few days ago that the sole of my left boot was coming un-glued, so I was walking around bare-foot, hoping that the mosquitoes wouldn’t eat all of my feet… not that there was much left after all the ant bites during the day!

The church service was packed!  After the movie finished, Pastor Burgos felt led to pray for different groups in the church body:  it was the men’s turn first, and it was powerful!  Pastor then invited the wives up, and Neil yelled “Amen!”.  He loves to pray for his wife! 🙂  As Rocio, Kylie and I went around praying for the women, there was something beautiful happening.  They were crying out to the Lord, drowning out our prayers.  One woman started singing and dancing holding her baby tight to her.  I had no idea what she was saying, so I went to one of the elders and asked if what she was singing was for all of us, or just a deep prayer from her to the Father.  He said it was just a deep prayer and to keep praying for the other groups of people.  So, we invited the youth up, and the team prayed for them.  Afterwards, we had the children come up and their parents make a circle around them as we prayed.  It was beautiful!  Parents were crying out for their little ones to grow up in the ways of the Lord, and in purity.  I still get chills when I think about it.  It was such a beautiful picture of protection and covering!

After that, it was worship time!  Sandra, Carolina and Paula all got their tamborines out and danced while the women sang.  It went on and on, and we didn’t want it to stop!  Then, the youth and children took turns singing.  They were totally bold as they did so.  They even sang my favorite song… ch-ta a ey… 🙂

After the worship time, Sandra asked that the villagers close their eyes and pray while she and her team dance over them and let the Holy Spirit minister to them.  As a team, we went around and prayed for as many people as we could.  Words really can’t describe the feelings of peace and battle that we had at the same time!  Lili and I prayed for all the kids individually, and then I went over to Neil’s wife to pray for her.  I have a feeling that the Lord is going to use her gift of music all over Tikuna land, and I prayed that He would give her new songs to declare His glory.  It was powerful!

We went to bed that night exhausted again, but so grateful for everything the Lord was doing in 2 de Mayo!  We keep praying that this village will bring many others to the saving knowledge of Jesus!

 

 

 

Tuesday, April 3rd in 2 de Mayo

Another un-eventful sleep, more bug-spray-filled air, more clunking boots on the wooden planks of our “house”, but this morning, we were packing up to move out.

The plan was to have everything packed up and ready to load into the boat before breakfast.  The team was amazing!  Slowly, the tents were emptied and taken down.  The “checked” bags were put in one corner, and the “carry-ons” in another, so as to not get confused while we were loading up the boat.  The kids gathered in the doorway, watching the show while Leo was outside talking with some of the elders.

Leo really connected with the men on this trip.  The connections would either happen in church while he was praying with them, or on the sidewalk while they were passing by.  This morning, however, he was in a deep conversation with one of the elders and his son.

The “medical brigade” that was happening when we arrived in Zaragoza wasn’t much of a medical brigade as it was a census where they handed out a few pills to help with the absolutely desperate situations.  The census was because the Colombian government passed a law that said the indigenous families will receive more money with each child they have (not much unlike the welfare system in the States).  The elder was talking with Leo about his frustration with his son because he doesn’t farm anymore, but just keeps having more and more children so he can rely on the government’s money.  The son was frustrated because he didn’t feel like his dad respected him.  So, here was Leo, helping a father and son communicate.

The son wanted to move away from the village so he could get a real job, helping with tourism.  He is a Christian, but trusting God is something that he struggles with.  He was just waiting for God to show him a “sign” about what to do next, as well as the approval of his own father.    Leo spent over an hour helping him process what his skills are, and how he could take the first steps to actually doing what he wants to do.  Leo encouraged him to not wait for approval from anyone, but to make his own way… trusting that God had given him the gifts and talents to provide for his own family.  Both men were grateful for Leo’s time, and hopefully they will take his advice.  They had a great time of prayer together before saying good-bye.

We ate breakfast, finished cleaning, and loaded up the boat.  The mud was so thick that it was hard to really walk on the land next to the boat!  We had to wash off our boots before even getting in the boat!  Stefy and Luis Carlos were doing last-minute checks on the babies from yesterday, and all the fevers had gone down.  The parents were so grateful!

