Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Venezuela-- Back to the Top

Friday, November 2, 2012

Venezuela--Back to the Top!

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

Ten months ago, my team and I arrived in Cartagena, Colombia and started the long journey down to the tip of South America. Circling the entire continent and arriving back at Venezuela, Colombia’s neighbor to the east, seemed ages away. But after traveling through mountains and jungles, experiencing both icy cold winters and boiling summers, and most recently crossing the Amazon River…we’re finally back to the top!

The last few weeks have been a strange period of changes within the team, and as usual, nothing is going quite the way we planned it. Several weeks ago, our team decided to plan a hiatus for the holidays, aiming to finish the South American continent before Thanksgiving and returning to the Caribbean after Christmas. Though this has birthed a new wave of ambition, it has also created a bit of a time-crunch.

While in Fortaleza, Brazil, Tanya (our nine-month pregnant team leader) decided to stay behind to await the birth of her second child. Her husband and “birthing team” are currently in Fortaleza with an amazing mid-wife and could be there for a while. Our team goal is to meet up in the tiny country of Guyana by the beginning of November. In the meantime, the rest of us have been left to choose whether to stay in Fortaleza to help out there, spend some time in the Amazon jungle, or travel to Venezuela. While many chose to stay in Fortaleza for a bit before making their way to Guyana, I (and seven others) decided we were going to get to the Amazon jungle and Venezuela and still make it to Guyana on time to reunite with the rest of the team.

At first I thought it wouldn’t be possible to cram so much traveling into such a short time period, but with the right combination of prayer and stubbornness, you’d be amazed at how much you can get done.

Getting into the jungle with such limited time and money was literally a miracle for our group of eight. We headed to Manaus, a jungle city on the Amazon River, and prayed that God would provide a way to travel into an indigenous village. At first, we were told it would take at least three days on a boat and hundreds of dollars. But after a day of researching and praying, God brought Moises into our path. Right away, this local Brazilian boated us to a tribe he’d been working with for years. We ended up visiting an amazing village on the Amazon that required only a couple hours of travel and about $30 including both boat fuel and food for a week. What looked impossible at first quickly unfolded into a perfect and smoothly-executed plan.

After returning from the jungle, we had less than two weeks to get in and out of Venezuela and make it to Guyana to meet the team. Two people from our jungle team flew home early for the holidays, and three of the guys stayed behind in Brazil to sort out passport issues. However, Elizabeth, Natalie, and I were determined to get to Venezuela. Again, God arranged things just right, so what seemed an impossible goal became smooth and easy. Our jungle friend Moises connected us with his friend Raquelle who connected us with her friend Rosa who connected us with her friend Anamaria. After four degrees of separation and two tiring bus rides, the three of us girls ended up at Anamaria’s home in the city of Santa Elena, Venezuela. Anamaria, a fiery pastor of a local church, provided us with beds, constant food and coffee, and the entertainment of her children (two biological daughters and another young girl who lives at the house).

Her seven-year-old daughter, Lupe, excitedly asked us where we were from, as she threw in comments about her dream of going to Disneyland one day. When I told her that I’d lived in California, just miles from Disneyland, her face lit up in pure amazement. From then on, she introduced me to friends as “the one who lives near Mickey Mouse.” When our new Venezuelan family found out our palest team member, Elizabeth, was from South Africa, they confusedly asked her why she wasn’t black. They constantly made remarks about her skin, and Lupe began to introduce Elizabeth as “the one who lives with tigers and elephants.”

During our first night in their home, Anamaria sat with us and asked us to share our hearts for ministry. She assumed we were a typical missions group who had pre-planned dramas for children’s programs or cheesy skits to share with the church. Anamaria explained that she had a children’s service the upcoming weekend and asked what we normally do. Slightly worried about what she’d think, we explained that our team isn’t your typical group of missionaries. Our goal is to be led by the Holy Spirit, not to run programs that we could run entirely by our own strength. Our desire is to accomplish things that would be virtually impossible without the power of God. We told Anamaria that one of our main ministries is praying for the sick and seeing the power of God heal people. And the last time we’d run a children’s service…well, we’d asked the children to ask God what He was saying, and they started drawing all the visions God was showing them and prophesying dreams over their futures.

