It's been a wonderful time here in our first few days - with only ten days here we have been busy so far but it has been great. Today has been the first day with scheduled "down time" to rest and discuss the past few days. One thing I firmly believe about short term missions teams we are on, especially for short trips, is that we are not here to change the lives of the people we meet; rather to support the people who are already here and able to continue the long term work. In that regard we have three main ministry goals: to support Angel Hernandez's reentry ministry at Tacumbu prison by holding a conference to encourage and challenge the men, to support the teachers at Divino Redentor school with first aid training and a devotional, and to support the Hernandez family as a whole however we can. There are only four of us on the team: Myself, Alise, and our friends Fernando and Alicia - and our two kids.
The trip here was about what we hoped for, the kids did great for the most part - when we got off one of the planes the woman sitting in front of the kids looked back and asked "were those kids back there the entire flight?" I can't imagine a better compliment. Monday we settled in at our housing and then spent some time with the Hernandez family. Their kids immediately took to ours and they have been having a great time together. On Tuesday we went with the Hernandez family for a hike and had some great conversations about their ministry and their experiences with Paraguan culture. That evening we had a BBQ with another missionary family: the Tengans as well as a local the Hernandez family has been meeting with: Hugo.
Wednesday was a full day: we were up early and out of the house before 8am. Alise, Alicia and the kids headed to Divino Redentor School and gave a devotional and first aid training to the teachers. (12 year old Cruz Hernandez got involved as the translator and word is he did better than Malia.) The first aid training was very well received and a lot of misconceptions were corrected. Alise has taught first aid and CPR before so between that and her schooling/career as an Athletic Trainer she is practically a doctor here in Paraguay. Alicia led a devotional for the teachers and it went well. When they go back on Monday they will be giving another encouraging devotional to the kids this time. We brought some medical supplies along with us expecting to use them for training, though now that we are here we see that the school has zero first aid supplies so we are putting together first aid kits for each classroom.
While the women were serving teachers on Wednesday, the men were serving men at Tacumbu prison. A little background on Tacumbu: many consider it to be one of the most crowded prisons in South America, it was built to hold 1200 prisoners and yet currently holds over 4000. It also holds some of the most dangerous prisoners in Paraguay: one of the men told us that there is a murder within the prison almost every day. There are not many guards and most of them are only concerned with keeping people from escaping. Drug use within the prison is not just rampant, it is a regular occurrence. One of the men we were talking to says that a rock of crack can be bought for about $0.75 US, cocaine for about $1.25 US and bottles of whiskey for around $7.00 US. Obviously the prison understaffed and just about anything can be smuggled in. There are essentially three major sections to the prison: General Population, a section run by the Mennonites, and Remar which is where we spent our time. Remar is essentially a wing of the prison for men who seek Christ and it holds over 600 men. I think the most intimidating part was when we walked through the General Population to get to Remar. It was chaotic to say the least, men tried to approach us or stare us down, the overall feel was a general disarray. But as we entered Remar through another set of gates, there was an immediate feeling of peace and sanctuary. The prisoners in Remar are the ones who guard the gates to make sure no one from general comes into Remar without permission. Within Remar men are working on crafts to sell - Angel says that in General, few people do crafts because the focus is to either stay alive or find the next fix. The first day of the conference went great, Angel, Fernando, and I each gave teachings before having a shared meal with the leaders (who were either prisoners or former prisoners.) They then gave us a tour of the Remar section. The extreme overcrowding means that even in Remar many men do not have a bunk and sleep outside where the temperatures are in the low 40's at night the prison does not provide blankets so the men on dependent on family and friends to bring them blankets and clothing. They even asked Fernando to give the main message at their church service when we go back on Monday (to the entire population of 600 men at Remar. Overall, we were blessed by our visit there and were especially impressed with the hunger of the men for the Word of God. After each teaching we allowed for question time and most of the questions were far deeper than I expected. Angel plans to make this Shine conference an annual event.
Wednesday night was Fernando's birthday so Alicia took him out to a restaurant to celebrate while Alise and I went with Angel to a home church. One of the things the Hernandez family was telling us is that Paraguay is the fastest growing nation in South America and i don't doubt it, the country has changed a lot since we were here eight years ago. What it also means is that as the country grows, it is even more important for churches to be prepared for a growth. We were so impressed with the home church we attended, it was a small room where about 25-30 people gathered together - shoulder to shoulder singing worship, praying for each other and doing a study or a teaching together. We were able to give a brief teaching on the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the worship afterwards was one of the most powerful I have experienced in a long time; I was practically brought to tears as they sang in Spanish while we sang the same song in English.
Today we met with two more missionaries: Antonio & Graciela Chavez. They are Paraguay natives who are missionaries to Nepal. We were absolutely blown away by their heart and their stories. Meeting with them was inspiring and encouraging to us as we saw what they have been doing in a country which is not friendly to Christians.
Tomorrow we will be blessed by an issue of good timing: the house the Hernandez family has been living in has become infested with mold - the room their two girls have been staying in has walls which have become black with mildew and their daughter Paz has trouble breathing as a result. Two weeks ago they found out they would be able to move into a new home and we are going to spend most of Friday helping them to move. Then in the evening we get to go with them to a professional soccer game. Saturday we will continue with the move and then present at a mini-conference at a church about two hours away. This church is in the country and they do not speak Spanish there but a local dialect of Guarany. Sunday we will go to the church the Hernandez family attends and Monday will be back at the prison for the men and school for the women.