Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Drugs, violence, coffee plantations, guerrillas, drug cartels…
So many words danced around my head as our team prepared to head to Colombia. I’d heard a lot of negative talk about this country and honestly wasn’t sure if the rumors were true or not. One of my friends from home joked that if I got a white Christmas in Colombia it wasn’t because of snow. While I wondered if Colombia was truly just a mess of drugs and violence, I secretly hoped that the country would surprise me. When the vision for the Iris Latin America team was birthed in 2010, the original plan was to head only to South America. Though the dream eventually expanded to all of Latin America and the Caribbean, there was something special about holding the original vision in our hearts. Our team had some amazing experiences in Central America, but we all felt a shift was coming as we entered South America. There was something significant about reaching the place where the vision for our trip was birthed. Despite negative rumors about Colombia, I knew something positive was coming when we arrived at our first destination in South America.
Our team was ready to hit Colombia; the only problem was getting there. Border crossings had been relatively simple so far, but the Panama/Colombia border is quite complicated. Though Panama and Colombia are connected by land, the roads are impassable and overrun by guerrillas and treacherous jungle terrain. We were advised to ship our vehicles from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia and pick up the vehicles there. What we hoped would be a quick and painless shipping process turned into a nightmare of five of my teammates driving to Colon day after day after day, filling out piles of ridiculous paperwork and jumping through various hoops until our vehicles were finally put on a ship to Colombia. On top of the documentation nightmare, we were told that it would cost just over $11,000 to ship all five vehicles. Every day, our team prayed for a financial miracle. When we finally had the paperwork sorted and needed to hand over our final payment, Tanya carried $3700 to the port in a tiny wallet, believing for a miracle. We all knew God had called us to South America, and that meant He would provide a way for us to get there. Sure enough, at just the right moment, an anonymous donor sent the team $12,000, which covered every vehicle expense. Oh, God is so good.
Now that our vehicles were taken care of, we had to make the final decision about how we would get ourselves to Columbia. Our options were…umm…creative to say the least. J We had four main routes of choice. The first was to take a 4x4 vehicle to Carti, Panama and wait for a freighter (potentially for days) to let us hitch a ride to Colombia. The second was to fly to a port in Panama, take a long boat ride to another port, take a short boat ride to another port, take a bus ride, then another bus ride to Cartagena. This was our cheapest option but quite complicated and circuitous. Third, we could take a large yacht through some islands off the coast of Colombia and eventually into Cartagena, which was expensive and time-consuming. The last option was flying, but we would have to book flights last-minute (and right before Christmas), which meant limited seats and expensive tickets. After going in circles for days, we finally decided flying was our most painless option. We were instructed to go online and start booking flights to Cartagena, hoping most of us could get on the same flight. Most people from the team were able to get a ticket for that coming Tuesday or Wednesday, but Rose, Elizabeth, Breck, and I couldn’t get a flight until Saturday, Christmas Eve. It felt a bit bizarre to be left behind in Panama, but our extra days of being stranded there ended up being quite a blessing. We experienced an ounce of privacy for the first time the entire trip, got to rest, relax, and have some quiet space for a bit. On Christmas Eve, we were happily reunited with our Iris family in Cartagena, Colombia. I immediately felt safe and at home. The Colombians I met were warm, friendly, and easy-going. The scenery was breath-taking, and the atmosphere was tranquil. All the warnings about drugs and violence faded quickly from my mind. I had a beautiful Christmas Day with my Iris family, enjoying my teammates’ company and the warm Colombian sunshine.
After Christmas, a few of my teammates began the battle with the shipping company once again, spending days filling out more ridiculous loads of paperwork to get our vehicles back. Finally, we were united with our trusty fleet, and by miracle of miracles, nothing was stolen or damaged in the cars. Once our vehicles were ready, we drove to Bogota, where we met up with Alejandra, one of the Colombian girls who had attended the Iris mission school in Mozambique. She was an amazing host with a beautiful heart for her country and people. As she led us around Bogota, I quickly realized why she loves Colombia so much. The country is stunning—just the surprise I had hoped for.
