A bureaucratic odyssey

Step 1: Sally decides to get her Commercial Driver’s License.

Step 2: We pay tuition to the CDL school.

Step 3: Sally studies up to pass her written exams to get the permit.

Step 4: She and I go to DPS. We wait five hours, at the end of which we are told that DPS cannot allow her to take any of the tests because the records of the Social Security Administration show a different birth date than does her birth certificate, and the discrepancy must be resolved before she can get a CDL, or even begin the process of acquiring one. I burn a day of my PTO allowance at the office.

Step 5: She and I go to the Social Security Administration offices. This time we wait six hours, at the end of which we are told that, even though we have her birth certificate with us, the SSA cannot correct her record without a certified copy of her final adoption decree. I burn another day of my PTO allowance at the office.

Step 6: I call the family courts, after a fruitless search online for a link that will allow us to order a certified copy of the final adoption decree has led me to fear that we will have to go through a legal process of having her adoption records unsealed. The nice lady at the family court records hotline tells me that, indeed, we will have to open a court case to have the records unsealed.

Step 7: Sally and I go to San Antonio, which is where we did her and Rusty’s adoption proceedings. I burn another day of my PTO allowance at the office and miss my friend Yuning’s retirement celebration lunch; I have to call in a farewell toast via the HR director’s iPhone speaker, from the parking lot of a Starbucks on I-10. We go to the clerk’s office on the second floor of the courthouse to get a form, then ask a question that the clerk won’t answer, then go as directed to the staff attorney’s office across the hall, then are told by a nice but inexperienced young lady at the staff attorney’s office that the attorney who knows how adoption unsealings work is out and she is afraid to give us any advice on filling out the form so we must just make our best guess, then follow her instructions to go out of the building and go next door to get the form notarized, then are sent back to the first floor of the original building to get copies made of the birth certificate, then are sent back to the staff attorney’s second-floor office to get a different question answered and find that the competent attorney is back, then determine that we had actually filled out the form incorrectly and correct it with his guidance, then return to the other building to get the form notarized, then go across the courtyard to the ATM because the notary only takes cash, then successfully get the form notarized, then return to the staff attorney’s office on the other building where we are supposed to turn in the form, then are told by the nice but inexperienced girl that we need to go back to the second floor of the other building to file the case with the county clerk, then obediently go to the county clerk’s office where we are told that we are supposed to turn it in at the family court clerk’s office where we started back in the first building’s second floor, then go obediently back to the family court clerk’s office where we are told that we are supposed to turn it in at the staff attorney’s office and we should ignore the inexperienced girl and “ask for James,” then go back across the hall and are told by a different girl that James is out but that we need to file the case with the county clerk, then explain that we have already gone around the circle once, then wait while she goes in search of somebody who knows the procedure, and then finally are told by the smiling young lady that the staff attorney’s office will take it from here and that we may expect a call “sometime within the next two weeks.”

I swear I am not making any of that up.

Future Step 8: One hopes, the judge approves the unsealing of records and we get a phone call giving us next steps.

Future Step 9: We do whatever we are told in that phone call and (one hopes without another trip to San Antonio) we successfully obtain a certified copy of the final adoptino decree.

Future Step 10: We go back to the Social Security Administration and (one hopes in less than six hours) get the birth date fixed.

Future Step 11: We go back to the DPS three times (because there are three written tests and you are only allowed to take one per day), one hopes spending less than five hours per day in the waiting area, so that Sally can pass the exams and…

Future Step 12: …get her learner’s permit. At which point she will actually be allowed to go take the truck driving lessons for which we have already paid in full.

I find it impossible to imagine why any person who has to deal with the government on a regular basis, would ever want the government to be allowed into more areas of life than it already pollutes…but then my libertarian soul never has understood the thought processes of homo progressivus.

 

 

 

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A comment I decided not to put onto Facebook

An acquaintance — but not, I decided, a close enough friend for me to embark upon a political discussion with her when she was upset — posted the following on Facebook.

I am so worried that sooner or later our family and friends will be killed in these shootings. We just can’t continue to keep our minds closed, and think this won’t happen to us. We need to vote out all politicians who have refused to vote for gun control. I know gun control won’t stop all massive shootings, but it sure could slow them down. There have been some reasonable solutions put forward, and have been blocked by the Senate. Do the Senate even care about the people they are supposed to be representing ? It seems all we have now are Republicans and Democrats fighting each other like children. It’s the safety of our people that is important. Congress better wake up or some if them are going to be looking for another job, not that will hurt them much with the kind of retirement and medical care they have for the rest of their lives. Nothing will change unless the people start standing up . Also another thing that needs to change is to limit terms served. All of us need to stop hating, and started treating each with respect and kindness.

The comment I decided not to post follows:


[Her name], I don’t at all mean to beat up on you or anything in what follows; I applaud the fact that you are concerned about the issue. And I am totally with you on term limits for Congress, and on treating each other with respect and kindness, and on the generally bad character of the average politician (of whatever political affiliation).

Having said that:

1. I hate to see you suffering from worry and fear when it is not justified. The truth is, you have essentially zero chance of losing anybody to these mass shootings; the fact that they get very heavy coverage creates the psychological illusion that they are very common and we are all in great danger — but the fact that news organizations leap at the chance to get higher ratings does not change the fact that there are 350,000,000 people in this country and less than a thousand have been killed in mass shootings over the past few decades. We still have a ways to go before the mass shooters even catch up to 9/11. I am not saying we should not take the problem seriously as a society and as a matter of public policy, but YOU shouldn’t be losing sleep over the risk to you and your loved ones. If you do lose sleep over it, it is overwhelmingly likely that the lost sleep will be the only harm you ever suffer from a mass shooter. You are actually, as long as you don’t live in one of the highly concentrated areas of high urban violence, blessed to live in a remarkably safe country by any historical standards. (I just got back from Bogotá, Colombia, working with an organization that helps kids and families in the barrios of Cazuca and Ciudad Bolívar, and I can tell you that except for those who live in one of our bad urban crime districts, Americans should thank God every night for the safety in which our children grow up.)

2. Actually “gun control” doesn’t do anything until a politician comes up with specific proposals, because until there is an proposal, “gun control” is just a collection of syllables; and the “gun control” proposals that politicians have put out on the table to date would do nothing at all. For example, we had federal “assault rifle” bans for ten years, and they were bipartisanly allowed to expire without renewal precisely because they had literally no effect whatsoever — it is simply false to say that gun control “sure could slow them down” because we have already tried it and it doesn’t. I know it seems like it ought to — but it doesn’t.

3. Mass shootings are not the only way for people to get hurt, and you have to be careful not to confuse “I see this on the news all the time” with “this is important.” The media are, in general, (a) not very competent, and (b) in business for the ratings. That is, they (a) are not smart enough to know what is actually important, and (b) they don’t give a damn anyway. The number of people who are murdered every year in ordinary crime is vastly higher than the number of people who are killed in mass shootings, and therefore dealing with this ordinary crime is much more important than is dealing with mass shootings. (As it happens, the overwhelming majority of those murder victims live in cities that have already had draconian gun control for decades.) Also, you can’t point at the places where people have been killed by criminals using guns — at least not honestly — unless you also recognize the literally hundreds of thousands of times every year (that is the low-end number; the most successfully replicated study actually put the estimate north of a million times per year) that guns are used by law-abiding citizens to thwart crimes. Again, the news media gives 24/7 coverage to mass shooters every time a mass shooting happens; but the hundreds of people who get murdered every year in Chicago and D.C. and Baltimore and New Orleans and Detroit get very little coverage on the national news, and any women who pulls a gun and causes a would-be rapist or a violent ex-husband to change his mind and run away can be guaranteed not to make the news at all. But tragedies averted are just as real as tragedies exploited by cable news companies; if you adopt laws that reduce the number of people killed by mass shooters from 100 per year to 10 per year, but at the same time you cause an extra 150 women to get killed by violent ex-lovers, then you have indeed reduced the number of murders that you see on the news, but that doesn’t change the fact that your policy is getting more people killed rather than fewer.

I don’t know which proposals these are that you think are “reasonable,” but I think you are not being entirely fair when you say that the Senators who are blocking those proposals are doing so because they don’t “care about the people they are supposed to be representing.” It is quite possible that they DO care about the people they are representing, but just think the proposals will do more harm than good — that is, they disagree on whether the proposals will actually make America safer, not on whether or not it is important for the people they represent to be safe. They are not necessarily less caring than you are; they simply disagree with you about factual matters. Myself, I don’t know of a single rejected gun control proposal that has come from Democrats in the last twenty years that I would call “reasonable,” if “reasonable” is defined as “being likely to do more good than harm.” The overwhelming majority of such proposals mostly demonstrate that the people who drew the proposals up either actually think they will work, in which case the kindest possible explanation is that they are very ignorant, or else know quite well they won’t work but think it is politically expedient to propose them anyway…in which case they are, well, politicians.

I thought about including a link for you to read…the person who wrote it is EXTREMELY knowledgeable about our actual gun laws and the history of those gun laws over the last few decades, and therefore the post is very informative. But he is also not at ALL someone who treats people who disagree with him with respect and kindness. So I decided not to include the link, because…

…neither you nor I is actually likely to be able to impact what laws get passed; we are peons who have neither lots of people listening to us nor lots of money to donate to campaigns, and Congressmen just don’t care about people like us. So we can’t really impact the laws.

But we CAN treat each other with respect and kindness; so I’m not going to include the link. I hope there comes a time when somebody puts forward a proposal that you and I can both agree will make things better. In the meantime, please don’t lose sleep over your and your family’s safety.

Very respectfully,

Kenny

—-

The link, by the way — which I will post on this blog, trusting my estimable Gentle Readers to discount the combativeness of the rant’s author while extracting and processing the factual information — is here.

UPDATE: After posting this, I ran across this excellent article, which makes the point I was trying to make in the first paragraph but does so far more effectively than I myself did.

Bogotá mission trip report

Note: the quotations from Helen found herein are quotes from the raw notes she jotted down to assist her memory. If you, being literate in Mandarin as you no doubt are, read her post once she publishes it, you will note that she does not in fact speak or write in fragments like, “Pray for the children. Tears.”

Saturday, 20 July

Saturday, the 20th of July, found the Pierces headed for Colombia.

Not, strictly speaking, the Pierces, of course. Really it was the Pierce (me) and the Yangs (Helen and Kai). But American Baptists aren’t all that used to cultures where women do not change their last names when they marry, and Kai is so much the spittin’ image of me that nobody could remember he wasn’t actually my biological son. So on their nametags they were Helen Pierce and Kevin Pierce all week, rather to my amusement, since no such persons legally exist. (Yang Shu and Yang Kaicheng were allowed into Colombia by the guardias fronterizas; but it was Helen and Kevin Pierce who spent the week with our new Colombian friends.)

