Friday, January 18, 2013

Puerto Rico: Our Island Adventure Begins!


He does weird things, unexpected things—things that make no sense in the eyes of the world.  Walking with Him is such an adventure, because we never know what’s next.  But I suppose that’s the fun part—taking risks and watching Him provide beyond what we could ever imagine.

During my holiday break, I spent a good chunk of time preparing for the last leg of the Iris Latin America journey—the Caribbean.  After very suddenly being designated our new team leader, I had mixed feelings.  Such authority felt like both a huge privilege and a heap of unwanted pressure.  Though leading gave me an opportunity to plan the Caribbean trip the way I’d always envisioned it, it also meant accepting the burden of anything that went awry.
As I wondered how things would pan out, God continually reminded me that this was a season to dream with Him, as a daughter dreaming with her Father.  My decade-long desire to minister in the islands was coming to fruition, and I needed to maintain a heart of thanks, not a heart of worry.  Serving in the Caribbean would not be a test of obedience but a test of belief—would I dare to dream with God and trust Him to bless the desires of my heart?

While praying, I felt God told me that our team would go to five countries (or territories) in the Caribbean.  My heart is to travel to the neediest islands, so the DR, Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica seemed like no-brainers.  But God told me our first island would be Puerto Rico. I was confused as to why we’d waste any time in this affluent U.S. territory and had no desire to go.  In addition, whenever I attempted to land contacts in Puerto Rico, every door seemed to slam shut.  However, regardless of circumstances, I knew God had something significant for us in Puerto Rico.  Natalie had a vision of a closed door and an invisible hand opening it.  I didn’t know how or when, but I did believe God would open doors for us.  My teammates and I took a leap of faith and booked our tickets to Puerto Rico before establishing a single contact on the island. 

During the holiday break, I thanked God every day--for His plans for the Caribbean team and for the doors He had promised to open.  Time passed.  I sent a million emails.  I heard nothing in return…then more of nothing…and still nothing.

Just a week before our flights, I received an email from a pastor of Bethel Church in California.  He’d mysteriously lost a message I’d sent him weeks past and apologized profusely for getting back to me so late.  He figured it was too late at this point, but forwarded me the information of a pastor in Puerto Rico nonetheless.  I immediately emailed Edwin, the Puerto Rican pastor, and told him about our team.  I received a response fifteen minutes later.  After a couple emails and a few phone calls, we had a ride from the airport, a place to stay, and an amazing church to work with. 

Days later, I said goodbye to my family, my comfortable bed, my hot shower, and my home turf.  I boarded the plane to Puerto Rico and faced that moment I dread every time I return to the mission field—that painful moment of tension between excitement for the adventure ahead and the fear of territory completely unknown.  It’s the ache of turning my back on my loved ones and everything familiar, while trying to be strong enough to run into my destiny.  It’s that moment where I am exactly where I am supposed to be, yet loss and fear try to tell me otherwise—and where pieces of myself are painfully squeezed out of me, making room for new cultures, new friends, and new missions.

Upon landing, the blast of warm air in the San Juan airport eased my spinning mind.  The heat of the island made everything seem better.  My teammates and I happily reunited and were soon picked up by Edwin and his beautiful wife, Maggie.  They drove us to their home in the city of Arecibo, where they explained that we would be split between their home and their friend Barbie’s house.   Barbie explained that when her husband built their home, he purposefully added extra rooms to house guests in the future.  They wanted to provide a safe haven for missionaries and told us that their house was just as much ours as theirs.  Barbie’s daughter, Sally, agreed to escort us throughout the island for the following ten days—taking us to home groups, prayer meetings, church services, homeless outreaches, evangelism events on the beach and in the marketplace.  Sally was the best guide we could have asked for.  Full of love, generosity, solid faith, and lots of laughs, she quickly became like a sister on our team.

One morning, Sally took Natalie, Roberta, Alan, and I to a rehab center for men.  The men who live there were war veterans, former drug addicts, and homeless.  We gathered the men and sat in a circle as many of them looked at us with skepticism.  We explained that we were missionaries who had been traveling throughout Latin America for the past fourteen months and had recently begun our travels around the Caribbean.  Natalie shared some testimonies of how God had moved in rehab centers we’d visited in Colombia and Brazil.  I shared the story of our friend Godfrey who had been set free from addiction in Belize.  Alan and Roberta shared parts of their personal testimonies, and Roberta asked the men what their dreams were. 

One by one, the men shared the deepest dreams of their hearts with us and with each other.  One man dreamt of being a missionary.  Another dreamt of having his own home.  Yet another said he dreamt of preaching.  Still others remained quiet and ashamed.

We offered to pray for each individual, and a man named Renaldo hesitantly approached Alan and me.  He said that he’d done many bad things in his past, and terrible thoughts still haunted him.  He listed some of his past crimes and then silently made a gesture indicating that he had shot people, too ashamed to speak the words aloud.  I asked him if he’d forgiven himself, but it was clear he was not yet able to do so. 

As Alan and I prayed for Renaldo, I saw two pictures.  The first was a vision of his past.  He was hiding, about to do something destructive, but he was filled with fear.  The second picture was of his future.  He was dressed nicely, standing in front of a crowd with a microphone in his hands, speaking to children.  After we prayed, I asked Renaldo if anything in his childhood had caused him to fear.  He paused for a moment, sadness filling his eyes.  Slowly, he opened his mouth.  “When I was young,” he began, “My father did bad things to me.  He beat me; he grabbed me.  He did black magic.  There were frightening things happening.” 

