We’re safely home from our Family Missions Trip to Trinidad and so full of blessing and thanksgiving. Words will fail me, surely, as I try to express how God met us and used us these past eight days, so read between the lines if you can.
This trip had more “this is the first time . . .” moments in it than any other in our ten-year history of doing family missions trips (except the first)! Our day of departure heads the list—and apparently it was a harbinger of things to come.
We gathered at Logan last Saturday, March 8, on a rainy, cold morning . . . giving thanks that it wasn’t snowing (yes, even me—I knew that snow would have an unwanted affect our departure, so I gave thanks for rain). Nine hours later, after incremental delays attributable to “low visibility” in Boston and NY-JFK, where we were to connect with a direct flight to Port of Spain (POS), and, after boarding once, only to deplane 45 minutes later, we were re-booked for the next day. A big first. Back home we all went, to clean houses and empty refrigerators, to water turned off and water heaters turned down, with no suitcases (since all had been checked in already, Delta chose to keep them for the night), we spent the night in our own beds. Our greatest disappointment was knowing we would miss our only real chance to attend a Sunday worship service with our Trinidadian brothers and sisters, especially those in Campoo who are continuing the church we helped plant years ago. That really was our sadness.
Take two: Sunday, we regroup, dressed as we were the day before (mostly), and thankful for a successful “launch” at 11 a.m. In a race against the clock in Atlanta, we thankfully made it to our connecting flight just in the nick of time, and happily landed in POS around 7:30 p.m. The next “first” then emerged . . . and was not entirely surprising, admittedly: we arrived, but most of our luggage did not. :(
The next two hours were spent locating the 13 (out of 31) pieces of luggage that did arrive, and filing claims for the pieces that didn’t. It was a rather wild time which delayed our arrival at the TTUM compound to around 10. Once there, we were warmly embraced by those who have become so dear to us through the 9 years we’ve partnered with them. Ashoke and Stephanie, Javed and Jenn, John and Donna, Tony and Annette, Maltee, Kelvin, Joshua . . . such precious folks!
We also were thrilled to connect with Sarah Hathaway, one of our team members who joined us from Calvin College. We had spent hours on the previous Friday trying to re-route Sarah so she wouldn’t be hampered in getting to Trinidad due to the winter storm which hit the midwest on Saturday (the one that eventually caused our delay!). Ironically, she arrived in Trinidad on time on Saturday—while we all were stranded! Interesting twist.
Monday we wakened and knew we weren’t in Boston anymore. Warm temps, clear skies, sights, sounds, and smells so different from our normal existence. We were housed for the first time in the “hotel-like” rooms we had helped build on the second floor of the sanctuary . . . and had air conditioning for the first time! Rather plush missionary quarters. :)
After a wonderful Trinidadian breakfast of “bakes” and cheese, we assessed our limited supplies to see what we had to work with for the launch of Backyard Bible Club (BBC) that afternoon in the little village of Bellamy. By God's grace, we had all the props for the “Sower and the Seeds” skit and part of the corresponding craft, so we went with it. We rehearsed the skit, worked out team dynamics, and prayed.
At 4, we arrived to “canvass” the neighborhood, which is only one of the very un-American things we do while in Trini. Imagine wandering through a rural street, hollering “Good afternoon!” and having a resident emerge to listen to your invitation to BBC which “will be held on the savannah (read: open field) by the tent at 4:30.” Amazingly, at 4:30, the savannah is teaming with children who are energetic and excited about being there. Wild. We had about 36 kids come the first day and felt really good about our interaction with them. We returned to the compound in time for dinner (it was about 25 minutes by “maxi”—a mid-sized bus) and debriefing. We found that not having suitcases simplified life; there was no time needed for swimming (skinny dipping was forbotten) or even changing clothes. And if you couldn’t change clothes, showering was not that appealing—which worked well, since the compound was experiencing a water crisis, so the water was shut off all but several hours a day (early in the a.m. and late at night) which was, by the way, another first. :)
Each night our team met for debriefing and praying together. We experienced deep bonding quickly, in part because “crisis” aids such solidarity and in part because of the previously existing relationships we had all forged through the years. Each person was so important to the team and stepped up in making their own unique contribution to our collective effort. We felt like one big family and Paul and I truly loved “leading” them.
