The truth is, I didn’t even want to go.
Last fall a courageous young woman named Haley came to my church to talk about the children’s home she directs in Honduras. Instantly convicted by her story, I turned to Brad in the middle of worship. “I’m going to Honduras,” I whispered, leaning close to his ear. “And I’m taking Rowan with me.”
My church has an ongoing partnership with the church and community of La Ceibita, a rural village of about 250 people in north central Honduras. We send dental, medical and house-building teams there three or four times a year. After I heard Haley speak at church, full of the fire of the Holy Spirit, I signed Rowan and me up for the July trip.
Just days later, though, second thoughts began to invade my mind like Creeping Charlie in a summer lawn.
What if I get sick? What if I can’t eat the food? What if it’s dangerous? What if I can’t handle the work, or the smells, or the heat or the language barrier? What if something happens to Rowan? What if the other people in my group annoy me? What if I annoy them?
Suddenly I could think of a hundred reasons why it would simply be better for everyone if I stayed in my own backyard.
Rowan was also less than enthusiastic. “Next time the Holy Spirit speaks to you, leave me out of it,” he huffed on the drive home from one of our trip meetings. Don’t worry, I thought. The next time the Holy Spirit speaks to me I’m running in the opposite direction.
We left our house at 2 a.m. By noon the same day, ten minutes outside the San Pedro Sula airport, I’d glimpsed more dire poverty through the van’s dusty windows than I’d seen in the previous 49 years of my life.
Barefoot children, barely dressed. Tin-and-tarp shacks. Trash in towering heaps. Dirt and mud everywhere. Dogs running loose, their matted fur stretched tight over protruding ribs. Men perched on crates at the edge of the road, staring as we drove past, and I couldn’t tell if their eyes held curiosity or disdain. I held on tight as the van shuddered over the uneven road, dread and fear simmering in the pit of my stomach.
Twenty-four hours later, I was at home in Honduras in a way I never imagined possible.
The poverty had not vanished. The heat was still more oppressive than anything I had ever experienced. The food was still largely unfamiliar. There was still the threat of illness (Honduras was in the midst of a dengue fever epidemic). There was still dirt and mud, undrinkable water and a tarantula the size of a salad plate in the boys’ cabin.
The circumstances had not changed. And yet, everything had changed. Honduras had come to feel like home for one reason: the people of La Ceibita made it feel that way.
Maria, Teresa, Mary, Ulysses, Angel, Daniel, Karen, Myrna, Marcos, Yoni, Lucy, Nora, Pastor Manolo and the entire La Ceibita community opened themselves wholeheartedly to us without pretense, without reservation, without expectations. They invited us into their homes, served us food made with their own hands, laughed with us, prayed for us and with us, shared their hearts, hopes and dreams and loved us with unabashed affection.
Truly, I have never received hospitality and generosity like I experienced in Honduras. The people who outwardly seem like they have nothing to give gave us everything that has ever mattered. They gave us their whole selves.
Everyone always seems to say the same thing when they return to the United States from visiting a developing country: “The people gave me more than I gave them.” Truth be told, I’ve always found that sentiment irritating. Inwardly I’d roll my eyes and think, How precious. How totally cliché.
I’m here to tell you, it may be cliché, it may be “precious” and worthy of the eye-rolliest eye-roll, but in my experience, it’s the honest-to-God truth. I went to Honduras assuming I was going to serve the people there. Turns out, the people served me far more and with greater graciousness, patience and self-sacrifice than I could ever have hoped to serve them. I am now rolling my own eyes at my own self.
Maria and Teresa cooked three delicious hot meals a day from scratch for our ten-person team (plus two translators and the pastor) on a wood-fired stove in a kitchen the size of my bathroom with no indoor plumbing. And then they did all the dishes by hand in the outdoor sink, swept and mopped the floors and began the process all over again to prepare the next meal for us.
Maria had a stern countenance and rarely cracked a smile. When I first met her I was intimidated and assumed she was angry. I couldn’t have been more wrong. One afternoon when I told Maria, through a translator, that the food she cooked for us was delicious, she replied, “It’s because I make it with love.”
Ulysses and Angel translated prescriptions and medical jargon for hours in a makeshift clinic that served more than 100 patients, never once expressing impatience or frustration at my complete and utter inability to master even the most basic Spanish phrases and spellings.
Nora invited Rowan and me into her tiny outdoor kitchen with its blue-tarped walls and dirt floor and demonstrated how to make flour tortillas. One hand clamped over her mouth, she giggled shyly at our fumbling attempts. Nora was remarkably patient and gracious — especially considering the fact that Rowan burned his tortilla to a smoldering crisp, and I accidentally dropped a piece of Saran Wrap on her stove.
The entire church community sang a spirited welcome to us during evening worship on our first night, and even though we couldn’t understand most of their greetings, their open smiles put us immediately at ease.
Truly, I could write two dozen stories about my eight days in Honduras.
I could tell you about Lucy and Carlos, who live in a one-room tin-and-wood shack with a dirt floor and bedsheets for walls. They share one bed with their three children.
I could tell you how Lucy leaned against the door frame of her new cinder-block house – a house smaller than my living room – and wiped away tears, praising God as she watched the crew hang wood shutters over her windows.
I could tell you how Carlos recently lost his job at the local chicken processing plant because he spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from dengue fever. The day we visited his home he was volunteering at the elementary school.
I could tell you that Lucy has recently gone back to school. She’s in ninth grade now, and when she finishes high school she hopes to pursue a nursing degree because she wants to set a good example for her kids.
I could tell you that every single one of the Honduran people I met works harder just to survive (for an average salary of $6-$7 a day) than I have ever worked a single day in my life. On the day we visited the zoo (yes, we went to a zoo in Honduras…that’s a whole other story!), we passed a man repairing the road, heaving fresh dirt into deep trenches carved by rushing rainwater as his tiny son played in the ditch. Hours later on the drive home I spotted the same man, still bent over his shovel, still heaving dirt in the blazing sun. His son stood from his spot in the ditch and watched our van as we drove by.
I could tell you that the Honduran people love their country and cherish their culture and traditions. Their communities are tight-knit, vibrant and full of life. They are deeply connected to their extended families. The Honduran people don’t leave Honduras because they want to, but because they feel they have to: to escape gang violence in the cities; to find viable, sustainable work; to provide better opportunities, education, safety and security for their children (most of whom are forced to leave school by age 10 to find work).
I could tell you a dozen more stories about my time in Honduras, about the people I met and what I learned and experienced there. Instead, I will simply say this: God ignited a profound love in me in Honduras that will not be extinguished. I do not yet know how this love will manifest itself, but I know this for sure: the people of La Ceibita captured my heart. Honduras changed me forever, and I am grateful.