I send you our warm greetings from our ranch ministry homestead (the Living Waters Ranch) in a forgotten corner of tropical Honduras. We are currently in the midst of another suffocating Honduran summer, and the heat/humidity makes for some long, sweaty days!
First of all, I want to extend our sincere thanks to all of those who continue to faithfully contribute economically and in the arena of prayer support to this ministry. As in America, here in Honduras inflation, gas prices and overall costs of living have skyrocketed over the past many months (because many of our products are imported from the States, and any changes in the US political/economic sphere — for better or worse — almost always have a direct impact on us here). Your continued support of this mission — even in these globally trying times — has been an incredible support, and we continue to serve, teach, disciple and care for dozens of children and teenagers through our Christian school and music outreaches for God’s glory.
We continue to ask for prayer support in the arena of protection from government harassment. The new Honduran government seems bent on shutting us down or at least complicating our lives/ministry to a very high degree, and they have showed up numerous times recently to interrupt our daily school activities, nit-pick, threaten and throw additional requirements on us that are almost impossible to fulfill. They see our alternative school as a threat to the public education system (which is very closely linked to Honduran politics), and due to fear that we might “steal” their students or that our system of grassroots, personalized education just might work a little bit better than the status quo, they are bent on making sure we don’t succeed. This has been very taxing on us (especially for my husband Darwin, who is the one who normally takes them on and has to jump through a ton of hoops just to keep us open), so we humbly solicit your prayers and seek God’s protection in the midst of it all.
Other than that, the 50+ students in our small grassroots Christian school are thriving like never before, and this year has brought about many new experiences, moments of blessing and life-changing relationships. We hope to continue to serve, mentor, coach and raise up these children and youth for God’s glory for many years to come if God continues to grant us the strength, resources and favor to do so.
On a family level, our foster family continues to go through a season of upheavals as several of our long-term foster teenagers have left the nest ahead of schedule and others have told us they are headed that way. It has been a bittersweet season of heartbreak, of learning to let go, and of maneuvering new (and sometimes complicated) waters of knowing how (and when) to remain involved in our kids’ lives in this new season that many of them have chosen to live outside the protection of our home. The Lord has opened many doors for us to remain involved in our kids’ lives as mentors in this new season, although admittedly it is very complicated and they are oftentimes all over the map (sometimes geographically, sometimes emotionally). We solicit your prayers for our household, where we currently have 3 teenagers who remain with us for now. We are continually seeking God’s will for our family, the future of our household, etc., as many of the dreams that we had hoped to achieve with our kids have been changed drastically. We are currently asking God for new dreams and a new vision for the future.
The five members of our household (my husband, our 3 teenagers and I) have been diligently seeing a Christian psychologist/counselor in a nearby city on a weekly basis over the past couple months as we seek to navigate through the many changes/challenges we’ve faced, and likewise we have been sponsoring several other people whom we serve through our ministry to receive these edifying visits with the counselor. The Lord has called us to serve those who have suffered trauma/neglect and oftentimes have had their lives smashed to pieces, and He’s called us to help pick up the pieces in His name and help make lives whole again. It is a messy task (and in the process we ourselves can get pretty bruised and damaged), but we believe it is worth it and that what we are doing is not in vain.
Thank you for your prayers, friendship and support.
Sincerely, Jennifer (for Darwin and family/mission)
I send you our warm greetings from the Living Waters Ranch, our home and ministry base in rural Honduras. I hope this post finds each of you well and thriving in the Lord, and I send our sincere thanks to all of those who continue to financially support and pray for this mission even in the midst of the prolonged pandemic and such global uncertainty.
As a school, foster family and ministry, in spite of the pandemic and ongoing restrictions in our area this year has surprisingly been one of our most productive and prosperous years since our inception in 2013. As a team with our dedicated staff of Honduran missionary-teachers and tutors, we have developed new, creative strategies to continue teaching, mentoring and discipling (in person, not ‘virtual’) the 40+ youth in our program while flying under the radar and not attracting unwanted attention from local government authorities. As far as we know, we are the only school in our area who has been teaching face-to-face “real” classes all year, including music, P.E., Christian discipleship, organic agriculture and other hands-on formation activities. This is a huge triumph, and we are thankful to see our students and faculty thriving in our unconventional new system of off-site and mixed classes.
Personally, my schedule has slowly become fuller over the past couple months as I have taken on additional responsibilities. I now teach a twice-weekly English class to several grades, lead our women’s athletic club on Tuesdays and Thursdays and have begun teaching a one-on-one piano class to one of our female students. In each of our classes, we incorporate the Bible and have a time of discipleship/prayer before commencing whatever activity is at hand. Taking on these commitments has been fun and challenging for me in addition to mothering our six foster teens at home and directing the mission/school alongside my husband.
Over the past couple months I have been in the grueling, yet promising final stretch of publishing my first book, titled “Hidden Treasures: Wrestling with Significance, Faith and Suffering While Serving in the Developing World.” From start to finish the process of writing and then publishing has taken a little over a year (there have been certain pandemic-related setbacks in this final stage), but the book is expected to go live shortly.
