Windy Cove Presbyterian Church

The Great Nicaraguan Adventure

The Great Nicaraguan Adventure

(For several weeks in our Weekly Word we have been publishing the reflections of Elder Fran Hobbs who recently led a mission team to Nicaragua.  Those reflections are now complete and published below. Team members included Fran and her grandson Laban Towery as well as Betty Landes, Cheryl Thompson, Phyllis Blankinship, and Laura Meadows.) 

 

"Many are the plans of man, but it is the Lord's will that will be established. Proverbs 19:21

 

When plans for our mission trip to Haiti came to a halt in October because of political unrest, I sensed the Lord nudging me to explore other options.  With just a little over a month to reorganize, the task seemed impossible.  How could I possibly work out so many details in such a short time?  Little did I know that earlier in September the Lord was already preparing our way.  Late in the summer I had been asked to join a panel for a Shenandoah Presbytery event in September at Massanutten Church.  The panel of five would lead a workshop on How to Organize a Mission Trip. One of the women on the panel was Kathleen Haines, Chaplain at James Madison University.  She told us about an organization called CEPAD (CEPAD is an acronym for a council of Protestant churches working together in several Central American countries.) that her mission group from JMU had connected with after they had previously cancelled a trip to Haiti.  

In my reflection on what to do, Kathleen immediately came to my mind.  I got in touch with her just as she was about to leave for school.  She told me she had worked through our denomination's office in Louisville.  When I looked at the office's directory, I found that there were pages of telephone numbers to choose from. I randomly picked out a number and dialed.  Within minutes I was connected to the person who gave me email addresses for CEPAD in all the Latin American countries.  Of the ones I had written down, Nicaragua stood out.  Within twenty-four hours I had a reply to my email saying that CEPAD could receive our group for our scheduled week of November 14-21.  American Airlines waived the $100 fee normally charged for making changes to a reservation, and we rebooked our flight from Haiti to Nicaragua.  With a few changes in our packing, we were set to go. . . .

Our team meets at Windy Cove at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, November 14.  Rob and Sharon Sherrard are at the church to pray for us.  We listened to the song "How Great Are You, Lord" which stays with me throughout the trip.  Rob's prayer for the Lord's peace to rest upon us releases me from the worry of family and responsibilities I am leaving behind.

 

Within an hour's time after we leave on Sunday morning we are praying to the Lord for help!  Cheryl has lowered her car window while we stop in Staunton to pick up Betty Landes.  As we prepare to leave, the window will not go back up.   We cannot switch vehicles because Cheryl has our twelve large pieces of luggage in her car.  Strangely enough, it seems that the best thing to do at the moment is to go to Shoney's and order the breakfast bar!  While we are there, we pass the word around that we have a problem with the window.  Some say the window is off track, and the door panel will have to be taken off.  However, a man who finishes eating about the same time as we do works with the window and gets it to close.  Cheryl and Laura don't have to ride to Washington in 40 degree temperature with the window down!!  How great are you, Lord!  

 

Todd Stovall from Manassas and Phyllis's niece, Mary (Dinky) Hutzler, in Alexandria drive us to Washington's Reagan Airport. They will keep our vehicles while we are gone.   Checking-in at the airport is a breeze.  A porter loads our luggage on a cart, tags it, takes it on to the check-point conveyor belt, and sends it on its way.  We do not touch the luggage even once.  In all our previous mission trips we have never had such service. 

 

About six hours later after we change planes in Miami, we arrive in Managua, Nicaragua.  The airport looks as though we are arriving at any U.S. airport.  Getting our luggage through customs is nothing more than turning in our declaration slips and passing on through.   We soon see folks with the CEPAD sign waiting for us. CEPAD is the acronym for the council of Protestant churches operating in Central America.  Steve, Kelen, Carlos, and Aldo load our luggage in the 15 passenger Mercedes Benz van.  Steve is from Michigan and has been in Nicaragua over a period of four years.  Kelen is a volunteer in mission from South Carolina who just arrived a month ago.  Carlos is our driver and Aldo is our chef.  The drive to the CEPAD compound takes about 20 minutes.  I am surprised to see paved streets with no potholes, no piles of trash, and very few people on the streets at 10:00 p.m.  

