by Jesse Brandow
After spending nearly two weeks in Guatemala, I arrived back in the United States exhausted and inspired. I hoped to write sooner to share my experience, but I needed time to readjust to life here in the States. It has been nearly three months since I arrived home, and only now am I beginning to understand my trip to the Hogar Rafael Ayau (Hogar means “home” or “orphanage”). My time at the Hogar was so packed with sights, sounds, faces, and prayers that I have a difficult time truly sharing it. Yet it has meant so much to me that I have to share it with you! So I’m putting ink to paper as I begin to tell what God has done for me in Guatemala.
As the plane flew into Guatemala City, my eyes were glued to the window. The sprawling city had no massive skyscrapers to challenge the mountain peaks, which shot up on all sides. It was nothing like Chicago’s huge apartment buildings or New York’s jutting skyline. Here thousands of shacks littered the ground, and my team of ten was headed to the worst district.
Entering the orphanage felt like entering a small fort. It fills an entire city block, and its huge walls keep the children safe from danger. We had to be cleared by guards, who rolled back the gate for our van. Once inside it was easy to forget the world lurking outside those walls: gang fights, drunken parties, and prostitutes. The days in the Hogar were filled with so much joy, but sometimes at night I would suddenly hear the outside world: men arguing and a woman crying for help. On the first day we met the children in church. Each day began and ended in that same house of worship. The children came to services freely and sang all of the songs from memory. Although the boys and girls were a little mischievous in church (they’re kids after all!), they managed to stand for over an hour of services each day, singing in their native tongue. How I miss reciting the Lord’s prayer with them in Spanish, watching them carefully light beeswax candles, and walking up together to receive communion.
Our simple purpose was to love the children. Some of them were abused before coming to the Hogar, others never knew their parents. So what the children needed most was good role models who made them feel like unique and beautiful children of God. More practically, we were there to organize a week-long summer program called ‘The Chocolate Train’, which stopped at many “stations,” including the game room, pool, bakery, and art room. I find it hard to describe to you how full each day was, how special each moment. I played foosball and checkers in the morning and then baked cookies with a dozen children. I jumped in the pool before lunch, then juggled paints, pencils, and crayons in the art room. So many stories fill in the lines of this single paragraph, each one deserving to be told.
Before we left, Madre Ivonne asked each of us to write down the most memorable moment. I’d like to share what I wrote so you can hear one of the stories that crowded the lines of my journal. It was one of those rare moments when a person shines in all his inner beauty. One morning I was sitting on the grass when five or six of the cutest youngsters mobbed me, each one of them begging for attention. Then, with all of them climbing on top of me, one hand popped out in front of my face. I looked and saw Kevin. He has a healed cleft lip, some silver false teeth, and a hard time speaking. You might not guess how special he is. All the other kids desperately wanted me to devote my attention only to them, but Kevin just wanted to give me something. I looked into his hand and saw that he had found a little bug. I held it for a little while before giving it back. That was enough to make Kevin smile so big that I could see his silver teeth. He just wanted to share a little treasure, and the simplicity of his love melted my heart. Imagine 100 children like Kevin who want to know that someone has seen who they are and loved what they saw. Those 100 at the Hogar are part of the 370,000 orphans of Guatemala, all born to broken parents in a broken world. Some were neglected, others were actually tortured, and their scars remain with them forever. Thankfully, 100 children are protected from much of the world’s evil by the Hogar’s walls. Yet the line between love and hatred cannot be found in any physical barrier. That line runs through every human heart. The process of healing begins when the children are brought into the Hogar. As they grow, their hearts open up, and they begin to trust the nuns, staff, and Mission Team members who love them unconditionally. I thank God that I was a small part of their lives. Perhaps with God’s grace I helped some of them to know how beautiful they are.
When my mission trip ended I did not want to return to the U.S. Here I find it difficult to keep focused on love when my vision is crowded by computer screens, hip clothing, and bold advertisements. There may be fewer orphans in the United States, but just as many people need love. Everywhere the world is broken. In Guatemala it is obvious, but here materialism plasters over the cracks. Sometimes I wish I could see the cracks plainly so it would be easier to focus on loving the people around me. But the love I shared at the Hogar still gives me hope that by focusing on Jesus Christ I will be able to heal others through love and to be healed myself.
We all need healing. What God showed me at the Hogar was how to live without despairing at human suffering. The world is dark, but that does not stop joy from shining through the Hogar. By putting Christ’s love at the center of life, the nuns have built an amazing home for the children. In spite of all the painful stories I heard there, I have never felt so much joy anywhere else. More and more, I hope to live in the joy of Christ, for only he can heal our souls.
Please remember the children of the Hogar in your prayers.
P.S. You can find links to my picture albums at http://www.didnotourheartburn.blogspot.com