Our prayers were answered Monday night when Paul and Javed returned from the airport with all 18 pieces of missing luggage in tow. PTL!! After having spent three days in the same clothes, we were really happy and grateful for things easily taken for granted.
Tuesday a.m., freshly showered and in clean clothes, we spent the morning visiting two Hindu temples on a fascinating tour led by Jenn Bachew. The importance of this piece can’t be underestimated as it sets up the obvious contrast between a life dedicated to worshiping an idol and a life dedicated to worshiping our living Lord. We watched a pundit sincerely offering alms and chanting prayers to the “monkey god” at one temple and we observed thousands of fragments of broken “deias” offered at the “water temple.” We saw four funeral pyres set and waiting dead corpses, which would be burned to ashes, which would be scattered in the river, which according to Hindu belief would eventually make it back to the Ganges River for reincarnation. It was very impacting.
While at the water temple, Melanie accepted the invitation offered by a Rastifarian-looking fisherman named Balam, to tour his home and business. What a unique opportunity to have an insider’s view into the life of a very entrepreneurial local! We saw his catch of the day: beautiful looking, plump shrimp and small fish, but we also unfortunately saw the murky, muddy waters from which they came, which dimmed their appeal. He took us inside his “home”—a squatter’s dwelling made of corrugated metal roofing and other discarded components fashioned into a suitable-for-him abode. He proudly showed us his “tauer” (incorrect spelling - it’s the flat skillet used to bake roti), his bbq, and his kitchen.” His home was nestled right on the shore line of the viscous water and couldn't have been more hospitable, extending an invitation to all of us to return for a fishing excursion with him. “Just bring your hammocks,” he suggested. Jenn said that kind of an experience was a first for her—and obviously for us, as well.
That day was so clear we could easily see Venezuela, which sits just 7 miles from that part of Trini’s coastline. What a gift to have such a lovely day! On the way back to the compound, we bought fresh fruits and veggies from a small farm stand to supplement the very high-carb, low-fresh fare at TTUM.
Back to the compound for lunch and preparation for BBC. Fortunately, now flush with supplies from the suitcase reunion, we had everything needed for the remaining three days of club. At 4 p.m., the savannah in Bellamy was flooded with kids within moments of the maxi’s arrival and we increased to 50 kids. Pastor Paul’s promise of an extra treat for any who brought someone new to club created quite a stir, and a good bit of lying and conniving by children who all wanted an extra lollipop. :) The afternoon went very well and culminated with the kids enthusiastically decorating Prayer Journals with really cool foam stickers. We returned to the compound very encouraged, satisfied, and thankful. That night, after our team meeting, we celebrated Melanie’s birthday with cake and ice cream, which was a treat for all.
Wednesday we were up and out early to do a program at a local high school. We had very little information regarding what to expect prior to going. Typically at the high schools, we present for one classroom during their period of “Religious Instruction” (RI). We were all delighted and somewhat relieved when Javed climbed on the maxi to accompany us to Cunupia HS that morning. Upon arrival at the security shack for the high school, Javed was told by the security guards that the school was in upheaval due to a student stabbing a teacher the day before, which had caused the teachers to strike. Their grievance was against the government’s changed policy regarding student discipline (that a teacher couldn't really discipline a student, taking their cues from America . . .) which they felt left them unprotected as teachers. In the absence of teachers, the principal requested that our team present to the entire student body.
