Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gracias para Bolivia y Bárbara

This is the time of year when I am especially aware that I live an amazingly blessed life and have so much to be thankful for. One of the things I’m thankful for is the opportunities I’ve had to visit Bolivia.

I’ve been thinking about Bolivia and why it means so much to me since my most recent visit to Cochabamba in July. I first visited in 1999 and have returned once a year since 2011. (You can read about an earlier trip or watch my sabbatical video to learn more about previous trips.)

People in the States often ask why I keep going back to Bolivia and I am somewhat at a loss to explain. I say things like, “I go to spend time playing with kids in an orphanage.” While that answer is totally true, it is mostly a deflection. It makes me sound like some wonderful, giving person.

Sometimes I'll say something like, “It is a great way to disconnect and rejuvenate from the stresses of work.” Though true, that explanation emphasizes my importance and the stress of my life rather than giving the actual reason.

I sometimes describe these as mission trips to a third-world country. While I do feel closer to God on these trips, that description that makes the trip sound like some sort of sacrificial pilgrimage. Instead, I take warm showers, eat well, play with kids, hang out with Bolivian friends, and generally have a good time.

With Nicki behind the Christ statue
I go on the trips with people I enjoy being with. This past trip, I got to travel with a fun group that included my niece Nicki. It was a treat to be able to show someone I care about the people and places that are very special to me. It was also an opportunity to better know her and the others on the trip.

I go to be somewhere with people who have few expectations of me. To be with children who expect little more than a couple Jolly Ranchers and to be lifted over my head. To be with adults who are content to be friends based upon a few ill-constructed sentences in my broken Spanish. To be with young adults who care about me for reasons I cannot truly discern. I go to receive from people who materially have little.

Normally, I like to be in control and the one giving, not receiving. That is not the case when I am in Bolivia. Maybe, while there, I get to be myself. Or, at least, a different version of myself. I get to be not in charge, quiet, silly, and even tearful.

As the trip was drawing to a close, I decided that I love going to Bolivia for selfish reasons—not to help the people there, but for myself. After all, my being there one week a year leaves me refreshed, but is unlikely to make much impact on the children in the orphanage. I was comfortable with that conclusion and shared it with the others in our group. 

I was wrong.

Bárbara's Facebook post
As I was saying my goodbyes, one of the older children in the orphanage, Bárbara, asked if she could talk to me. She is studying architecture in the local university and is my favorite of the children. I realize I shouldn’t have favorites, but there is no point in hiding it because everyone at the orphanage knows it. When I show up the younger children immediately go and find Bárbara. Her artwork hangs in my office and my house. Over the years, we have done a lot more sitting next to each other than talking, but it works. Her English is now much better than my Spanish, but we still often enjoy just being together without talking. Between trips, we keep in touch via Facebook.

Bárbara wanted to ask me if it would be OK for her to call me “Daddy.” I said “Of course!” as tears rolled down my cheeks. Obviously, God had much bigger plans for my trips to Bolivia than I imagined.

I am already looking forward to next year’s trip in March. It will be a time when I can disconnect from my job and life stresses, play with children in an orphanage, and hang out with friends. And, to be called Daddy.