Vacation was beautiful and unforgettable, but coming back was about as rough as our landing in the tiny puddle jumper from La Paz to Rurrenabaque. Everything had changed when we returned. Canadian missionaries had been working hard for a month in our absence and overlapped with us for a few days before they left. In their wake they left many positive changes: a new electrical system, a new church roof, renovations in a few of the houses, a brand new kitchen, dining room, and pantry in the Hardings, and generally, a completely overhauled set of permanent staff.
In addition to these changes, over twice the number of students were going to be on campus as we had last year. We have found ourselves fulfilling completely new roles that are presenting whole new dimensions of challenges to overcome.
The first drastic change I was presented with was my new job title. Last year I tried and failed to teach high school students, and it was a frustrating experience for everyone, especially the students. This year I have been relegated to a completely different age group: the toddlers in the Harding house.
The Harding house is challenging because the kids there range in age from ten months to twenty years. It’s challenging because it requires taking care of seven kids under the age of eight from shortly after they wake up until they go to bed. It’s challenging because all the kids who are too difficult to manage in another house or require constant supervision are placed in the Hardings. So my new job involved showing up at eight, watching two two-year-olds and a ten-month-old while the other kids have school in the morning, homeschooling the fifteen-year-old Charlie, cooking lunch, supervising in the afternoon, helping with dinner, and then putting everyone to bed after worship. After that, I could finally go home around nine or ten. Fortunately, I’m not alone: Maddy is baby Jose’s surrogate mother and he’s hopelessly attached to her affection. And a new student missionary has joined our ranks from Southern! Josemy got thrown into the torrent and has done an absolutely incredible job of adjusting and has been a now essential help to the Harding house. We take turns giving kids baths, cooking, cleaning, and trying to force children into doing their chores.
Speaking of home, we found out when we got back that we would be leaving our tiny, humble home Zoro, Carlo, and I had come to love. We would be giving our home to a couple who teaches at the school and their children, who needed room for their family in a permanent residence instead of the kitchen of Melissa’s father’s house. We would essentially switch places with this family and moved off-campus to Melissa’s father’s house. After two weeks of being told we would be moving “in a day or two,” we finally crept away from our posts and finished packing the last few items: mosquito nets, kitchenware, drying clothes, and toiletries. Hermano Juan drove us and our stuff down the road in the big truck.
I was apprehensive about living so far off campus with such a long workday, but our new accommodations ended up being a little bit idyllic. The house was spacious and large, with three separate living areas. Ours didn’t have a kitchen, but was tiled, fully screened in, and came with three tiny cubicle rooms, one for each of us. Additionally, we were assigned a campus motorcycle to commute to school! All my fears about not having personal space or a place to relax melted away. It looked like things would be different but better: it would be like a normal job where one drives to work in the morning and drives home at night to a space separate from work. A normal 90+ hour per week job.
Stand Up and Fight Anyhow
Most of my time at the Hardings was spent fighting and cleaning the last few weeks. The Hardings had remodeled the kitchen which meant everything was a mess. Everyone had long forgotten the rule of washing one’s plate after one eats. The children had run amok. Diapers lay scattered about. Bowls and pots of food that had been there when we left were still there, growing forests of mold. No puede quedar así. We spent a lot of time organizing new silverware, washing dirty dishes, and sweeping out long-forgotten crevices.
The next battle was Charlie. This kid is homeschooled in English because he started school in Canada with Melissa, his adoptive mother. He has an entire suite of learning disabilities, including unbending stubbornness. So far I’ve only had four complete, non-consecutive school days with him. Two of those days were spent on one math problem. On the third day, he fell on the floor and rolled around and begged us to kill him and made sure we knew exactly how much he hated us and then sprayed peppermint oil in my eye. By the fourth day, I was bribing him with phone games and cake to do entire pages of math, and I’ll count that as a success. I lent him my raincoat that he really liked on Sabbath and now we’re best friends.
