Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Guianas, South America Complete: by Caitlin Scudder

The Guianas: South America Complete!

This was it—the final stretch of the continent. We would end our time in the Guianas—a group of barely-known countries on the northern coast of South America. Though considered one entity, the Guianas are actually comprised of three countries: Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. Technically considered part of the Caribbean, the Guianas exude an Afro-Caribe vibe as well as cultural flavors from the countries that colonized them—England (Guyana), Holland (Suriname), and France (French Guiana).

Prior to the Guianas, our team had split into small groups, and we each made our way to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, to reunite for a “family reunion” and team debrief. Several of the girls had decided to fly home early for the holidays, and many teammates were unsure about returning to the Caribbean after the holidays for the final leg of the trip. This meant our time in Georgetown as a full team would probably be our last.

My small group made our way to Guyana from Venezuela. Because there is no legal Venezuela/Guyana border crossing, we had to travel from Venezuela back to Brazil, then to Guyana--hitting a record three countries in one day. From the border of Guyana and Brazil, we made our way to northern Georgetown, only around 260 miles away, but a nightmarishly long journey due to abysmal infrastructure.

Upon our arrival at the Guyana border, we were bombarded by mini-bus drivers who offered to transport us to Georgetown, claiming the best rates. Unaccustomed to bargaining in English, we happily negotiated prices in our native language after over a year of Spanish and Portuguese.

At around 2 p.m., our driver informed us that we would be in Georgetown by around 10 or 11 o’clock that evening. After a couple hours of bumping along terrible dirt roads, our bus driver informed us that if we didn’t reach a certain “checkpoint” by 6 p.m. we would have to rest somewhere for the night and continue traveling the following morning. Though the driver acted unsure as to whether we would reach the checkpoint or not, we later found out that it had never been a feasible option to cross and make it to Georgetown the same evening. Turns out, the lies of arriving by 10 or 11 were not only absurd on such poor roads, but legally impossible to boot.
Iris Latin America team boys; Breck Boyd, Taylor McClendon, Taylor Lindsey,
Brent Lough, Kurt Weller, Ben Cuyler, and Stephen Reams
Just before 6 p.m., we were forced to pull over on the side of the road where we found a random hut and shack where two local men sat staring at us. I reluctantly set up my sleeping mat on the floor of the hut, already getting eaten alive by bugs. Throughout the next few hours, the hut filled with hammocks and random men from other buses that had also failed to reach the 6 p.m. checkpoint. We were instructed to sleep until 3 a.m., when we would get up and drive for a few more hours to arrive at the checkpoint by 6 a.m.

After a few hours of attempted sleep, we reloaded our mini-buses and drove to the infamous checkpoint. Upon arrival, I realized why its closing would have presented problems for us. The “checkpoint” was actually a river that divided the road, and the only way to cross was by taking a crickety old ferry that only made trips between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day. The decrepit little boat looked like it was about to fall apart, and watching several mini-buses awkwardly drive on and off didn’t inspire much confidence.

We safely made it to the other side nonetheless and continued our drive towards Georgetown. Other than frequently being stopped at random passport checks, our journey otherwise consisted of frighteningly fast driving. It was clear that our driver’s priority was getting to Georgetown as quickly as possible; but as he wildly maneuvered dangerous curves and unstable potholes, my priority quickly became arriving as alive as possible.

Meanwhile, dust poured from the roads into our vehicle and covered us from head to toe. We rotated between opening the windows in an attempt to not sweat to death and closing them to avoid choking on large clouds of dust. Almost twenty-four hours after leaving the border, we arrived in Georgetown with aching backs from the jarring ride, skin and hair covered in dirt, and luggage that had barely survived. My suitcase, which had been on its last legs for a while, realized its death along the way. When it was unloaded from atop the mini-bus, the inside frame was smashed in, holes had ripped in the sides of the bag, and my clothes and belongings inside were wet, muddy, and damaged.

Within days, the rest of the team arrived in Georgetown with similar horror stories. We laughed and caught up on our time apart. And sadly, we began our official debriefing of our time in South America. We spent time encouraging each person and sharing what good we saw in one another. As we spoke, I realized how much all of us had changed in the past fourteen months. We’d shared obstacles and victories together, and every moment (whether good or bad) had been well worth it. Though we’d worked with ministries throughout an entire continent, our most important mission had been the same in every country—our love for God and our love for one another.

On November 5th, we began a series of tearful goodbyes when the first group flew home from Guyana. The remaining eleven went on to finish the last two countries, Suriname and French Guiana. We first traveled to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, via mini-bus, ferry, and another mini-bus. Though Georgetown’s English-speaking Caribbean flair seemed out of place in South America, Suriname’s culture felt even more bizarre. Suriname possessed a wild clash of cultures including Dutch, Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian.

We found a small hostel and met together to pray for God’s vision for Suriname. Elizabeth had felt a special tug in her heart for the country and believed our time would be marked by random encounters that only God could set up for us.

