Reflections from a Pastor’s Visit
As I reflect on my recent time in Peru defining moments begin to emerge in my formational memory of the trip and the people I met on it. My mind keeps going back to the first Monday morning when I was assigned to help in the mission preschool.
I entered the room of four-year-olds. I have pastored churches with preschools for over twenty years. I have entered more preschool classrooms than I can remember. I have always enjoyed my somewhat ceremonial role as school "principal" through the years.
As I entered this classroom one of the young boys noticed my arrival. He ran to the door as I tentatively took inventory of the room full of children. Lifting both arms in the air he looked up at me and said in a loud but not yelling voice "abrazo" – the Spanish word for hug. I knelt down to hug him and he lunged toward me embracing me completely with his diminutive frame. He hugged me with his entire body, arms and legs dragging every bit of embrace out of the moment. Although we had been welcomed to Peru by many adults prior to that moment it was then that I felt the beneficent hello that only the innocence of a trusting and loving child can communicate. I was more than welcome. I was celebrated.
A moment later he was distracted by something one of the other children was doing. Other kids gathered around wanting their photographs taken or trying to have me look at the pictures they were drawing. We went out on the playground and tossed hats, slid on slides, twirled around in the sun. It was a time full of the exuberance of youthful energy. And even though I didn't understand most of their Spanish and they understood even less of my English we shared a moment of joy in the universal language of playtime.
I am sitting on the couch in my living room in Indiana now. My recently deceased son's dog, Bo, is sleeping just a few feet away. Meditative music is playing and I can look out my window at the lake on a sunny August morning. I am alone with my grief. And my thoughts go to a small boy arriving at the preschool in Arequipa, Peru. Will he remember the American who entered his classroom for just a little while to play and watch? Will he continue to love strangers and welcome them into his world as he did to me on that moment? Will he be able to maintain his sense of wistful optimism which allowed him on that day to lift his arms into the air and embrace me with such a sense of joy?
I learned many things while visiting Peru. I learned about a different culture, people's habits, and their living situations. I experienced the rarified air of the mountain communities and their struggle to scratch out a meager living in a place that barely has enough to go around. I learned to appreciate and value the many blessings in my own life.
But when my heart reflects on my time in Peru it isn't those things that illuminate my thoughts. It is a small boy who unknowingly greeted a man from Indiana with a broken spirit and shared with him the healing embrace of God's love.
Rev. Brian White
Lessons in Love – Outreach to Peru
I have just returned from another medical outreach campaign to Peru. This project represented a whole new challenge for me. I was the director of a medical contingent that included over 40 doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, interpreters, and support staff from all over North America. Needless-to-say, I was a bit nervous in my preparations. As it turns out the project could not have gone more smoothly. In the end we served almost 2,00 people and were able to get into some of the poorest of the “invasion” communities surrounding Lima. I would like to share a particularly touching moment of the trip for me.
After a 12-hour clinic day we were packing down our supplies to transport them back to the accommodations for restocking and such (our clinic operated out of tents and old school buses supplied by the Municipal Government of Lima – this collaboration with the ministry of Health for the municipal government was a very big deal, and something I will write about in a future update for the Insider). I was carrying a small ice cooler back to the bus when out of no where a group of 25 kids surrounded me and began pounding on the cooler and chanting in unison. The kept screaming and grabbing at the cooler, almost to the point that they ripped it out of my arms. Finally Tania (one of our in-country staff) came over and said – “Do you know what they are saying?" My reply was a dumbfounded "no." As the clamoring of their hands and the increasing cacophony of their chants began to overwhelm me she said, “They are saying ice. They want the ice to eat."
I quickly took the cooler over to the bus, where we began to hand chips of ice to the children in handfuls. They filled their shirts and dirty hands with ice and smiles seem to stretch across their entire faces. As we slowly began to run out, the ice that had fallen to the ground (in a dirt and dog feces infested garbage dump) was scooped up and instantly popped into their mouths - much to my protests!
It was overwhelming. Here in one of the poorest communities of all Lima were children happy but for no other reason than that they had ice to eat. Tania said the ice is a "huge" treat for the children - a treat that they very rarely get the pleasure to partake (ice is very expensive in Peru, and usually well outside the reach of the people in the Pueblos jovenes (squatter communities)).
Think about it - ice. How often do we throw ice in the sink? Discard a cup of soda from the movies without even thinking of the ice in the bottom of the container. Have often do we truly appreciate the "simple" things in our lives? Please join me in praying for the children of Pamplona Alto. Please ask God to give them the joy that came from that simple cooler of ice on a more regular basis. Please keep the forgotten poor of our world close to your thoughts.
I feel so fortunate to work with an organization like Health Bridges International and a dedicated person like Father Alex. I know that we are making a difference in the lives of so many people. I also know how much of a profound difference they are making in ours. Thank you for all that you do.
