Thoughts on the Guatemalan Orphanage Tragedy

Friday evening as everyone was finishing the task of hand-washing their school uniform and getting everything in order after a long day I called a family meeting, something we normally do when there is a specific household issue we need to discuss or important news to be announced. I sent out young messengers to spread the word, and within minutes everyone was sitting in a circle in our rectangular living room – three on our little floral couch, one on an old wicker chair, and everyone else comfortably seated on the floor.

I sat cross-legged with the cool tile underneath me between teenage Brayan and little Gabriela with my laptop in front of me, a tool that does not typically accompany us in a family meeting or in our daily interactions with the kids.

As Darwin prayed to begin the meeting – everyone’s head bowed and eyes closed — out of nowhere a deep sorrow hijacked my emotions and tears suddenly came seeping out of my eyes. Something had been released from deep within me, and there was no stopping it.

Soon enough the prayer ended and everyone began staring at me – for I had called the meeting – and everyone seemed entirely caught off-guard by my tears as my whole body suddenly exhibited an attitude of mourning. Initially I had wanted to share the news article on my computer with our children in order to expand their worldview a bit, but once the moment came to do so, I was overcome with a wave of intense emotions that I couldn’t stave off.

A minute or two later, everyone just staring at me in silence, waiting, I opened up my computer, breathed deeply – trying to chase the sorrow back into its cage deep within my heart and slam the door shut before it tried to escape again – and began reading and explaining a news article that I had read earlier that day. Groping through rattled thoughts for where to start, I said slowly, “I don’t know if you know this, but many children who do not have their biological parents…end up in very dark places…”

In Guatemala, a Central American country that neighbors Honduras, an overcrowded, under-funded state orphanage experienced a fire and close to 40 teenage girls died on Wednesday. That much I had known from the day prior when my husband Darwin verbally shared the news with me, but I had not learned the extent of the details until sitting down to read several online news articles the next day.

In a facility prepared to care for roughly 400 kids and youth, it had been reported that there were close to 800 living there full-time, with 15-19 new children and teens arriving each day. Juvenile offenders – young men who had already gotten mixed up in a life of crime and gangs – lived intermixed with teen girls and child-abuse victims, creating a daily vortex of rape, gang activity within the orphanage walls, and all types of abuse. Death-threats were common among workers. Spoiled food was served to the children due to lack of sufficient government funding. The workers – who by no means were parental figures for the youth – worked 24-hour shifts with one worker for each group of 34 children/teens. (Think crowd control.) Hundreds had escaped over the last few years, and just this past week a group of disgruntled teens began rioting in the orphanage and physically assaulting the workers.

It was amidst this overall chaos that on Tuesday of this past week the riots intensified to such a degree that the Guatemalan police got involved. A group of 52 angry teenage girls who lived in the facility had to be physically detained due to the violence they had been inflicting on the orphanage’s workers, so someone decided to enclose them in a four meter by four-meter classroom under lock and key. Given thin mattresses to sleep on (52 teenage girls in a 16-square-meter space), it is alleged that one of them, in protest, lit one of the mattresses on fire, hoping to get the attention of the police and other authorities who stood close by on the outside of the classroom walls.

The news articles report that the police saw smoke seeping out from under the door and even heard the girls crying for help (they were burning alive), but no one reacted because they thought they were just angry and screaming for attention, as they had been during the prior riots.

Once someone finally unlocked the door, dozens had already burned to death, and others were so wounded that they soon died overnight in the hospital. Doctors and burn-specialists have been flown in from other countries to help treat the severity of the burns of those who are still fighting to survive.

And so this is the news I shared as I wept in front of our children, displaying such raw emotion that on very few occasions I have shown.

They just stared at me uneasily, for their world apart from their biological parents has been us. They have known no overcrowded government-run orphanages; they have known no shift-workers assigned the impossible task of herding mass numbers of severely broken children through the chaotic mazes of life in a place void of truth, of love.

What our kids have known are good-morning and good-night hugs with several other loving acts of touch sprinkled in throughout the day. Three square meals a day; family dinners filled with laughter; individual birthday parties and trips to the local corner store to buy ice cream after having gone to the park. Loving discipline; family and individual prayer; Spirit-led advice constantly at their disposal. Times of discord resolved through healthy confrontations; very firm and careful norms in our household to ensure that no sexual or physical abuse may blossom among siblings; family movie nights. An entire closet-full of clothes, many of which they themselves went to town to pick out; a listening ear from Darwin and I whenever they need it; a whole garrison of spiritual support though various Bible studies, prayer groups, and Christian mentors and psychologists. A family environment of forgiveness in which we all recognize that Christ took on our burden and set us free. Field trips to far-off places like the capital city of Tegucigalpa or a remote desert island off the coast. As our eldest daughter mentioned in her reflection journal, “I consider that God lives in my family.”