 

The night watchman opens the gate for our vehicle.  Most of the rooms of the guesthouse open onto a patio.  However, our rooms open toward an airy living room which then connects to the patio.  The covered patio is about 100 feet long with a circle of rocking chairs, a hammock, picnic tables and a parrot in a cage.  We learn that we have come at the perfect time.  The rainy season has ended.  There is a slight breeze. The temperature is perfect.  After eating some food Aldo has prepared, we talk with Charlie from First Presbyterian Church in Florence, SC.  He has been here for eight days visiting their partner church located four hours from Managua in the mountains.  He tells us with great enthusiasm how the love of Jesus shines through the people despite the damage Hurricane Mitch did six years ago in the area where he has been

 

Our first instruction before we settle in for the evening is, "Don't put paper in the toilet."  The sewage system throughout the country is very fragile.  A trash can is provided by each commode.  It is late by the time we get settled down for the night.  We women have a room with five beds.  Laban has a room to himself. 

 

On Monday morning after our breakfast at 7, we meet with the rest of the CEPAD team: PCUSA missionaries Ellen Sherby and Doug Orbaker.  Ellen has been in Nicaragua for eight years.  Her husband is a Methodist pastor.  They have one son and are expecting a baby in February.  Doug is a Presbyterian pastor.  He has been here about six months.  Carmelo Porta is Nicaraguan and has worked for Cepad for 5 years to facilitate the visits of mission groups.  Carmelo will work with our group when we go to stay with families in the community.  He goes to school on Saturdays and will complete his law degree in another year. 

 

The CEPAD team gives us an outline of our schedule for the week. Today has been set aside for a time to learn about the history of Nicaragua, the work of CEPAD, and to tour Managua.  At 9:30 we go to the home of Aynn Setright to learn about the history and politics of Nicaragua.  Aynn is American.  She has been here over 20 years.  During the revolution in the 1980s she drove an ambulance. She is married to an officer from the Sandinista Army.  After the National Guard fled following the war, Aynn and her husband were given one of the guard houses where they now live.  She gave us an overview of the history and politics of Nicaragua from 1927 until the present. She also described the earthquake that destroyed Managua in 1972. 

 

At 11:30 we meet with Gilberto Aguirre, Director of CEPAD (Council of Evangelical Churches of Nicaragua).  This organization was formed following the earthquake in 1972.  As the week goes on, we will get a first hand look at their ministries.  After lunch we meet with Ramona Lopez who works with women on gender issues.  We learn that alcohol and domestic violence are big problems. 

 

After our orientation, we begin a tour of Managua.  We stop first at one of their historical cathedrals.  The towers and walls were riddled with bullets during the revolution.  We pass by Peace Park which was built following the war.  Weapons from the war were placed in a large hole and covered with concrete.  As a reminder, the ends of some weapons were left showing.   After a walk through a new Catholic cathedral, we continue on our tour through an area which was not restored following the earthquake. Even though the buildings have been condemned, some people continue to live in them. We learn that three hundred families also live at the garbage dump.  They survive only by rummaging through the garbage to find things they can sell.   

 

We arrive back to the guesthouse at 6:00 p.m. just in time for dinner.  Aldo has prepared a delicious meal.  We have beans and rice, chicken seasoned to perfection, mangos, pineapple, cheese that is supplied by local farmers, and other dishes as well.   This meal turns out to be one of the three big meals we will eat each day.  The food is so good we overeat.   At dinner we also learn that the parrot, whose cage is close by our table, speaks more Spanish than we do.  What he seems to enjoy most is laughing.  He laughs every time he hears someone else laugh, which is quite often.