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“Now that I know…I can see the resemblance.” (This is the punch line of a cherished family story, in which a barista who had been serving coffee for months both to me and to my adopted, very-Asian-in-appearance daughter Sally — but always separately — saw us together one day, was astonished to find that Sally was my daughter, and then uttered the immortal words with which I have chosen to caption this photo.)

Check-in at IAH was seriously time-consuming – our original United dude was a trainee on quite possibly his first day, and he messed things up so badly his supervisors eventually sent him off to go mess things up at some other station while they tried to restore order to the chaos left in his wake. It didn’t make it easier that we were carrying hundreds of dollars’ worth of donated supplies and toys for the Colombian orphanage and youth camp we were visiting, so that we had the twenty checked bags our group of twenty was allowed, plus several more that we paid extra for. This overloaded United Dude’s mental circuits (which would not seem likely to be, on the basis of our limited experience with the gentleman, an unusual event). For example, he told me that one crate of water bottles I was checking in was oversized and could not be checked in at his station, and pointed me to a different desk where I would have to take it. Off I went to that desk, which had a long line. Five minutes later he showed up at that very desk, having been sent away from the group check-in line in disgrace; but his presence made no appreciable difference in the speed at which my new line progressed. Five minutes after that, another United employee passed by where I was still patiently waiting, did a double-take, stopped to ask me what I was waiting for…and then redirected me to yet a third area that was the actual oversized baggage check-in, and which had no line at all.

Meanwhile, back at the group check-in, the supervisors were trying to count bags and make sense of what our own personal Young Sheldon had wrought, a task made more difficult by the fact that all the checked-in luggage had already disappeared into the bowels of Airport Baggage World. But in the end, they determined that instead of charging us excess baggage fees on eleven bags at $55 per bag, he should have charged us for…one extra bag. Missed it by that much. (For young whippersnapper Gentle Readers, there used to be a TV show about a guy named Max Smart…oh, never mind.)

It actually was genuinely fortunate that our flight was delayed an hour and a half, as otherwise, by the time everything was straightened out, I think we would literally have missed the flight. Next year I suspect we will get there at least an hour sooner than we did this year, just to allow for United incompetence. But while it was nice to catch the plane, still, with all the delays, it was 11:30 at night by the time we landed in Bogotá.

I happened to be one of the first few people to clear customs, despite the fact that the aforementioned water bottle crate was pulled aside and opened up by the customs folks; but fortunately among the welcoming throng outside the customs hall I recognized, from earlier Skype meetings, our local contact, though I could not remember that his name was Jeisson (pronounced “Jason”). You will get to know Jeisson, and his wife Tatiana and son Mathew, quite a bit better as we go along; but here is a picture for you. Tatiana is the one on the left. (As we also had an American Matthew on the trip, throughout this post I will call the Colombian Mathew “Mateo” and the American Matthew “Matt,” so that you Gentle Readers will know which one I’m talking about without having to count t’s.)

Delgados giving their testimony cropped

Tatiana, Jeisson, and Mathew (Mateo) Delgado. I am not sure what it is that Mathew is feeling skeptical about.

Helen’s initial notes from the Houston airport include, “我喜欢这样的队伍,好几个家庭在一起,男女老少混搭,年龄从8岁到60岁,从每个人那里都可以学到不同的东西” – “I like this team. Several families are together, and there is a mix of men and women and children, aged from eight to sixty. From each person you can learn different things.” This proved true during the trip; we took turns giving morning devotions and I, at least, found something of value in every single one. And let me say right now that this was a team of truly awesome people, and that we went through an intense week, in a foreign country where half of us didn’t speak any of the language and frequently in highly dangerous neighborhoods thereof, getting up at 6:30 or so every morning and working straight through until going to bed after 11:00 every night – and I can honestly say that there was pretty much no conflict that I was aware of. Even the eight-year-old sister and ten-year-old brother – to their parents’ expressed astonishment – didn’t get into arguments, “even,” per their mom, “back in the hotel room where it was just us.” A remarkably unselfish team that could not have more beautifully lived out Philippians 2:1-4.

Bogotá

If you were looking for a place to retire, and the only things you cared about were climate and natural beauty, Bogotá would be a pretty tough place to beat. Near the equator, but on a savanna plateau at slightly more than 8,000 feet of elevation, and therefore a consistently comfortable mid-seventies Fahrenheit year-round, it is a lovely place, as long as you don’t mind the facts that (a) you are high enough to be in the clouds whenever they drift by and (b) when you are inside a cloud, that basically means you are getting rained on.

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What the natural environment of Bogotá looks like once you are no longer in Bogotá

But there is the small matter of people, and while the people we dealt with were lovely, there are plenty of nasty folks around. Crime rates, while much lower than they were at the height of the civil wars, are still high even in the better parts of town, and in the bad parts…well, time for some bullet points, don’t you think?

  • When, later in the week, I collected prayer request from the five teenaged boys who had been selected for the youth leadership camp our team led, four of the five included prayers for “mi seguridad” – “my safety.” I asked Kai, admittedly rhetorically, whether when somebody was asking him for his prayer requests, it had ever occurred to him to worry that when he left home for school he might not get there alive…oddly enough, it never had.
  • The school we visited, in the barrio of Cazuca, was a fortress, plain and simple. Only one way in, so far as I could tell, and that was through a steel door, complete with an armed guard, that was unlocked only when somebody was going in or out.
  • The church we went to on Sunday morning asked us to pray for the police in that barrio, since several of them had recently been assassinated. And I’ll tell you a story that more than anything else brought home to me the situation these people live in, a little bit further on.

Slightly more than seven million of Colombia’s 49 million people live in Bogotá; so, you know, not really this small-town boy’s kind of place. The Houston metropolitan area also has right at seven million; but then Houston spreads ‘em out across 10,000 square miles, as opposed to Bogotá’s…anybody want to guess? If you guessed 613 square miles, give yourself a gold star. So, imagine a hotel ballroom with 700 of your closest Houstonian friends. Now add 11,000 Colombians into that same room – and welcome to Bogotá!

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Bogotá, from the Cazuca barrio

From Helen’s notes: “大部分的时候我感觉好像回到二三十年前我的故乡小镇。这些年中国的经济真是腾飞了。” – “Most of the time I feel like I am back to my home town twenty or thirty years ago. China’s economy has really taken off in these years.” From this I presume she thinks that Colombia’s economy has plenty of economic runway left, so to speak; and considering that they have spent the last half-century engulfed in a devastating civil war, it’s hardly a surprise.

Helen, by the way, was pretty trepidatious about this trip. (I am very disappointed, by the way, to find out that I did not just make that word up; somebody else seems to have beaten me to it.) We were going to Colombia pretty much because I had felt led to go to Colombia, much to her mystification. Her comment, or more accurately prayer:

宣教对我不陌生,只不过一直用的是我得心应手的母语文字和声音。这是第一次参加团队短宣,而且是到一个语言完全不通的国家。心里不是没有忐忑和疑惑,西班牙语我听不懂,也不能和别人沟通,神啊,somehow你将这个意愿放在我们夫妻心里面,可是,我能为你做什么呢?但是也知道神一定有祂的美意,祷告,等候,完全交托,且看祂的作为。

“I’m no stranger to sharing the gospel, but I have always used my native language and voice. This is my first time to be part of a short-term ministry team, and to a country where the language is completely beyond my reach. I don’t have any uneasiness or doubts in my heart. I don’t understand Spanish. I can’t communicate with others. God, somehow, you put this direction into our hearts, but what can I do for you? But I also know that God must have His good intentions. Pray, wait, fully trust, and see His works.”

Of course the real reason we were going to Colombia was that I had never previously been to South America. Five continents checked off now, with only Africa and Antarctica to go! I imagine Helen will go to Africa with me if I buy her a ticket, but considering that she thinks 50° is unacceptably wintry, I’m pretty sure that when I go to Antarctica I’ll be on my own.

Sunday, 21 July

Although it had been well after midnight when we reached the hotel the previous night, we were, you know, a church group; so skipping church on Sunday was not an option. Sadly, we were in Colombia, so there was no good coffee to be had for breakfast.

This, I hope you know, is as tongue-in-cheek a statement as any human being in history has ever uttered. I, who drink pretty much only café latte after years of being scarred by drinking the paint-stripping concoction that passes for Sunday morning coffee in the typical Episcopalian church, drank straight black coffee by the gallon without complaint all week. One member of the team who can’t drink coffee in America without suffering immediate digestive difficulty started the week by tasting the coffee out of curiosity. Having suffered no ill effects, he tried a bit more. By the end of the week he was insouciantly swilling down cup after cup – which tells you that, whatever our coffee here in America has lost in flavor during its travels, it has apparently gained back in impurities.

But if you do want a café latte…well, if you go to the Juan Valdez coffee shops instead of Starbucks (of course Bogotá has Starbucks; Easter Island presumably has a Starbucks, but why you would go to Starbucks in a country with Juan Valdez coffee shops I can’t imagine), then they will very cheerfully include a healthy dose of Bailey’s if you ask for it. I’m telling you, when you’re inside a drizzling cloud at 8,000 feet of elevation and the temperature has momentarily dropped to the high sixties, it is not easy to think of anything more purely enjoyable than a steaming cup of well-and-truly-Irishified Juan Valdez café latte.

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Sunday mornin’ church bus. All those smiles you see? Behold the power of Colombian coffee.

Conviventia, our local partner, had arranged for us to go to a small church smack in the middle of the Ciudad Bolívar district, which has well earned the designation of “notorious.” Although we didn’t realize it at the time, I think this church actually is only about a ten-minute walk from one of their two Bogotá schools, Colegio Dios Es Amor Alto Lucero (“God Is Love School, Alto Lucero”) – but it is a dangerous ten minutes, and we didn’t actually go visit the school. I believe they picked this church because it was holding a post-service event for the benefit of the neighborhood children, and they thought we would enjoy participating. It was a bold choice, however, because this was a very nasty barrio indeed; and now we get to the story I promised you earlier.

The event was fairly simple: the church rolled out onto the neighborhood street (there being very little four-wheeled vehicular traffic) a sheet of white butcher paper maybe five feet wide and fifteen feet long. They weighted it down with rocks, and then brought out lots of paintbrushes and an ample supply of watercolors – so that the neighborhood children could have a day to, as the pastor put it, pintar sus sueños, which is to say, paint their dreams.

Now, we had been warned while still Stateside that we would be going to some very dangerous parts of town, and that we should always do exactly what Conviventia’s highly professional security team told us to do. In particular, we memorized the phrase, “It is time to go,” because if ever Security Dude Jimmy were to stick his head into whatever house or room we were working in and say,  “It is time to go,” this bloody well meant it was time to drop whatever tools we might be holding, stand ourselves up, and go. Before this particular event in this particular barrio, it was carefully explained to us that there would be one member of the security team standing down the street a bit from the painting, and another standing up the street a ways, and that we were not to go past either of those two gentlemen, as doing so would put us in danger.

