A couple years ago while taking a Spanish course in the nearby city of La Ceiba my teacher asked, utterly puzzled, if I had moved to Honduras because I didn’t like the food in the United States.
When I laughed out loud and answered “No,” her expression did not change as she then guessed, “So… then you did not like the weather?”
The question of why it is I live in Honduras – a country with world-famous beaches to match its world-famous murder rate – is presented several times weekly, most of the time by curious taxi drivers who become inappropriately interested when I mention that I’ve married a Honduran. Their next question, always with a twinkle in their eyes: “Do you have any single friends?”
My answer to the first question (and not the second) is this: “I am here because I am certain God has brought me here. Yes, Honduras is beautiful and, yes, it has its share of problems, but I’m not here because this is my ideal place to live nor because I want to ‘fix’ the country, but rather because God has me here.”
The story, of course, if much longer than that, but at least that answer dispels any misunderstandings that I am here for the canopy zip-lining and white-water rafting.
Recently someone here asked if El Pino (our little rural town on the outskirts of Honduras’ third largest city, La Ceiba) is a nice place to live. Always hesitant with these types of questions and not eager to offend, I respectfully asked Darwin, my husband, “Is El Pino a nice place to live?”
He laughed and said, “No.”
I almost expected him to declare an emphatic, “Yes!,” being the beautifully proud Honduran that he is, because I know that my own inner judge is very skewed as the definition that was instilled in me of ‘a nice place to live’ includes paved sidewalks, trimmed lawns, and respectful neighbors. Not to mention one or two cars in each driveway (What’s a driveway?) or in the garage (What’s a garage?), bright yellow school buses that do their rounds each day and not so much as an empty candy wrapper strewn about the streets.
In our neighborhood someone just constructed a walk-in drinking joint shanty in the middle of the small dirt soccer field where neighborhood boys used to play all day, every day. Now I suppose the boys will fall into gangs at an even earlier age now that they have been robbed the distraction of kicking around an old ball between two twig goal posts.
Now that we have lived in our rural town of El Pino (meaning ‘The Pine’) almost two years after having previously lived about 35 minutes away in downtown La Ceiba, perhaps for the first time I am allowing myself to understand that admitting this is not a nice place to live does not mean that I am unfairly passing judgment on a struggling neighborhood in a third world country. In the beginning, especially being a foreigner who many expected would criticize and judge, I think I tip-toed around certain realities, explaining them away as mere cultural differences or just basic poverty (and some of them are), taking my place among the women who wash clothes by hand and learning to make a good tortilla so as not to call attention to myself or offend those around me.
Gravel roads, lean-to houses, emaciated dogs that have been inbred more times than anyone can count, poisonous snakes slithering around overgrown yards, hard-working parents who toil long hours just to put rice and beans on the table, families without refrigerators – all of these things are, in fact, mere cultural nuances and should not be judged, but rather accepted.
But a few days ago as I drove down a narrow back alley on the outskirts of our little town with our two eldest daughters (Dayana, 14, and Jackeline, 11) I think God opened my eyes in a new way to my bleak surroundings and enabled my lips to say for the first time (and not with an air of superiority but simply as a sober observation): This is not a nice place to live.
We had stopped in front of a collection of shanties to drop off our neighbor and new friend, a 12-year-old girl who comes from a violent homelife wrought with confusion who is learning the alphabet for the first time (along with how to wear modest clothing) now that she is enrolled in our homeschool program and spends five days a week at our home.
In the car I had been gently probing her about her family, trying to better understand yet another puzzle whose pieces have all been ripped apart, when she told me from the back seat of our truck, “Last night my mom smashed a glass bottle over my dad’s head and he started bleeding from the large gash.”
I breathed deep as a new realization settled over me: It is difficult, if not entirely impossible, to understand Jesus Christ apart from suffering. Living in this place riddled with suffering actually brings me closer to the heart of God, to an undeniable understanding of my need — our need — for a Savior, rather than showering my heart with doubt or distancing me from Him.
Peace enveloped my heart as I turned around in my seat to look at her full-on, and, without knowing what else to say, I simply said both with my eyes and my words, “I’m sorry.”
She looked surprised, as if no one had ever expressed sympathies for the tragic environment in which she is growing up and asked, “Excuse me?”
I said again, “I’m sorry. This was never God’s plan.”