We weren’t sure how Anamaria would react, afraid she might be disappointed that we didn’t have everything planned or that we operated too “out of the box” for your typical church. But as we shared our hearts, a huge smile spread across her face, and she said our arrival was an answer to prayer. Her church had been contending for breakthrough in healing and seeing God’s miracles, but most had yet to see or experience such a thing. Anamaria wanted us to share with her congregation and pray for the breakthrough they’d been waiting for.

When we chatted that first night, everything appeared to click just right. We’d been brought to Santa Elena for a reason, and that reason seemed quite clear. We were eager to serve alongside Anamaria in any capacity, assuming we’d already figured out God’s perfect little plan for Venezuela. Yet once again, things didn’t go quite as planned...

The next few days consisted of a bizarre series of events that revolved around Anamaria’s demanding schedule. Our first morning, she knocked on our bedroom doors at 5 a.m. and told us to get up to pray. We groggily got out of bed to find Anamaria and a church member named Juanita passionately praying in the living room. After an hour or so, we drove to the church where we met other intercessors. I’m all for prayer, but I could hear the woman next to me repeating the same words over and over and over rather than praying something from her heart. She seemed afraid, as if she didn’t say the right words three hundred times she hadn’t prayed correctly. I sensed legalism and obligation—the stark opposite of the freedom we are living in.

The next morning, Anamaria’s daughters banged on our doors bright and early once again and told us we had five minutes to get ready. Anamaria wanted us to go the market to “evangelize.” Unsure of what she was expecting, I reluctantly went to the market with Natalie, Elizabeth, and two of Anamaria’s girls. I have never seen an effective street preacher and was not about to try to be one. Rather than barking at random people in Spanish, we decided to just talk to people and pray for them. However, the hearts of the people in Santa Elena were closed, and we were continuously rejected. Anamaria showed up after about an hour of awkward attempts at prayer, and we told her that we’d failed to accomplish anything. She explained that the people in her city were afraid of foreigners and that she'd known all along that we wouldn’t be well-received. It seemed that we’d been deliberately thrown to the wolves. Ouch.

Later in the week, we were out in the city with Juanita, one of the women from the prayer meeting. She received a call from Anamaria who ordered the Juanita to drive us to the church right away to run a children’s program. We had told Anamaria we didn’t have dramas and programs prepared and were a bit befuddled by the demand to run a program with just two minutes notice. We were shoved in a car, dropped off at the church, and thrown in front of a group of kids. We asked the children to close their eyes and ask God what He was telling them. When they shared, their responses were, “I am a bad person” or “I need to be more obedient.” As I listened to the kids, I began to notice a theme of fear and control that seemed the exact opposite of what Christ died for.

Whenever we tried to talk to Anamaria or get information about how we could plan ahead for ministry, we were told she was busy. I wanted to confront her but felt it was not my place. Natalie and Elizabeth felt the same. We spent our days confused and frustrated.

After a few days, we received news that Taylor, Ben, and Moose had their passports sorted in Brazil and would make it to Venezuela after all. Juanita kindly offered to host the boys in her house.

They arrived on Saturday, and the following morning, we attended Anamaria’s church service together. We were shocked to see that her congregation consisted of only twenty people or so. All her meetings, all the demanding orders, and all of her oh-so-busy schedule had given us the impression that Anamaria was the pastor of a mega-church. Yet, we realized that this congregation was just a tiny group of people. When Anamaria clapped, the congregation clapped. When she stood, they stood. When she knelt, they knelt.

Appalled by the way the congregation seemed to worship their pastor as much as God, I bowed my head and prayed that these people would have genuine encounters with the love of God and walk in true freedom. After worship, Anamaria called our team up front and gave us a chance to share. We talked about freedom, God’s power instead of our pwn control, and true identity. I hoped our words would pierce Anamaria’s heart and the hearts of her congregants.

