ECUADOR MISSION TRIP
Photos by Kayla Bacon and Mike Lang
One month ago, I was sitting on my suitcase, frustrated because (per usual) I had over packed and I was two pounds overweight on my luggage. Sigh. Nothing new there. I can never sleep the night before a big adventure. I think it’s equal part nerves and excitement. I was laying down, just me and my thoughts, when my anxiety about the trip started to kick in. What if I wasn’t helpful enough during construction? What if the altitude got to me and I slowed people down? What if this, what if that? What if we go to this place, this place that so desperately needs support, and we do more harm than good? What if we come in, with our cameras and our North Face jackets and our iPhones and we offend these sweet, sweet locals? Certainly, I’m better off than they are, I thought to myself. Right? What if I come across that way? What if?
You see, mission trips are a touchy subject for me. I’ve always felt for some reason that there’s work to do here that I’m better suited for, that my money would be better than my presence. I’m not quite sure when or why I started feeling that way. Like, yes, you go, you amazing missionaries, and save the world. Go you, seriously. But no thanks, I don’t think that anything I would do would be beneficial, so I’ll stay here, I think. Here’s some money, you go do some good. I’m comfortable. Cool.
Except, man. I was SO, so wrong and I’ve never been so glad to be proven wrong.
Our 10 day trip to Ecuador started off with some…difficulties. We had to leave earlier than anticipated due to a possible snowstorm. Then...O’hare *rolls eyes as far back in my head as they will possibly go*. A two hour delay on the tarmac due to a plane issue. A mid-flight pass-out from someone on our team (it’s every bit as scary as it seems in the movies, and yes there was a doctor on the plane and yes she’s fine, thank goodness). A NINE minute sprint across the airport to make our connecting flight, only to be told, once we sat down, that there was an issue with this plane too and we would need to head back across the airport to a new plane. Awesome. Wow. And cue the onset of my negative attitude thinking that I was right, I shouldn't have come.
A sweet, sweet and very tiny Ecuadorian woman was sitting next to me with a giant, GIANT three year old on her lap. In my broken Spanish, I ask how she’s doing. She’s stressed. Of course she is. In her broken English, she asks how old I am. “Tienes vientitres anos?!,” she exclaimed when I told her my age. “I..am…twen…vientires, tambien.” I tried to hide my surprise that she was traveling, alone, with a three year old, at just 23 years old herself. She smiles as she is no doubt watching me process this. “You…no…no THIS (as she points to her son) for long, much long time, I wish for you.” She cradles him as he sleeps, she kisses his forehead. I didn’t need to know Spanish to understand her, to identify with her emotions, in that moment. I got it. That moment, that visual, will forever be etched in my mind and heart. Our conversation took three times as long as a normal one, as I tried to teach her English words when she couldn’t figure one out, and vice versa. We got off the plane, and she was trying to carry not only her sleeping child, but THREE carry-on bags and a stroller. I quickly (maybe too quickly, I think in retrospect? Was that inappropriate, too eager, too "let me save the world?" I overthink, per usual) grab all of her bags with mine and carry them off for her so that she can focus on her baby. She profusely thanks me, even though I tell her multiple times no hay problema, tu eres mi amiga. Mike and I went to go grab a bite to eat, and I brought her back a Wendy’s meal, complete with nugs and a frosty. And her eyes FILLED with tears. Like, to the brim, and naturally, mine did too. And as full as I felt in that moment, I felt equally broken. How many times have I done something like that here at home? Not nearly enough, I’m sure of it. What would my life, what would my world look like if I looked up from my stupid phone and paid attention to those around me more? A thought that laid so heavily on me on the next flight that I was in tears several times replaying that moment. And so, even though we had been traveling for over 12 hours at that point, that exact moment is when my trip, my journey began.
I could give you a day by day breakdown of all that we saw, all that we did, all that it made me feel, but I’m afraid it would be entirely too long for anyone to care. Don’t worry, I HAVE written that down, I’m just not sharing it here. You’re welcome. Instead, as any good story does, this quick(ish) recap will have a beginning, middle, and end. And, because it’s me, a top 5 list. Let’s go.
Mission trips to Ecuador are a yearly tradition at Riverside Covenant Church. Riverside, you guys. It’s the most special place. The first church that I’ve been to in years, maybe ever, where I’ve felt that I belong just as I am, no adjustments needed. The people are just the greatest, and though I didn’t go nearly enough, I’m grateful for the Sundays I spent there while at Purdue and at Camp Tecumseh. Since graduating, I’ve felt this weird, nagging, unsettled feeling. Partly due to lack of travel and experiences, because it reintroduces me to myself in ways that nothing else can, but mainly due to feeling that I wasn’t doing enough…something. I wasn’t sure what that something was back in October, but one Sunday when I was visiting, I found out another Riverside trip was coming up and I just had this, I don’t know, gut reaction that that was my something I needed to do. I’m so freaking grateful I said yes to that feeling.
The time spent in Quito, Cayambe, and Cangahua was filled to the brim with moments of whimsy, moments of intentionality, moments of vulnerability. Riverside has built incredibly valuable and supportive relationships with so many incredible people in Ecuador, and our time there was spent serving alongside them. In Quito, we visited the school that sweet Christina, a Riverside member who just moved to Ecuador this past year to teach English, teaches at.
In Cayambe, we assisted in building a therapy addition onto an existing medical center that is run in part by the Delps, a family of missionaries that Riverside supports. I’m still in awe of how much we accomplished as a team, and am so at peace knowing that soon a therapist will be in that space providing the care needed to the local Ecuadorians. Dad, I now know how to make mortar and lay cinder blocks! Let’s build a house!
The Delps also run the Santiago Partnership. The Partnership runs Casa Hogar, a home for at-risk children. Never have I felt so hopeless and yet full of hope simultaneously. We played and interacted with these sweet kids who have gone through unimaginable suffering, often at the hands of family, and my heart was broken in a way it never has been before. The staff there works tirelessly through the day and night to provide a stable, loving environment where these kids can grow and thrive, and I’m so grateful people like them exist.
We also led short day camps for the Compassion International kiddos. You can imagine how sweet, how special, that experience was for me. Teaching dance clinic to these special children, so deserving and hungry for love and affection. Doing Chapel skits for them, singing our silly Camp songs. It was truly an experience like none other that I’ve ever had and I couldn’t be an ounce more grateful for being able to interact with them and to love on them. Even when I was literally under a pile of…close to twenty three-to-five year olds who were tickling me and I physically could not breathe. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
We piled out of the buses in Cangahua and a drove of people descended on us, giving us kisses and hugs and making so much joyful noise that it brought tears to my eyes (who’s surprised? No one? Thought so). On previous Ecuador trips, the team has spent the majority of the time in Cangahua, working on construction projects with them and hosting VBS for their sister church, El Buen Pastor. Being able to do a Minga (community construction) alongside them while connecting/reconnecting with the members of the community was a joy like no other. We were able to make hobo dinners and s'mores with them, Camp staples, and they LOVED it. Our last day in Cangahua, the church had a special service planned. They dedicated the building that Riverside helped build on past trips. A building dedicated to serving the community, to doing good, to providing a space for those who are hurting and who need love and compassion. These people, you guys. They don’t have shoes. They don’t have proper streets, or houses, or facilities. But you know what they have? More love, more joy, more compassion, more spirit, more gusto and zest for life than ANYONE I have ever met. I’m quite certain that this very, very concise (seriously) recap of our trip doesn’t do it any justice, but I’m also certain that nothing I say will.
5. #VIEWS. I’ve been to some seriously beautiful places in my life, but nothing like Ecuador. The mountains, the lush landscapes, the flowers, the people, the DOGS, the light. It was breathtaking (and not just because of the 10,000+ ft elevation, though that did frequently take my breath away, too). A huge shout-out to everyone who obliged to let Mike and I geek out the whole time and take literally 30,000+ pictures. I miss creatively working alongside Mike more than I can articulate, and pushing each other to be our best selves (both in terms of the work we were producing and also by forcing each other to put our stupid cameras down and enjoy the moments) is highlight 4.5.
4. Time with the Riverside family. I’m happy here in Indianapolis, truly, and I’m grateful for my tribe here. But Riverside…it’s a special place. And I’m bummed everyday that I’m not closer to them to continue building the relationships that I made with my incredible, selfless, giving, teammates. It was the best time of going deeper and gaining more respect and love for my Camp family, and forming new, impactful friendships with people I had never even met. Sharing a bathroom and every waking minute together will do that, I suppose. I couldn’t be an ounce more thankful for every bit of it. I'm also so glad we got to interact and build relationships with the incredible Merge staff. Richard, Liz, Frank, Mary, Esther, you are all so kind, encouraging, and just the best and I couldn't be happier to call you friends now. See ALL of you so, so soon!!
3. The importance of relationships. Ecuadorians are on their own time schedule, and it’s not one that revolves around work, but relationships. Regardless of the language barrier, or what we were “supposed to be doing” some of the most meaningful moments of the week came from stopping what I was doing to have a drink of water and chat, or spin around in circles, or get to know a fun fact about each other. The happiness levels of Ecuadorians and the importance they place on relationship building is not a coincidence, and I’m working daily to build back up relationships that I’ve maybe let slide a bit because of the power these wonderful people and their interactions had on me.
2. Cholle. The first day, as we were leaving Casa Hogar, the high school girls returned to the home. Cholle, fourteen years old but looking every bit of 11 or 12, came up to me and wouldn’t let go of me. Literally. I had seen her briefly on a tour the day before. We made eye contact and smiled at each other, then she ran away. But that night, she BEGGED me not to leave, and I promised I would be back. She had tears in her eyes when I left because she didn't believe me. Tears. She had known me for a collective five minutes, maybe, and was that upset when I left. I wish I could bundle up every feeling of love, of worth, of value, of comfort, of security that I’ve EVER felt, give it all up, every last bit of it, and give it to her. Over the next few days, whenever we got to stop back by, she didn’t leave my side. I taught her some English, she made me a friendship bracelet after I taught her how to do it. We danced. We cried together. We laughed SO HARD together. Walking away from her on the last day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and that’s not an exaggeration. I don’t know what this taught me. I’m still processing it, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to express how profoundly Cholle and her heart impacted me. I do know that I am changed for the good because she saw something in me and wanted to create a bond with it. I’ll spend the rest of my days trying to find what that was and be worthy of her friendship.
1. Do more. Doesn’t matter what it is. Really, it doesn’t. Find something that you’re passionate about, something that makes the world a better place, and dedicate yourself to it. I’ll be sharing more in the coming weeks and months about what this means to me, and how I’m living this truth after this trip, but for now, I just want you to PLEASE listen to me. Trust me. Find something, anything, that impacts the world, show up, and start. The world needs you. It needs us.