In that instant I saw that we were doing exactly what we had set out NOT to do – bring some pre-packaged approach designed in North America into other countries and cultures, looking to impose it upon people who have little or no use for the program we decided to promote! The only saving grace was that we really liked these kids - and they really liked us … and somehow they knew that deep down inside - we cared for them.
Sports, School and GOD in Nicaragua
Pastor Paul Sandberg
The Meeting on the Porch
We were sitting in a circle on the porch of the small house in Nicaragua, 10 teenagers, 11 parents, my missions team, and one interpreter. We had been talking about high school with the kids and parents, their goals for the future, dreams and possibilities, and how life is unfolding before them. The evening had been a little bit awkward – trying to get the young people to talk and share their life with adults is usually hard enough without crossing language and cultural boundaries, but tonight it had gone reasonably well. Nicaraguans, especially the men, are not very demonstrative. They are generally quiet and reserved, not looking straight at you when they talk, keeping mostly to the facts – and avoiding talk about feelings. After more than an hour of meeting together we had a prayer time and I prayed a blessing on the students and their parents. I thought we were done for the evening and prepared to say goodbye to our visitors, but one boy, Francisco Gonzalez, surprised me when he suddenly stood up and looked right at me. He thanked us for helping him and trusting him with a chance to succeed. He then walked right over to me, and with tears in his eyes, this young man in 10th grade gave me a big bear hug, and went back to his seat. One by one the other 9 teenagers, boys and girls, did the same thing; thanking us for changing their lives, giving them a chance, believing in them, tears, and a big hug for me. I don’t cry much, but that night I did. I’ll get back to this story later, but before sharing any more aspects of the ministry in Nicaragua, it would be best to give some background to our involvement in this Central American country.
When one of my good friends, Bill Lewis, suggested our church get involved in ministry in Nicaragua, I listened but was not convinced. Bill had been traveling to Nicaragua each year to participate in “Sports Evangelism”. He and his group of sports enthusiast Christians would enter a town, set up a makeshift baseball field, and by the time they took out the bats, balls and gloves, there was a group of curious kids hanging around checking them out. Bill and his group would start up a game and play baseball with the kids. After the game they would share the Gospel and a testimony with the kids. The next day – another town, another game, another group of kids.
I am not a sports enthusiast. What Bill thought was great - I could not get excited about. But Bill was convinced that God was getting ready to do something important in Nicaragua. He thought our church had just exactly what was needed to be successful there, and I could not argue with him. So we set up a trip to Nicaragua for the purpose of exploring possible areas of involvement. So Bill Lewis, Debbie Hutzler, and myself traveled to Nicaragua.
I am very careful of the areas I commit our church to be involved in. We look for long-term partnerships, not just exciting short-term adventures. This article is not the place to explain all the details of things we investigate before getting involved in a missionary work, but we went on this trip with a critical attitude to observe possible ministry opportunities. What we found was surprising to us.
Gloria, our Nicaraguan liaison, was quite familiar with a number of Christian works in the country, she had been the interpreter and guide for Bill on his previous sports evangelism trips. We explained to Gloria our approach to missions.
We told her, “We ask God to lead us to a work that is centered on the Gospel, led by the local church, staffed by indigenous people, and in need of help. We then determine whether or not we have the skill and ability to help with the particular problems of that work. If our strengths are a good fit for their needs, we ask God to speak to our hearts about being involved in a long-term partnership with this work.”
Gloria was visibly relieved that we were not intending to bring some pre-determined program designed in the States, into Nicaragua looking for opportunities to impose it upon people who have little or no use for solutions to problems they don’t have. She was excited and pleased that we were first looking to discover the problems and needs in Nicaragua, and then design a solution for those issues. Our plan then would be to work WITH the Nicaraguans to meet those needs, not work OVER them or INSTEAD of them.
The Survey Trip
For the next week, Gloria took us around the country to visit different Gospel centered works in need of help. We visited Christian schools, public schools, feeding programs, orphanages, remote villages, city ghettos, and local churches. The thing that troubled us most was the sheer number of children in need. Poverty stricken, single parent, and dysfunctional families had turned their children out on the street. These children were often placed in orphanages and showed signs of being severely abused. Our hearts broke as we met these children.