Our first day, I went to the grocery store with Taylor M. who approached a stranger on crutches and offered to pray for his leg. The man shut down Taylor immediately. Pure and cold rejection. I wondered if all hearts in this country were so closed. A few hours later, we walked to a local church just minutes from our hostel to attend their evening service and ask the pastor if we could serve his church. When we entered the church, there appeared to be only two congregants, and the pastor was too proud to step down from his stage to even acknowledge the presence of several clearly-foreign visitors. We tried to speak to him, but we once again felt harsh rejection and ended up leaving the church building.

Admittedly, my spirits were low. I was physically exhausted. I’d been suffering from a horrible ear infection that began in Brazil and was causing pain all the way down to my jaw. I could barely hear when people spoke to me, and I was growing frustrated by the rejection from the Surinamese people. And on top of this, I was still trying to recover from the trauma of losing over half of our team before finishing the trip. My heart was heavy, and my motivation was severely lacking. I knew most of my teammates were already enjoying the luxury of proper beds, nice toilets, and pampering from their moms and dads. I reminded myself that the remaining eleven still had weeks ahead of us. I wanted to end in victory, not simply limp along at the end. But how could I do this?

After being rejected by the pastor, we decided to check out the city square and see if we could find some food or anything interesting going on. We noticed a large sign advertising a gospel concert and stopped under it for a moment. Two young Surinamese men approached us and explained that they ran a national Christian radio show for youth. We told them a bit about our journey, and they invited us to speak on their show in two days. We excitedly agreed, and my spirit began to come alive again as I saw God’s faithfulness in bringing forth random and unexpected encounters.

The young men asked us if we’d like to see the radio station right then, so we followed them a couple blocks to the station where their friend was already in the middle of a broadcast. He introduced himself and invited us to sit and listen to the music he was playing. Yet suddenly, he told us to be silent. He was switching from music to talking, and we were live. Before I could even register that we were not in fact waiting for two more days to go on air, a microphone was in my face, and I was live on a broadcast being aired throughout the entire nation. Flustered and slightly miffed that I just-so-happened to be the one sitting closest to the radio man, I gulped and coyly spoke into the microphone. “Hello Suriname…”

Camping our at a Church in Fortaleza Brazil
The broadcaster asked me several questions, and my mouth began to answer before I even had a moment to think. Afterwards, the man interviewed each member of my team, giving us all a very unexpected but special opportunity. At the end of the broadcast, Natalie M. was asked to pray for the entire nation. Our day of rejection had quickly transformed into something amazing.

Feeling more hopeful, we headed to the hospital the next morning to pray for patients. We had such a great time talking and praying for people that we ended up returning the following day to pray some more. Some of the people whom we’d prayed for the first day seemed to be better physically and emotionally on the second.

As we asked to pray for people, we realized the large mixture of religions in Suriname including Christianity, Buddhism, Hindu, and Islam. Yet, no matter what religion people were, all of them told us that we were welcome to pray to Jesus. Despite my original impression of a cold and closed people, I started to feel an authentic warmth from the culture. I was fascinated by the way the different religious and cultural groups genuinely loved and respected each other and lived in peace and harmony.

Taylor M., Ben, and I prayed for a woman named Gloria who had lost all feeling in her leg out of nowhere. She said the doctors were unable to figure out the cause, and she was waiting for a diagnosis. Meanwhile, she struggled to walk on this leg and hoped the feeling would somehow return.

We laid hands on her leg and began to pray. As we spoke, her leg started to shake beneath our hands, and she excitedly reported that the feeling had come back. Gloria looked shocked. We asked her to try to walk, and she got out of bed and paced around the room. She smiled in awe. Ben declared, “Jesus just healed your leg.” The other women in the room, Buddhist and Hindu, watched and clapped in celebration. This was wild.

the amazing women of our south america team
The random divine appointments continued when Ben walked to a nearby park to have some time alone with the Lord. A woman named Sandra approached him and asked for help. She explained that her boyfriend had just broken up with her, and she was overwhelmed and heartbroken. She was afraid to face her children back home and was waiting in Paramaribo, unsure of what to do. Ben counseled her a bit and prayed for her, as she began to cry. He asked if she’d be willing to meet him later at the park, and she agreed to return at 5 o’clock. Ben walked to our hostel and asked if any of the girls would like to come back with him to minister to her.

A few hours later, I accompanied Ben to the park and met Sandra. She seemed an open woman, seeking love and wisdom, yet slightly uncomfortable in her own skin. As we talked, she slowly revealed pieces of her story to us, explaining that she had three children from three different men, and now her most recent boyfriend had left her. She had no job and no way to provide for her kids. She felt lost.

Her eldest daughter, aged fourteen, repeatedly criticized her for her poor choices and constantly declared that she would never be like her. Her other children were angry that their fathers were not around. Sandra kept saying, “I never wanted my life to be like this. I never planned this. I wanted one husband and father for my kids. I never wanted my life to go like this.”

I realized that more importantly than forgiving the men who’d mistreated her or forgiving her children for their anger, she needed to forgive herself. I prayed for Sandra, and then asked her to repeat these words: “I forgive myself. I am free from the words of my daughter. I am loved. I am free.” After this, she seemed lighter. Sandra said she was ready to face her family now and more equipped to love her daughter. When Ben and I left Sandra, she was a smiling woman.