As I continued explaining the news article – the dark reality that so many parentless youth not only in Guatemala but around the world experience day after day as ‘normal life’ – I believe perhaps one or two of our older teens grasped at the fringes of what we were trying to communicate. The others looked thoughtful but perhaps not deeply affected.

My heart tore for those Guatemalan youth – not only those who died but all 750+ of the others who survived and have now been shipped off in large groups to other overcrowded orphanages, for we – here in this forgotten corner of the globe far from the public eye – have engaged in this daily battle that many do not even recognize exists. We know how hard it is to save even one, to see even one parentless child set free to actually experience the abundant life that Christ died in order to give us.

This full-on war does not die down – there are no peace treatises with the enemy army or times of rest when you can lay down your shield, your weapons. This is not a physical battle – if only it were that easy! If only it were a matter of removing the child or teen from the environment of abuse to make everything ‘better’! If only it were a matter of granting the child an education, a ‘better life’! When offered an education or the opportunity to follow Christ, the youth so often refuse, have been so confused — so blinded — that they want to return to their suffering!

To receive a teen whose entire family is used to resolving conflicts by utilizing violence – children who have witnessed their own parents be murdered; whose parents taught them to steal – to receive them into the truth; to connect them with a loving God in total submission to Him; this is the battle, and it’s over the long-haul. It is not a matter of shipping them off to a different place or increasing educational funding. It is a spiritual battle.

Oh, this is nothing like a top-secret military mission to break into enemy territory and rescue a suffering comrade from a foreign prison; it is far more intense! It is not a one-time rescue but rather a daily mission – sometimes several times in one day! – of bringing them back into the light; reminding them that their chains have already been broken; calling them once more to faithfulness to a loving God; daily walking alongside of them as we all humbly seek to live a life of forgiveness, justice, and faith that goes directly in contrast with all that the world proclaims.

This spiritual battle is a matter of literally standing at the entrance of Hell – this little rescue shop that God has so strategically placed so close to the flames! – and grabbing those who are on their way in, taking them into our household and then waging war against Satan on their behalf for their salvation, transformation and life. Darwin and I know this – we have the scars, the utter exhaustion to prove it – for 9 youth. Only nine. Nine!

Oh, we have spent ourselves on their behalf, oftentimes through fierce trials, times of intense darkness, times of prolonged prayer and fasting on their behalf. There have been numerous robberies within our own household; depression, accusations and lies have all had to be worked through on the journey towards healing. The battle has been grueling, and it continues each day, for we know that Satan is on the prowl, looking for whom to devour next. And parentless children are oftentimes the easiest prey.

Oh, to battle on behalf of the nine! I cannot imagine 800 who perhaps had no one battling for them. Perhaps no prayer; no good news; no forgiveness. Oh, the times we’ve taken hours to sit down with our teenage girls, listening to their complaints over sometimes petty matters and embracing them in their weeping, praying over them until God’s light once more entered their hearts! And those 52 in flames? The intense, all-out warfare required to save one abandoned teenage girl is a gargantuan task – you must be ready for battle as any seasoned solider trains himself for war. I cannot imagine those 52 who were left in that zoo of sexual abuse, gang activity, and total despair. Utterly parentless and without anyone to light their path.

Yes; Satan preys on parentless children. He loves to do this. We see this all around us in Honduras; those rowdy, sometimes naked little boys who run wild in the streets because Daddy isn’t around and mommy – at best – is at home tending to all her other kids – grow up to be tomorrow’s gang leaders, their hands steeped in blood and their thoughts fixed on destruction. When my husband was kidnapped last year by these same young men, their cell-phones blasted Satan-worshipping music as the heavy sounds sang of death. The young men – some of them mere teens — blasted his body with one rod after the other as he lay tied-up in the dirt, them cackling and roaring with laughter.

Children who do not have parents very frequently end up in very dark places and are then used by Satan to drag others into those same dark places. We know this too well.

To take a young woman whose mother, older sisters and extended female relatives are all prostitutes, and to look her in the eyes day after day – embrace her with God’s love! – and say, “God wants to adopt you as His daughter; and He is calling you to walk in purity. This is the path before you; walk in it in honor of your Father and your future husband.” Oh, this battle will never make the news headlines, but it is far more intense than a simple overseas raid, a fight for petroleum and world power! To win that battle against evil strongholds deep within the heart of that young woman is taxing beyond measure and valuable beyond rubies.