Our 2-hour boat-ride to 2 de Mayo was filled with worship, prayer and laughter!  We spent a lot of time sharing as a team what we felt the Lord had laid on our hearts for Zaragoza, and our individual experiences.  The blessing of having such a diverse team is that we all connected with different people and had such different view-points of the village.  Besides meal times, boat times between villages were the only times we were all together to share.

We arrived to 2 de Mayo and were absolutely shocked.  The river had completely swallowed the village.  The current was pretty strong as well!  We arrived to the pastor’s house, and started figuring out where we were setting up “camp”.  Our team was the largest we had ever brought, and we wouldn’t be able to fit everyone in the pastor’s house this year.  We decided to split up into 4 houses… Leo and I took Kylie and the senior girls to Neil’s house.  We were happy to be able to spend time with our dear friend!  The doctors all set up camp in the pastor’s daughter’s house… “next-door”, and the boys were across the way in another church-members’ house.  The Burgos’, Monica and the puerto-rican couple and the other girl tent all set up in the pastor’s house.  It was cramped!  I think the Pastor had another family living with them as well… and they all had beds this year instead of sleeping in hammocks.

Getting a team of 24 set up in 4 different houses that you have to get to by boat was a little tricky… and time-consuming!!!  The kids all got in their little canoes to come greet us, and immediately started doing flips off the boat!  Pravaas and some of the other guys got right in the river with the kids and started throwing them around.  It was so fun to watch them!!!  As the kids gathered around, I started calling them by name… Celita, Palermo, Ronaldinho… it was sooooo good to see their faces again!!!  The majority of the team had their bathing suits in the “check-in” bag, but slowly we were able to get changed and finally enjoyed time in the river with the kids… and enjoyed cooling off!

We spent most of the afternoon just getting set-up in our different places.  Leo and Neil were talking like old friends, and we were all just getting adjusted to life in the middle of a river.  I started popping the pop-corn for the movie.  The fire was so hot, and there were crazy mosquitoes almost in a cloud around me, even though I was in the smoke.  I don’t know why they attacked me so much, but they did.  It was frustrating!

I made about 10 batches of pop-corn, and Lauren and Liz helped fill the bags.  We had a great system!  We were a well-oiled machine, I tell you!

We found out that parking our big boat next to the church would be pretty much impossible because of the current, so the village let us borrow their metal boat.  We loaded everything we needed for the evening into it, and the guys took turns walking us to the church.  The paddles kinda worked, but because the current was so strong, they didn’t work as well as having someone personally walk us around.  The guys really served us in that way!  Most of the girls were on their periods and didn’t want to spend crazy amounts of time in the river… or wet, for that matter!

The first evening in the church, the people took turns singing.  It was beautiful!  Neil’s wife has an incredible indigenous voice, and she led the women.  Then, it was the kids’ turn.  We got up as a team and led some worship in Spanish as well.  Then, we started the movie.  The kids were hilarious watching and eating pop-corn.  Pretty soon, the bags started getting thrown around in a big paper-bag fight, and the pastor’s wife had to step in and stop the kids from being so distracting.  I just laughed.

Most of us were still exhausted, so we left the Burgos’ and Leo in the church to finish up while the rest of us went to bed.  Again, it was tricky getting everyone where they needed to be, but everyone had such a great attitude!  Even trying to step from wooden canoe to wooden canoe to get to our metal boat outside the church was hard!

Pretty much as soon as I got into our tent, I was asleep.  Hearing the bugs and frogs outside, as well as the sounds of the movie in the distance was so relaxing!  Eventually, the sounds of the movie stopped and I knew that Leo and Neil would be coming back soon.  Kylie and the senior girls were sleeping on Neil’s “back-porch”, and as we could hear thunder in the distance, we knew we could be in for a long night.  Neil hung up plastic on one side of the porch so that the girls wouldn’t get wet, and pretty much as soon as he was done with that, the storm came.  Thunder, lightning, rain, splashing water… it was crazy.