Although I have not updated this blog frequently thus far in 2021, I do post photos and regular updates on my Facebook account (Jennifer Zilly Canales) for those who are on Facebook. I am also available to communicate via email (JenniferZillyCanales@gmail.com) if anyone has questions for me to answer or would like to share a prayer request so that our family can be praying for you.
We give God all the glory for each one of these achievements and extend our sincere thanks once more to all those who generously make this work possible. Thank you!
I write this post mainly for those living outside of Honduras who wish to gain a deeper understanding of a few of the key cultural factors that characterize grassroots Honduran education. Below I humbly share with you a series of photos taken on our rural ministry homestead over the past few weeks along with their respective explanations about different aspects of traditional Honduran culture (as I understand them in my 7 years of living here).
If you find this post informative and would like me to exhibit another facet of our life here (possibly the day-to-day realities of fostering in our Honduran context, etc), you may leave a comment at the end or contact me personally with your request.
God bless you, and thank you for your interest in and support of this work. To God be all the glory.
This is currently my third year of designing and teaching a dynamic math/logic class in the small high school we operate out of our rural ministry homestead on the northern coast of Honduras.
For these past several weeks my students and I have been thoroughly enjoying a small book called “The Moscow Puzzles” that includes various real-life math and logic problems.
For a recent exam, I announced that each student who desired could come dressed as a genius or professional mathematician, which is a big deal considering all students normally come in their white- and navy blue uniform everyday. Some kids got very creative with this and came in borrowed glasses, bowties and professional attire while I, too, got in on the fun and dressed as the very serious supposed Russian author of the logic book we’ve been studying. (I gave myself the made-up name Professor Ivanka Zolushka Popovski Romanov, had a thick Russian accent throughout the class and would only answer the kids’ questions if they called me by my full Russian name).
At the Living Waters Ranch we daily disciple, love and sow into the lives of our students for God’s glory, and just occasionally we have riotous fun as well…
We greet you from our rural ministry homestead on the northern coast of Honduras, Central America with this month’s general update. May God grant both you and us increasing wisdom, faith and love in Christ Jesus.
We are in the full-swing of a new year of academic classes, relational discipleship and Christian community here at the Living Waters Ranch. My husband Darwin and I continue to raise our 7 foster children/teens in addition to serving as directors and teachers in the school we operate out of our home. Our team of local Honduran missionaries who serve alongside of us are doing a phenomenal job, and we continually give thanks to God that He allows us to participate with Him to reach humanity with the gospel.
In this specific post I will share a current prayer request along with photos taken of our girls’ organic agriculture class. This class is one of many character-building activities which we teach on an ongoing basis, and this specific group meets twice weekly under the leadership of one of our local missionaries who has a deep passion for Christ, God’s creation and training youth to have an honorable work ethic.
Prayer Request for Protection in the Midst of Much Government Supervision/Scrutiny
As our little discipleship school has grown since its inception in 2014, we have recently attracted much attention from the local educational authorities due to our unique perspective and potential competition with the local public schools (which is something we never intended).
We now receive very frequent (and sometimes unfriendly) supervisions, and the local authorities have been critical of many of our teaching methods since they are not commonly found in the over-crowded, oftentimes mediocre public institutions. My husband is also now constantly swamped with countless reports that the authorities are asking for weekly, and we sense that all of this might be an effort on the government’s behalf to try to overwhelm us or find some flaw so that they would have reason to potentially close us down.
Please pray for protection for us against the evil forces that are very active in the Honduran government, and pray for peace of mind for my husband who is on the frontlines against these constant attacks/distractions. He oftentimes has to lose several hours of sleep at night in order to fulfill the endless rounds of paperwork the authorities ask of him.
We do not want to feel fearful or worried in the midst of all this, nor do we want all of our energies to go towards trying to please a system that is decidedly in our contrast. We desire to live in peace with everyone and respect the government authorities as much as is in our power to do so.
Thus, we humbly ask for prayer in all of these matters as our earnest hope is to be free from excessive government obligations in order to dedicate our energies toward discipling, loving and teaching the youth the Lord has placed under our care for His glory.
Thank you to all of those who pray for and financially support this mission. May the Lord’s peace rest over your life and home.
On Thursday of this past week I began walking from one little building on our rural property to the next in preparation for my Advanced Math class that would start once recess finished. The general energy level on our property was extremely high as we had all just gotten out of Bible study and prayer groups, and everyone was busy eating their mid-morning snack, playing a pick-up game of soccer in our front yard or tapping away some upbeat tune on one of several pianos in our bright purple school building.
I quietly but very purposefully began moving rather unusual objects into our simple rectangular classroom: a large wicker table from our house’s living room [our family’s simple cinderblock home lies about six paces from our high school building as our family life with our 8 foster children is very intertwined with our open-door ministry efforts to the local community], three wooden stools, several boxes of colored pencils, a large bucket of water, old rags, and a cup of detergent.
As I greeted and passed by different students and teachers on my way in and out of my classroom, I smiled big – not only because we daily practice the art of joyfully loving one another, but because on that particular day I knew something no one else did.