Allow me to pause here for a moment and say that we have also met many great, loving Nicaraguan families who love and cherish their children. In no way do I want to paint a picture of Nicaraguans as bad parents, or unloving people. Nicaraguans are among the most loving, appreciative and hard working people I have ever met. However, Satan has gotten a foothold into the lives of many men and women, especially people who are extremely poor and uneducated. Satan’s main purpose seems to be the destruction of the basic building block of society - the family unit.
We developed a burden for these children and began to pray that God would lead us to the projects where we would be most effective and suited to assist in. I initially thought it would be great to work with churches out in the beautiful Nicaraguan countryside, but all three of us on our small team had a burden for the same two works close to the capitol city of Managua. We decided to ask Gloria where our help was most needed. What projects were other mission teams neglecting? What were the places that no one wanted to get involved? Who were the forgotten ones? Where were the biggest problems? What places had issues that no one else wanted to touch? We figured “Give us the hard stuff”. Jesus did not take the easy way when He paid for our sins, so why should we take the easy way when we serve in ministry for His honor and glory?
Gloria’s answer came as a surprise to us, but it was really no surprise at all. The two most needy areas, where no teams wanted to get involved, where the need was great and the people were messy, were the same two areas we had already developed a burden for!
The first was El Canyon. It was a small community just on the outskirts of Managua. Down a dirt road into a canyon where there were small shacks as houses, an orphanage, and a public grade school. The orphanage was understaffed and overflowing with kids. The children at the orphanage went to school with the local kids at the public school located right next door. The school taught children up to the 6th grade. After that there was very little hope of ever getting to high school. High school was free, but it was many miles away. A bus was needed, and the families in El Canyon were poor. Some worked in local factories and took home about $40 per month. They could not pay the $40 monthly cost of the bus. So after 6th grade many boys just hung out, unable to find work, they would eventually join a gang and get into trouble. The girls had less hope. With no education and no way out, they would eventually find themselves raising a family on their own in the same poverty stricken manner they had grown up in.
The one ray of hope in the community was the public school. The principal of the school was a woman named Maria Elena. She was a Christian woman who really loved those kids. She pushed them to do their best and worked with the parents to solve problems with the kids and at home. We immediately liked Maria Elena and she promised us that if we came back to El Canyon to work with her kids, she would make the entire school building, property, and all the kids available to us!
The second was the Managua City Dump! Over 600 families lived on the dump. They lived in shacks made of discarded metal and pieces of wood. They scavenged the dump every day as the trucks would heap fresh garbage on the piles. Men, women, and their children would pick through every bit of the trash to find something of value to sell, or something good enough to eat. Most children did not go to school. They were expected to help the family by picking through the huge piles of steaming trash all day long. Many adults could not read or write. Sickness and disease was rampant. Physical and sexual abuse was commonplace. Alcohol, drugs, and glue sniffing were the preferred ways of escape. The only thing worse than the smell of the rotting garbage was the sight of people without hope. Many families had lived there for generations, and some people had never once left the dump in their entire life.
Once again the only ray of hope in this community was the local public grade school. This school was positioned right in the center of the shacks and shanties that make up the homes of those who live and survive on the refuse of Managua city. The principal was a Christian woman named Sheyla. Her husband, Roberto, was one of the teachers. As is true in the United States a male grade school teacher is rare, but very important. This school (Called the School of Hope) was truly an oasis in the middle of a desert of despair. A feeding program was started to give students a noontime meal of rice, some form of protein, and milk when possible. On days when the feeding program was scheduled, over 300 kids would come to school. Their parents would let them escape the grueling work of sifting through trash for a few hours to go to school and get a meal. That was one less meal the parents would need to provide. On days when the feeding program was not scheduled, the number of kids greatly diminished.
These were the two projects that had the most need, and we felt a burden to get involved with them. They were close enough geographically to work with them simultaneously if we had a team talented enough. Our first job was to design an approach to ministry that would benefit the children and lead them to salvation in Jesus Christ. We designed and implemented sports evangelism programs similar to the ones Bill had conducted in previous years in other towns. The big difference here was that we would not move from town to town, but instead spend the entire week – or two-week period with the same kids. While some kids were playing soccer we ran a VBS for the other kids, including skits, games, and prizes. We began to develop relationships with the children that we worked with year after year. Each year when we arrived at the Dump and El Canyon, the kids would run to us and know that a week or two of fun had just arrived.