One afternoon, Alejandra took us to the red light district to minister to prostitutes on the streets. We parked our cars in one of the rougher neighborhoods in Bogota and walked along sidewalks lined with prostitutes. There was a mix of transgender prostitutes, young girls, and middle-aged women. I’d never really seen anything like this before and felt like I was in some sort of perverted movie. It was so disgusting that it didn’t seem real. Alejandra told us to simply share the love of Christ with the women and make sure that no matter what, we looked them in the eyes and didn’t pay attention to their skimpy apparel. We split into groups, and I was partnered with one of my teammates as well as a young Colombian from a local church who chose to accompany us. The three of us approached a middle-aged woman standing on the sidewalk and asked her how she was doing. Unlike the American sex trade where women are usually considered “used up” by their mid-twenties, Bogota was full of prostitutes up to their fifties. I was a bit shocked at the woman’s age but tried to hide my feelings and engage her in conversation. As we spoke, I forgot the woman was a prostitute and saw nothing but a hurting woman. Her name was Elizabeth, and she was a mother of two. She told us how much she worried about her sons. Their father was out of the picture, and Elizabeth was extremely concerned about the welfare of her family. Though she was dressed in practically nothing, Elizabeth was really no different than most of the middle-aged women I know back home. She was simply a loving mother who cared deeply about her kids. Unfortunately, for her, she had no way of making money other than selling herself. As we told her how loved and precious she was and applauded her caring mother’s heart, she welled up with tears. We prayed for her, and I could see in her eyes that her heart was stirred. After we prayed, Elizabeth asked if it was alright if she gave us each a hug. I told her of course that was fine, and she smiled as I held her in my arms. In the midst of perversion and brokenness, I embraced this beautiful moment.
After we’d spent an hour or so in the streets talking to various women, we went to a rehab center for girls who had formally been prostitutes. The women were so young and beautiful; I could scarcely believe they had just left a life of selling their bodies on the streets. Some of my teammates spoke to the group of women, then offered to pray for individuals with physical ailments as well as those who simply needed a bit of encouragement. I spoke with a woman who was seriously depressed and felt totally alone. She told me that demons choked her at night, and though she wanted to scream, she couldn’t speak at all when this happened. A few of us prayed for her, breaking off the chains of oppression and declaring the freedom of Christ over her life. As we prayed and chatted with her, the heaviness on her seemed to lift a bit, and she began to show a hint of emotion. The stone-cold look on her face began to melt, and she even cracked a smile. Tanya prayed for girl who wanted to get out of the rehab center so she could do drugs. Though she knew the rehab center was in her best interest, she felt trapped by the cycle of addiction. After Tanya prayed with her, the girl said she felt she had the strength to get through the program. One of my teammates had a word of knowledge from the Lord that someone needed healing in her eyes. Two sisters in the program came forward and said that they both had blurry vision and wanted to be healed. Susy and Liz M. prayed for them, and the two sisters got healed completely. They started reading things around the room, realizing they didn’t need glasses anymore. The sisters embraced each other and the women on our team, excitedly celebrating their healing. Susy and Liz M. also prayed for a woman named Paula who had been in the rehab center for twelve days. She struggled with drugs and had been kicked out of other programs. She was basically told she was hopeless because she couldn’t stay clean, and she started to believe the words that had been spoken over her. Paula gave Susy and Liz M. permission to pray for her and declare freedom over the chains of addiction. Not only did she accept this new freedom, but she also accepted Christ as her savior that day.
Our team felt a new burst of freedom in that rehab center and left feeling a fresh hope for the women living there. As we walked back to the car to drive to our base, a few people from the group talked to one of the Colombian women who had been ministering with us throughout the day. She had seen the women in the rehab center get healed and told some people from our team that she was suffering from breast cancer. My teammates asked if she would even know if the cancer was healed, and she said she had lumps on her breasts. It would be easy to see and feel if they had gone. My teammates began to pray, and after praying the first time, the lumps began to shrink down. Something was happening, but the woman was only partially healed. With increased faith, the team prayed again…and this time the lumps disappeared completely! The woman felt her breasts, crying with joy as she realized the lumps were gone. She knew her breast cancer had been healed. Hallelujah!
A few days later, a Colombian woman from a local church told our team that we would see more healings like this throughout our trip and that we must never fear praying for terminal illnesses. She encouraged us that God will continue to do amazing miracles. After all, He is the God of the impossible.
So here I sit, in a country labelled as a hotbed for drugs and violence, actually surrounded by gorgeous scenery and friendly faces, watching people get healed and set free. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that a God who uses the weak things of the world to shame the wise has brought us to a country known for its weaknesses to begin a river of revival throughout South America. Colombia is just the start; there is so much more to come…