So we come out of the church, and the paper is laid out, and Jeisson and the pastor and the pastor’s wife are already there singing in Spanish, and children are beginning to gather. And I look for the guy down the street – and there he is, standing maybe ten yards at the most from the downhill end of the butcher paper. Then I look for the guy up the street – and I find him standing maybe twenty yards from the uphill end.

And that was the size of the space in which we were safe.

The night before, when the church visit plan was laid out for us, Helen…but let me use her own words. (“Mr. Pi,” by the way, is her Chinese name for me, for two reasons. First, it is the first syllable of Pí-èr-sī, which is close as you can get to transliterating “Pierce” into Chinese. And second, the character she chose for “Pi” is a Chinese character that basically means “obnoxiously mischievous.” So to thousands of readers all over China, I am “Mr. Obnoxious.”)

昨晚领队说了今天要去当地一个小教会。我问皮先生是不是完全讲西班牙语,不会有翻译,他说应该是这样。我心里又开始嘀咕,哎呀,听不懂就没法给灵魂充电了,我还指望这个早晨给我一针强心剂,给我更多明白的指示呢……

“The leader said last night that we are going to a small church in the local area. I asked Mr. Pi if the service would be completely in Spanish, without an interpreter. He said that it would probably be like that. My heart began to groan again, oh, I can’t recharge my soul if I don’t understand what they’re saying. I also hope it will give me a shot of heart stimulant for this morning [translator’s note: now there’s a vivid spiritual metaphor for you, amiright? spiritual nitroglycerin…], give me more clear instructions…”

But when we walked into the service, the joy was so palpable – even though the church is surrounded by what comes very near to hell on earth – that almost immediately Helen was moved to literal tears. I didn’t hear anybody speaking in tongues, but otherwise the pew-jumpingest of Pentecostals would have found nothing to complain about, other than there being no pews to jump in the first place. It’s not just that, instead of having pews, they have plastic chairs: even the chairs don’t get unstacked from the wall until it is time to sit down for the sermon, since up until that point the chairs would just get in the way of the dancing. In fact they actually have a sort of official church theme song-and-dance. That song-and-dance lasts a good two or three minutes at a tempo I can only describe as “head-banging,” and as far as the motions one is required to perform, there is a little bit of something vaguely like The Macarena (for those old enough to remember that) and a nice long section of what is unmistakably The Twist (for those ancient enough to recognize the name “Chubby Checker”), plus some turning around in circles and some waving of hands and some not-quite-chorus-line kicking of feet, and finally a climax that is just straight-up jumping-up-and-down for at least thirty seconds. They got most of us Americans, plus the two Chinese, onto the stage to learn the dance, and took us all the way through it, and although I was having a little trouble breathing by the end (purely because of the half-again-as-high-as-Denver altitude, you understand – had nothing to do with incipient old age or anything), I was pleased to have pushed manfully through all the way to the finish line without stopping.

Then they said, “Now that you know it, let’s do it again!”

And it is only by the mercy of God that I lived to tell the tale.

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A service very much like a Russian Orthodox service, in the sense that everybody stands up — and in pretty much no other sense.

As far as Helen’s concerns go, here are her notes from the service:

危险区里面的小小教会。

以为听不懂。却流了很多眼泪。

跳舞歌唱。

上帝真好。

“A small church inside the danger zone.

I thought I wouldn’t be able to understand. But a lot of tears flowed.

Dancing and singing…

God is so good.”

And Jeisson was kind enough to translate the sermon for us; so I had been unduly pessimistic.

After church there was, as I said, the painting event. Quite a few children were there, enjoying themselves immensely. I found myself chatting with an older gentleman whose seven-year-old granddaughter was painting while he held her six-month-old sister in his arms. I have, I am sad to say, forgotten his name and the name of the baby, though I remember that the seven-year-old was Alejandra. A year ago he and his wife managed to get out of Venezuela with their two granddaughters, but the rest of the Venezuelan branch of his family is still there. And I suppose all you need to know about what Venezuela is like these days, is that living in that barrio where our safe zone was certainly no more than forty yards long, he felt that he had managed to provide his wife and granddaughters with a significant upgrade in personal security.

(By the way, I discovered this week that I actually still speak Spanish much better than I realized — for example, I could tell the whole story of how Helen and I met and fell in love and got married, over the course of a ten- to fifteen-minute conversation with young ladies who spoke no English at all. BUT — I can only speak Spanish when there is nobody there that I know can interpret!! To my immense annoyance, I find that my subconscious is quite lazy. I was happily chatting along with the aforementioned young ladies, and was well-launched into the story, when one of the translators came up because she wanted to hear the story too — and as soon as she was there, I started stammering around and searching for words and had to give up and tell it English while she translated. Then there was an interruption, and the group got reshuffled, and then later the two young ladies found me again sans interpreter, at which point I picked back up where I had left off and finished the story happily in Spanish. The human mind is a fascinating, and sometimes infuriating, thing. At any rate, it was in this conversation with the Venezuelan that I realized for sure that I would be able to talk well enough in Spanish to get by.)

(And, not to commit two parenthetical paragraphs in a row, but when I had Kai read this over for errors or for accidental offenses against the dignity of the younger generation, he got to the paragraph above and exclaimed, “That’s right! That happened to me too – if there was nobody around who could speak English, I found out I could speak a lot more Spanish than I had realized.”)

I think it was at this point that Helen really began to realize that she might not need to speak Spanish to still do some good, though I don’t know why she had ever had any doubts, considering that she would certainly say that my going with her to visit Chinese cancer patients and just smiling a lot, does the patients good, even though my Mandarin is patently inadequate for serious conversation. I brought her over and introduced her to my Venezuelan acquaintance, and the next thing I knew the baby was no longer with us, Helen having made off with the child and taken her over to be surrounded and cooed over by all the adult women of the team.

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Helen and the little Venezuelan girl. In the background, Tiffany is very clearly saying, “Awwwwww…”

But more importantly to my mind, I think the whole experience at this barrio church, this island of joy in a sea of poverty and violence, showed her that even if God didn’t use her to change Colombia, He could still use Colombia to change her. Her note from the painting event was very simple:

为孩子们祷告。流泪。

“Pray for the children. Tears.”

When the painting event was over, we all crowded briefly into the single room that Pastor Juan Carlos, his wife, and his two daughters share, in the ground floor of a building that is literally under construction as the church members try to build, with their own hands, a place to have Sunday School and other events, especially for the neighborhood children.

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Sunday School in our host church’s current children’s facilities, from the roof of the future children’s facilities

Helen was deeply moved by the fact that they simply invited us into their home with neither hesitation nor pretension. If an American invites you to his house – and this is true chez Pierce/Yang, I cheerfully admit – then it is likely to have been planned far enough in advance for the house to be well and truly gussied-up first. So when the pastor’s family invited us en masse into their under-construction living quarters without a moment’s hesitation, Helen, deeply touched, jotted down this:

牧师开放他的家,很破旧,很让人心疼。

“The preacher invited us into his home, very humble, very distressing.”

By “distressing,” she simply means she – and the rest of us as well, for that matter – was profoundly moved by the conditions this family lives in, by their own choice. For in fact this family does not have to live in this neighborhood; they do not have to live in a half-constructed building clinging precariously to a dangerously mudslide-prone mountainside; that father does not have to live every day knowing the danger his two daughters are in from the violence that surrounds them. But they choose to do it anyway, out of love for and commitment to the people in that barrio who need hope.

And they do it with joy. For the dominant impression I took away from that church was not poverty, or danger, or even the chaos of construction. What I think of first when I think of that Sunday morning, is joy.

They even had a gift for our team. Somewhere, they had managed to find somebody to make a custom coffee mug (this is, after all, Colombia), with the Sugar Creek Baptist Church logo on it, and with the sort of technology that causes the cup to change from dark blue to white when it gets hot. They actually apologized that they only had one such cup, to give to our team leader Shoby, rather than having twenty so that everyone on the team could have his own! Of course the color trick had to be demonstrated, which they did by filling the cup with steaming hot Colombian coffee, just before we said our good-byes and boarded the bus to leave for lunch. Shoby then very selfishly kept it all for himself rather than passing it around. But God cannot be mocked; a man reaps what he sows, and in short order the bus hit one of Colombia’s world-class road bumps and Shoby spilled coffee all over himself, to the immense satisfaction of…well, at least one team member, Harlan Thistlewaite (the name has been changed to protect myself).

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Looking uphill from the roof of the future Sunday School building…

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…and looking downhill. (Note, by the way, that these last two pictures, having been taken five seconds or so apart, illustrate well the variability of the weather from one hour to the next.)

After we left the church, we got back onto the Avenida Boyacá to head back toward the upscale part of Bogotá, and here we saw something that I couldn’t make a lot of sense of at the time: there was a cable car setup that ran above the houses off to our left and back up into the hills of Ciudad Bolívar. But the hill it was running to wasn’t that high, as hills in Bogotá go, and as far as I could tell it didn’t even go all the way to the top. That mystery wasn’t solved until after I got home, and discovered that it is actually “TransMiCable” — it is part of their public transit system! One guy was saying that riding that seventy-cent-per-day cable car from his home neighborhood to his workplace downtown had cut an hour-plus commute down to ten minutes.

Look, not to go all political here, but this is brilliant. I can’t imagine how much cheaper this is than putting in a train system, just on the cost of buying the land alone — all you need is the land that you put the posts on. You could do this in Houston, as far as that goes. (Bogotá stole the idea from Medellín, I believe; so props to the medellinos.)

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Approaching the Juan Pablo II TransMiCable station in Ciudad Bolívar (image credit IDU Bogotá)

The last item on the agenda was sorting out all of the in-kind donations that generous persons had sent along with us in all that extra baggage, in preparation for the trips to the orphanage on Monday, to the Cazuca homes on Tuesday, and to the youth leadership camp on Wednesday.

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The Big Sort. Left to right: Shoby, Jude, Jesid, Tiffany, Analisa, Megan, Matt, the Peril. Helen is behind the camera.

That night, after all the group agenda was done for the day and we were alone in our room, we talked and prayed about several things, one of which was how Helen still was not sure what she could do on the trip:

Kenny为我祷告,在我不能说,也听不懂,好像什么也做不了的时候,就让我成为一个器皿,感受爱,传递爱。

“Kenny prayed for me. When I can’t say anything, when I can’t understand anything, when I can’t do anything…let me be a vessel, feel love, and pass on love.”

This prayer would certainly be answered over the course of the week.

Monday, 22 July

On this day we visited a remarkable orphanage. There are limits on what I can legally say about it and I am not sure what they are. So I will keep it pretty short and generic: I spent several years working with orphanages in Kazakhstan, and I was not prepared for this one, which was not just extremely well-run, but very surprisingly well-funded as well. My actual thought, at one point, was, “Holy cow, this is a rich orphanage.” I think basically it is rather famously one of the best-run orphanages in Colombia, and has been the locus of hundreds of international adoptions over the years; and so at this point it gets a lot of private funding, both from adoptive parents who are grateful and from visitors such as myself who go away confident than no money donated to this orphanage, at least, will be wasted.