Abigail, one of our new students this year, a 13-year-old in our small 8th-grade class, eyed me with a twinkle in her eyes and said boldly, “Teacher! I think you’ve got something really fun planned for our math class today! …I mean, just look at that big grin you’re wearing on your face!” She wagged a silly finger at me, waiting eagerly for me to affirm her conclusion.
My eyebrows arched high and my eyes widened as my smile grew even bigger (if that was even possible). I answered, “Oh, Abigail, I always wear this grin on my face, despite the circumstances! So, really, you have no idea if I have something fun planned or not…” I shrugged my shoulders high as my smile remained intact, inciting her to question her teacher’s sanity (as she had probably already done on several prior occasions).
She suddenly looked perplexed and then, slightly worried, as she realized what I said was true. “Yeah, you are always smiling…” [Here at the Living Waters Ranch we like to say that our smile is our uniform. Whatever is happening – good, bad or ugly – we choose to receive and display the joy of the Lord.]
I made a tight squeeze through the doorway with the rather clunky wicker table pushed through on my hip as I glanced over my shoulder at her, “I love you so much, sweetheart! See you in five minutes when we enter class!”
Our rural neighborhood – and the country of Honduras as a whole – is known for devastatingly low educational standards. Overcrowded, underfunded government schools are required to pass all students automatically, and it is not uncommon for youth to spend years in the formal education system without having learned virtually anything. Many students graduate high school without knowing the times tables or basic grammar rules.
In my Advanced Math class that meets four hours each week, we are putting an end to educational corruption, to a system that enables students to pass on to the next level without having first mastered the level they’re at. We work on strengthening their generally weak math base with dynamic methods and then go onward with loads of mental math, complex problem sets and, of course, many hours of homework each week. I like to call my students ‘human calculators.’
And so, five minutes later when all 12 of my precious mathematicians came sweatily bounding into our unairconditioned classroom after recess, I walked to the front of the room and began the process of announcing that secret that had placed that unusually large grin on my face.
Our 12-year-old daughter Gleny, one of the youngest students in the mixed-grade homeschool-style class, saw the bucket of water near the door and made a strikingly accurate guess as she plopped down into her seat: “Oh no. Those of us who didn’t pass the exam are gonna have to wash the walls.”
I threw my head back and laughed freely while all 12 eyed me with dread. It was, after all, the last day of the first grading period, and they had taken their final exam the class prior. I would be announcing the news everyone was anxious to hear.
After a short lecture, I began writing their final grades on the white board as the suspense grew exponentially…
Only three students passed the class: one with flying colors and two by the skin of their teeth. The other nine missed the mark. Several had a final average of somewhere around 45%. [But I know something that they perhaps don’t: even those who earned a woeful percentage in my class have progressed mightily as they’ve learned more than many youth in local public institutions who pass with high grades.]
Without ever taking the large, sincere smile off my face, I ushered the three victors over to the wicker table at the other end of the classroom where I had snacks, encouraging hand-written celebratory notes, colored pencils and open-ended art projects for them to enjoy.
The faces of the other 9 dropped. I had warned them several days prior that they needed to put forth a great effort to study for the exam, because they surely wouldn’t like the consequences if they didn’t. Now they all knew that they were about to find out just what those consequences would be.
I asked them one by one how much time they had dedicated to prepare themselves for the final exam – which was worth half of their final grade. Their answers: one hour. Five minutes. Not at all.
I then glanced over at the victors and asked them how much time they had dedicated to study for the exam. Their answers: five hours. Seven hours.
My heart rejoiced as I reminded my students – the best and brightest in our homeschool program – that, in real life (as in our class) consequences always line up with decisions. You reap what you sow.
And that is why I was so giddy. In our world – and especially in this Central American country where we live – so often the consequences experienced in this life do not line up with choices. The lesson of ‘you reap what you sow’ is so easily lost when the murderers and the liars seem to be getting ahead and the ones who dare to act justly get killed. Here there is very little trust in just consequences due to an unresponsive, corrupt justice system. Whereas the lesson of ‘you steal or kill, you go to jail’ should be present in everyone’s minds, here there is no such thought impeding evil deeds. Here, you steal or kill and you can just keep on doing so for many years to come because generally the police do not respond as they should and/or are paid off by evil gang lords.
In other schools, students can put forth a sub-par effort and receive grand certificates and diplomas. Lies are everywhere, especially in the Honduran educational system. A dear neighbor of ours will be graduating from the local public high school soon, and he’s renowned as a very good student, but his grammar is that of a very young child and he has yet to learn the times tables.
And so on Thursday my heart rejoiced, because I knew that my beloved students would learn an invaluable lesson. Several of the 9 students who did not pass – three of our daughters included in the mix – had never before experienced such academic failure. Perhaps they were finally in a class that could not be passed with a nominal effort.
With the three who passed the class joyfully working on art projects in the far corner of the room, I then began filling the board with the ‘recuperation’ requirements. ‘Recuperation’ is a mandatory process in Honduras that is designed to ensure that all students pass, something which we are not in agreement with but is a process we are required to do. Whereas in most schools the failing students simply show up the next day to take the same exam again (several times if necessary), a false grade assigned if even so they never manage to pass the make-up test(s), we have a new technique: assign physical jobs and heavy homework loads as recuperation. If they do not complete the task with excellence, the failing grade remains the same.