The Story of Ophelia
I have been asked quite a bit lately “why do you go to Peru so much?” And, “what are your priorities?” It seems that everyone I come in contact with is concerned that I have lost my focus – or somehow stretched myself too thin. I really thought about these questions quite a bit during my most recent trip to Peru; and, well . . . here is what I found.
I am starting to notice that there are times during my life when I seem to forget about being present to the here and now, and I go on an “auto-pilot” form of operating. Almost two weeks into my latest medical outreach campaign and this was certainly the case. I was rushing through patients one morning trying to efficiently attend to their needs – all the while being ever cognizant of the time, when a patient I had seen the day before suddenly returned. She came back to the clinic, as we were told, because she had forgotten to tell us about her headaches and the pain, unremitting pain, all over her body. Her name was Ophelia.
I am not certain of Ophelia’s age, for on the first day I attended to her she reported being 70 years old and on the day she returned to the clinic she said she was 60. In any event the physical appearance of Ophelia contradicted with either age she reported. Her hands were severely deformed from years of ravaging rheumatoid arthritis. Her back, so hunched over from osteoporosis that it seemed to fold onto itself – making her appear less than five feet tall. She was dressed in the layered traditional attire of the mountain people, and smelled strongly of burnt ashes and hard won sweat.
She told me of the terrible pain that coursed throughout her body. She wept when describing the headaches that punctuated her daily life. She described a hard, isolated life that had many challenges. For Ophelia was all alone. Yes, she had a son – a business man in the town of Chivay – but he had long since “abandoned” her. She had little money to eat. She said she had little hope for tomorrow. She described herself as feeling desperate.
I did not know where to begin with Ophelia. Sure I could give her some medication for her pain, encourage her to drink more water, and politely listen to her troubles – but how was any of this going to truly impact the “pain” she had in her life. I was paralyzed by the level of care and attention that she required, and the seemingly little I had to offer. I was not going to change her fight with poverty. I could not instantly provide an on-going caring, concerned community to cradle her emotional and physical needs. I felt intimidated by her requirements.
It was in my intimated state that I realized I could offer Ophelia something – I could offer her my love and prayers. Sure, we could provide her with simple medication to help control her pain, a new cane to replace the plastic pipe she used to walk and glasses; but more than anything else I (we – everyone on this campaign) could show Ophelia that she is unconditionally loved.
The reason I like working in Peru so much is the model of healthcare delivery we have created over the years involves a strong advocacy and counseling component. It was with this in mind that I spoke with Ophelia about the people that I wanted her to talk with. I hoped that we could, if only for today, shower Ophelia with love and show her the way that we feel about her. Here is where the true miracle began to unfold my love.
The team that we have in Chivay is made of participants from all over the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, Bolivia, the Dominion Republic and Peru. We are a group that spans the age ranges. We are from a variety of different religious and spiritual backgrounds. We represent a variety of social and economic viewpoints. And we are truly united in our desire to serve the impoverished people of the Andes. This “desire to serve” was very evident in the way that Ophelia was treated. From the moment she left my care and went to the Integrated Health portion of our clinic, Ophelia was wrapped in love.
Daisy, a young Ecuadorian woman of great compassion, gently caressed Ophelia as she wept and told her of the crippling poverty that infected every aspect of her life. She bashfully spoke to this wonderful young woman about her lack of money to buy fire wood (burning discarded pieces of cardboard to keep warm) that forced her to drink water directly from the mountain streams (streams well known to the local people to cause “sickness”). Ophelia cathartically described a diet of small pieces of bread and the occasional meal that a friendly neighbor (severely impoverished herself) brought for her every couple of days.
Hearing of her hunger, Daisy arranged for Ophelia to have a bowl of soup and a small bread roll. Ophelia profusely thanked Daisy, cutting a small corner of the roll and placing the reminder in her bag. She told Daisy that she would save the bread – not knowing where her next “meal” would come from. I can only being to imagine how this must have made Daisy feel; and what she did next far belied her age. She asked a self described neighbor of Ophelia if she knew of this woman’s extreme plight. She asked if she could, if she would, look in on Ophelia. She asked her to become responsible for this Ophelia.
By the time Ophelia left the clinic, she had a new pair of eye glasses (you should have seen the smile that stretched across her face when she got her glasses), a new cane, medication for her pain – and the new found hope that she was not alone. I really believe that this is why we are here. Showing people that they are loved and cared for, helping to connect and build community – a neighbor who now feels empowered to care for her sister in humanity – this true health-CARE.
So when people ask me, “What are your priorities? Why do you travel to Peru so much?” I can only say that I am committed to living a life everyday that is about something bigger than myself. I am committed to being a servant to God’s people. I really want to be a voice for the people of the world that do not have an advocate. My priority, I say, is to make a difference.
Dr. Wayne Centrone