Leo and I talked a little about the day, and could hear Neil in his room talking with the family.  Listening in, we could hear him blessing his wife and children.  He then started reading a Psalm and praying for us.  He prayed protection over all of us, but especially the house, that the darkness would be kept out by God’s light.  He prayed for what seemed like 20 minutes, and then the family all started singing together.  The sounds of their family devotion pierced through the rainstorm.  It was beautiful.

Monday, April 2nd in Zaragoza and Puerto Alegre

After another un-eventful nights’ sleep, we awoke early to a cloudy morning.  The smell of our home-made bug spray quickly filled the air, and with boots and long-sleeved shirts on, we traipsed over to eat breakfast and talk about the day.  Hector was going to return to Puerto Alegre and attend to the rest of the dental needs, while the rest of us set up for ministry and medical brigade in Zaragoza.  The kids, as always, crowded around the house where we ate… peeking in the wooden slits and pushing through the doors.  It continues to be hard for me to eat in front of them.  I always wonder what they think about us… gluttons who “need” to eat 3 times a day.  We always give them leftovers, but today it seems as though Monica made sure we cooked enough oatmeal for them to eat as well.  She told them to go get their cups, and they were back in a flash, steaming oatmeal in their cups… smiles on their faces.

As we were walking back to the house to get our supplies for the day, it started to pour.  With ponchos on, we started walking down the muddy slope to the sidewalk that led through the village.  With so many kids around, we decided to let them walk with us, under our ponchos.  I felt like a giant… my big rubber boots trying to not step on their tiny bare feet.  I learned quickly that the best way to do it was not with my head poking through the hole blindly feeling the little ones next to me, but to put my head under the tarp with them.  They were speaking in Tikuna (probably something about the giant with rubber boots), and I loved it!  When we arrived to the end of the sidewalk, I told them that it would be better for them to run up the hill to the church instead of slipping and sliding with me up the muddy hill.  They screamed and ran through the rain.  So cute!

While getting set up, I took the kids aside and taught them “Open the eyes of my heart” in Spanish. The first story of the day was about blind Bartimaeus, and we were making masks to symbolize that before we know Jesus our eyes are closed to who God really is… but after we meet Him, He opens our eyes.

Masks are almost a taboo topic here, especially with the practice of the Pelazo,  but we did this activity anyway.  The kids had a blast!

While the little ones were working away, there was a group of older boys sitting in the corner.  I had no idea how to get them involved with what we were doing, but I saw that they had a large string tied in a circle that they were doing tons of tricks with.  I asked them to teach me one, and I think they taught me the easiest one.  I went around to the different benches and showed the little ones, and they laughed.  The older boys were just watching and smiling.  Then, they tried to teach me one where you wrap the string around your neck and then pull but it comes loose.  I couldn’t get that one at all! I think my head is a little bigger than theirs! Pravaas and Daniel came around and knew a few tricks of their own, so a connection was made (an answer to prayer for Pravaas).  I left the boys to their tricks and walked around.

Our students were incredible!  Lily was painting the nails of the older girls, Laura, Sara, Mafe, Andrew and Diana were helping the kids color, Zach was taking pictures… all of us were busy either helping or talking.  The kids were SO into the craft!  They were so funny as we tied the masks on, too. Their beautiful little eyes were poking out of the slits of the mask with the most hilarious faces!

While the first activity was wrapping up, Leider and some other boys sat next to me and we started talking about the Pelazo.  Leider thinks it’s a fun tradition… even saying that his dad has made masks (which made me sick to think about) but the older boy shook his head to say “no” when I asked him if he liked it.  I encouraged him to change the tradition when he’s older.  I told him about other villages that don’t practice it anymore.  He seemed surprised to hear that.  I encouraged him again that change is possible.  We’ll see.