One of the babies in particular laughed delightedly from behind the big plate-glass window whenever anyone from the group made eye contact with him and waved or blew kisses at him. Helen came away asking me about adopting that particular child, but fortunately she had neglected to get either a picture or a name (she isn’t even sure whether the child was a boy or a girl); so I think I am safe.

We have a list of names of children we met that we are now praying for regularly, but I really don’t know whether I am allowed to share the names with you; so I think I will have to stop with that. Though I really, really wish I could share with you the way young Amanda Finnigan, one of our eighteen-year-old team members, ministered to two of the most vulnerable of the orphans we met, without I think even realizing at the time how powerful and meaningful her actions were. I said before that we had a team full of awesome people; I will be more specific now and say how deeply impressed I was in particular with the young people on our team, from the eight-year-old up to the persons of college age.

But as I really don’t know what details can be shared about that orphanage visit, I will play it safe by not sharing any.

What I can do, is take this opportunity to tell you just a little bit about the Delgado family: Jeisson, Tatiana and Mateo. I will not tell you their really quite powerful testimony in any detail, as I feel it is theirs to share rather than mine, and I would be sure to get some parts of it wrong despite my best efforts. To provide a very high-level summary only: Jeisson is a former drug addict who has been clean for many years now, and who was freed from the habit, despite having no money for treatment, through the prayers and encouragement of Tata, who stayed with him throughout the cold-turkey withdrawal process, constantly urging him to repeat with her over and over the Scripture text, “Greater is He that is in me…” Their son Mateo, who speaks English fluently despite being only I think thirteen, and who is an accomplished violinist studying at the national conservatory, is a leukemia survivor – and I actually think the Delgados would say that leukemia is not the greatest physical battle Matt has had to fight, as he spent almost a year of his infancy wearing an oxygen mask. Tatiana herself suffered grave complications from pregnancy and childbirth, with physical consequences that she will live with for the rest of her life. There was a point in Mateo’s early childhood, when things were at their worst, where during the times when Tata’s medication was not causing hallucination but Jeisson was high, she would keep Jeisson away from the baby; and conversely during the times when Tata’s medication was causing hallucination but Jeisson was not high, Jeisson would keep her from “saving” the baby by tearing off the tiny oxygen mask. In all fully literal seriousness, I do not know how they all three came out of that year alive, and mentally mapping the three remarkable people sitting in front of you to the three desperate people whose story is being told is almost a psychological impossibility. So you can see how, when the Delgados shared their story with us over lunch at the orphanage, they held their audience rapt.

The story of Jeisson and Tatiana’s romance is pretty delightful to the romantically inclined, although I have had to make them promise they will not tell it to any of my unmarried daughters. (Tata married Jeisson over her parents’ objections, as he was a drug addict when they met and fell in love, and I most certainly do not want my unmarried daughters hearing any stories in which a young lady marries a drug addict over her parents’ desperate objections and the story turns out to have a happy ending.) Maybe someday, if the Delgados give me permission, I may tell the whole story here on the blog.

But what is truly impressive about the Delgados is not their past, but their present. Jeisson and Mateo both are as fluent in English as any non-native speakers you are likely to meet, and Jeisson is besides a self-taught guitarist at the near-professional end of the amateur spectrum. (It is obvious that Mateo’s musical talent is inherited.) And while Tata’s English is still rudimentary (she is rather annoyed with her menfolk because they lack the patience to speak English with her), there is so much happiness within and around her that you enjoy being with her even if you can’t carry on much of a conversation. In fact Tatiana, more than anyone I can think of off the top of my head other than Helen herself, makes me think of that famous passage from John Ruskin’s lecture “Sesame and Lilies”:

Have you ever considered what a deep under meaning there lies, or at least may be read, if we choose, in our custom of strewing flowers before those whom we think most happy? Do you suppose it is merely to deceive them into the hope that happiness is always to fall thus in showers at their feet?—that wherever they pass they will tread on the herbs of sweet scent, and that the rough ground will be made smooth for them by depth of roses? So surely as they believe that, they will have, instead, to walk on bitter herbs and thorns; and the only softness to their feet will be of snow. But it is not thus intended they should believe; there is a better meaning in that old custom. The path of a good woman is indeed strewn with flowers: but they rise behind her steps, not before them. “Her feet have touched the meadows, and left the daisies rosy.”

As far as Mateo’s maturity, poise, and talent…well, here’s the young man himself, back when he was eleven years old, in his own (Spanish) words. Seriously, stop right now and watch this video.

In the meantime, Jeisson’s primary job with Conviventia is coordinating visits from foreign supporters such as our team, and he is fearsomely competent at it. And I’ll tell you this: if he were not fearsomely competent, he wouldn’t be in that position, because Conviventia is probably the most impressive non-profit organization I have ever dealt with. They do really difficult work, under extreme conditions; but they have been doing it for fifty years, and they know all the things that can go wrong, and they have policies and procedures in place to deal with all of it and (what’s even more important) they follow those policies and procedures. And I could not agree more with their philosophy, which is that the barrios cannot be changed by organizations and do-gooders, but only by the people who actually live in the barrios, and therefore the role of their organization must be to inspire and equip the people of the barrios themselves to lead change, rather than for Conviventia to change the barrios. They are, it seems to me, the absolute embodiment of what a Christian ministry in a place like Colombia should be. I can’t say enough about them.

The result was that this mission trip was ridiculously easy for the American team, because Conviventia had absolutely everything in place for us. And this was true even though as we went through the week the plans had to be changed several times – every night (I know because I happened to be sitting nearby reading a book on one occasion) Jeisson and Shoby were up until nearly midnight going over the schedule for the next day, re-evaluating it, adjusting it, tweaking it…and the next day, from the perspective of the team, things would roll smoothly along as if the plans had been set in stone a month earlier. Really bloody impressive, and I’m glad I decided to read in the hotel lobby that particular evening so that I could appreciate what went into making it look so easy.

For lunch we went to a place called Crepes and Waffles, where I had their “sombrero” crepe, which turned out to be a world-beater of a savory crepe, and where, more importantly, we were lucky enough to share a table with Jeisson and Tatiana, over a long lunch during which we traded how-we-met-our-spouses stories, and at the end of which Helen and I were unequivocally members of the Delgado Family Fan Club. Later, we found out something else about the Crepes and Waffles chain that moved Helen very deeply: for years, as a deliberate choice and a way to make a difference as well as a profit, they only hired single mothers to serve tables.

There is only one other thing memorable about Sunday (for me, I mean), and that is the hat. Tragically, on Saturday afternoon I had left my heroically faithful hat from the Mount Evans expedition on the airport bus, and I fear it is gone forever. Farewell to a good and faithful servant there. But this left me at 8,000 feet of elevation with no hat, and I did not want to have to spend the week with a face slathered in sunscreen. So when we stopped at a marketplace on the way to the hotel, I bought a hat, based one sole, single, solitary, lone requirement: I wanted the biggest brim goin’. The first guy wanted about $40. I went literally around the corner and found the same hat in a different shop where the guy sold it to me for about $20. I presume the first guy could tell I was American and the second guy thought I was Colombian. I blame Helen, who was with me when I went to the first shop, and was not with me when I went to the second. That woman just doesn’t have any marketplace-bargaining skills at all…

(This, for those of you who don’t know us, rivals the bit about Colombia not having good coffee for tongue-in-cheekiness, as Helen, having grown up Chinese, is highly skilled at that whole game, while I hate bargaining with the heat of a thousand suns and never make more than one counteroffer because nothing one can buy is so valuable that it makes up for the hassle of having to bargain for it, is what I say.)

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¡Sal de mi cesped!

(Oh, by the way, I wasn’t…I mean, Harlan Thistlewaite wasn’t really happy to see Shoby spill coffee on himself. I just couldn’t resist the chance to give Shoby a hard time.)

Tuesday, 23 July

Conviventia and the team of social workers they employ / are associated with (I am not clear on the details of the arrangement) make some four hundred visits a year to the homes of families in crisis – for example, when the head of the household has just died, or when the part of the mountain their house was attached to has sought greener pastures at a lower elevation and has taken the house with it, or what-have-you. They deal with about forty families a year, making around ten visits across the space of several months, until the family is through the crisis. On this day we began by going to the barrio of Cazuca, which I think is close to where Jeisson grew up, to visit the Colegio Dios Es Amor Cazuca (the “God Is Love School, Cazuca”), one of the four K-12 schools Conviventia runs in Bogotá, Cartagena, and Baranquilla. This is the school I referred to earlier as a “fortress.”

July 20th is Colombian Independence Day, but the school, knowing we were coming, had decided to postpone their celebration until we could be there to join in. When we arrived, there were four boys and four girls in the main courtyard, all in their blue school uniforms, practicing a traditional Columbian dance with attitudes, and do so in attitudes that varied amusingly by sex. The young ladies were concentrating very hard; but the young men, who I think must have been very recent recruits, wore an attitude of well-meaning but resigned hopelessness: they did not really know the dance, and they did not expect to know the dance in time to perform it for the Americans. But they had a decently, cheerfully resigned attitude about it: clearly they were willing to do their best and let the chips fall, so to speak.

I found myself singing “The Dance of the Cucumber” under my breath. By the way, my experience, confirmed on multiple occasions, is that you have not really seen anybody truly enjoy “The Dance of the Cucumber” until you have shown it to a Latin American. This useful social tidbit comes to you free of charge. “Es como mantequilla en un chango pelón…” And if you don’t know what I’m talking about…just google it. It’s okay, Bob the Tomato provides a running translation into English for you.

Actually, I’ll save you the trouble of googling:

In due course we were escorted to the table of honor in the courtyard, and naturally within minutes of our being seated, as the children, having finished the Colombian national anthem, were well launched into the school song, it began to rain, very lightly, just enough to let you know it was there. This is not going to discombobulate any self-respecting bogotano, of course. I put on my hat and considered the situation adequately dealt with, but the school principal wasn’t going to have the guests of honor get even a little bit wet. So in a jiffy the table had been moved back under the overhang of the balconies that surround the courtyard and that give you as much covered area as open area.

Then the same eight young people we had seen practicing made their entrance, the girls now in full-skirted white dresses. To much applause, they performed their dance, which was a sort of ballroom dance rather reminiscent of what you see in English “period” films. Then they turned and made their way to our table, where each of the young men invited one of our group’s ladies to join them and learn the dance, while each of the young ladies…also invited one of our group’s ladies to join them and learn the dance. I did not confirm this, but I very strongly suspect that dancing with Not Properly Introduced Male Persons, even Not Properly Introduced Male Persons whose Christian moral character is unimpeachably vouched for by the school authorities, is something that respectable young ladies in Colombia simply Do Not Do. Or maybe the girls were just embarrassed teenaged girls.