Yikes! Not only were we going into a school which had experienced some form of violence the day before, but we would have the whole school! (The newspaper account of the incident was different from the verbal accounts, so we really don’t know what happened—it was enough to know that something bad happened to cause the teachers to refuse to teach.) Feeling thoroughly unprepared and some degree of terror, we filed into the open-air auditorium and experienced God’s grace and provision in some remarkable ways. We were all very aware that God had gone before us by having Javed with us that day; he was the right person for addressing that audience and did a great job, connecting with the students as only another Trinidadian could. Paul did the “iodine and the cross” illustration, and brave Talene spoke forthrightly about her faith and how it makes a difference in her daily life as a high school sophomore. Their chaplain opened in closed the time by leading several Christian choruses with his booming, rich voice, relieving us of the need to inadequately and anemically lead them musically. And then it was over. We were all relieved and thankful to return to the bus safely. The Cunupia experience was full of firsts. We all left with a much deeper awareness of God’s presence and protection.
On to an elementary school for our second school that morning, and that was also full of firsts. Usually we have the whole school at the primary schools and were joyfully welcomed. At Madras Road Government Primary School, we had one classroom of students, and were not even introduced by the somewhat dour teacher in charge. We usually get to interact with the kids after a presentation, but they were sent straight back to their classes and we left. We prayed that God will water the seeds sown.
Day three of BBC happened that afternoon. About 60 kids arrived for a somewhat raucous time of singing, performing, crafting, and playing. The best part for us is loving on these kids and letting them know how loved they are by Jesus. We knew many of their names by this point and each had bonded with different ones. It’s amazing how deep our hearts were for these children in such a short time.
That night was Prayer Meeting at the compound and Ashoke asked Paul to teach on relationships. We were sharing the compound with a great group of high school students who attend Whitfield Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, and since they would be attending Prayer Meeting also, Paul worked to cover the varied generational needs of this important topic. He did a great job and received a ton of affirmation especially from the Whitfield kids. We were so thankful.
The cap of a very long but good day was a definite highlight of the week: John and his steel pan band performed an hour-long concert for the American contingent. It was phenomenal. We worshiped, rejoiced, and praised through music, singing, and dancing. Yes, even Paul. The Whitfield kids pulled him on to the floor to “boogie” with them, I guess figuring that if he was hip enough to speak the way he spoke, he must be hip enough to dance. I wish you could’ve seen his face as they forced him to join them. :) We went to bed that night exhausted, but so, so aware of the goodness, presence, and power of God. We would clearly need it for the next day.
Thursday a.m. was challenging in many ways. We descended on Auntie Pearl’s orphanage to clean, since most of the children were in school. Our main project was to clean the laundry/freezer room, which we discovered had a population of roaches that would qualify it as a small city. I can still feel roaches crawling on me today. To say it was a stretch would be a gross understatement, but since the adults were committed to modeling servanthood with a smile to our progeny watching us, we attacked the disgusting, dirty, and “living” area with smiles on the outside and revulsion on the inside. Seth and Richard led the charge nobly and fearlessly; I did the best job of appearance management I could possibly muster, only once shrieking in terror as a roach ran up my leg. We developed the “roach rumba”—a dance that evolved as we stomped the scattering roaches that emerged as objects were moved or clothes shaken out.
Meanwhile, most of the team was caring for the dozen or so younger children not of school age, changing diapers, bathing, holding, and loving—while others were reducing the trash strewn about the back yard. Each team member stepped up incredibly, jumping in with hands and feet and mostly heart. It was a morning none of us will forget.
We left there with aching hearts, honestly, so aware that our efforts would make very little difference, really. We prayed that God would somehow multiply what we had done, like loaves and fishes, and that He'd show us how to respond to what we’d experienced even as we return to the U.S.
Day 4 and grand finale at BBC that afternoon brought all 60 children out even before our maxi arrived. We had a great afternoon, presenting the gospel, finishing projects, and wrapping up with the iodine and cross illustration. Sarah did a great presentation on the “wordless necklace” and Paul explained how to ask Jesus into your heart. Most of the children prayed the prayer with him, and only heaven will sort out who did so sincerely. We parted after many hugs and promises of prayers and left the little village of Bellamy in the hands of God.
After our team meeting that night, we broke out “Catch Phrase,” one of our favorite games, and had a rousing match which pitted the men against the women. The women ultimately prevailed, but only by the skin of our teeth. It was a highly competitive, sometimes ruthless match which provided lots of laughs.