After the mask activity, Sara got up to teach the kids John 3:16.  They loved doing the hand motions with the verse!  Kylie and I helped out, too.  Then, Andrew got up and explained the colors for the salvation bracelets.  With great eloquence and confidence, he did it in a way that I had never heard before. He started with the gold bead, explaining what Heaven is like… the beauty, the angels, etc.  Then, he explained the dark bead that represents our sin and how that prohibits us from entering into Heaven.  He went on and carefully explained every color and then we gathered the kids in groups of 10-12 to help them with the bracelets.

I had made the mistake of not making a sample bracelet with the stretchy nylon to see how well it worked.  It was really hard.  I could get it to work, but a lot of the students had a difficult time.  But, by the end, all the kids had their gospel bracelets, and could tell the story.

Right around this time, someone came with the oatmeal and cookies for our refreshment.  The kids loved it!  They were so happy!

We got out the long balloons and pumps and started giving the balloons out to the kids.  It was hard to make the animals we had learned because the humidity made everything sticky.  But, the kids found fun things to do even with the popped balloons.  They would take the rubber and make their own popping sounds.  And, at the end of the activity, we had just enough for each kid to have their own balloon (praise the Lord!).  They went home happy!

I was burning up hot and really wanted to cool off in the river.  Batman, our boat driver, said that there was a spot on the sidewalk bridge leading to the school where there was a current making it safe to swim.  I was so excited!  After lunch, I told the kids that we were going to swim.  They were so excited!!!  I went to the river with about 30 of them, and we all jumped in together!  Not wanting to get bit, I stayed in the water while they kept jumping in and out, flipping off of anything they could.  I was amazed at how high the river had gotten! 2 years ago, we walked on the ground between the village and the school.  This year, as I jumped off the newly-constructed sidewalk bridge, I couldn’t touch the bottom of the river.

We had a blast playing in the water!  Leo came out just to take pictures and be with us.  John, one of the missionaries, and Andrew also came out and just threw the kids into the river.  They loved it!!! At first, Andrew was hesitant… but I told the kids to push him in, and about 10 kids surrounded him and he was completely defenseless!

As I was trying to keep submerged in the river, I felt a fish rub across my back, shocking me with little electric shocks.  It freaked me out so much that I jumped straight out onto the sidewalk!  So, since I was out, I thought it would be a good time to wash my hair.  I had bought a HUGE shampoo bottle for the team, and it took about 5 seconds for all the kids to surround me, holding out their little brown hands for a dab of shampoo.  They were hilarious!!!  Some kids covered their entire bodies with the shampoo suds, sculpting their hair into horns or mohawks.  They would jump and dance around on the sidewalk, making sure they had my attention, and then jump right into the river coming back to the surface squeaky clean.  Amazing how much fun they have with something so simple!

Leo decided that it would also be a good time to have them wash their hair with the lice shampoo.  We had to be very clear that it was poison so they wouldn’t get it in their eyes.  Some older boys came up to ask for the lice shampoo, saying that they had a bad lice problem.  As the kids were helping each other lather up, they started picking through each others’ heads, watching the lice die.  They got in lines about 3-4 kids deep, all picking through the infected hair.  It was really cute.  Then, after waiting 5 minutes, they all jumped in together.

We had so much fun!

We cleaned up and then loaded up the boat for our time in Puerto Alegre.  Zach and the medical team stayed behind to help with all the needs in the village.  There were many babies with fevers and people who needed attention!

The pastoral couple in Puerto Alegre asked us to have our service with them at 3:00pm so that the people wouldn’t need to be out on the river when the mosquitoes were at their worst.  So, we arrived and picked up Hector at the school. He told us he had a great day, and that the villagers had cooked him a HUGE fish for lunch.  We went to the church, unloaded the generator and speakers and realized that we were missing a cable.  So, Leo crossed back over to Zaragoza in the boat and took Hector with him so he could rest for the evening.  While we were waiting for them to get back, the villagers slowly started arriving in their little canoes.  There was no dry land to be seen, and the families were piled in together, dressed in their finest for the church service.  The pastor’s wife even showed up!

The students made more jump-ropes and they came in handy!  The kids had a blast playing the “limbo” and other games!  Kylie even connected with 4 little ones doing a miming activity.