I think this time she understood that I wasn’t making fun of her or sugar-coating her suffering, but rather expressing my deepest sympathies.
After winding down a narrow, walled road, almost scraping the car along either side, jossling up and down as we bumped in and out of pot-holes, we pulled to a stop. Her mother, a woman who looks capable and ready for any work of manipulation, greeted me in a frenzy, sharing with wide eyes about a neighbor of hers whose three kids don’t have any food to eat and wanting to know what I could do for them.
I breathed a silent request for God’s guidance and looked down at our new friend’s little sister, greeting her by name with a little poke to the tummy to accompany a silly sound, and she just stared at me blankly. Her two little brothers were in the house, I imagined. We met the littlest one yesterday, a two-year-old with one eye swollen half-shut. His 12-year-old sister told us a drunk had hit him with a beer bottle.
After I finished talking with the mother and sorting out a few details regarding our relationship with her kids, I somewhat wearily slid into the front seat of our car, now alone with Dayana and Jackeline. My heart heavy in more ways than one, and sensing that I had the girls’ full attention, I began to put words to what God had been teaching me: “Girls, this was never God’s plan. Abusive marriages, kids without food, violence, prostitution, trash littering the streets – everything we see on a daily basis here in our neighborhood –” I let out an exhausted sigh, knowing what I had to add, but Jackeline did before I could –
“Not to mention our world!”
In some small corner of my heart I rejoiced that she followed my train of thought, that my daughters understood. “Yes, thank you, Jackeline. All of this suffering and violence and confusion that we see and experience in our daily lives here – not to mention in other parts of Honduras or in the world as a whole – was never God’s plan.”
The car finally stopped its violent dance as we accelerated onto the smooth, paved highway, heading to Gleny and Jason’s Christian school about 20 minutes away in order to take all four of them to their weekly art class in the city. I tried to drive slowly, treasuring every moment I have alone with these two young women, sensing that our Father would do something special in the conversation that we were entering.
“As you two know, God created the perfect environment for humans to live in – He even named it the Garden of Eden, which means ‘Pleasure,’ but we were the ones who chose to turn away from that full, perfect relationship with God and enter into a twisted relationship with sin. Everything that we now see – homes and lives destroyed, rampant confusion, a religion of lies, unspeakable suffering – is the result of sin.” I say again, “It was never God’s intention, but rather we chose it. He gave us the freedom to decide, and we did.”
If it was said that Christ as a man was well-acquainted with sorrow, I believe I am coming to understand why more and more each day. How could He not be? Knowing the fullness, the beauty, of the Father, having been in the Garden of Pleasure from the beginning, and seeing to what catastrophic extent Man had fallen, destroying both himself and his children, constantly at war with others and with God, what was once a beautiful world dripping with God’s glory now wrought with suffering caused by sin begetting more suffering and sin, how could the living incarnation of the Compassionate Creator not be heart-broken?
“So when people shake an angry fist at God, blaming Him for the suffering in the world, they are confused. It is not God who wills our suffering, but rather it all started with one sin, and as we know sin has its way of growing and infecting others, thus what we see in today’s world – large billboards with half-naked women just to sell a product, mothers who abandon their own children, bored, empty people, war – is the product, or the result, of years and years and years of sin, one generation passing the baton on to the next.”
Oh, what a complicated theme, and there is so much the Lord teaches me daily! There is so much more to be said, more to be learned, experienced, but for now I’ll leave it at this: “But we know there is a way out, a way to ‘pay’ for all of the sin found both in our world and raging within ourselves.”
The girls listen. They already know, but we all need to hear it constantly, for we so quickly forget: “That’s why Jesus Christ came, to make right all of the filthy confusion that we have made of God’s perfect Garden of Pleasure, to give us a way out of this steaming death pot. And even though right now we’re still in the midst of it all, we are being used by Him to pick up the pieces of lives destroyed by sin, glorifying God in the process – And how difficult and holy a task it is! It is a job that never ends, and may, in fact, be growing larger each day! – we know that – “
I look to my right at 14-year-old Dayana, sitting in the front seat with me, and pat her knee, hoping in my heart that she would say with me what we both know to be true, and she does, her eyes suddenly studying mine and her lips silently, slowly reciting the words with me: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away [Revelation 21:4].”