Fun parenting tip (yes I am a single 23-year-old guy with zero children giving parenting advice): chore charts. The Hardings started calling me Teacher Oficio because of how much time I spend telling kids to do their chores. This needed to change. Children needed to know their chores in advance and not get plucked out of a crowd at random and subjected to slavery in the kitchen. Once Maddy and I finally figured out everyone’s niche, I set to work organizing names in boxes under the days of the week. Everyone watched over my shoulder, making super helpful and very welcome suggestions. By Monday Charlie and I headed over to the school office on his bike, me balancing on the back as he crawled forward at a less-than-walking speed, to print out the new ten-commandments. Each room got a copy, and everyone poured over it, contemplating their new place in life.
And it worked! It’s only been a few days but so far everyone seems much more content with a new paradigm.
Dishes and Diapers
This month has been frustrating. It’s been emotional, and it’s been confusing.
Carlo and I were sharing our frustrations while picking up trash outside one of the houses, long after dusk and dinner. Campus needed to be cleaned. The government was coming in the morning for a routine inspection, and everything needed to be spotless to show our capabilities of being an orderly and safe campus. Classes were canceled, and most of the day was spent trying to organize children into task forces, and standing over the lazy ones making sure they didn’t run away from the simplest of chores. Around dusk, a few of the older boys helped me and Carlo move and organize a pile of bricks being used for construction, but they left us to clean up the rest of the front yard and broken bricks so they could go watch TV and find something to eat.
It felt unfair, doing chores for a house we didn’t live in, while the people who did live there watched TV, so that those people didn’t get shut down by the government for not doing their chores. It felt unfair never knowing where I was going to live or work. It felt unjust washing dishes for 12-year-olds while the three-year-olds in the house next door did their own. It felt unfair not being communicated with directly. It felt selfless skipping two days off in a row (even though I’d just spent a month on vacation while campus struggled in our absence). It was hurtful being told everything we cooked was gross and disgusting because it wasn’t french fries or sopa de mani. It felt like the last straw getting sprayed in the eye with peppermint oil because of the area of a triangle in a math problem. When Charlie asked for my coat in church because he was cold, after a week of telling me how much he hated me because I made him do math and wash his plate, it felt like a slap in the face. It felt like I was being mistreated.
I was exhausted, I was out of patience, I was being a bad parent, and I needed some words of life. So I naively picked the Sermon on the Mount, expecting to find justification for my selfishness in the face of the only truly selfless orator. How could I be so stupid.
Well it turns out, I had been experiencing literal word for word scenarios from the sermon on the mount and hadn’t even noticed. Jesus said that this whole time I had been complaining and feeling mistreated had been an opportunity to rejoice. It had been an opportunity to not practice righteousness in front of others. An opportunity to give to the needy so that my giving could be secret. I had been worrying about where I was going to live, the exact thing Jesus said I didn’t have to worry about since He even takes care of the birds.
Scraping up dirty diapers and emptying trashcans full of maggots was gross. I made sure everyone knew it was gross. I complained about having to clean someone else’s mess. What was I doing? I said I was here to tell these kids about Jesus, the same Jesus who washed the filth off the feet of his ungrateful and uncomprehending disciples. If I can’t metaphorically wash the feet of the children who actually deep down admire me and appreciate my presence despite their emotional outbursts of negative feedback (and physically wash the feet of a few muddied three-year-olds), how am I going to wash the feet of those who actually do hate me? I literally told myself that my week had felt like a slap in the face, and here Jesus was saying to turn my face with humility and love.
If this was any other job in any other place where I was getting paid, I would be working for myself. I would have to think about my future and my paycheck. But now I’ve been given a blessing and a chance. A chance to do something I know is not for me. Something I know I won’t feel self-righteous about when I’m thanked or prideful about when I see a finished product.