Missing the Mark
One year the team decided to learn the VBS skit in Spanish so they could do it without interpreters. As I watched the team perform the skit in sloppy, broken Spanish, I watched the faces of the kids. They were being polite to the North Americans, but they were not interested at all! In that instant I saw that we were doing exactly what we had set out NOT to do – bring some pre-packaged approach designed in North America into other countries and cultures, looking to impose it upon people who have little or no use for the program we decided to promote! The only saving grace was that we really liked the kids and they really liked us. We had gotten to know them over the years and become friends. They simply overlooked our shortcomings and offensive programs because they genuinely liked us and somehow knew that deep down inside - we cared for them. We had proved that by returning every year for extended periods of time. We were not like most short-term missions teams that we saw arriving every day – sometimes 3 or 4 in a day. They would show up for one hour, perform a mime or skit, hand out candy and tracts, and disappear into a big air conditioned bus thinking they had done some great service for the kingdom of God, never to return again to the Dump or El Canyon. Yes, we were different – but were we doing any good at all for the kingdom of God?
With a heavy heart – not saying anything to anyone – I began to pray that God would direct our path and lead us away from the “fun and games” we found ourselves involved in, and into the meat of the ministry that was heavy on His heart. I spent the next two days just watching what was happening, looking for the ministry key that had alluded us. (I often wonder what my team members think as they see me, their pastor and leader, just standing around and watching. But no one questions me. I think that they know when something is brewing and God is at work.) After two days I saw “them”. It happened all at once. I saw “them”, and two of my team members, Bill Lewis and John De Marco also saw “them”, and reported the sighting to me that night. “Them” are the invisible people we had not really seen before. They were always there, hanging around in the background, not saying anything, and slipping away un-noticed.
“Them” were the TEACHERS !
We had been so focused on the children on every trip we did not even see the TEACHERS. The teachers who spent 10 months during the school year trying to reach into the lives of these children with education and a chance to change their young lives; Teachers who worked tirelessly against all manner of distraction and discouragement; Teachers who changed their schedules instantly to accommodate our team, supporting our efforts, and picking up the pieces when we were done; Wonderful teachers – so who was ministering to them?
Some of these teachers had only a high school education, some had not even graduated high school! Suddenly our mission seemed clear. If we can impact the teachers for Christ – helping them be better at teaching and better at ministering to the children as Christian teachers – we would be impacting the kids for 10 months a year instead of just 1 or 2 weeks a year.
A New Approach
When discussing this with Gloria – she confirmed that the greatest need in this ministry was training and ministry to the teachers. Most of them were “Christian” but needed their faith strengthened. They needed help with their teaching skills, methods of discipline, special needs children, classroom techniques, etc,etc. Most of all they needed encouragement. They felt they were alone – with no support – trying to make a difference in a hopeless situation. How could we help them?
Also, what about trade skills? Can we teach some women how to sew? Can those women then teach the girls in school how to sew? Who has a sewing machine?
If this burden is from God – He will show us what to do. We need to pray.
We returned to the States wondering what to do next. Then one day Sherry Natiello walked into my office and offered a sewing machine to take with me to Nicaragua. I said I would take it if she came along to show people how to use it. She decided to bring two.
In the following months I spoke to Nancy Halliday and some other teachers who were very interested in the prospect of training teachers in Nicaragua. We put together our first teacher training team of 15 people, consisting of 9 teachers, 5 sports evangelism people to work with the kids while the teachers were in the training sessions, and me. When the teachers on our team were not conducting a training session they came to work with the kids on the soccer field. We figured this would give us the best of both worlds, working with the kids to get to know them, and also working with their teachers to help them be better at teaching the kids who have become our friends.
The first year was not bad, but needed improvement. The teachers were thrilled with the week we spent with them and wanted more. The women learning to sew were just getting started when the week was over. The following year the school principals closed the schools for a whole week to be able to spend their full time with us. The sewing class was given its own location to completely take over. Sherry organized a devotional time with the sewing ladies every day, and I was asked to start each day with the teachers conducting a Bible teaching. Things were starting to really take shape.
Gloria and her husband, Wilbert, opened the “Village of Hope”. This is a residential facility for girls rescued from the dump. Girls who are deemed to be at risk, are taken (legally) from the dump and live at the Village of Hope in a house with 7 other girls and a “house mom”. They get solid, Biblical counseling, good food, clothing, health care, and go to school. The cycle of poverty and abuse is being broken in these young lives. The Village of Hope is a well set up facility that now is the location of our teacher training. The teachers come in every day, all day, and we feed them lunch. The 24 girls now living at the Village in three houses spend their evenings with us as we visit with them, read with them, do homework, and get to know them better. Some of these girls we’ve known for 8 to 10 years. I asked Gloria and Wilbert if we should consider moving some of our funding from teacher training – to Village of Hope needs. They both gave a resounding “NO”. What we do is not being done by others. Buildings can be funded, but the work we put into the teachers and kids is what makes things work.