To take a child or teen – any among the multitudes! – and to cup them in your hands and say, “You. God has chosen you to worship His name, to serve Him unto the ends of the earth” in a culture that screams, “You! You will love money! You! You there! You have been destined to love pornography – or to love world travel or or pleasure or food or to love yourself! Yeah! Worship yourself! You deserve it! Bow down at the altar of Ego!”

This – this act of warfare against all that is untrue is where the true battle for humanity’s redemption lies. Truth pushing back the darkness, and just as any soldier who goes to battle on enemy territory must be prepared for anything, so, too, is the spiritual walk with Christ — being used by Him in enemy territory to set the captives free. Light in the darkness of the human heart, so used to being fooled by Satan’s lies.

And so, the breaking news of the 52 teen girls who were enclosed under lock and key, dozens of whom burned to death, is not a question of shaking our finger at the orphanage director or scolding the Guatemalan government for not having given them adequate funding (that is the problem with third world countries – even if they wanted to grant adequate funding, there is no money to do so), but rather to look deep at the absolute chaos that ensues when humanity lives completely given over to the lies of Satan. The lie that sex is not only for marriage – it is for anyone, anywhere, and we all deserve it. Boom. A young woman is pregnant because someone believed that lie. She never wanted to be a mother; the father is already gone. Who will raise the child? Perhaps she, but poorly, or – better yet, she thinks – she will give it to the orphanage so that she may continue living her life, which is replete with despair and lies to begin with. The child is then received as one of the 800 in a total zoo of sin and darkness, quickly being absorbed in that vortex of abuse, anger, and total confusion. Then, events such as the ones that happened last week are understood as just one manifestation of the human destruction that has already been happening around the globe for fatherless children for ages.

We have been studying closely with our children and all of our students over the past few weeks in our twice-weekly Bible study that the human being is the crown of all creation, the final touch to God’s creative work; we are the image-bearers! Satan is so obsessed with our destruction precisely due to that fact; he understands that we are the closest thing to God’s heart, that Father God so longs to have us as His children, His bride, His eternal companions. The human being was designed by a loving God to fulfill the ultimate purpose of being an instrument of that same love – to love God and to love one another! When that love is taken away – when a child or teen grows up without knowing that love, without receiving it, hearing it and experiencing it day after day — the worst of all tragedies happens. Broken image-bearers, cut off from their very life source, aliens to the love that they were destined to enjoy and share. Total human destruction.

After sharing the news Friday evening in our living room, my long legs pulled up to my chest as I sat on that tile floor, I spoke once more, looking at each of our kids in the eyes: “We will never know why, but for some reason – by God’s grace – He has placed each of you here rather than in a place like where those 800 lived.” Dark images darted uninvited across my mind as I imagined each of our of kids in a place like that, possibly even locked in that small room when that fire started. I breathed deeply and chased the thoughts away, for they were unbearable to consider.

What I did not say – what I felt was so obvious that I had to leave it unsaid, for I wanted them to arrive at the conclusion for themselves – was, “Now, react to God’s grace with gratitude. Serve Him joyfully, with thanksgiving overflowing from your heart. Do not murmur; never complain.”

Oh, they complain about the smallest of things! A nasty root of complaints has sprouted up among them in the last few weeks – everyone is rolling their eyes; this and that is ‘unfair;’ our kids are quick to judge, to accuse, to murmur. Just the day prior our 9-year-old Jason sat down to cry as I listened to him. His vision was so blurred by Satan’s lies as he complained about this and that, openly insulting Darwin and I. How unfair it is that his sister gets to play violin and he only gets to play piano! How terrible we are as parents that we let his older sisters go over to their friends’ house to play but he has to stay in our spacious yard to play soccer with his brothers! He wept, his brow furrowed and his little arms crossed as he fired great missiles at me for being a bad parent.

Son! Open your eyes.

That – our children’s ungratefulness towards God’s grace, His provision, His love and commitment displayed toward them day after day through us – is perhaps what had me by the throat more than anything else. But I said nothing, only prayed. Lord, open their eyes; illuminate their minds with Your truth. Enable them to worship You, to live a lifestyle of thanks.

And so the meeting came to a close several minutes later. Once more we bowed our heads to pray. Through tears I asked God to raise up our children to be the future parents to children and teens such as those who were in the overpacked orphanage. More than increased food provisions or better education they need Christ-centered parents who will walk with them – fight for them – on the narrow, beautiful path to freedom as sons and daughters of the living God. And in today’s world there aren’t many volunteers.