Leo got back, and we were ready to start!  The church service went really well… the worship was beautiful, the drama and dance that the team did was well-received, and Pastor Burgos gave a great Word about love and respect in the family.  I think that even the Pastor’s wife (who was a little put-off that we weren’t wearing skirts) was encouraged.

We left with full hearts and exhausted bodies!  The women of the village, before we left, made sure that I had a gift of the local fruit, copoacu (that I love) and the dried yucca that they eat, farinya.  I was so blessed that they would give those things to me!  We really feel as though we have made friends in Puerto Alegre, and we can’t wait to go back!

We crossed the river as the sun was setting.  It was beautiful!  Again, we saw dolphins.

I could tell that most of the team was tired, so we made the decision to let them rest for the evening.  We had dinner together, and then Lauren, Liz, Kylie and I took 30 or so kids to the main community house to play and sing.  We had so much fun!  We gave them jump-ropes, they taught us their games, and we had a good time together.  After a little while, I got the guitar out and we sang and sang!  Then, they asked me to tell them a story, and I told the story of David and Goliath.  They had never heard that story before.  I told them that they are going to face many things in their lives that seem impossible to conquer… but with God everything is possible, no matter how small they feel.

Then, we said good-night.

Sunday, April 1st in Zaragoza and Puerto Alegre

For pictures from our time in Puerto Alegre, go to:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151471677220215.840637.741380214&type=3&l=bad6b5f0cf

As we arrived in Zaragoza yesterday, we found out that the floating medical team sent out by the Colombian government was also in Zaragoza… actually, the 3 traveling doctors were the drunks outside our house last night.  Good times!

So, we decided to go to Puerto Alegre with our medical brigade after breakfast.

Because a majority of the students were in the kitchen during the evening last night, I decided that I would cook breakfast… at least try!  Andrew came with me, and we tried to get the fire started on wet wood… crazy hard!  I used candle wax, plastic, anything I could to get the wood to catch, and it took at least an hour!  We had to boil water to make coffee (we’re in Colombia, so coffee is a MUST),  boil water to make hard-boiled eggs, and cook the sausage.  Honestly, I was just fanning smoke and small flames hoping that it would work!

The kids came around and were just watching me, talking to each other in Tikuna.  One kid decided to cut wood with a machete to help us out.  Another helped me fan the flames.  Slowly but surely, the team started waking up and coming over to help.  So, I decided that I would just hang out with the kids.  They wanted to sing, hear stories, play games, etc.  I couldn’t believe how they absorbed EVERYTHING we had to say!   It was so much fun to have a completely captive audience!

After breakfast, we loaded up and headed across the river to Puerto Alegre.  Once again, arriving there was a complete shock.  Last year, there was a huge field in front of the school where we played with the kids.  We walked from hut to hut to invite people to the brigade.  This year, everything was covered with 3 feet of water!    The only way to get around safely was in the little wooden canoes.

There was a little girl in front of the school in her canoe, and we asked her to go tell people that we were here.  Leo thought that he could get in the canoe with her, and he did a good job for a little while.  I totally thought he would sink the canoe!  Ha!

The school teacher lives in the school with her family, and was more than willing to have us set up in the classrooms!  She even helped us invite people.   As soon as we were set up, families were arriving in their little wooden canoes.  One family arrived with a baby sloth that got passed around from one person to the next.  It was absolutely adorable!

The parents registered their families and then waited outside the classrooms while our pastors, German and Rocio split up the women and men to share the gospel with them.  We took the kids into a classroom and started playing games, telling Bible stories, and doing crafts.  The students were incredible!  They stepped up and lead with such confidence!  Last year, it took us all day to get the kids to open up to us, and it seemed like this year they were open from the very first minute!  What a blessing!

I went to the kitchen to cook the oatmeal for the kids, and someone brought a quarter of a cayman (Amazonian crocodile) to be heated up as well.  I didn’t touch it! Leo gave me a little piece of it to taste, though… and it tasted like a mix of fish and chicken.  Good times!