Basically, you have to work if you want to pass (what a novel concept).
Recuperation to be turned in next week: 1.) Write the entire 4-page exam all over again, by hand, and complete it with excellence. 2.) 20 additional problem sets (each of which takes over 20 minutes to complete if done quickly) done with excellence. 3.) Wash the walls of our classroom today; wash those of the other math classroom tomorrow during recess. 4.) Receive a ‘strike.’ (Three strikes and you go to after-school detention, which lowers your overall GPA and is 2+ hours of physical labor under the sun). 5.) Write a half-page reflection about what you’ve learned.
My precious Gleny sighed deeply as she read the board – she had been right about washing the walls. Abigail, the one who had seen the wicker table and the colored pencils and optimistically guessed that the fun activity would be for everyone, eyed me with a little smile on her face as she began copying in her notebook the long list of recuperation requirements.
I went around the room, giving loving pats on the back and words of encouragement in the midst of total emotional devastation for those who did not put forth the necessary effort to pass the class. One of our new students, a 14-year-old boy, eyed me angrily as I blurted, “You know, I really like you! Even if you don’t like me, I really like you! You are gonna do a great job with the recuperation!” I gave him a hearty pat on the back and threw out a joke or two to lighten the overall mood among those poor souls who would soon be drowning in make-up homework.
That blessed day the students worked two at a time sudsing down the bright purple classroom walls while the others worked with pencil in hand to begin the long recuperation process, which would then be finished during their own time over the weekend. I sat at that delightful wicker table with the three who had worked their butts off to earn the prize. We drew. We colored. We chit-chatted. They divvied up the bag of snacks and read the hand-written notes I had left for them. It was great!
The following day I fulfilled my word to the 9, rounding them up during recess to finish the wall-washing job in the other math classroom. Teens on hands and knees, towels and rags in hand, soap and water everywhere, while less mature students from other classes passed by, observing the unusual process. After all, the ones washing the walls are the best students! They aren’t normally the ones who are assigned such consequences! What on earth had happened?
So we thank God, because this process of connecting hard work with rewards (and sub-par work with displeasing consequences) is not something that happens only in my classroom, but rather it is a team effort among those of us who serve, teach and disciple at the Living Waters Ranch. Several local Hondurans who have visited our mission (and those who now labor alongside of us) have commented that we “teach people how to live.” In a world devoid of love, we love abundantly because God first loved us. In a world devoid of truth, we proclaim it boldly. In a world where everyone is busy destroying one another and themselves, we go about quietly picking up the pieces, rescuing the lost and indicating the Way. In a world of confusion, of consequences that don’t correspond with actions – truth paid with murder; corruption paid with great wealth – here on this little piece of land we take very seriously the process of carefully forming those who come to us, of teaching them to live in the light of Christ, to take responsibility for their actions and, ultimately, to stand before the throne of the just Judge and give account for their every action, thought and decision.
The following day, my permanent smile fixed in its place, a 17-year-old young man who is new to our school this year found me during lunchtime and extended his hand. I instinctively reached mine out to receive his, although the lunchtime hand-shaking gesture seemed a bit odd. I tilted my head and looked at him as he began: “I just wanted to thank you for what happened yesterday.”
I felt confused. He was one of the ones who had not passed the class and who would now be working his butt off all weekend. What good could have possibly happened to him yesterday? “Y-yester-? Wha-?”
He continued: “For the math class recuperation. It is fair. I really appreciate that Jackeline [one of our daughters who is in the class] earned a 69 average, but even so you didn’t bump her grade up to 70. In other schools around here they would just give everyone a passing grade, but here the teachers are really interested in making sure that we learn. I’m gonna make sure that in this next marking period I work a whole lot harder to make sure I pass.” His smile was genuine, and his wisdom striking. He gets it!
My jaw was dangling somewhere down around my ankles as I sputtered, “ Oh, yeah, uh – great! Of course! We are so proud of you…” And he was off, getting ready for his after-school agriculture class with Erick. Wow.
We give thanks to God for guiding us as we form the young men and women that He brings us according to His Word, His love, His justice. While a handful of youth have left our program because they have chosen to believe the lies offered by a world that says decisions and consequences do not line up, we give joyful thanks to God for the roughly-40 who have chosen to stay, who like the 17-year-old young man who thanked me for the heavy discipline procedure understand what we are trying to do and are submitted to God throughout the process. Pray with us that the Lord would raise up great Christ-centered leaders (servants) among those whom He is training and transforming among us for His good pleasure.
Yesterday in our 7th-grade classroom I gave a workshop on body language, active listening skills, and conflict mediation. What started off as many points jotted down and enthusiastically explained on the whiteboard quickly turned into a riotous time of skits, partner work, and dynamic learning as we explored new territory on how to be more effective (and compassionate) communicators.