 

After dinner we are ready to collapse, but we remember that Doug has designed a learning experience involving the Monopoly game that he wants to try out on us.  Laban is set up to be the wealthy one who owns all the property.  He loves the role and shows us no mercy.  The rest of us are left with nothing to experience except injustice and despair!

 

After Monopoly we get packed for our three-night stay with families in the village of San Jose Mesetepe.  We are told that the people have been preparing for our visit for the past two weeks.  We will be the first group to stay in their homes.  We are taking sewing supplies because we will be meeting with a women's sewing group to see their work and teach them some quilting skills. 

  

On Tuesday we start by visiting a woman who makes mattresses in her home.  She received money from Cepad to begin the business.  She added additional space to her house as her business grew.  She employs several people including some family members. 

 

Next, we visit a woman who received credit from CEPAD to start a restaurant business. Workers from a nearby factory eat their meals with her.  She began her business on the side of the road selling food from a cart.  As her business grew, she bought and expanded a building which houses her kitchen and dining area.  She praises God for her success.  Her cart remains outside as a reminder of how she started. 

 

We stop at a bakery.  This woman also received credit through CEPAD.  She has built a large room on the back of her house where she employs about 10 people.  She starts work at 2:00 a.m. and works until about noon.  Her daughter relieves her in the afternoon for a few hours.  Her work day ends about 10:00 p.m.  Many different types of breads are packaged and ready for market.  On the floor are several pans of sheet cakes.  She insists on sharing one with us.  It is delicious.  The staff at CEPAD makes weekly visits to give assistance and to follow up on the people's progress. 

 

After lunch we depart for the province of Carazo.  The rainy season has just finished so the countryside is lush with tropical vegetation.  We see poinsettias full of bloom about 6' high.  The mountains are covered with forests and tropical plants.  We pass by fields of coffee, planted under mango trees.  The road is good.  We travel on the Pan American Highway during part of our trip.  The road goes quite high into the mountains because we pass through a section that is above the timber line.  Only small bushes are growing here.

 

We arrive at a town where we meet with Pedro Joaquin Barquero, CEPAD Regional Technician.  He gets on his motorcycle and travels with us to San Jose Masatepe where we will be staying.  We leave the paved road and travel a good distance on a dirt road which is as rough as some of the Haitian roads in my experience. 

 

Pastors Irene and Juan Emanuel Trana of the Church of God of Prophecy greet us when we arrive at Mesatepe.  Some folks from their congregation along with the pastors from the Methodist and Baptist Churches gather at the church for a welcome service.  They seem to be very happy that we have come to visit. 

 

Laban, my grandson, and I will be staying with Irene and Juan Emanuel.  They are a wonderful couple and warmly welcome us.  The rest of our group will be about a block away in the homes of the other pastors and a lady from this congregation. 

 

Laban and I get settled in our home which is next to the church.  We enter the block house which has only a dirt floor. The living room has several wooden rocking chairs and a cupboard.  Oil cloth divides the living room from the bedroom where Laban and I will sleep.  A clothes line filled with clothes divides our room from the area where our hosts sleep.  Sheets of black plastic form a small hallway.  We discover that our bed has no mattress.   We have brought some sleeping pads, which we use on top of the board, and drape our mosquito netting over the bed. 

 

Our family speaks no English, and I know less than ten words in Spanish. But, we manage.  I show them pictures that I have brought, and I tell them I am Laban's abuela (grandmother).  They understand that they are looking at pictures of my husband, children, and grandchildren. They enjoy showing the pictures to some other people in the house. 

 

There are two or three women in the kitchen outdoors behind the house.  They are cooking over an open fire, preparing our evening meal. All the meals for our team will be served next door in the church. Our team gathers at the church for our evening meal which is followed by a church service. 

 

They begin worship with several songs, and some special music all accompanied by guitars and tambourines.  Irene preaches and Carmelo, our mission facilitator, serves as interpreter.  At the end of the service our team members go with their hosts to their homes. 