Friday was full of more firsts. We started the day visiting New Haven Elderly Home and with no knowledge of what to expect, entered with a degree of trepidation. We found about twenty elderly folks in various stages of mobility and mental acuity who were delighted to feel not forgotten for an hour that day. We sang hymns with them, some of whom didn’t miss a word. We did a drama, made them cross necklaces, and spent time talking with them individually and touching them, physically and emotionally. It was sacred time.
On to a primary school in the early afternoon, we had a wonderful time presenting to a very appreciative audience and then “limin’” with them after we were done. From there, we were thrilled to go to Campoo to reconnect with some of our longtime friends there as well as to see the progress on the church building. TTUM has decided to build an orphan home in conjunction with the church, which is a very exciting development. It was such a joy to be there and to see the work of God being faithfully carried on.
The highlight for several of us was to reunite with Preema, our Hindu friend from our very first BBC in Campoo. Preema had the keys to the community center we used for our first BBC, so we got to know her and her four boys well. At week’s end, she responded to Ashoke’s invitation to receive Christ and wept for thirty minutes after. We had made contact with her each time we’ve been there since, and though it doesn’t appear that the seed fell on fertile soil, she always seems to glad to see us. It was a joyful reunion with her, which prompted many tears from her again. We prayed for her and were so thankful to have had those moments.
We rounded out that afternoon by spending some time at “Angel Michael’s Orphan Home,” another first. An unknown entity to TTUM, Jenn had set it up hoping it would be a good place for ministry. It turned out to be a very sketchy place, with lots of evidence of being Obea Baptist (a curious mixture of witchcraft, voodoo, and Christianity). There were only school-aged children there and only one expressed an affect. The rest were relatively void of expression and very unresponsive. It was sad.
Our final ministry event was that night at the compound. Paul and I taught on relationships for their youth group meeting and again, were besieged with positive responses. The local youth were especially appreciative; we were grateful to have significant conversations with many of them. PTL. The evening was rich with worship, led by Javed, fellowship and fun, led by Whitfield Academy, and teaching. Between that and the Wednesday night Prayer Meeting, we felt less “gypped” by missing out on Sunday. :) We concluded the evening with a Catch Phrase rematch—and the women again prevailed. :)
Saturday was our last full day there and we had an unrestful but fun day of rest. The day started with yet another first: turns out that a drunk young man had trespassed on the compound in the middle of the night and found a place to sleep in one of our rooms, which was occupied by three young ladies. The youngest wakened and, unable to waken her two sleeping sisters, took it on herself to command him to leave their room. After some resistance, he did, only to wander down the hall to another room with an unlocked door. The two guys in this room thought his snoring was from someone on the team, so there he slept there ’til morning. The first we all knew about it was when armed officers (uzzi-armed) arrived at the compound to arrest this guy. No small amount of drama ensued, and our departure for Maracas Bay was delayed slightly.
Off we eventually went, stopping first in Port of Spain for one hour of mostly fabric shopping, and then on to Maracas Bay. We indulged in the inimitable “Bake ’n Shark” lunch delicacy before enjoying the “just right” ocean (in terms of temp and wave action). We couldn’t have had a nicer time. From there we made a quick stop at a market for edible souvenirs, and then spent a couple of hours on the river cruise to watch the nightly migration of the Red Ibises, Snowy Egrets, and Blue Herons to their wildlife preserve. It’s a rather magical show they perform and such a confirmation of Creator God, who sets such things in motion. Everything was perfect about the experience, so we felt very blessed.
Our evening was spent wrapping up and we shared a very sweet time of sharing and prayer together as a team. Packing, “liming,” and sharing filled the evening, and then we went to bed for our final time at TTUM. Sad farewells were exchanged early the next a.m.—we left with hearts so full of love and gratitude.
The above photo was taken at Logan Airport, Boston, just after our arrival back home. Our team was delighted and honored to be met by a precious group of family and friends who gathered to welcome us home. Not on the trip, but included in this photo, are Robie and Donna Gould with daughter Anna; Dan, Liz, and Timmy Yardley; Guy and Barbara Steele; and Rick Welles. We felt so loved!