Am I really going to complain about being persecuted with dishes and diapers and say I want to be like Christ who couldn’t help but love the people who spat on Him and crowned Him with the pain of the world. This was an opportunity to rejoice and be exceedingly glad that I was blessed to be persecuted because of Christ. With that thought I laughed, because I realized I wasn’t being mistreated or tortured or persecuted at all. I could handle late nights of putting kids to bed, complicated chore charts, and cooking meals. Jesus had sacrificed more than a first-world lifestyle for me, and done more than washed my dishes and cleaned my yard and taken out my trash for me. Why should I complain when I was given the opportunity to do the tiniest fraction of the same?
Humble and Meek
When Marquitos, one of the two-year-olds, is whining about something in his unintelligible Spanish, it’s probably because he wants pan, his most favorite thing in the whole world. When three-year-old Rogelio screams because he detonated his pants yet again, it’s usually because his addict prostitute mother visited him on Sunday and promised to take him home as soon as she gets clean. When I literally have to hold nine-year-old Alejandro’s hands so he will be forced to do his one chore of the day while he sweeps and cries giant dramatic crocodile tears, it’s usually because of the fetal alcohol syndrome and years of being treated like an object.
When I say I have to remember the following thing, it's not an item on a list that I don't want to forget. It's not like someone's birthday or a holiday I need to be reminded of. It's not just a habit I want to form. It's something that I HAVE to have written on my stony heart, something that needs to be ingrained in who I am. These children, these people, these are the mourners who will be comforted. These are those that hunger for righteousness that will be filled. These are the poor in spirit who will rule the Kingdom I want to be a part of.
When I’m uncomfortable with having to sleep in a new place or having my job description redefined, it makes me feel frustrated. It makes me feel as though I’ve been treated unjustly. It’s uncomfortable being uncomfortable. But it’s worth it. Christ started His most important sermon by talking about the people I’m surrounded by every day. He didn't come for the well, but for the sick. He didn't come for me in my three-story house, me with my loving parents, me with my college education at a private university, me with my simple little solutions for how to make the world better. He came for the poor in spirit. He came for those who have no one in the world to care about them, because those are who He care's about the most.
On Sunday I was taking care of the Guerrero’s, not knowing I’d soon be their full-time house parent (stayed tuned for the next update on that haha). They were being disobedient and terrible and annoying. Luis, one of the new 14-year-olds, kept asking if he could send a message to his mom and I begrudgingly gave up my phone. He texted and asked her if she was coming to visit because she didn’t answer his call.
¿Está viniendo? <Are you coming?>
He kept coming back from playing almost exactly every sixty seconds to see if she had replied. Finally she did.
No estoy viniendo.
<I’m not coming.>
<Take care of yourself.>
How can I look Rogelio in the eyes and tell him his life inconveniences me? How can I be mad at Luis for not being responsible or doing his chores when all he wants to do is go home and be a kid? Can I really be irritated at Charlie for being frustrated with the disadvantages he was given during prenatal development?
When I talk to people from home I sometimes get a vibe from what they’re saying or thinking.
That sounds terrible.
Why do you put up with those work hours?
You need to think about setting better boundaries for yourself.
And while I of course recognize that these thoughts come from a place of care for me, and that they carry truth, I have to ask myself, “how could I not put up with this?” Am I really supposed to look at Marquito’s dirty little feet and say, “I’m sorry, you walked through a pile of rotten tomatoes after I told you not to and right after I bathed you, and now your feet are disgusting. No way I'm giving you another bath.” Am I going to tell Luis he’s just gonna have to take care of himself because I'm just fed up with policing his terrible behavior? Maybe Charlie would understand if I told him that sometimes I don't look forward to forcing him into being educated.
Finding boundaries is always a challenge, but am I really supposed to put a boundary on my love? Tell them they’ve reached their limit? Because trust me, I ran out of my own ability to love a hot minute ago. Putting a limit on the love I have left would not be putting a limit on something from myself at all, and I don't know if I have anything even resembling the authority required to put a limit on the Love that, at this point, I'm just trying my best to pass along.
Jesus was thrilled to clean up behind me while I ignored that there was even a mess. If He can do that, He can help me out with this. Because when I look at these kids, I can't help but realize, I'm just the same as them. And that means Jesus came for me too. After all, what does Emmanuel mean if not that?