We touched on the fact that body language, tone of voice and facial expression constitute the large majority of communication (whereas the actual words spoken account for a small percentage of the overall message conveyed) in addition to explaining the difference between an active and passive listener, open as opposed to closed body language, the importance of allowing the other person to speak first, how to diffuse a potentially explosive situation, conflict mediation, etc. Miss Ligia and Miss Isis, our secondary and primary teachers, even participated in the workshop in order to learn more about a topic very few Honduran schools ever touch on.
In Honduras where the majority of people – even educated adults – don’t employ basic active listening skills and many people struggle to maintain eye contact in a conversation or group setting, the workshop proved to be not only fun but also extremely important in our students’ development as equipped instruments in God’s hands.
Many youth and adults in this country suffer from a very deep sense of what they call ‘shame’, limiting them in their self-expression and initiative, and completely incapacitating them in the more difficult arenas of public speaking and conflict mediation. Many of our students have been very reluctant to read out loud, pray in front of others, voice an opinion, or have to stand in front of their peers and give any kind of presentation, so our dynamic activity yesterday – standing up to read the different points elaborated on the whiteboard, going to the front of the classroom with a partner to act out different silly skits, etc – constituted a huge step for all of our students in being able to freely and lovingly express themselves without wilting under that dark cloud of constant shame.
At the beginning of our time together everyone – even the teachers! – were nervous about having to ‘put themselves out there’ in a potentially embarrassing skit, but as our time progressed everyone – even the shyest students who typically fade too easily into the background – were laughing hysterically, participating in numerous skits, trying on the different wigs and hats I had brought with me, etc.
As we have witnessed (especially in these last few months), many people in this nation problem-solve by way of violence. You said something I didn’t like, so I’ll go and kill you. You look like someone who belongs to the gang I’m against, so I’m gonna kidnap you. You stole from me, so I’ll shoot you. Learning alongside our students yesterday how to problem-solve by way of loving confrontation, humble listening, and asking/granting forgiveness rather than by resorting to violence may save lives long-term. What a privilege to be involved in this process!
We wrote across the whiteboard in large letters, each person taking their turn to stand up and read aloud: “…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” — James 1:19
The lighting in several of the photos came out poorly, but I hope you enjoy them and the riotous joy they contain! Praise God for this huge step of teaching young Hondurans how to be more effective, loving communicators for God’s glory!
During these past few days there has been a palpable sense of preparation– of everyone preparing for something – permeating nearly every occurrence in our household. I can’t speak for our kids, but my own anticipation for this time had been growing exponentially in these past few weeks, for I know that I hold in my hands some secret key that many others have yet to find nor search for.
This week all 8 of our kids, Darwin and I are on vacation from all our normal activities for ‘Holy Week’ (the week leading up to Easter that can be taken as the American equivalent of Spring Break).
In our household, every time there is any kind of extended vacation such as this, everyone knows what to expect, and they do so with well-intentioned groans and good-natured murmuring, although I know that deep down they rejoice. They know without fail that Mom will spend considerable time each evening elaborating long, specific lists of goals, homework assignments, and other guided activities for each person on the whiteboard outside of their bedroom door. And each person is expected to meet these goals with diligence and joy before 5:00pm the following day.
My heart quickens with giddiness just thinking about it, because as many squander their precious free time, we busy ourselves with the joyful art of preparation, knowing our Father has something in store for us and wanting to be prepared when the time comes.
A quote that I stumbled upon during my college years that has greatly marked my outlook every since is this:
The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
And although I have never breathed mention of this quote to Darwin or our kids (nor do we have it painted in huge, bold letters over our front door, although that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea), the reality of its words is already deeply imprinted upon our hours and days.
So while the rest of our neighbors or even our beloved students who study at our school most likely spend these 9 days of vacation wandering aimlessly (as is the favorite pastime of youth in our neighborhood), watching hour after hour of television or idly chit-chatting and gossiping on their front porches, we are toiling upward in the night.
Each day our 6 kids who can read and write have a host of healthy, guided activities to set about doing: study specific chapters from the Bible, play piano or recorder for a certain amount of time, practice the times tables with a certain sibling, go to a quiet place with so-and-so to share and pray, write a letter of friendship or encouragement for someone else, write a reflection or list of life goals, study English as a second language for an hour, stand up and read out loud 45 minutes from any book of their choosing, or participate in our version of cross-fit training (100 push-ups, 100 frog-jumps, and 10 laps to and from the far gate, etc). Each person (ages 8-15) must manage their list of 4-8 activities by themselves, checking off each activity throughout the day as it is completed. When 5:00pm rolls around, the goal is that each person has finished all that was assigned to them.
In the beginning (as in, until very recently) this was like trying to herd cats on steroids (as my dad would say), especially with the younger kids who generally used to get distracted or were moved to acts of disobedience every 16.45 seconds, but after months (and, for some of them, over two years) of consistent encouragement, fair discipline, modeling by example, dogged persistence, and real-world consequences, by now everyone is well-adjusted to Mom’s terrible habit of expecting everyone to toil upward in the night with her. By some act of divine grace, they’ve recognized that, although in the here-and-now they would rather do as they please, long-term it really is what’s best for them and, as such, they have decided to hop on board willingly with all this crazy business of toiling while just about everyone else they know does the exact opposite.