 

Laban and I go to bed around 9:00 p.m. since we have had a long day.  I wake up about 1:00 a.m.  Knowing there are too many hours until morning, I find my flashlight and make my way to the back door.  A two by four is wedged against the door.  While I am trying to figure how to get out, Pastor Irene comes to my rescue.   The backyard latrine is quite nice as far as latrines go.  The seat sits on a concrete slab.  It is very clean and there is no odor, probably due to the fact that there is no building.  A black plastic sheet nailed to some posts makes the wall.  To enter and exit you just lift back a section of the plastic.  There is no roof which allows a magnificent view of the brilliant night sky.  Suddenly, I feel something crawling on my foot.  I look down to see an army of beetles coming under the plastic.  I make a quick exit and meet Irene who is pointing to a plant which evidently attracts the insects.  Irene brushes some of the beetles from my flip-flops.

The next morning everyone has a story to tell; but Carlos, our CEPAD host, has the best.    Around 4 in the morning, while sleeping in the van, he was startled awake with the van rocking from side to side.  He immediately thought that we were having an earthquake!  When he managed to rise up and look out, he saw the biggest hog he has ever seen in his life rubbing against the van.  The story must have gotten back to the owner because the hog was tied up from that night on.

On Wednesday Irene sweeps the floor in the house as she does each morning.  It never occurred to me that you would sweep a dirt floor, but I can see that getting rid of the debris makes the floor look neater.  Afterwards, we meet with the local sewing group.  The sewing class started six months ago.  The twelve women will graduate in a couple of weeks.  They have learned to make clothes for themselves and their children.  Several of them are single parents.  A few of them have brought their children with them.  The children sit patiently watching the sewing.  We are awed at how the Lord has brought us to this place.  We are able to provide each woman with all the sewing notions she will need.  We invite each to choose some fabric. We also have girls' dresses which were made by a women's group at First Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana.  Each of the little girls present receives a dress. 

Part of our day is spent teaching the women in the sewing class some quilting skills.  Cheryl has the Presbyterian Symbol design for each of the women.  We also spend time teaching them how to cut with a rotor cutter.  We are leaving some rotor cutters, cutting boards, and other supplies for the next sewing class. 

During the day we walk to the health clinic.  The building is fairly nice and a nurse is on duty.  There are around 10 people waiting to be seen.  Laura checks with the nurse to see what medical supplies they need.  She plans on gathering the supplies when we get home and shipping them with the next group going to Nicaragua

After dinner and worship Irene gets out her quilting and has me show her all the steps she needs to know.  She repeats everything several times.  She points to herself and says, "Professor," to let me know that she is the teacher.  Irene and Juan Emanuel ask Doug to stop by our house so they can talk with Laban and me.  We learn that they are both working on their masters degrees in theology.  They mention that they need a Hebrew/Greek dictionary and a concordance, but with their small income of 200 cordobas a month, equal to $32, they can't afford the books.  Before we leave, our team members pool our money so they will be able to purchase the books. 

I have been avoiding the shower, but decide to brave the experience the next morning.  The shower is in the backyard with the kitchen.  I go out early before the neighbors and family gather to sit nearby and visit.  Black plastic forms the shoulder high shower walls.  On a chair is a 5 gallon bucket of water with a small pan.  We have been told to wash from the pan.  Don?t pollute the water in the bucket.  We rinse by pouring water over ourselves from the pan.  The procedure works better than I thought.  Needless to say, I am wide awake and feel quite refreshed.  Although each home in this community has a water spigot in the back yard, a latrine, and electricity, Nicaragua is still considered to be one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.  However, many of the homes that I have seen in Haiti lack even these small comforts.

This morning we drive around the area to visit patio projects.  These are projects where CEPAD has trained men and women in farming techniques.  We visit a woman who shows us her plots of various plants and trees.   She and her family grow enough food to support their family of eight.

 

Next, we visit a man who shows us his pineapple field.  He picks a pineapple for us to take with us.  We learn that he receives 25 cents per pineapple.  He also has corn, beans, and several other crops. The soil looks to be very fertile.  There are no rocks in the fields.