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Dancing, if not singing, in the rain

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Shara Hartman learns to dance like a Colombian

From the school, we broke into teams based largely on families (thus Helen and Kai and I were one team), and were assigned a translator and social worker; and then, one group at a time, we were escorted by the security team to one of the homes of the families Conviventia is working with. Other teams got their hands dirty – I think the Hartman family (Matt, Shara, Jude and Emily, the latter two being the ten- and eight-year-olds I have already mentioned as having been surprisingly noncombative) helped paint a kitchen purple, though I may not have that right. I think the original plan was for us to help deal with the fact that the Maldonado family’s next-door neighbor shared a wall with them but hadn’t gotten around to adding the second story, and the water was flowing off of his roof into the Maldonados’ wall. They were putting in a moisture collection system, and digging a trench in the floor to lay the pipe in order to drain the water out to the front of the house and into the street; and I think we were meant to help…but Helen blew that plan, if it was the plan, sky-high.

For when we stepped into the downstairs room of the house, the first thing we saw was a very large, and quite astonishingly well-executed, painting of a horse. And when we climbed upstairs to the kitchen and primary living quarters, there were paintings everywhere.

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Sadly, thanks to very bad planning, this is the only picture we got of the horse painting. See there, right between Luisa and Kai? It’s a horse!
Left to right, back row: Marcela, Fabian (that is, second-oldest son), Diego (third-oldest son), Helen, Luisa, the horse, Kai, Esteban (youngest son), yours truly
Middle row: Edilma
Front row:
 I regret to report that I do not know the name of the dog. Or, for that matter, of the horse.IMG_1641

You could get this for your kid’s room…if you had space on the wall for a five-foot-tall, two-and-a-half-foot-wide painting of Iron Man

Now Helen, of course, is a talented painter herself, who plans to take a sabbatical next year from her podcasting to do nothing but paint. Meanwhile, the Maldonado household was established by Sr. and Sra. Maldonado, parents of four sons, the youngest of whom (at fifteen) is a musician, but the other three of whom were born to paint. The oldest began painting at three, pretty much because that was his vocation from birth, and having trained himself to paint, he went on to teach his younger brothers to paint as well. Sadly, he was felled by an out-of-the-blue heart attack at thirty-five years of age a few years ago; and the reason we were there that Tuesday afternoon, was that a couple of weeks earlier Sr. Maldonado, after twenty years’ faithful service as a custodian at the Conviventia school we had just come from, had succumbed to cancer.

Well, once Helen got into that room with those two young painters, they three were off and running, and there was no further work done while we were there. We looked at all the paintings; Helen dug out her phone and showed them her own work, on which both brothers made professional criticisms; they discussed the various properties of different media such as watercolor, pencil, crayon, acrylic, oil, and whatever else an enterprising person of good taste might apply to paper or canvas. At some point the social worker, who watched all of this with a smile both bemused and amused, herded us into the tiny little living room, and we learned an interesting tidbit about Fabian, the second son and therefore the middle of the three painters: until recently he had been in the army. This is a guy who, when he smiles, looks about ten years old; but I am reasonably confident that he could kill me bare-handed in twenty seconds or less.

Now, as most of this blog’s Gentle Readers are well aware, I am very proud of my U.S. Army son Rusty. That particular day I actually had originally donned the T-shirt I acquired at his graduation from basic training, which says simply, “KEEP CALM AND RETURN FIRE.” But at the last minute I changed my mind, and my shirt, because I like that shirt a lot and did not want to get paint on it.

Now I was regretting not having worn it; but I just had to tell Fabian about it. So I told him that I had a shirt with me in Colombia, and had almost worn it, that I got when visiting my son’s Army base. I explained about the old London Blitz “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, which I rendered (I was trying to speak Spanish) as “Cálmate y sigue,” which is probably not accurate, but close enough for government work. Then I said, “Pero MI camisa dice, ‘Cálmate y…’” But then I realized I had no idea how to say “return fire” in Spanish, so I fell back on English: “…return fire.”

And before our translator Luisa could translate, Fabian was already laughing. Because, Fabian may not speak English, and I may not speak Spanish very well. But we both speak Army, which is a more universal language than either of the other two – and he clearly knew exactly what “Cálmate y return fire” meant.

Before long, we had negotiated a tentative purchase of a painting that Fabian had painted, of Jesus holding a young girl whose head is nestled on his chest. I wanted it to be clear that this was a business transaction with someone we considered to be a professional and whose work we admired and thought would enhance our home, and not in any way an act of charity; and I also knew that mission-trippers’ buying things directly from the ministered-to is something that has been known to cause problems in the past. So we deferred to the social worker for the process to be followed. But Conviventia does have a process (no surprise there!), and on Saturday, a few hours before we made our way to the airport, Fabian and I met by Conviventia arrangement at the National Museum. And each of us surprised the other. For his part, Fabian showed up in a suit with a dashingly vivid pink tie for the business transaction, looking very dapper indeed.

And I gave him the “Keep Calm” T-shirt.

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Awesome tie, awesome shirt

Luisa, by the way, was a treasure. She was very nervous, as this expedition to the Maldonado home was her very first time to serve as an official translator. But she did a very good job, and as she stayed with the team the rest of the week, we got to know her reasonably well. Just a delightful young lady. I think she is angling for a permanent job with Conviventia; she has my enthusiastic recommendation if anybody asks. We certainly intend to stay in touch with her.

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Luisa and Helen, later in the week. Also a cow.

When it became obvious that there wasn’t going to be time for us to do any actual work at the Maldonado house, the social worker asked me to give some advice to the Maldonados on how to get through their time of bereavement. My own feeling was that they had already gone through losing the oldest brother and there probably wasn’t much I could tell them about the grieving process that they didn’t already know. I did my best, sharing how I got through my own worst time a decade ago, which was the divorce and bankruptcy. I hope it did them some good. But I think probably Helen, with her painting conversation and her enthusiasm, did them a lot more good than I did.

From Cazuca we made our way to the vocational school where Conviventia trains people in trades such as sewing, baking, hairdressing, jewelling, etc., many of the trainees being women Conviventia has helped escape the sex trade. Since the vocational center is more or less in the middle of the red light district (this was another place where we were shepherded very carefully indeed by the security staff, who made sure the bus was off the street and behind the locked iron gates before they let us disembark), the women in question don’t have to go very far. This is also where Conviventia does most of its microinvestment work, if I have my facts straight. As an aside, their building has the only decently-sized auditorium in the area, and so this is where most of the local schools hold their graduation ceremonies – which Conviventia lets them do without any rental fee.

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Shara, Jude, and Emily on the left, and Jeisson on the right, briefly join a sewing class

Finally, by Tuesday evening, we had made our way out of Bogotá proper, and were ensconced in a very pleasant little hotel in Tabio, a couple hours’ drive north and east, out past the urban sprawl and into a countryside of fields and horses and a two-mile wide valley bounded by precipitous, tree-covered hills on each side. This would be our base for the next three days, as we led a leadership training camp for twenty-eight young people who represented the cream of the student crop in Conviventia’s two Bogotá high schools.

Wednesday, 24 July

The three-day leadership seminar was the primary reason for the trip. Conviventia owns a lovely little retreat on an isolated back road in the small valley drained by the Rio Frio (the “Cold River,” and I bet it is, though I didn’t manage to sneak away and find a swimming hole). Until very recently this retreat was a shelter for battered women, but for reasons unknown to me the government changed its policies a few years ago and required all such private centers to be shut down. So the facility has been repurposed into a retreat center, and last year Conviventia and Sugar Creek held their first youth leadership camp, as a pilot project. Clearly they considered it a success, as we were back this year, bigger and I hope at least as good.

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Looking from the retreat center out across the soccer field toward the southwest. Bogotá is behind those mountains; the peak right in the middle is about 800 feet higher than where Kai is standing as he takes this picture.

Now, I am reluctant to say too much about the young people we got to know over there, because they are minors and I don’t have their parents’ permission. So I sadly will not be showing pictures, or sharing last names, of such delightful persons as the two Natalias, or Angelina Stefanía (whose name I remember primarily, I have to admit, because I have a granddaughter named Angelina and a sister named Stephanie), or Paster Juan Carlos’s two daughters Alejandra and Suyi (both of whom, we were delighted to discover, had made the cut), or Daniel, or Camilo or Oscar or Erick Fabian, or Edisson, whom I would describe as “incorrigible” if it weren’t for the fact that I know something of his personal history and know that he was one of the five boys selected, precisely because, over the last year, he has dramatically corrijated himself. (Mateo, if you are practicing your English by reading this: that last word is one I just made up for fun; so don’t kill yourself with a dictionary.)

I didn’t get to know all of the kids very well, because each team member was assigned to concentrate on a small group of four or five kids. Matt Hartman and I, assisted by Jesid (I’ll introduce you momentarily) and Kai, with Mateo Delgado as our translator, obviously got to know the five boys, and this is a good a time as any to say how deeply impressed I was with Matt’s tenacity in getting to know the boys despite the language barrier. I could carry on a lot of the conversation with them in Spanish, while if Matt knows twenty words in Spanish that’s ten more than I knew he knew; but I think in the end Matt knew each of those boys and his needs better than I did.

Meanwhile Helen’s notes dry up once we get to this point, because she was focused so intently on her girls. So I got to know the girls in her group reasonably well…because they asked her how a Chinese lady had ever come to be married to an American guy, and then they enjoyed the story so much (to be fair, it’s a pretty good story) that they all came and found me and asked me to give them my version.

The other kids, insofar as I got to know them, I got to know on the soccer field, except for Natashenka, about whom, and about how she and I became friends, I will say more later.

As I have mentioned Jesid, this seems a good time to mention the other team members as well. I’ll start with the young people, whom I was impressed by but whom I didn’t get to know all that terribly well because, let’s face it, I’m an old dude. I will just give quick thumbnail sketches, as I would hate to do anybody an injustice. You should get to know these people yourselves, as they are very fine people indeed.

Jesid Post is I think just out of college. He actually is Colombian as well as American, having been adopted from Colombia when he was already a teenager. One of the high points of the trip for the younger set came on Saturday, when Jesid’s older brother, who still lives in Bogotá, met up with us for a brotherly reunion and spent the afternoon hanging out with the younger generation. Jesid works as an extreme physical trainer, I think doing the American Ninja Warrior training stuff, and I understood him (perhaps wrongly) to be a practitioner of parkour; so he was a hit with our five young male campers. And for good measure he played guitar in the worship band.

Jesid was not the only Colombian adoptee on the team: Ana Del Toro adopted her son Jonathan back when he was a baby, I think eleven or twelve years ago, from an orphanage in Bogotá. This was the first trip back to Colombia for either of them, and I think on Sunday Ana was actually rather more overwhelmed by emotion than she had expected to be. Helen in particular got to spend quite a bit of time with Ana and enjoyed her company immensely.

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Helen with Ana

Then we have the four young ladies whom I, in defiance not merely of fact but even of simple logic, privately referred to as “the four twins,” which helped me keep count when all twenty of us plus translators were en route someplace on foot and I was helping Jeisson and Shoby make sure nobody got mislaid along the way.