Just for the record, my heart is not to defame anyone or to criticize anyone’s ministry. However, it makes me sick to see people abuse pastoral power for their own selfish gain. I am not a Christian to achieve influence. I am a Christian, because I love Jesus. Honestly, I hate religion. I hate rules and structure that are created to make one look important or to create a feeling of control. I hate the abuse of a pastoral position to gain power, esteem, or clout. I hate the hypocrisy that has caused many to despise the word “Christian.” But I love God, and I love His people. And forcing religion upon them is not loving them at all.

I wondered if our words would take root in peoples’ hearts or if they would simply be dismissed. I wondered what Anamaria really thought about us. I wondered why I had come to Venezuela at all. At first, I had thought it was to serve Anamaria; but I soon realized God had not sent my team for the person seen in the front of the church but actually for a few of the most invisible members.

Ben and I prayed for a quiet girl in the congregation who requested prayer for her family. While praying, Ben received a word of knowledge about wrist pain and asked if anyone in the girl’s family had wrist pain. She extended her arm towards us and said that she had pain. We prayed for her wrist, and the pain left right away. Surprised, she went over and showed her friend. God heals His children, because it’s His good pleasure. That is love.

Natalie, Elizabeth, and I spent time talking to the girl who lives at Anamaria’s house (but is not her biological daughter) and realized her value was constantly being challenged. She was treated more like a servant than a daughter and needed to know that her worth didn’t come from how many dishes she could wash but simply who she was as a daughter of God. So we spent time talking, laughing, and telling her she was beautiful (something I am not sure she’d heard many times before). She begged us to stay longer, and I realized maybe God had sent us just for her.

As the week progressed, we girls hung out at Juanita’s house as well to spend some time with Taylor, Moose, and Ben. We realized it was God’s perfect plan to get the boys to Santa Elena. If they hadn’t made it, we wouldn’t have had much connection with Juanita. Juanita was another person who was slightly under the radar but in serious need of being noticed. She worked for a tourism company that takes people to beautiful waterfalls a couple hours outside of the city and offered to take all six of us for free. We gladly accepted her kind offer. She seemed discouraged when we left Santa Elena, but while at the waterfalls, her spirit seemed lighter. She had raised two sons who were now adults, and I think she felt a sense of family when she spent time with the boys on our team. She smiled as she watched Moose and Taylor playing in the waterfalls and told us girls that they seemed like two big kids. We laughed and agreed with her conclusion. I could tell that Juanita missed her own sons, and some piece of her heart came alive when she was with us. She told Natalie that she’d felt so sad lately, but when we came, she started to feel different.

Juanita opened up to us about how she’d been hurt within the church and was tired of being controlled. Part of her wanted to leave the church, but she also longed to see change there. She felt trapped and had no one to talk to. Her husband already had bitterness against the church, and she knew venting to him would only cause more. Within the church, she found herself unable to speak freely about the issues she observed. When she saw that our team noticed the brokenness no one else wanted to admit, she opened up her heart to us. As we spoke with Juanita, encouraged her, hugged her as she cried, and prayed for her, I knew it was no mistake we’d come to Venezuela.

I wish I could say that by the time we left, everyone’s problems were reconciled, and revival and change broke out in the church. Well, that didn’t happen. There’s still a lot that needs to be confronted and dealt with in that little church in Santa Elena, Venezuela. But despite the mess, we knew it was worth it to travel just to be with Juanita and the girl who lives in Anamaria’s house and some of those in the church who don’t normally get the time of day. At times on the journey we’ve seen people dramatically healed of cancer or deafness; at other times we’ve seen remarkable inner healing. Yet, at other times, all we get to see are tiny seeds planted; and the best we can do is pray they will grow into something beautiful.

Heidi Baker, the founder of Iris Ministries, often says this simple expression. “Stop for the One [God], and stop for the one [the person in front of you].” Sometimes it’s this simple. We don’t always get the glory we would like or see the fruit of our labor, but stopping for the One and stopping for the one needs to be enough. It is enough. A hug, a smile, or an encouraging word for somebody--it’s all worth it when we stop for the one.

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