The prayer came to a close; everyone got up and left, possibly not deeply affected. I went to my cave-like little bathroom to sit on the light green rug and be alone. As I sat there several minutes, still pushing my full weight up against that inner dungeon door as the beast fought to break lose, I sensed that God spoke to me: “Just as I told my prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute so that he would come to intimately understand how I feel with unfaithful humanity, I have told you and Darwin to take in these children and teens – to love them as your own, to sacrifice your life and personal freedom in order to serve them – so that you can come to know first-hand how I feel with ungrateful, blind humanity. I who rescued all of you from the punishment you deserved – eternal life is at your fingertips if only you trust in My Son! – very rarely receive thanks. Rather, humanity – even those who have been adopted as my sons and daughters, those who trust in My name! – spend their days complaining, murmuring over the slightest of inconveniences. May gratitude and thanksgiving explode from within you! This is my message to You: never complain!

Moments later I arrived in our living room, for we had a family movie on our schedule for that evening. The kids bounced about, wildly gleeful, as I numbly chose the movie and got the laptop prepared on a small stool in front of where we would all be sitting – some on the small floral-print couch and others on a thin mattress that we had dragged out from one of the bedrooms to put on the floor. This is our weekly movie theater. I saw the movie – 12-year-old Josselyn with her head resting on my shoulder to my right and Darwin sprawled out to my left with my back resting against Jackeline’s legs who sat above and behind me on the couch – in a daze, still trying to make sense of the whole burning incident, its implications, and what God was trying to communicate to my heart.

The movie finished, and we sent everyone to brush their teeth. 13-year-old Jackeline, of course, complained. How terrible it is to brush your teeth! We gave everyone their good-night hug – it was already after 9:00pm, way past our normal Sabbath hour – and began walking them towards their respective bedrooms. I entered little Gabriela’s room as she stood right there in the middle of the floor looking sour. Her arms were crossed defensively and her little bottom lip was strategically sticking out in rebellion.

I touched her shoulder and mustered in the nicest tone possible: “Gaby, it’s time for bed. Tomorrow you’ll be getting up early to go into town with Dad, so you need to rest.”

Sure enough, as has become customary among the human race, she began complaining. I felt as though her murmuring sent long knives deep into my bones as raw images of the darkness in that Guatemalan orphanage flashed through my mind. Yes; it is so unfair to have to go to sleep in your own clean bed in the room you share with your biological sister after a day of classes, fun activities and a family movie! Yes; it is time to complain! We must complain!

I bit my lip, fighting off those images of little girls just like Gaby in that hellish orphanage who daily live under a dark cloak of sexual abuse, over-burdened shift workers, death threats and spoiled food. I helped her up into her top bunk and gently pushed her bangs back in order to kiss her forehead as she avoided eye contact and continued with the puckered-lip rebellion.

Closing the padlock on that deep dungeon door, the beast of sorrow raging about but contained, I gently called for her eye contact and, once I had it, I simply said, “Gaby, please know that God has rescued you; He loves you and He deserves your praise. Please don’t complain. Be grateful, little one, for all that He has done for you.” I repented in my heart, for in her own refusal to give thanks to God I saw myself on so many occasions.

Her facial expression didn’t change, but her eyes did drill mine. I ran my fingers through her hair once more, told her I loved her, and left the room.

The following night (which was yesterday), I sat on a cushion in our bedroom, the lights turned off as three little candle flames danced silently, giving our room a very calm, inviting look. I was reading the book Jesus Calling, thoughts still consumed with all that the Guatemalan tragedy could teach us. 12-year-old Gleny, who had spent the day in town in a local art school and then on a trip to the beach with Darwin and several of her siblings, appeared energetically in our doorway.

“Hi Mom! Can I come in and give you a hug?” She could barely contain her excitement, as I could tell she had had a good day. I smiled big and waved her in. My Wild Gleny who arrived at our home as a pint-sized ball of explosive emotions – I marveled at her in that soft candle light, as I do everyday. So tall; now more mature, calmer. Loving. Happy. I briefly imagined her at the overcrowded orphanage; I imagined all the other little girls who are just as much made in God’s image as her who are in the other orphanage. The beast within me rattled its cage, and I quickly tucked the keys into some remote safe.

This is the testimony God has given me to share right now. There are many different lessons that one can take from the tragic events that happened in the Guatemalan orphanage. Please pray with us for the survivors – those hundreds of children who have now been shipped to other large facilities where they will likely continue onward toward adulthood without ever experiencing the life grounded in love as God designed it. Pray, too, for our children who live with us – that their eyes would be opened to the marvelous grace of God that has saved them from having been in that burning room or having to fight daily for survival in a large institution such as the ones that many children and teens around the globe live in. Lastly, pray with us that God would raise up more people to go and be parents to the orphaned, abandoned and lost children and youth around the globe. This is a beautiful calling, and its importance cannot be overstated.

Let us all be thankful to God and give Him the praises He deserves. He is good and His love endures forever! Amen.

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