Megan and Analisa Villareal are sisters (not twins) who speak Spanish; they both did a very good job as presenters during the training, while Megan was in charge of the Thursday night dance party. After the trip Shoby asked if I had any recommendations for next year’s trip; when I sent him my list, one of them was, “DJ Megan’s return with next year’s team is not optional. You can tell her I said so. That dance party was a grand slam.”

UPDATE: I am told by Kai that the DJ was Analisa rather than Megan. Hey, all people under thirty look alike to me.

Then there were the Awadin sisters, Emily and Kayla, who are very sweet and very enjoyable company indeed. I think Emily, being eighteen, has just graduated from high school; Kayla is the younger of the two. Emily also did one of the presentations, and did it well. But what is relevant to me (and that is all that matters because this is my blog after all) is that it’s a bit of a surprise that I had never met them, because we have for a couple of years been at a single degree of separation from them.  Our family are friends with Tony and Betty Halim; Kai has been hanging out with their son Dylan, and playing basketball and tennis with him, for three or four years now. It turns out the Awadins and the Halims are very close. So I think that, when we invite the Awadin family to dinner, we’ll have to invite the Halims as well.

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The Four Twins, Megan, Kayla, Emily, and Analisa, with Sunny in the middle

Our two most enthusiastic musicians were Amanda and Sunny, both brimming with personality and both with good voices, while Sunny also plays ukulele and guitar. Amanda is eighteen and I think Sunny is about to be a senior in high school. I have mentioned Amanda before with regard to how impressed I was with her at the orphanage; I now add to this that she did a really remarkably fine job of leading worship at the camp, and doing so in Spanish – which she has been working diligently at precisely so that she could serve in this capacity. Bless her heart, her first evening was rather a trial…

…partly because Sunny, bless her heart, accidentally ingested some milk on Wednesday morning, and as she is a severely lactose-intolerant vegan, it wiped her out all but instantly. We delayed leaving the hotel that morning, since the campers weren’t due to arrive until the afternoon anyway, and after half an hour and a few cups of medicinal tea, a still very shaky Sunny made her way to the bus and out to the camp with us. But, while she gamely hung in there at her table with the campers Wednesday evening, it wasn’t until Thursday morning that Sunny was really herself again.

Now this was a problem for Amanda on Wednesday evening, because she and Sunny are used to working together, and while Sunny did feel well enough to come up and help sing (though not play piano) in the second set, Amanda was vocally on her own in the first set. Jeisson is, as I have mentioned, a first-class musician; but the worship band that first night was composed of front-girl Amanda, Jeisson, Mateo on violin, Jesid on guitar, and, much to my own astonishment, me myself, on something called a “cajón,” which is a sort of hollow rectangular drum that you sit on and play with your bare hands. Now, I am an experienced musician, but I had never in my life served as a drummer in any capacity whatsoever, and as I say, when Shoby asked if I could play the cajón, I had to ask what a cajón might be. (I don’t think Shoby realizes this, because I think I managed to keep the surprise off my face, but at first I thought he had just asked, “Do you know how to play the cojón?” And if you don’t know why I would be taken aback by that, I am certainly not going to be the one who explains it to you.) So you had poor Amanda up there in front of a band where Jesid had never played with anybody on the stage, and Mateo had not played with anybody on the stage except his dad, and I not only had never played with any of the other musicians but was still trying to learn how to spell undisastrously, much less play, the instrument I was sitting on.

It…um…

Well, let’s just say that Amanda hung in there very bravely. That first session I was more of a liability than an asset, and a lot of the problem was that Jeisson, Jesid, Mateo and I were all trying to follow Amanda…but the song she spent the most time on was a song that had lots of drama to it, and therefore needed plenty of instrumental energy and movement underneath the vocals, but that had vocals consisting of lots of whole and half notes, meaning that by the time Amanda was ready to give us a downbeat by changing notes we instrumentalists tended to have drifted slightly apart. Amanda came over after that first session and very nicely asked me to put less syncopation into my cajóning so that the band could use a simple drumbeat to unify around; but by that time I had figured out that we instrumentalists shouldn’t each be trying to follow Amanda, but should instead be using Jeisson as a conductor, since we could take the offbeats from his strumming left hand and take the downbeats from his chord-changing right hand. So after that first session it was much better, I think. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be Amanda trying to figure out which of the various beats behind her she wanted to join in on, that first session.

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The worship team, doing better on the second try: Jeisson, Mathew, Jesid, Sunny, Amanda, the Peril

Also, as far as my playing the cajón goes: it didn’t occur to me that repeatedly pounding a wooden block nice and hard with your hands is not that easy on your hands. By the end of the second day both hands were not just sore, but reddened and visibly swollen. If I get roped into this again I’ll ask if anybody has gloves I can borrow…though come to think of it that might deaden the sound. Still, once I got past the initial stage of incompetence, it turned out to be pretty fun – for me, at least, though perhaps not for people who had to sing with a band that had me for a drummer.

I might add, as one further piece of evidence of how thoughtful Amanda is, the fact that she has very helpfully dyed her bangs a nice shamrock green. I appreciate this, because otherwise I don’t think there would be any way to deduce that young Miss Finnigan is Irish.

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Amanda with Kai. Amanda thought Kai was very funny with his whole Cool Dude schtick and started doing Cool Kevin impressions, with the result that…

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…by the end of the week, lots of folks were joining in on the fun

Sunny Orencia is, when not suffering from the Vengeance of Cows, as bubbly and energetic a young person as you are ever likely to meet; but I was most impressed by the way she went out of her way to make time to sit and have a quality conversation with each of the adults, at one time or another during the week. And it improved the worship team noticeably when she was back in the saddle at the piano, metaphorically speaking. (I am suddenly imagining what a piano saddle would look like, and now I think I want one.)

As this covers all the young people except for Jude and Emily Hartman, whom I have mentioned already, here’s a photo, which as a bonus includes Security Dude Jimmy.

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Back row, left to right: Emily H., Emily A., Megan, Jesid, Mr. Cool, Analisa, Kayla, Jonathan
Front row: Jude, Jimmy, Sunny, Amanda

Turning to the Olders And Wisers:

Tiffany Every is an old hand by now at these Colombia trips. Her enthusiasm for the Colombia trip, in the very first informational meeting that Kai and I attended back in January, went a long way toward helping us settle on Colombia rather than Honduras; so somebody needs to remind me to thank her. I think she has spent many years as a teacher; certainly she relates very well to the young girls despite being in Helen’s generation (which is one generation younger than my own).

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Tiffany and Analisa, ready to hike

Shirley Cleveland has sixty in her rearview mirror but the only way you would know that is by being told, because she certainly does not have any get-off-my-lawn in her. She has a great story about how she more or less accidentally became an airline flight attendant, and I was all set to be impressed by the big ending when she met her husband on an airplane…but it turned out that, while she did indeed meet her husband on an airplane, he was flying coach; so I declined to be that impressed. Now, if she had landed somebody in first class…

(I hope it is obvious that I am teasing. From what she said of her late husband Alan, I very much wish I could have met him.)

Shirley and Tiffany in church

Shirley (in black and yellow) and Tiffany in church on Sunday morning. For what it’s worth, you can also see Shara’s blonde hair, Sunny’s black eyes, and Emily’s left ear.

Cuba was represented by Clara Maya-Hernandez, who I would guess is in her late fifties or early sixties, but who gives Sunny herself a run for the money when it comes to energy. When I was a kid we used to tell the following joke:

Q: How do you make an Italian stop talking?

A: Make him sit on his hands.

If Clara is at all typical of her nation, then you could tell the same joke about Cubans. She was also an inspiration to Helen, because Clara came to America at forty-nine and went ahead and learned English anyway, making Helen feel that maybe she should consider learning Spanish despite being a grown-up, since forty-nine is still a long way in Helen’s future. Also, I think Clara, like Tiffany, is a teacher, and she is very engaged with the audience, and I think she is the type to be reading the audience’s eyes to see whether there is comprehension…because it was very entertaining watching her translate for Tiffany, at least for me personally. Helen is very much like Clara, in that both of them, when they translate, tend to forget that they are translating and not teaching, if they realize that that the audience is looking a little blank about the part that just got translated – and so they start adding explanations to the translations, because they really want the audience to get the point! You say a sentence about six words long, and then they “translate” for thirty seconds while you stand there wondering what exactly the audience is being told you just said. Before I had learned enough Mandarin to be able to follow along with what Helen was saying well enough to tell when she was about done with the extra commentary, I used to get completely lost; and watching Tiffany while Clara gesticulated and harangued and explained her way through thirty seconds of commentary on Tiffany’s most recent ten-word sentence, I recognized the same look of confusion I had worn myself many times in the past…and I was just sitting there wanting to tell Tiffany, “Just hang on, honey; when she’s done she’ll turn and look at you and then you’ll know you can say your next sentence…” But the kids ate it up whenever Clara talked, because one thing was for sure: you couldn’t not pay attention when that much energy was in the room.

(The really confusing thing about Helen’s translating for me used to be that, since she knew me well, she generally knew what I was going to say next, and often to save time she would just go ahead and translate the bit that she knew was coming up. Then I would make my next point, and she would just say, “I already told them that.” I don’t think Clara did that to Tiffany…)

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Helen with Clara

Shoby you have already met. Really an awesome dude, and now someone I consider a very good friend, even after just a week in harness together. In the past he has had his wife along to help with the logistics, and really, a twenty-person team is too much for one person to manage. He got it done, which was really very impressive indeed; but I think too much was asked of him, and I hope he has help next year.

It is, however, remarkably difficult for me to find any pictures of him, and the best I can do is to crop everybody else but him out of a group photo, thusly:

Shoby

And lastly, there are the Hartmans, whom you have met, and my very high opinion of whom I think has already been made clear. I will just add that I am pretty sure Shara, like Tiffany and Clara, is an experienced teacher. She certainly teaches as if she had plenty of experience. The Hartmans also have a deeply inspiring story, but one which I will leave to their own telling. This is partly out of politeness to them, but it is also because I would be embarrassed to try to tell their story, because I would not be able to tell their story nearly as well as Shara can tell Helen’s and mine. That woman has seriously black-belt listening skills – she heard our story, which is a very long one, on the bus one day, and then heard it again the next day when I told it to a different person…and then that evening, at dinner, when Matt asked how Helen and I met, I suggested that Shara should take a whack at telling the story. She not only agreed to try – she promptly reeled of the entire fifteen-minute spiel, practically word for word, and I think in the whole thing from beginning to end she only forgot one minor episode. Honestly I’d never seen anything like it. It must be really inconvenient to have a mom like that when you are a kid trying to remember what exactly you have previously said when trying to get out of trouble…

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Matt, Shara, Jude, and Emily. From the hats, one deduces that this is a family of tragically divided loyalties.

Before we leave this day, there is one further character who must be introduced, namely, the homicidal men’s restroom.

