Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lord, Thank You for This Papaya

A trip to rural Guatemala last week reminded me of how much I take for granted. Have you counted your blessings?

You won’t find El Rosario, Guatemala, on most maps. If you drive on the busy, two-lane CA-9 Highway between Rio Hondo and Gualán, all you see of the tiny village is a white brick wall with a big blue Pepsi sign. But if you turn down a dirt road you will find a thriving community with dozens of modest houses, a school, three churches, two butcher shops, a pharmacy, a TV repair shop and several small food stores.

Last week, with a team of six friends, I made my fourth journey to El Rosario. We went to encourage Oto and Ilma Morales, pastors of Iglesia Nueva Vision (Church of New Vision)—the largest evangelical church in the area. In the past we helped them remodel an orphanage, build a youth center and host a women’s conference. This time we ministered to their congregation and hosted a conference for families in an auditorium a few miles away.

I leave more of my heart in Guatemala every time I visit. I’ve watched the kids in the church grow up. Some of the teenagers who have Yahoo accounts e-mail me in broken English. Pastor Oto occasionally calls to ask when I can come back. Sometimes I just want to move there.

"In all this bare simplicity, a sense of joy pervaded the house. We knew these people loved Jesus. We could feel His presence there."

My friend Danny, a youth pastor from Baltimore, walked with me last Sunday afternoon through El Rosario’s narrow streets. We were soaking in the sights and sounds of rural Guatemalan culture: Coconut palms rustling softly in the breeze, barking dogs, crowing roosters, giggling children, houses painted bright yellow or aqua, motorcycles revving, hammocks swaying in tiny carports—all this against a breathtaking backdrop of the Sierra de las Minas mountains.

Life is not easy in El Rosario. The most prosperous family I met operates a bus service. Some people work in the fields harvesting local produce. Some of the women are maids at a nearby tourist hotel while others must find work in Zacapa, a larger town to the west. Many residents of El Rosario have never owned a car or traveled more than 20 miles in any direction. They certainly don’t have health insurance—although there is a local doctor who makes house calls for less than $5.

Danny and I walked to the edge of the town to a place called Linda Vista—“beautiful view”—where the poorest of the poor live in plywood and mud huts on the side of a steep hill. Their only running water is a common spigot on the path between six or eight homes. Crude electrical lines are drooped dangerously over corrugated metal roofs. As many as eight people live in each of the tiny huts.

It was almost dark, so some people in the neighborhood were outside their homes cooking dinner over open flames. Most of them live on beans, potatoes, plantains and—if they can afford it—scanty portions of meat. They are especially fond of their local fruits—including the papayas that were ripening on the trees during my visit.

These children live on the outskirts of El Rosario, Guatemala. A local church, Iglesia Nueva Vision, gives them education and meals four days a week.

As Danny and I walked down the hill a man came out of his three-room cinder block house and waved excitedly. He recognized me from the church service that morning and asked us to come inside. His wife and daughter greeted us, and the little girl shyly offered me two small orange flowers as a gift. “I have a gift for you, too,” the man said in Spanish. Then he went behind his house with a machete to retrieve the surprise.

Danny and I looked around at the sparse room with its bare concrete floor and exposed rafters. A few plastic toys were scattered in a corner. Two metal chairs and a simple dinette set furnished the living area. Light came from a single electric bulb dangling from the ceiling. In all this bare simplicity, a sense of joy pervaded the house. We knew these people loved Jesus. We could feel His presence there.

The father returned in a moment holding a giant papaya—almost the size of a watermelon. It was obvious he wanted to honor me in some way because my sermon that morning had blessed him. This was his offering. It could have been his dinner, but he wanted me to have it.

Then I hugged the man’s wife and reached down to thank the little girl for the flowers. Danny exchanged hugs with all three of them, and the man told us he and his family would see us again in church that night. I gave the man a hug and took the massive fruit, holding it carefully as if it were an expensive package.

Later that evening after church, we sat around Pastor Oto’s kitchen table and shared the sweet, juicy papaya—which was big enough to feed our whole team. It was not as fancy a meal as the turkey dinners many of us will eat this week, and it was not served in a china dish with silver utensils. But that simple fruit, cut from a tree by grateful hands, helped me reclaim a heart of thanksgiving.

J. Lee Grady is editor of Charisma.

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