Other Real Needs
Other needs began to arise. The teachers were encouraged and doing a great job. This encouraged the students who were doing better. In El Canyon there were two students who were doing so well that their principal, Maria Elena, was convinced they should go to high school. The problem was that neither of those two families had the $40 each month for the bus.
Also, Maria Elena was considering becoming the Principal of a Christian school being started by her home church, Bethel Church, in the nearby town of El Faro. There had been a school functioning there many years ago – and only a few of the classrooms were currently being used for Sunday School. Some renovation and repair was needed to make the place usable once again for students, but that was mostly elbow grease that could be supplied by the congregation and local families. A new roof would be necessary, but the holes in the existing corrugated steel roof would not stop them from opening the school and teaching students. Maria Elena would remain the Principal at the public school in El Canyon (which was two bus rides and a 2 mile walk away from her home), and serve as principal at Bethel for no salary. The families would need to pay $4 per month for each child attending the school. That low amount of $4 was more than some families could afford, so there was some need to supplement the salaries of the teachers. The teachers need to make $100 per month, but the school would only be able to pay about $70 per month.
Financial needs became more evident. The situation was quite healthy. The Nicaraguans were doing the work themselves. They had devised their own plan of ministering to their own people, and recognized that God had given them the job of reaching their own communities. They were doing as much as they were able to do. Maria Elena received travel expense money from the government to pay her bus fare every day from El Faro to El Canyon, and she was giving that to the school to pay a librarian to maintain the library. The teachers at Bethel agreed to work for $70 per month until the school could pay them more. Most of the teachers had to work another job to make enough to pay their bills. Everyone was trying his or her best, but there was some help needed.
That year the team had raised some extra money and some additional gifts had been designated for any special needs we might encounter. This certainly qualified as special needs. We had enough money to leave with Gloria to administer the two high school bus scholarships, and enough to supplement all 8 teachers and a librarian for the year!
The following year the missions project at Northport was the Nicaragua bus scholarships, and over $8000 was raised. Nine more kids were ready to go to high school, bringing the total to 11. Each child must work hard and maintain good grades to be considered for this scholarship. They must complete a lengthy application process that clearly outlines the expectations of continued hard work and good grades to maintain the scholarship. (One of the original two students on this scholarship has since been dropped because of poor grades and lack of work). The remaining money was enough to again supplement the 8 teachers at Bethel and the librarian.
This year the VBS missions project was again the Nicaraguan bus scholarship. This time over $10,000 was raised. This time there are 12 kids ready to go to high school, bringing the current total to 22 bus scholarships. And, our first high school graduation will be next year! The goal is to put 10 new students into high school every year. High school in Nicaragua is for 5 years, 7th through 11th grades. So the goal is to maintain 50 kids in high school every year. Each year when 10 graduate, 10 more will enter. The good news is that the cost per student is lower with more students. We will be spending $25 per month for each child instead of the original $40.
One of the most encouraging milestones reached so far happened on the soccer field. The sports evangelism team plays soccer with kids from the dump, Bethel, and El Canyon, then teaches a Bible lesson and gives a testimony. This year 4 girls from the Village of Hope who had been taken from the dump 4 years ago, joined our team on the field and helped run the soccer games. Not only that, but they also gave their testimonies! These girls have grown in the Lord enough to minister to other hurting children. This is a Home Run!
In it's second year, the Bethel Christian School had 130 students enrolled from the immediate area. Over 100 parents showed up at a special 1 1/2-hour teaching seminar about Biblical role models and the family unit. There are several excellent students who will be applying for the bus scholarship for next year. In a meeting with the pastor and church leaders, there was much excitement about what God was doing in their church and community. They were all trying hard to make things work together. They wanted to thank us for supplementing the cost of teacher salaries so they could function as a full time school. When I asked them about the condition of the school roof, they showed me the many holes in the corrugated steel throughout the one story school building. They were attempting to cover the holes in the roof with scavenged scraps of steel, leaving a patchwork of brown metal – woven together in one leaky mass of rusty, noisy, hot tin. Sunny days were great, and Maria Elena explained how the teachers dealt with the water that invaded the school when it rained. I tried to imagine the chaos that must take place in the classrooms when the rains were heavy, but 130 kids valued education enough to put up with the leaks, and their parents valued the school enough to sacrifice $4 each month to pay for the privilege of attending Bethel Christian school.