On our tour of the camp facility upon first arrival, the men’s restroom was pointed out to us, and shortly thereafter I decided to pay it a visit. I arrived at the first stall, looked down for the door handle, pushed the door open, and stepp—BLAM!

My teeth crashed together, unfortunately for my tongue, which happened to be between them, as I staggered backward and for a moment the world literally spun. I don’t think I blacked out, but for a moment I certainly lost track of where I was, until I realized I was leaning back against the wall, feeling like somebody had hit me firmly on the forehead with a nice solid two-by-four. I looked up…and there, at what would have been right about eye level had I been looking straight ahead rather than down, was the top of the door frame, which was an L-shaped steel bar about an inch on each side attached firmly and utterly immovably to the brick-and-mortar walls of the stall.

For a while I was actually concerned that I might have a minor concussion – my head hurt like a really bad migraine for the next couple of hours, and I had a terrible time staying awake. If I had ever felt nauseous I would have assumed I was literally concussed, but fortunately I never did, and after a couple of hours I came back fully awake and the headache receded (thought my tongue didn’t fully stop hurting until we were back in the States). Still, it’s been awhile since I’ve taken a whack like that.

Of course the first thing I did was head straight for the main room to warn the other men. But it turns out it is a hard thing to remember, when you are doing something as habitual and autopiloted as going to the bathroom, that any given bathroom contains a lurking menace. So, despite my warning, both Kai and Jesid had bounced their noggins off the bar themselves before the hour was out. And Matt came out the worst of all of us – he too forgot, but he was looking down at a steeper angle, and was hunched over slightly; so instead of banging square into the flat front of the bar the way I had, he walked under with the top of his shaven head at an angle, caught the sharp edge at the bottom, and opened the skin up enough that for a moment, when he came shamefacedly back to the main room with blood oozing from his new head wound, I thought he might need stitches. He wore a band-aid on top of his head the rest of the week.

The thing is, that bathroom wasn’t actually designed for men at all – the camp was designed, you’ll remember, as a home for battered women. And the previous year’s camp had been all female campers and, except for Shoby, an all-female team, and during that week that particular bathroom was not designated as a men’s room. So I was basically the first person ever to walk into that bathroom who wasn’t short enough to just walk under the bar without noticing it.

We decided, though, that it was a good thing that Matt and I had paid the price – because by the time the campers got there, we had festooned the bar with streamers, so that none of the campers clobbered themselves. The only unfortunate incident involving that bathroom during the camp came when the ever-irrepressible Edisson locked Camilo and Oscar in the bathroom as a practical joke; but that was hardly the bathroom’s fault.

The kids got there about 3:00, and by dinnertime, thanks to the table arrangement and to our each focusing on just a few kids apiece, we were already getting to know the kids reasonably well. What a fine bunch of kids – though, of course, the teachers and administrators at the Conviventia schools had spent the entire year watching and evaluating and choosing the best of the best – not the best leaders, you understand, but the ones that they felt had the most potential to be positive leaders.

I would talk about the dance party we had that night, but I have already mentioned that DJ Megan DJ Analisa had the house rockin’. I was particularly pleased to see several adults joining in, with very special props indeed going to Tiffany, who was inexhaustibly in the center of things all night long. Also, there was the delightful Esmid, who was the translator at Helen’s table, and whom we liked as much as we liked Luisa, which is saying a lot. Esmid did a lot of dance leading, for the group dances like…okay, I’m too old to know the names of those dances.

(It drove me crazy all week long because Esmid reminds me very much of somebody, but I can’t for the life of me think whom. And I had about decided that it was just an illusion like déjà vu, but then we got back to the States, and we were going through pictures with Sally, and we got to the first picture of Esmid – and Sally immediately said, “Hey, she looks familiar!” So apparently, whoever it is that Esmid reminds me of, Sally knows her too. But I still don’t know who that mystery person is.)

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The lovely and talented Esmid, who looks like…it’s on the tip of my tongue…

UPDATE: Having googled “Walk it to the left to the left to the left” I am now in position to say definitively that one of the dances was something called the “Cupid Shuffle.” Also the comments section for the YouTube recording I found is full of young people talking about how ancient the song is, since it apparently came out twelve years ago when they were all in grade school and therefore not, you know, the mature persons they are now. Lots of, “I remember that song from P.E.!” in those comments. Young people are so cute. As long as they are not on my lawn.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE WITH REGARD TO ESMID’S MYSTERY DOPPLEGANGER (morning of Sunday, 4 August): A moment ago I was coming out of the church coffee shop and happened to see standing in line my friend Rasha Sidarous…and boom! Mystery solved. I feel much better now.

Thursday, 25 July

Because I don’t feel I am free to talk too much about the kids, we will go through this day pretty quickly. This was a day of very intense training. I was pretty impressed with our team, frankly. I don’t think I could point at any of the presenters as a weak link. But let me tell you how Natashenka and I became friends…

My job for the day was to explain to the kids the principle of relational leverage, which is that you influence a lot more people than the ones you influence directly – because the people you influence, influence others, but without your initial influence the later influence never happens. I finished up and was giving the kids some time to draw up relationship maps of the people who were known by the people they knew directly, when Shoby mentioned an exercise he had seen used before, apologizing for not having thought of it in advance. I thought it was a great idea and decided to go ahead and do it; but I needed a volunteer, and had not had time to find one in advance. And it needed to be somebody sitting in the middle…so I took a flyer and picked the girl who was closest to the center of the group. This was Natalia-who-didn’t-sit-next-to-Helen, and it was instantly obvious that she was very shy, and for a moment I was afraid I had made a bad mistake. But she gamely rose to the occasion, and at the end of the exercise she won herself an enthusiastic round of applause from all persons present, and also my gratitude. At the next break, therefore, I sought her out to thank her, and then we got to talking about, of all things, Russian nicknames, and I pointed out that any Russian girl named Natalia is going to get called Natasha by her friends, and if relatives of older generations are feeling particularly happy with her she will be, at least temporarily, Natashenka. (When she is in trouble, then her Russian mother, like all mothers in all countries, will revert to her full name; but that is a different discussion.)

So there were two Natalias at camp that Helen and I got close to, the other being the delightful and impressive young lady who sat literally next to Helen at her table all week. But as far as I was concerned, there was Helen’s Natalia, and – from that conversation on – there was her friend Natashenka. Confusion resolved.

I will actually share a picture of the two Natalias, because this one is already on the internet:

Two Natalias

Helen’s Natalia, Natashenka, and serendipitously…that guy behind Natalia is Camilo! Too bad Natashenka was looking away from the camera, but even so you can tell she’s grinning ear to ear.

That afternoon I found myself in a soccer game as pretty much the lone adult, though Matt joined in for the first fifteen minutes or so (and I think, from his footwork, that he probably has played soccer in the past, besides coming in sixth in the state as a high school tennis player back in the day, as his very proud son Jude will be happy to inform you). At that elevation, there was no way I could run up and down the field; so I played goalkeeper, which, like the cajón, was another first – my second first of the week, as it were. (I wouldn’t have been able to run up and down the field at sea level, either, to be honest, but in Bogotá I can blame the elevation.) Natashenka, by the way, turns out to be a pretty fierce soccer player, and our American Ninja Warrior Jesid is a serious player indeed, who pretty much realized very early on that he had the entire field outclassed and tactfully dialed himself way back.

I also, for the first time in my life, saw a soccer ball actually duck to avoid being kicked. That is to say, one edge of the field was pitted with circular slope-edged holes about twice as deep as a soccer ball is tall. Poor Jonathan had chased a ball down, wound up, and made a mighty swing with his kicking leg – and just as his foot was about to make contract, the ball reached one of those holes and disappeared, causing him to swing himself half off his feet from the unexpected lack of contact. It really did look for all the world as though the ball just ducked the kick.

The evening ended with a bonfire, and some very serious emotional and spiritual business got done. As the details are rather private, I will keep them that way. But I think this is the right time to say that, while we did work very hard to equip these kids with knowledge and understanding about the qualities and habits that set good leaders apart, I believe our most important task was just convincing these kids that it was even possible for them to make a difference. I mean, these were very fine, very hard-working, very high-character kids…but when you are from Cazuca, it’s just a hard sell when somebody tries to tell you that you can make a difference to the world. But on the last day, as each camper had a chance to talk about what they had learned from the week, we heard more than one talk about how they had for the first time realized that they actually were somebody who had value and talent – and these were kids that you could see at a glance were first-tier kids. You felt like asking, “But how can you not know this already?”…except that we all understood, all too well, how a cruel and hostile world can attack a kid’s hopes and dreams. I think the week made a difference for more than one of those young people; and just one would have been worth the trip.

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It’s easier to stay warm if you huddle up close and giggle a lot

Two bonfire participants, and for once I’m not the one being silly

Friday, 26 July

Camp wrapped up on this day, after we got in a second nice game of soccer. But first, in the morning, we all hiked en masse the half-mile or so to the foot of the mountain that marks the southern edge of the Rio Frio valley. In order to make a point, Pastor Carlos, who was leading the hike, stopped to blindfold half of us when we got to the foot of the mountain, and we then got led by hand up a hundred fifty feet of elevation on a not very smooth path. Let me tell you, as one of the blindfolded contingent, it is way harder work climbing a mountain when you’re having to be constantly, literally, on your toes…

Blindfolded hikers and Matt

This is one of the very few pictures I have of the very self-effacing Matt Hartman, who does not usually look quite so Chuck Norris-y. I didn’t even know Matt possessed a Stare of Doom until I saw this picture…though I bet Jude and Emily have seen one before at some point.

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Taking in the view, certainly not from the top, but from as high up as we went

Also, at lunch, I was informed that I was to tell the story of how Helen and I met and got married once and for all, using the microphone so everyone could hear it. This is because Helen was on about her tenth go-round of having yet another young lady (student or translator) come up to say that she had heard our story was very romantic, and could Helen please tell her the story? As it takes a while to tell, she was very tired of telling it; so I told it one last time where everyone could hear. And as soon as it was over, all the kids started chanting, “¡Beso! ¡Beso! ¡Beso!” After few seconds, it sank in on them that Helen does not speak Spanish, and so the ones who knew English switched to, “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” promptly followed by the non-English-speaking, but skilled-in-mimicry, rest of the campers. Helen, being a good sport, got out of her chair and came over to me, and we gave them the full bend-her-over-halfway-to-the-floor treatment, to a roar of juvenile delight. Even more impressively at my age and level of infirmity, I was able to get her back upright again without assistance.

(The day before, having myself been asked to tell the story for the sixth or seventh time that week, I noticed Kai walking past and asked him, “So, Kai, are you tired of hearing that story yet?” His answer was instant and emphatic: “This trip? Oh, yeah.” The funniest thing to me was when girls would come up to Kai and ask for his version of the story, which was basically, “Um, I was seven, and I really don’t remember much about it.” Mission accomplished.)

Here, by the way, is one of the ways in which Helen was able to do good despite not speaking Spanish. Helen and I are very much in love and very obviously happy in our marriage, and the same is true of the Hartmans. We found out later that several of those young ladies had told the translators that seeing Helen and Shara so happy had given them hope that they could someday have a happy marriage and family of their own – since many of those young people come not only from a badly broken world but from badly broken homes as well.

It was awfully hard to say goodbye to those kids – and those young translators – when the bus pulled out. I’ll just leave it at that.

Good-bye to Natalia

Good-bye to Natalia

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The bus pulls out

Saturday, 27 July

This was tourism day, and also the day Jesid’s brother Eduardo came to hang out with us, and also the day Fabian and I swapped painting and T-shirt, and also the day we went to the supermarket to load up on Columbian coffee to bring home with us, and also, in the end, the day we had to go to the airport.

At one point, Jeisson and Tata and I were sitting in a Juan Valdez coffee shop chatting, and Tata wanted to pay me a compliment about my willingness to openly show affection toward Helen. And the compliment she chose was to say that, despite my being American, anybody watching me with Helen would think I was “a Latin lover.” But I think that there must be, in Colombian idiom, two very different possible meanings for the phrase “Latin lover,” because it was a very long sentence and I got lost in the middle, and then Jeisson, in translating, said something like this: “She says that, watching you with Helen, she thinks – and she means this in the very best possible sense – that you seem to be, in a good way, not meaning anything bad by it, not really American but more what we would call, as a compliment, a ‘Latin lover’ – but you understand she means that as a good thing.”

By the time he was through assuring me so many times I had just been complimented, I began to suspect very strongly that I had just been mortally insulted.

As an aside, Helen has been calling me “Latino Lover” ever since that conversation, which must be mystifying to casual passers-by.

(Jeisson was still, at this point, addressing me as “Mister Pierce;” so I finally took Tatiana aside and told her to please tell her husband that until he started calling me “Kenny” I was going to be obliged to address him as “Señor Delgado.”)

We were also joined in the afternoon by a young family with one of the cutest little four- or five-year-old girls you are likely to ever see, my own granddaughters excepted. She took a special liking to Helen, and spent a lot of time in either Helen’s arms or mine. Shoby referred to her as “my granddaughter,” I presume metaphorically; but I don’t know the story behind that.

Helen dancing with Shoby's granddaughter

Helen dances with Shoby’s “granddaughter” as the child mugs for the camera and her mom enjoys not being the one having to carry her. (I figure it’s safe to put this picture of the young lady on the internet since she is basically disguised as a bank robber and therefore can’t be readily identified…)

But for me, the high point of the day – both spiritually and literally – came when we took the cable car up to Monserrate. The mountain, and the church on top of it, is some seventeen hundred feet above the city; and the cable car feels like it is taking you straight up…though I can’t guarantee that when you ride the cable car, O Gentle Reader, you will get the rainbow.

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If you prefer, you can take the funicular — which actually has to go through a tunnel because the mountain’s face is too steep even for a funicular.

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The views, especially when you arrive, as we did, just before sunset, are nothing short of spectacular…and also about the best way I found truly to appreciate the population density of Bogotá.

Southeastern Bogotá at sunset

Southeastern Bogotá at sunset, from Monserrate — for once, a picture I am actually artistically rather proud of

As the sun goes down, and the streetlights come on…well, I will be quiet and just show you pictures (contributed by various members of our party, and I am sorry that I didn’t keep track of which photographers took which pictures).

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But the best part for me was the church.

Monserrate's churchI am not theologically a Roman Catholic, but I certainly am one emotionally; the perfect service for me is a sung Latin Mass. The church was largely empty, and very very large; so I was able to find an isolated pew and kneel and pray for a while, and ultimately to sing the Non Nobis quietly to myself.

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Thanks to Shoby for this one

Later, standing outside as the dusk deepened over the lights of Bogotá filling the plain beneath us, I found myself singing it again. Helen, who definitely does not worship by singing in Latin, came up as I was singing and said, “We should pray.” So I had to tell her that’s actually what I was already doing…

All good things draw to an end, and our time was running out. There was one more stop at a supermarket, to get coffee, and to give us time for a couple more group photos…

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All of the whippersnappers except Amanda, who is presumably taking the picture.
Back row, left to right: Blurry Photobomber Guy, Jonathan, Megan, Emily A., Mathew, Frisby the Chicken, Kayla, Analisa
Middle row: Jesid’s brother Eduardo, Mr. Cool, Sunny, Emily H., Jesid
Front row: Jude

Delgados and Pierces cropped

Mathew, Jeisson, Tatiana, Helen, the Hat

But the time finally came to say goodbye at the airport to the Delgados, as well as to our drivers, who were a big and very much appreciated part of our week. This took a long time and a lot of hugs. I overheard Jeisson telling Kai that he was welcome to come down to Bogotá any time, not just on a mission trip: “You can stay at our house for a couple of days. Or a couple of weeks. Or a couple of months.” I was tempted to chime in and say, “You’re welcome to him,” but it really didn’t seem to be a time for flippancy. Certainly an equal invitation is always open to Mateo, if he should want to come to Houston (but why anybody would of their own free will want to come to Houston, of all places, is beyond my ken – I’m only here myself because it’s where the jobs are, and also the grandchildren).

But eventually the goodbyes were said, and the Conviventia folks disappeared through the airport’s outer doors, and we made our way to the security line. And it was at this point that the rest of the team made a discovery that set them to laughing at us Pierces, and especially me, for what seemed like forever…but I think I would like to save that story to the very end of my tale.

For in short order, the only thing that really went wrong on the whole trip went wrong, and it went bad wrong.

I mentioned that Ana Del Toro had adopted Jonathan from Bogotá back in his infancy, and that this was their first trip back since the adoption. It was also, unfortunately, the first time anybody had ever gone on a Sugar Creek mission trip to Colombia and brought along a minor child who had been originally adopted from Colombia. And thus it was that Ana and Jonathan, to the shock and dismay of the entire team, ran up against a completely unsuspected legal problem: minors who hold dual citizenship in the United States and Colombia are not allowed to leave Colombia without showing their Colombian passport.

And Ana had only brought Jonathan’s U.S. passport with them.

And the Colombians literally would not allow them to leave.

Furthermore, they took them into an interrogation room while none of us were looking, and then didn’t let Ana use her phone to make any calls – which meant that the rest of the team got to the meeting point on the other side of immigration, and Ana and Jonathan had simply disappeared. It was almost an hour before we found out what had happened, and then it was only because Shoby had Ana’s WhatsApp ID, and while the Colombian authorities had barred Ana from using her phone, they had neglected to tell her she couldn’t text. So that’s how ultimately we got in contact with her…and found out we would have to leave without them.

This, as you can imagine, was devastating, especially considering that right up until that point everything had gone so well. And I think it was especially devastating to Shoby, who was in no way at fault but who I am sure felt terribly guilty. But Jeisson was apprised of the situation and took our lost sheep back under his wing, if I so may violently mix my metaphors. And I am happy to say that Ana’s husband went to the Colombian consulate here in town first thing Monday morning with his son’s Colombian passport, and they got in touch with the airport passport control in Bogotá, and Ana and Jonathan were allowed to leave on the next Houston flight, at 12:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning. And they are now safely back home.

As for the rest of us, we landed at 5:15 on Sunday morning after sleeping on the plane. I have Global Entry and was through customs at 5:30; I had figured I could go ahead and collect everybody’s luggage, and I pretty much had everything collected, except for the last three or four bags, by the time our team started showing up. But alas! Helen and Kai misunderstood the signage and went into the line for foreign nationals, not realizing that green card holders were supposed to go in the same line as American citizens. They realized their mistake in five minutes or so, but in the meantime another plane had landed and they found themselves a planeful of people further back in line then the rest of our team. And then, for whatever reason, just after the rest of our team cleared customs, the immigration staff started getting up and leaving their stalls, and not coming back, until there were only five stations open, with still a very long line. So I told Shoby we would take an Uber rather than making seventeen other people wait for us…and much, much later, at 7:45, Helen and Kai finally appeared on the escalator, having stood in line for almost two and a half hours compared to my five minutes.

And I think I have finally, thanks to those two and a half hours, convinced Helen that she and Kai really should get Global Entry too.

Now, to close, I will tell the story I have saved for last.

I said earlier that while we were waiting in the line to go through airport security in Bogotá, the rest of the team made a discovery that set them to laughing at us Pierces, and especially me, for what seemed like forever. What they discovered, was that despite having spent the entire week with Matt and Shara and Jude and Emily HARTMAN, who had the same last name as Sugar Creek Baptist Church’s lead pastor Mark HARTMAN, who had recently taken to having his ten-year-old grandson Jude come up onto stage in the main services to help his grandfather out by young Jude’s reading the day’s sermon text…despite all these admittedly generous clues, Helen and Kai and I had literally no idea that Matt HARTMAN was Pastor Mark HARTMAN’s son, and that ten-year-old Jude HARTMAN who had impressed us so much all week long was the same person as ten-year-old Jude HARTMAN whom we had on multiple occasions seen reading the sermon text. (On that last one, I can only submit in our defense that we always wind up sitting in one of the back two or three rows in Sugar Creek’s extremely large main sanctuary, because we go to a later service and the music is literally so loud that I can’t make it all through the half-hour of music without getting a migraine. So we listen to the music in the hall – where it can still be heard quite clearly – and then go in once the sermon starts. That is not much of an excuse for not recognizing Jude but it is the best I can offer.)

It was particularly hilarious in my case, because fairly early in the week Matt and I had been chatting, and I had asked Matt what his father did for a living (!), and Matt had humbly said, “My father is a pastor…” and still the penny had not dropped. I just said, “Cool, my father is a pastor too,” and the conversation marched on its merry way.

This is why, on that list of suggestions for next year that I provided to Shoby, the second item on the list was, “If there are celebrities on the team, all other team members must be informed of the fact at the beginning of the trip rather than at the end.”

But if you want to know my real opinion of Matt, you can deduce it from what I told Shara once I had found out the Big Secret-Only-To-Us, and had been laughed at, and had enjoyed a good long laugh at myself – and I meant what I said to her, absolutely sincerely, without an ounce of flattery or even (for once) flippancy. “I’ll just say this one thing: from now on, the single most important thing I know about Mark Hartman is that he is Matt Hartman’s father.”

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Matt, training the next generation, and wearing the gentle half-smile that is far more characteristic of him than is the Stare of Doom

And I think that’s a good note to end on.

The team

Left to right:
Backmost row: Ana, Amanda, Matt
Back main row: Alfonso, the Peril, Tiffany, Clara, Shara, Jonathan, Magda, Deysi, Ivan, Freddy
Middle row: Jeisson, Helen, Kai, Jesid, Megan, Ana María, Luisa, Gloria, Tatiana, Jairo
Front main row: Pastor Carlos, Esmid, Sunny, Jude, Kayla, Emily, Analisa, Juan, Shoby
Front two: Emily, Paula
Thanks to Matt Delgado for the Conviventia staff names I didn’t know