I wanted to tell him about the good I saw coming in his future, but he beat me to it.  “You know, I had a dream that I was preaching in the future.  But I just don’t know if I could do that.”  I saw doubt written all over his face.  Some part of him wanted to believe his dream, but more of him felt he was too much of a failure.

I told Renaldo what I’d seen during prayer—that I had a glimpse of the fear that ruled his past.  I explained that the enemy was using fear to keep him from his destiny.  I told Renaldo that he was called to be a protector and had a destiny to protect children from feeling the same fear that he did.  I described my vision of him speaking to crowds, especially youth.  I assured him that his dream will one day become true—that his testimony will be a powerful example of how God can change someone’s life.  There was no reason to live in shame.  The rougher your past, the more your story can show what a powerful transformation God is able to make. 

As I confirmed Renaldo’s dream, rather than agreeing with the lie that he’ll never be good enough, his eyes lit up.  He looked like a child, eager and happy.  His countenance shifted from shame to hope.  He asked my permission to give me a hug, and I opened my arms to him.  He embraced me, then went to each one of my teammates, declaring that he needed a hug from each person.  When we said farewell, he was still smiling from ear to ear.

Everywhere we went, I had the privilege of watching God touch peoples’ hearts.  In every church, God gave us specific words for people, and many were moved to tears as they encountered the love of Christ.  Countless people approached us to tell us different things we’d said confirmed desires or promises in their hearts.  Person after person told us how deeply touched, encouraged, and moved they were. God blew us away by using even the littlest details to bring people hope. 

During one youth meeting, we prayed for those who felt called to the mission field.  Natalie gave a general word that she believed some people in the group were called to China, Indonesia, and Latin America.  She wasn’t sure who these words were for, but announced them regardless.

One guy stepped forward and said he was called to China, some Arabic countries, and Russia.  He explained that he knew a bit about China and the Arab world, but Russia was completely unknown territory for him.  When he realized Natalie was from Russia (and speaking about China), he was intrigued.  He also explained that the shirt she was wearing confirmed that the Lord was speaking.  His ministry was called Kingdom Come Ministries, and he’d had either a dream or a vision of a castle of many colors.  Funnily enough, Natalie happened to be wearing a shirt with a castle on it and very colorful letters that read, “Let your kingdom come.”  Lord, I thought, how very clever you are.  You can use a Russian girl’s T-shirt to confirm someone’s calling.  God is cool like that.

The longer we stayed in Puerto Rico, the more I realized God had not just brought us here to serve others but to receive blessings ourselves.  Though the heart of Iris Ministries is to go into the darkest places, God still has some pleasant surprises up His sleeve for His children.  He undoubtedly brought us to Puerto Rico, meaning “Rich Port”, and quickly showed us unexpected riches that matched the island’s name.

First of all, besides being provided with comfortable and beautiful accommodation, the churches where we served gave us financial blessings beyond my wildest dreams.  One church gave us each an envelope with an incredibly generous donation inside.  When I opened it, I gasped in shock.  It was enough to cover my flight from New York to Puerto Rico as well as half of my flight to the Dominican Republic! 

Secondly, starting our journey in Puerto Rico helped create a smooth transition coming from the mainland U.S.  The island is a U.S. territory and contains much evidence of mainland U.S. culture yet maintains its own Latino flavor as well.  It was nice to transition back to speaking Spanish in a place where most people are bilingual and could help remind me of the words I’d forgotten over Christmas break.  I appreciated easing back into Latin American life with some familiar comforts from the continental U.S.  As we travel next to the Dominican Republic, it will feel a little less like home, and by the time we get to Haiti, we’ll be in a different world.  The gradual transition from place to place makes the process a lot less jarring.  God knew our itinerary before we did and is very intentionally taking care of our hearts and needs.

Lastly, and most importantly, our time in Puerto Rico provided us with godly connections for our remaining time in the islands.  Though Puerto Rico itself didn’t quite fit in with my vision to go to the poorest places, the pastors in Puerto Rico had the connections we needed to get into those places.  While in Texas for Christmas, Natalie received a prophecy that we would meet a man of influence in Puerto Rico who would help us have a smooth journey throughout the rest of the islands.  Name-dropping would connect us and provide for us as we traveled; and our path would be smooth, restful, and easy.  Pastor Edwin and his brother Ephraim are incredibly well-connected throughout the Caribbean, and working with their church has already opened up doors for us in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba.  Though I had originally thought it might well be impossible for Americans to enter Cuba, Ephraim has informed us otherwise.  He has gone there many times recently and knows all the ins-and-outs of traveling there legally as a U.S. Citizen.  He’s provided us with connections and information that is giving me hope and excitement to get into Cuba.  Things are panning out a hundred times smoother than I ever dreamed possible.

And as we planned for the next country, the Dominican Republic, God once again both closed doors and opened doors that I could never have opened on my own.  I had been in contact with someone from the Dominican Republic for almost two months, and spent lots of time exchanging emails, Skype calls, and messages.  However, I waited for a final confirmation for quite some time.  I was desperately trying to nail down the contact, to finalize our arrangements—knocking down the door with my own strength but getting nowhere.  Our new friends here in Puerto Rico gave us the name of a Dominican pastor and told us to call him.  After a four-minute Skype conversation, we once again had a ride from the airport, a place to stay, and ministry opportunities in Santo Domingo.  After months of communication and failing to plan anything productive, God provided everything we needed in just four minutes. 

Our time in Puerto Rico set us up very nicely for the rest of our journey.  God called us to Puerto Rico to bless others but also to bless us.  He showed me the futility of putting pressure upon myself to plan the itinerary.  God clearly designed our itinerary from the start.  All I needed to do was simply tell Him my dream, and now I get to enjoy the ride.

By Caitlin Scudder