After handing out the oatmeal and cookies to the kids, I went into the boat to “rest” for a little bit.  I was totally beat after not sleeping for 2 nights, but instead of taking a nap, I got in a great conversation with Betmen (Batman!) about malaria.  He had malaria 2 years ago and also almost died from it!  He has an incredible testimony, and I was all caught up talking to him and forgot how tired I was!

We spent the rest of the daylight hours there at Puerto Alegre… playing, singing, praying, talking, etc.  They were SO open!  I praise God for the diversity of our team.  While some students were helping with the brigade, others were leading the children’s ministry.  One of the moms on the team, Sandra, is a pastor’s wife, and she spent time counseling some of the young girls.  Two girls went through the line of the brigade and shared that they had tried to commit suicide by eating rat poison.  Sandra had a very special time of prayer with both the girls, and we pray that the things she shared with them from the Word will help them stay strong.

We also met a new pastor and wife that arrived to Puerto Alegre just a month ago.  They were from a “different” denomination whose seemingly only doctrine is that women need to wear skirts.  We were talking to them about the possibility of doing a service tomorrow, and the pastor’s wife was a little put-off by that idea.  She spent over an hour talking with our pastors about her doctrine of “proper clothing”, and then finally let us invite people to our service tomorrow.  We were also hoping to do a marriage ceremony, as there was at least 1 couple who wanted to get married… but she asked if we leave that stuff up to her and her husband.

While we were packing up to leave, one man asked us for a Bible.  We were so happy to give him the first of the 18 waterproof Bibles that we brought with us!   There was a crowd gathered around as we demonstrated that even dunking the Bible in the river wouldn’t harm it!  Praise the Lord for Voice of the Martyrs and their donation of these very special Bibles!

As we crossed the river back to Zaragoza, the sun was setting in the most beautiful colors!  We even saw the famous river dolphins! It was a refreshing, beautiful time together in the boat!

As soon as we got back, we had to get set up for our evenings’ session.  The kids were waiting for us and were more than eager to help invite everyone again!

As I was walking and talking with some of the kids, I started asking them what they wanted to be when they grow up.  One little one said that he wants to be a soldier; a little girl says she wants to be a health promoter; another said he wanted to be a policeman; then there were 2 responses that hit me:  2 little boys said they want to be pastors.  Pastors!  They know this at 8 years of age!

The crazy part is that the pastor in the village is a drunk, and the church is tired of him stealing the churchs’ money to drink.  So, to know that these 2 little ones feel called to be pastors was amazing.  They had been stuck to us the entire time we were ministering so far and absorbing everything.  I could see a hunger in them for the things of the Lord.  As we walked and invited people, I just prayed for them to continue to have hearts that are soft for the Lord!  We passed the kitchen where Monica was getting the fire started for dinner, and I told her that the dream of those 2 little ones was to be a pastor.  She looked at them, held their heads in her hands, knelt down and said:  “O.K. then… you need to go where the drunks are and invite them to church tonight so they can be changed by Jesus”.    They excitedly ran out in the direction of the bars.

Beautiful.

As we were playing with the kids in the church before the service, I saw the pastor, Humberto, sitting on one of the benches and I asked Leo to spend some time talking with him.  As their conversation progressed, Leo’s arm went around Humberto’s shoulders and they cried together while they were praying.   After German and Rocio preached and incredible sermon about repentance and forgiveness, Leo called Humberto up to the front so the church could pray for him.  He confessed his sin to the congregation and they surrounded him in a circle of prayer.

Beautiful.

During the sermon, I heard the kids running and screaming around the church so I decided to go out and see if I could do something with them.  As soon as I got out there, they surrounded me and asked me to tell them stories.  So, we found a “dry” place on the hill outside the church, and I told them the story of the Prodigal Son.  I asked them what they thought it meant, and they said that the Father’s love is big even when we sin a lot.  I think they got the point!

Then, we played and played farther up the hill, away from the church.  We had so much fun!

It was time for dinner and sleep.  We were all praying for an un-eventful rest, and the Lord was so good to give that to us!