A couple nights ago 8-year-old Jason, who has been known to be quite the procrastinator and not the best general manager of his time and resources (by golly, he’s only 8!), approached me at 5:00pm as we were all setting the table for dinner and said in a very even, mature tone, although clearly disappointed with himself: “Mom, I need a consequence because I didn’t finish all of my goals on time. I got most of them done, but I’m still working on writing all the times tables from 0-10.”
I squatted down in front of him and said in a very sympathetic tone, “Well, everyone who did finish their goals will get pudding with their dinner and then your Dad and I will watch a movie with them afterward, so your consequence is that you don’t get the pudding and will have to go to bed early instead of watching the movie.” I shrugged innocently and added: “Maybe tomorrow you will manage your time better.”
The consequence seemed clear and fair to him, so he smiled, nodded in agreement, and we continued lightheartedly with the dinner preparations.
The next day he got up early and worked (independently of any adult help or encouragement) more diligently and joyfully than I have ever seen him work, and finished all of his goals not by 5:00pm but by 1:00pm. And, that night, he got his chocolate pudding at dinner and got to watch the movie in addition to having quite a bit of free time in the afternoon to play after having finished his goals!
Something that brings me great joy in a sneaky sort of way is that among the 7th grade students from our local community who study at our home/mission, our eldest daughter, Dayana (15 years old), has quickly and efficiently distinguished herself among them without any conscious effort. The other students are literally astounded by many of her abilities, whether it is the fact that she plays piano quite well and already gives classes, is Darwin’s very capable assistant in the choir and frequently teaches the sopranos by herself, or that she delivered several lethal blows in the class’ first organized debate, speaking with such authority and confidence as if she were already a well-trained lawyer. On the first set of quizzes that rolled around, she was the only student who passed, and right now as we are ending the first grading period, she is the only student who has an ‘A’ average. While others glaze over in Bible study, she participates actively and wisely, and she has to turn away many classmates who seek her help in group projects or homework assignments because she knows they will only distract her.
One day as she and I were discussing the reality of her overwhelming success thus far in our 7th-grade program (which is the first year in high school according to the Honduran system), she laughed earnestly and said, “And I thought I wouldn’t do well in high school!”
I, too, laughed with her, amazed at all the Lord has done with her young life in less than two and a half years of living in our home (after two years of living with a foster mom before us), and I asked with a careful tone: “Do your classmates know that you didn’t enter first grade until you were 11 years old?” Understanding that my goal was not to shame her for the fact that her biological parents never put her in school but rather to point out the impressive fact that all of her academic, musical, and Christ-like developments have been made in four years’ time, she looked over at me with a sly grin and said, “…No.”
Upon hearing her answer I believe I threw my head back and let out a laugh that came rumbling up from my gut. If only they knew: Dayana is not some genius; she has simply mastered the art of toiling upward in the night.
So at 6:30am on any given day as our 26 students (16 in high school and 10 in elementary) come pouring in our front gate, many drawn to those beautiful notes coming from the keyboard just inside the schoolhouse door, eyes wide when they peek their head in and see it is 15-year-old Dayana playing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, I smile because I know she practiced 2-4 hours every day during her vacations and continues to do so an hour each afternoon after getting out of her academic classes. It’s not luck or some special gifting; she’s a toiler.
Or when 8-year-old Jason’s principal at his private Christian school comments to us with wide, sincere eyes that she is shocked by Jason’s turnaround from a rude, immature student to one of the most well-adjusted, stable students in his class in less than a year’s time, I smile because I know all the toiling upward we’ve done with him while the rest of the world was sleeping.
So Tuesday of this week of vacations each of our kids set about accomplishing the different assignments on their whiteboard, certain activities intended for spiritual or relational growth while other focused on more practical skills such as math, reading and public speaking. It quickly became evident – to my total surprise – that not even one of our kids needed encouragement or redirection because each one was already so joyfully entrenched in their interdisciplinary assignments, so I did something I have literally never done before: with the rain in a constant drizzle outside, lowering the usually hot tropical climate to an almost-nippy cool, I got out a blanket and author Ted Dekker’s new book and curled up on the couch in our living room to read.
You must understand: Darwin and I are typically in constant motion from about 5:00am until about 8:00pm – going to and from the office or school buildings to supervise, teach and counsel, correcting and disciplining so-and-so or attending to such-and-such semi-crisis, talking with him-and-her about their attitudes or going after the lost sheep who stormed out in anger, working on paperwork or accounting, attending to various visitors, etc.