Our next visit is to meet with a group of women who will be entering a new sewing class.  Even though the class does not start today, all twenty-three women are present to meet us.  We are overjoyed to have brought enough sewing supplies to equip the class.  What a joy to see how the Lord accomplishes his work!

After gathering with the sewing class, we meet with some young women who have just completed Beauty School.  Manicures and pedicures immediately flash through the minds of the five women on our team.  Doug goes along with our idea and patiently waits while we sit back and enjoy the luxury.  The girls have a wonderful time working on us while practicing their new skills. 

Our last visit this morning is with a woman who raises chickens.  CEPAD helped her get the business started.  She has a nice chicken house.  She tells us that she is 74 years old.  I let her know that I am only one year younger. 

Our afternoon has been set aside to spend time with the children.  About 100 children gather in the church.  We have a snack for each of them and begin by giving them a picture to color.  Laban starts juggling and the older people including Irene and Juan Emanuel have a great time trying to juggle.  They have lots of laughs and actually do quite well.  After some time in the church, we walk with the children to the local playground.  We have jump ropes, bubbles, balls, and jacks.   Each town we have seen has a fairly nice playground.  There is even a paved basketball court.  Several of the playgrounds we have seen have concrete slides.

Laban plays soccer with Juan, Irene's 16 year old son, and some of the children before dinner.    Team members staying in the Methodist and Baptist pastors? homes go to church with their hosts this evening.  Each of us has been asked to share our reflections on our visit.  Carmelo interprets for us.  At the close of the service Irene and Juan Emanuel choke back tears as they tell how sad they are to think about our leaving tomorrow. 

After breakfast on Friday we gather at the church for a farewell service.  We sing together with Cheryl and Laura's host who is here with her five girls.  The girls, as well as their mother, cry all through the service.  After some tearful farewell speeches on both sides, we say our goodbyes. 

We stop at Carmelo's (our guide) home in Jinotepe since his mother has invited us for lunch.  Carmelo's nieces and nephews are so glad to see him.  His mother tells us what a good son he is, and how he looks after his family.  We all agree with Carmelo's mother.  He is a very kind and caring person.  We take a walk around the town which is very nice.  There is a park in the center of town and a large Catholic Church across the street.  We enjoy these sites before lunch.

After lunch, we arrive in Managua at the guesthouse to meet with Ellen, Doug, and Carmelo to reflect on our visit.  Ellen plays the guitar and leads some songs.  We have had so many experiences since last Sunday that I feel like we have been here a month.  We are surprised to see Steve in a cast.  He had dropped one of our footlockers on the side of his foot.  He found out while we were in the mountains that his foot is fractured.  He will have to be in a cast for six weeks. 

After dinner we rest for a few minutes before we have our night on the town.  Arrangements have been made for us to hear famed Nicaraguan brothers Carlos and Luis Enrique play at a restaurant.  The brothers have been playing there every Friday and Saturday nights for 30 years.  Many of their songs were written in the 80's during the revolution.  They are superb!  Their musical instruments include accordion, xylophone, guitars, and drums.  Their sons join the group at the end of the program.  Saturday is for further sight-seeing.  We go to the Masaya Volcano.  Smoke is boiling out even though the last eruption was in 1772. The mountain is covered with hardened lava which takes many years to break down.  After lunch in Masaya we go to the tourist market.  The outside walls of the building look like a fort.  The market has neatly kept booths with every kind of handicraft.  After shopping we go to a lagoon to swim.  The lagoon was formed following the collapse of volcano craters.  The water stretches for several miles.  Within a few steps from shore the water becomes very deep.    

Sunday morning we leave at 5:30 a.m. for the airport.  Carlos and Carmelo take us in the van.  We are grateful for the entire CEPAD team who arranged for us to come on short notice and provided experiences for us that will last a lifetime.  How great are You Lord!