Days later, we continued on to our last country in South America—French Guiana. This final trek included another three-hour mini-bus ride to the border and a motorized canoe ride from one side of customs to the other. When we arrived on the French Guiana side of the border, we noticed a large sign that read, “France.” We found out that French Guiana is still a department of France, not a fully independent country. So technically, we were in France, South America, and the Caribbean all at once. What a way to end!

The drawback of being in “France” was French prices. We’d heard rumors that French Guiana was ridiculously expensive and decided to only stay for a few days to avoid going broke. We’d been warned we would need to spend at least forty euros a night just for a hostel and weren’t sure how we’d swing these prices. We prayed that God would provide some type of miraculous accommodation, but rumor said no cheap hotels existed in the country. By the grace of God, an angel in a pick-up truck appeared at the border and asked us if we needed a cheap place to stay. For no cost, just simply for the sake of being kind, he led us to a cheap hotel near the border where we each paid around six U.S. dollars a night. Praise the Lord!

We’d heard that there were indigenous villages all along the river and decided to go for a visit. I told God I would be satisfied if He sent us even one person to affect with an encounter of love. Just one person would be enough.

We bargained with a man on the river to take us on his canoe to a nearby indigenous community. I had no idea if this would be awkward or awesome. We boated just fifteen minutes upriver and were dropped off for a couple hours in a beautiful and quiet village. We cautiously entered the village and said hello to some people watching us, hoping they would receive our presence warmly. We asked someone if the chief was around in order to get his blessing to walk around the community and pray for people. We were quickly welcomed with open hearts and given permission to do as we pleased. While passing by a porch where a few people sat, we struck up a conversation with one of the women, who soon asked us to pray for her sick brother who was lying in a hammock just feet away from her.

We prayed for the man and the other women on the porch, and word of our visit quickly spread. Within minutes, other people from the community appeared at the porch to see what we were doing and soon lined up for prayer. I had asked God for just one person, but it seemed He had given us a whole village. For the next two hours, we talked and prayed with several of the villagers. One young man pointed to his ears, and it appeared that he couldn’t hear or speak. While we prayed, he began to shake by the presence of God, and his face lit up with a brilliant smile. He still spoke no words, but gave us the thumbs up signal, indicating that some type of healing had been received.

We then prayed for another woman with ear problems. From what I understood, her ears were clogged, and her hearing was affected. Still dealing with my own ear infection, I laid hands on the woman’s ears, hoping both of us would get healed. As I prayed for her, my ear opened! The woman began to lift her hands and praise God. Again, she didn’t explain what was happening, but from her reaction, I assume her ears were also healed. Oddly, when I took my hands off of her, my ear closed back up. (I ended up getting completely healed a few days later, but I found it interesting that my own ear opened and closed while praying for someone with the same condition). Afterwards, we were asked to visit another woman’s house where we prayed for a few others until our boat came back to the village to pick us up. On our canoe ride home, we were amazed at how quickly and beautifully God had arranged this time for us.

We left French Guiana on November 14th and later received news that Tanya’s baby boy, Zion, was born that same day. Just as we were leaving the very last country of the continent and completing the vision for South America, new life came forth. It was a sweet reminder that every end means a new beginning.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fly home from French Guiana, which meant backtracking through Suriname and Guyana and flying from Georgetown. We stayed in Suriname for two nights en route and noticed a homeless man begging for change the first. Breck stopped to talk with him for a few minutes, and a couple people offered him coins and food. We walked back to our hostel, thinking very little of this encounter. The following night, we passed by the same man and decided to talk to him. His name was Theo. He remembered Breck from the night before and thanked him for speaking to him instead of passing him by like everyone else. Theo explained that people normally ignored him or treated him like an animal, having no value for him because he lived on the streets. We spent time praying for Theo and simply chatting about his life and family. We quickly discerned that Theo was a far cry from the stereotypical addict on the streets begging for change to pay for drugs. His heart was genuine and pure, and the only thing he craved was love. I’ll never forget his words. “You stopped for me. You talked to me. You treated me like a person. I feel better inside now.” What had originally meant very little to us had meant the world to Theo. An encounter with love, no matter how big or small, changes people.

After a while, we headed back to our hostel, sobered by our encounter with Theo. Holding back tears, it hit me—LOVE. This was what our journey was all about. We’d traveled for over fourteen months and in twenty-one different nations. We’d seen miracles, watched amazing prophecies realized, and rubbed shoulders with great leaders. But in the end, I realized every adventure, every snapshot taken in a foreign country, every skill learned, and even every healing miracle would have meant nothing without love. To be honest, the greatest miracle is the simple love of the gospel, and that will never change. We can pray for healings, visit ministries around the whole world, and prophesy until our faces turn blue, but without simple, genuine love, it’s all worthless. When people ask me the greatest thing I’ve learned on this trip, I think they may be expecting something more profound, but this is the deepest thing I have to offer:

Love God. Love people.

That simple combination will never fail you.

1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Friends, this will probably be my last blog until January or February. When the team begins working in the Caribbean, I will resume writing. Thanks for reading, praying, and celebrating what God is doing. Love you all.

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