01. Divine Appointments
Fifteen years earlier, God had first captured my attention with a borrowed sermon tape. I had grown up attending a Presbyterian church that tended toward the evangelical end of the spectrum, but as I listened to the tape, I realized I had never heard anything like what Tony Campolo was saying. He was contrasting earthly power with sacrificial love and calling his listeners to serve the poor. In an emotional crescendo, he rhetorically asked why anyone would want to work for IBM when he could be a hero. A hero! That appealed to my romantic idea of how life should be. I wanted to be a hero. Although, as I thought about it, I had little idea of what practical form that might take.
The following year, needing to fulfill the foreign language requirements for a graduate program in international relations, I spent a summer in language school in Guatemala. I arrived in Guatemala with a wide-open schedule and no agenda other than learning Spanish. But God took that time and my agenda and molded it to his use in a way I had never experienced before and have rarely experienced since. Almost as if it were scripted, I was connecting with a different missionary, pastor, or development worker every weekend.
The weekday setting was idyllic. I would walk to class along cobblestone streets beneath a magnificent green-sided volcano. Mornings would be spent talking with an instructor over coffee, while afternoons were spent with other students, trying to understand Guatemalan culture and grappling with the local poverty and injustice.
These two things were impossible to ignore. The long civil war that had devastated the nation, particularly the highlands, was winding down, although not completely over. Parts of the country were still contested; memories of massacres and lost loved ones were fresh in the minds of people with whom I talked. Also, although I had seen poverty before, it had never been this close. In much of the United States, we do a very effective job of hiding misery and need from immediate sight, shielding our consciences. Here the cry of the needy and oppressed was very much in front of me. While walking to and from dinner with friends, it was hard to avoid the indigenous women with their little children in ragged traditional huipiles.
One evening after giving a couple of coins to a particularly winsome and pathetic little girl in the street, a friend of mine was overcome with frustration and hurt. “What can we do?” she asked. “We can’t help them all.”
It was good question, and I had a hard time coming up with good answers. Finally, I said, “I think all we can do is take the pain we feel on their behalf and all the energy it creates and pour it into those things we can do. We can’t help them all, but we need to make sure that we help those whom we can.”
On weekends, I found that one divine appointment led to another. I tend to be skeptical of overly spiritual interpretations of events, but this was so obvious that people around me noticed it. It was an exhilarating feeling, knowing I was in God’s hands, seeing what he wanted me to see and learning what he wanted me to learn.
One memorable weekend I visited the Guatemala City dump. Few other places I have ever seen can conjure up so quickly the idea of hell on earth. Hundreds of vultures circled a plume of acrid smoke, which billowed from behind a block wall. I was unprepared for what I would see on the far side.
Amid heaps of rotting garbage, cardboard, and burning plastic, young children sorted through the piles and greeted each truck as it arrived. I was stunned to learn that they and their families lived in this dump, fighting over the privilege of picking through the scraps.
But my sense of horror was quickly transformed to one of wonder as I visited a school founded by a young American woman who had seen this hell and taken the responsibility to do something about it. She had gone so far as to live among the families in the dump, and though she was a couple of years younger than I was, she had already given five years to this place, winning small victories at the very gates of hell. Here was a hero.
Next, I was introduced to a Guatemalan pastor, Salomón Hernández, from the highlands of El Quiché, where the civil war had been most brutal. He told me about his ministry to the indigenous people, especially the victims of the war, and I learned of his dream to open a clinic in his town.
My curiosity piqued, I angled for an invitation to travel to El Quiché to see his work firsthand, even though I was a little anxious at crossing the country by myself with my still-limited Spanish. After spending half a day on the bus, I wandered near the market in Coban, looking for the next bus. At this point I was getting so used to divine appointments that I wasn’t particularly surprised when an open truck with a dozen locals in back pulled alongside me, and the driver said, “Get in.” I just had a sense that God was guiding me by the hand, saying, “Watch and listen; I have something to show you.”
I joined farmers, market women, chickens, and produce as together we rattled over a dirt road into the hills. The young woman sitting upwind of me began to vomit. When the afternoon downpour started, we pulled a tarp over us and huddled together. A couple of miles before our destination, the truck came to a stop, broken down. We began walking as a group. At dusk, I finally arrived on Salomón Hernández’s doorstep.
The next morning we banged over the dirt roads in his rusty pickup as he took me to meet his extended church, people devastated by violence and oppression. We drove from farm to farm, visiting widows and children in tiny dirt-floored homes, listening to stories of rape and murder. Yet there was a sense of healing; they had found it in their hearts to forgive.
In the course of the day, Salomón told me of having guerrillas on one side of his house and the army on the other, while he and his wife prayed with the combatants and brought them tortillas.
We laughed together as we drove along the rutted roads, classical music playing on the cassette deck. What could have been grim was made beautiful by his buoyant spirit. Salomón’s joyous outlook in the face of so much pain and brutality gave evidence of a depth of faith and courage new to me. Furthermore, his compassion was as abundant as his joy.
With Salomón I could begin to imagine the triumph of love over hatred, of the victory of the kingdom of God over the power of darkness. Here was another hero.
There were others. In fact, this unseen, unheralded army of extraordinary individuals, giving of themselves, overwhelmed me. Here were people “spending” themselves on behalf of the hungry, just as Isaiah 58:10 describes. There were heroes everywhere.
By the time I was ready to come home, my outlook on the world had changed. The idea of the Christian walk as an adventure seemed to have meaning for the first time. Furthermore, the complacent faith I had come to regard as normal in Southern California was no longer enough. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” resonated more deeply and more urgently when I thought of the children in the dump, but also with more hope when I thought of people like Salomón—heroes courageously shining light into dark corners. And it seemed as though they would win—that justice was right around the corner.
I returned to San Diego to finish school, but abandoned plans to work in government. Instead, I wanted to work alongside people like those I had met in Guatemala. With that in mind, I began volunteering at Plant With Purpose, a Christian nonprofit agency working in impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic.