There is a song by Christian artist, Steven Curtis Chapman, called, “For the sake of the call.” The song talks about how Jesus had called his people to be his followers. After Jesus had called them, in the song they answered, “we will abandon it all, for the sake of the call. Not for the sake of a creed or a cause, not for a dream or a promise. Simply because it is Jesus who calls; if we believe, we’ll obey. We will abandon it all, for the sake of the call.”
And so it is that my call to ministry began in a cell phone store! Seriously! It was later winter, not quite spring of 1996 & I was in a store one day asking about new cell phones. The salesperson told me that I would have to sign a one year contract. I remember hearing a voice that said, “You won’t be here in a year.” (Now keep in mind that I had just spent a year traveling over 40,000 miles with Up with People and I had no plans of going anywhere!) I left the store telling the salesperson thank you for their time, but somehow knowing I was not going to be getting a new phone.
I got in my car and began to drive aimlessly; or so I thought. I found myself driving to somewhere unknown. It was as if my car was driving itself, had a mind of its own, and was taking me to a place I needed to be. I began laughing to myself and really wondered where it was I headed. I found myself taking my old route that I traveled to get to classes when I was in graduate school at Oklahoma City University. I didn’t go to the education building though. At this time, I still hadn’t realized where I was going. But, next thing I knew, I was parked at the Oklahoma state conference offices of the United Methodist Church. I sat there wondering what I was supposed to do next. I then felt like an angel was sitting on my shoulder (like she has many times before) and whispering, “Go see Larry.” Now mind you, at the time, I did NOT know who this Larry was at all. I went inside and asked the receptionist where his office was. The longer I sat there, I realized after reading brochures and signs on doors, that Larry was the Director of the Volunteers in Mission (VIM) program. While I waited, I read some information about different mission trips coming up that next spring and summer. Most were for ten days longs. I felt that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. “No,” I thought to myself, “that’s not enough.”
I sat in Larry’s office and talked with him for over two hours that day. Through our conversation, we realized that he had been my church camp counselor ten years earlier. After reminiscing, Larry asked me how he could help me. I said that I honestly didn’t know what I was doing there….but that I was just led by the Spirit to his office. Larry proceeded to tell me about several different mission projects that I might be interested in. I remember the words “Sarajevo” and “Bolivia” coming out of his mouth. Honestly, neither sounded like options at the time. But as he told me more about the mission and school in South America I said, “I think I want to go to Bolivia to teach.” Larry immediately replied, “can you leave in a week?” My head shook “yes” while my mouth said “No….absolutely not!” I laughed. He didn’t. Seeing the concern on my face, he mentioned Bosnia again. I immediately got back on the topic of Bolivia. It at least hadn’t been in inter-national news recently! I left his office that day in tears but yet full of excitement and hope.
I stopped by a travel store after leaving Larry’s office to find a video about Bolivia. Much to my surprise, the couple that owned the store had just returned from a trip….to Bolivia!! I could not believe it. Then they asked me if I had seen the newspaper that day. I had not & I don’t take the paper but when I got to my apartment, there was a newspaper….on my front door step! The front cover was a picture and article about a lady missionary…in Bolivia! I knew God was trying to get my attention and I was listening now. Two nights later, I was lying in bed praying to make a decision about what I should do with my life. That Steven Curtis Chapman song kept going through my mind like a prayer, “I will abandon it all for the sake of the call.” I truly opened my mind and heart and was willing to listen to God.
I remember the very words I prayed, “God…you are going to have to tell me what to do.” It was as if God’s voice had answered back to me in the depths of my soul, “You have to go. You have to serve the church.” It was my calling. A big bell doesn’t ring. It doesn’t come in a fax or an email. It was simply God’s voice calling to me in the still, quiet of the night during a time of earnest prayer. I quit my job. Sold my car. Put all of my belongings in storage in my daddy’s barn. I left for Bolivia ten days later.
The day I left for Bolivia I was probably the only person in the Miami International Airport that was praying they did not see their luggage in the baggage claim area. Miami was the third airport I had been in that day & my luggage was supposed to be going on my next plane with me to Cochabamba, Bolivia in South America. Since I had a four-hour layover in Miami, I decided to check the baggage claim area to make sure my luggage was NOT taken off the plane and left in Miami.
In three big, blue plastic containers, one big duffle bag with wheels, and one well-traveled suitcase (see the blogpost about the year I traveled in Up with People), I had packed everything I could anticipate needing for the next ten months to teach English in a third world country. The Volunteers In Mission (VIM) program through the United Methodist Church put me in contact with a school run by the Methodist Church of Bolivia. I found myself answering my calling and living in Bolivia working as a missionary and teaching kindergarten.
The city of Cochabamba sits in a valley between the Andes mountains at an elevation of 8,400 ft. The school I worked and lived at, Instituto Americano, had 5,000 students. In the morning, there were approximately 2,000 students in grades pre-k through 12th grade. The school was private and those students pay tuition. In the afternoon the school was open to the public and there were approximately 3,000 students and the government provides their education. The grounds of the school are covered with flowers, green grass, huge, old palm trees, pine trees with red berries and beautiful poinsettia trees with deep dark red flowers.
I taught three classes in the mornings and five classes in the afternoons. My students taught me more Spanish than I could ever remember learning in high school. They learned their colors, numbers 1 to 30, the days of the week, the alphabet, approximately 40 vocabulary words, some animals, memorized a book, and a song or two all in English. At the beginning of every morning we had a mini conversation in English. This consisted of them telling me good morning and kissing me on the cheek, with me asking them how they were, as they responded in English and in complete sentences.
There were times I was amazed that I was living in a third world country. I looked at the teeth of my students and they were rotted out and black. Women and children pounded laundry in a sewage choked river and lay the clothes on rocks and branches to dry. People wore clothes that were three sizes too big because that’s all they had. Other people sat on street corners to beg for money. Nothing tugged at my heart and soul more than a motherless, seven-year-old, street kid who would hold out his small, frail hand begging for a penny or two. Old, dead, palm tree branches were used as brooms. Some people ate soup with their dirty, filthy, black calloused hands because they couldn’t afford spoons. I saw moms breastfeed their three year olds because they couldn’t afford food. Toilet paper was expensive and used by very few people.
Businessmen and politicians strutted around the plaza wearing their crisp, white, dress shirts that were scrubbed by hand the day before by their servants. The military men and police men carried clubs and sometimes tear gas and machine guns. Old ladies carried groceries and small children in colorful, hand-woven blankets wrapped around their necks. Some people made $25 a month working for the government; they were truly surviving.
But then, on the other hand, I had email, could send my parents a fax, and saw the separation of the classes, while the rich were driving VW Bugs, Toyotas, Hondas, Explores and yes even BMWs. Bolivia was definitely a country of injustice where the government and rich people take advantage of the poor and treat them like slaves and servants.
I learned to look at the world with third world eyes and gained a greater appreciation for my home, my life, my country, my language and my education. The year I traveled in Up with People, I saw what America didn’t have in comparison to Europe. However, living in Bolivia, I saw how much America has and how fortunate America is in comparison to Bolivia and other third world countries.
I loved where I was and I loved what I did. For some reason, I knew that God sent me there. I always knew I had a calling to work and live in the mountains. I just thought it would be Colorado and never dreamed it would be Bolivia! Living in another culture was a challenge and brought near expenses every day. Whether it was the craziness of the traffic and taxi drivers, the government wanting to own more than they should, the prices of things, my students and their lab, or the way they sell things on the street in at the market, there was something or someone that made me smile and I would shake my head in amazement.
Each day was a new day and I loved my life and truly had a sense of inner peace. Although we are from different hemispheres, different countries, different cultures, and speak a different language, we are all still have the same common, basic needs in order to survive life. We just have a different way of going about meeting those needs and need to learn to respect those differences.
I’ve always wondered why God created so many different languages and cultures. After traveling in Up with People and having lived in Bolivia, I have begun to realize that if we were all the same we would fail to see the beauty in others & life wouldn’t be a challenge. The story in Genesis, “the Tower of Babel,” has more relevance to me now than ever. For some, differences in race, religion, and culture causes arguments and hatred that have even lead to war. Those are the unenlightened who fail to see why God made us different & life hard. If life were easy and we had everything we thought we needed, we wouldn’t have any difficult times when we needed to turn to God and trust in Him.
Everything time I had to face something new & hard in Bolivia, (which was way more often than not!) I would pray, “God be with me” and I would repeat it over and over and over and over. I said this so often that it just turned into a simple breath while I exhaled and I shortened it to “G.B.W.M.” My faith and trust grew a lot during those long, hard, fearful and peace filled months, simply because God did not make us all the same. And for that I am thankful for my calling, “You have to go. You have to serve the Church.”