I prayed that God would lead us to a plan, and this is what I received. I told the leaders;
- I would not design and build a new roof for them.
- I would not bring a construction team from the States to solve the problem.
- This was completely their project. Assume all responsibility for it.
- They would need to talk to local contractors and design their own roof solution.
- A complete materials list and price quote would be needed.
- They would need to assemble a team of workers from the Bethel congregation and surrounding community of El Faro to work on the roof with the lead contractor.
If they did all that – I would;
- Pursue some fund raising to pay for the roof.
- Assemble a builders team to travel to Nicaragua to work WITH their team, shoulder to shoulder. If they had no workers – we would not work without them.
- Concentrate on building a good, healthy relationship between our church and theirs.
- The time frame would be for the 2nd and/or 3rd week of January, 2012. This is important because their school year runs from February through November. School is closed for December and January.
This proposal seemed to make the leaders quite excited. We even suggested a DOZ team join the builders team to teach some dance worship skills to the girls in the churches and the Villa. This was also well received.
It is obvious that God is doing something special in Nicaragua. The work is messy and hard, but lives are being changed by the faithful work of the ministry – being done by local Nicaraguan believers. God has given us the privilege and opportunity to come along side these faithful people to assist them in the areas where they are unable to help themselves. They are answering the call of God to reach into the lives of their most precious resource – their children - to change the Nation of Nicaragua from the bottom up. We are called to help them in this process. We are not called to do the job FOR them, INSTEAD of them, or OVER them. We are called to HELP, ASSIST, ENCOURAGE, and to work WITH our brothers and sisters in Christ. So that is our plan. God is blessing the fruit in Nicaragua.
What is the next plan of involvement?
- Continue with the teacher training modules each year, coupled with the sports evangelism program. July is the best time to facilitate this. Target dates are the 2nd and 3rd weeks of July. Some team members will be spending the entire month of July in Nicaragua to facilitate working a sports evangelism program in partnership with Nicaragua Christian Academy. Some team members will only be there for 1 week to facilitate teacher training only. Sewing and other ministry work will need 2 weeks.
- Help design an approach (possibly with Opportunity International) for a local church to fund their own building repairs.
- Continue raising money for the bus scholarship. Soon $12,500 will be needed each year to keep 50 kids going to high school. $250 will pay for 1 student scholarship for 1 year.
- Raise $3000 to supplement the teacher’s salaries at Bethel Christian School – 10 teachers @ $30 per month = $3000. We plan to lower the supplemental amount each year as the school becomes more established and finances improve. At the present time we plan on keeping the level at $3000 per year. $300 keeps 1 teacher fully paid for 1 year.
The Meeting on the Porch (continued)
The first bus scholarship winner, Francisco Gonzalez, is almost finished with high school. This is where the story began on the porch of the small house when Francisco stood up to thank us for sending him to high school, and where he started to cry. I can still feel his shaking arms around me as he tried to hold back the tears. He gave me the sobbing hug that led to 9 other hugs that night. Hugs from students living in El Canyon, El Faro, and the dump. There were also a lot of tears; tears of hope, of joy, and my own thankful tears of knowing God is getting the credit – His kingdom is being built. The chains of poverty and ignorance are weakening as the gates of Hell are giving way to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When the evening was completely done, I watched the students and their parents walking down the porch steps into the night, but able to live lives that contained a bright hope for the future that seemed impossible only a few short years ago. God is truly beginning to bring in the first fruits of His harvest. High school graduates, and rescued girls from the dump, are grateful and ministering to their own peers and communities about the grace of God. The lives of students and entire families are being changed. I believe that this incredible work of God is just beginning.
Will you consider being part of this important move of God? Will you come with us? Share your skills and talents with others who need to meet you face to face. Will you support this work financially? God’s work is the greatest investment you can make. He pays eternal dividends. Above all else – will you pray? Nothing can be accomplished without prayer. We dare not move ahead on anything without prayer. I know many of you have been praying faithfully for this ministry. I believe God has honored the work of our hands in this ministry because of the prayers of the faithful. Thank you.