But Tuesday was different. I looked around me, taking in with careful observation all that I saw: Dayana peacefully holed up in the school building, producing beautiful notes from the piano; Sandra in her bedroom, her voice soaring high as she practiced the different choir songs; Jackeline and Jason rather dynamically practicing the times tables with flash cards; Josselyn writing a reflection on what she had read from the book of John; Gleny at our square wooden table a few feet from me, contentedly coloring a large graphic drawing of flowers and such; my husband Darwin finally having 5 seconds of free time to study his English textbooks and audio tapes, his materials spread out as he studied uninterrupted in our dining room; and Josue and Gaby playing with some degree of focus with blocks and stuffed animals on the floor beside me. I assessed and re-assessed the situation, thoroughly convinced that at any moment someone would urgently need me or possibly explode with anger or need to be encouraged to manage their time more wisely, but, despite all odds, each person continued onward in serenity and efficiency, managing themselves with a self-discipline that I had never before seen in such perfect bloom.
Seeing that everything was quite under control, I hesitantly sat down on the couch – a sacred act which does not happen often, as we have the widely-accepted rule that no one can sit on the couch until evening once everyone has bathed and has on clean clothes – with my book in hand, waiting to see what would happen. I tentatively read a few pages, constantly lifting my eyes from the written plot to supervise and verbally encourage/praise the little ones around me, until the daring thought struck me: I think I could actually remove myself from active involvement in this situation and…nothing bad would happen. Cool! I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna get out the blanket, curl up and really relax! Is this possible?! I’m sitting – no, laying! – on the couch at noon! Whoa!
So that day – for the first time that I can recall – I curled up horizontally on our little couch with multi-colored cushions under a big quilt and spent several hours devouring my new book. Yes, Gaby came over more than a dozen times to pat me, sit on me, put her stuffed animal cat in my face and generally try to reel me into her love trap, but the general tranquility and diligence around me continued on unabated the rest of the day as each child/teen reached all of their goals way before the designated hour, and did so with grace. My heart smiled as I reached out in gratitude to our Good Father, thanking him for these seeds of diligence and wisdom that He has planted among us and allowed to begin bearing such fruit.
So in our household, we are learning that it’s not about taking in orphaned and abandoned children and giving them a toothbrush, a safe place to sleep and three square meals a day and assuming we’ve done our job well; it’s about toiling with them upward in the night, taking what was broken, thrown-away and abused and seeking God’s power to transform, renew, and germinate in such a way that we all – Darwin and I included – become increasingly useful instruments in His hands. It’s about throwing aside what eats our time, what only distracts and destroys, and secretly plodding onward toward a new calling, a new Kingdom, while the rest of the world sleeps. It’s about seeking to prepare the little ones one day after the next with such a dogged perseverance that the world may very well call us unrealistic or too demanding, so that they may be found prepared and willing in the hour when He may call and reveal the purpose He has for them.
This past week we enjoyed the visit of Keith and Tamara Carroll with their adopted son, Mike, from San Antonio, Texas.
Below are several of the photos that Tamara took during their visit. We have enjoyed many changes and new faces in this new year as we have added the discipleship-based secondary school, expanded the elementary school, grown in our Bible study teaching among our neighbors, and generally learned many, many lessons as the Lord continues to guide the work He is accomplishing in and through us in Honduras.
Several of our older kids have begun giving 7-year-olds Gabriela and Josue ‘tutoring’ during different 30-minute afternoon time-slots throughout the week to help stimulate our two littlest ones who are the most developmentally behind schedule. Thus far the classes have been a selection of Play-Doh, P.E. (tossing a ball back-and-forth, doing sprints across our front yard, spinning in circles, etc.), coloring, and playing with wooden blocks. It has been a very rewarding experience for all — perhaps even more so for the tutors than for Gaby and Josue.
This Saturday 11-year-old Josselyn (who is Gabriela’s biological sister and the 7th of our 8 kids to move in with us roughly 7 months ago) was the teacher for the designated tutoring time. She took the initiative to lean a large whiteboard against the wall in our living room and set up two wooden stools for her students. I sat on the floor in our bedroom organizing paperwork with our door open into the living room so that I, too, could ‘sit in’ on the class.
Josselyn, who just learned how to read, write and do basic math for the first time in her life since moving in with us in July 2015, up until Saturday had not been one of our more dynamic tutors. She had generally been in charge of the ‘coloring book’ tutoring sessions and, by what we could tell, had fulfilled her once-a-week class out of nothing more than a sense of duty to her little sister.
But something had changed. On Saturday she began enthusiastically writing the vowels on the whiteboard (which Gaby and Josue have no idea how to read), and soon enough she had them sing-songing the vowels in some catchy tune she had made up. Gaby and Josue were thoroughly engaged in the class, and at some point she even had Gaby counting with her up to 20 (Josue does not talk other than a handful of one- or two-syllable sounds). I felt like a permanent smile was glued on my face as I continued organizing several stacks of legal paperwork, students’ exams, and mission statements as the rest of our kids played in our front yard. My husband Darwin and our eldest daughter, 15-year-old Dayana, were in the nearby city of La Ceiba that morning in their weekly English class.
Far exceeding the 30-minute recommended time, Josselyn then dispatched her students to a short ‘recess,’ telling me with a big grin that she wanted to keep teaching them other subjects even though she didn’t have to. She then informed me quite seriously, “The other tutors don’t know how to manage Josue and Gaby, and that’s why they behave so poorly. But I just tell them that if they don’t listen up and participate, I’ll take their recess away. That seems to work just fine.”
I, too, took a ‘recess’ and crossed our front lawn to the little office building to bring more folders for my organizational efforts. When I crossed the threshold of our front door into our living room several minutes later, I was somewhat startled to hear Josselyn – who had already called her students in from recess and had them sitting obediently on their stools to continue the class – saying in a very even tone with more authority than perhaps I have ever heard her talk, and much less teach: “Of course we are going to die, because we are made of the dust of the earth.”
As I passed by them on my few-yard journey to our bedroom, I looked at Josselyn, intrigued, and she informed me, “Now we’re in Bible class.”
I nodded, very interested to hear what Josselyn-the-teacher (who did not have a Bible in hand) would be instructing her two very immature students on the Truth. (From the psychological evaluations we’ve had done, Gaby is roughly 4 years old mentally/emotionally and Josue is 3, and both suffer intermediate to severe developmental delays due to distinctive situations of abuse they suffered before arriving at our home. Josue is in a special-needs pre-school class at a private school five mornings a week, and this past week we moved Gaby down from first grade in a private school to kindergarten in our own school to help cater her needs.)
A few words about Josselyn: she has very short hair that is just starting to grow out after having arrived at our front gate with nearly buzzed-off hair with huge bald patches, and she is very, very small for her age due to malnutrition suffered in her early childhood (she’s about the size of a 7- or 8-year-old, and nobody knows how old she really is because she doesn’t have a birth certificate and was never registered with the government, although our dentist’s approximation is that she’s 11 or 12 years old).
So I continued organizing my mountain of paperwork, but this time with my mind much more focused on the theology class coming from our living room than on the manila folders in front of me.
Josselyn covered the beginning of Genesis with remarkable accuracy, instructing Gaby and Josue with all authority on themes that she has been learning in our weekly Discipleship Group but that, honestly, I had thought were beyond her. Of our 8 kids/teens, she does not tend to have a lot of questions, prayer requests, or comments during the various Bible studies we participate in each week, and I had (very mistakenly) thought that perhaps she was distracted amidst other thoughts, possibly not even hearing the instruction around her, although she had come to give her life to Christ in one of our community Bible studies a few months ago and we had seen distinct changes in her since then.
As I heard nugget after nugget of profound, God-inspired wisdom flowing easily from her mouth, I quickly realized I needed to be writing it all down so as not to forget her exact words. So, without her realizing it, I grabbed an old notebook from one of the many piles of paperwork around me and I began to scribble in a fat, blue marker as quickly as I could everything that she was teaching. Her words, verbatim, were as follows:
“God is love. He’s the only true love we’ve got. The love of a person is small, but that of God is big – bigger and bigger – and He won’t turn His back on you. Not even your mom loves you as much as He does. And if you repent, He’ll be there. But if we don’t repent, when we die we’ll be in front of God and He’ll say: ‘I don’t know you.’”
After Josselyn had instructed several times and in many different ways that God is love, Josue started echoing her every time she said ‘God,’ him answering with “A-moh!” (his way of saying ‘amor,’ which is ‘love’ in Spanish.) Every time she said ‘God’ in any context, Josue’s little voice echoed: “A-moh…” And I think Josue was onto something: every time we think about God, our knee-jerk reaction should be to meditate on His love.
She continued, changing the subject: “If I tell you to do whatever you want because you run your own life – like, go and have a lot of women — am I a good friend?”
Josue, who wears diapers, answered shyly: “No.”
Josselyn: “Isn’t that right that I’m not? A good friend would tell you to submit to God’s will and give away what you have to people who need it more than you do, and God will bless you.”
She continued: “Life is hard, even for children. A lot of kids can just run around and play, but they don’t even know what they do. But once you arrive in adulthood, things will be harder.” She swings her gaze over to me and confirms: “Right, Jennifer?” I laughed. “One day you two will be big, but you’ve got to start believing in God even now when you’re small. You don’t have to go around fighting – God says let there be peace and freedom, but no fights and wars.”
Josue started to giggle nervously, and Josselyn corrected him: “We don’t have to laugh at God’s Word. This isn’t like ‘A, B, C’ in first grade, Josue – this is the True Word, and I’m not lying.”
Josue shaped up, and she continued, now teaching on the crucifixion, Lazarus, and the end of the world. “Not even the angels know when the end of the world will come, only God – right, Jennifer?”
Her two pupils sat with total focus, listening to their young teacher who, by some miracle, already has God’s Word stitched deeply in her heart. She addressed her students: “Do you have a question about how God is?”
Gaby, stuttering and mispronouncing certain words, as is the way she always talks: “The—the…chapters say that we must love one another.”
Josselyn: “Very well, Gaby, but first we must love God.”
“If I believe I am bigger than God, we are believing Satan, the Father of Lies. If I say I want to be the queen because God’s dead, who’s talking crazy? Me, right? Because I’m from the dust of the Earth, and God is the Father of Truth.”
At some point the class started winding down, and the teacher asked me what time it was. “2:20pm,” I answered.
She laughed out loud and said, “I think I’m gonna keep going until nighttime!”