(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
COCHABAMBA, Bolivia -- Upon this rock, the hill of Saint Peter -- Cerro de San Pedro, a ridge just east of the city -- Cristo de la Concordia keeps watch with an earnest expression over 800,000 residents of Cochabamba and 200,000 more in two adjoining cities.
The view of the city from the base of the 112-foot-tall statue is simply breathtaking. But so is the altitude. Cochabamba itself is 8,392 feet above sea level, and Cerro de San Pedro is 869 feet above that. Debra Snellen and I had both gotten winded simply climbing the steps from the parking lot to the base of the statue; twice, my heart started racing so quickly that I had to sit down for fear I would faint. So we decided not to climb the narrow staircase inside the statue for those who want to peer out of the many small, discreet portholes in its exterior.
(Photo by Debra Snellen)
The statue was born as much from civic pride as religious fervor; the planners made sure that it would be just a little taller than Cristo Redentor, which looks over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and has been featured in countless movies and television shows. Cristo Redentor gets more screen time, but Cristo de la Concordia is the largest statue of Jesus Christ in existence.
Debra and I had arrived in Cochabamba on June 29 to begin a short-term mission trip with LEAMIS International Ministries, the non-denominational organization Debra founded with Gail Drake and which the two women run from a home near Sewanee.
But Gail was not on this trip, nor were any of our other regular or semi-regular teammates. For 10 days in Cochabamba, Debra and I would be on our own under the watchful eyes of Cristo de la Concordia. The trip would include its share of ups and downs, including misunderstandings and tasks left uncompleted. I will write about some of those ups and downs over the course of this series. In the end, I hope that we left having accomplished something, and perhaps having laid the groundwork for more to be accomplished in the future.
Debra and Gail's vision for LEAMIS is to provide education and empowerment programs in underdeveloped countries including leadership training for pastors, cottage industry workshops for the people, and installation of water filtration and purification systems. For the past three years, LEAMIS has taken short-term teams to Kenya, but this year there just wasn't an ideal situation for that -- there was no church with the right combination of the need for LEAMIS' assistance and the resources to host a team and follow up on the information which is presented. Ideally, LEAMIS wants the communities it helps to begin sharing their knowledge with others. That was the key to our highly-successful Kenya trip last year, in which LEAMIS volunteers from the U.S. partnered with Kenyans from the Kibera slums in Nairobi to take training workshops to the people of Keumbu, a rural region near Kisii Town.
LEAMIS isn't done with Africa, and in fact there will be a visit this year by one of LEAMIS' staff members to work on water purification systems. But Gail and Debra looked elsewhere for a place to send a team.
They considered a new mission field in the Andes, and contacted Christ for the City International (CFCI), a much-larger missions group with which LEAMIS has a friendly relationship. CFCI put Debra in touch with its Bolivia representative, who began looking for a good situation. But then that CFCI position changed hands, which delayed the process a bit.
LEAMIS originally announced that Debra and Gail would be leading a team to Bolivia.
Because LEAMIS is such a small organization, both Gail and Debra work other jobs to make ends meet. Gail now operates a gift and coffee shop in Monteagle, Lorena's Gifts. The demands of her business meant that she would, reluctantly, have to bow out of this particular LEAMIS trip. At the time she dropped out, only one team member had actually signed up -- a pudgy, neurotic journalist from Shelbyville, who was at that point named Debra's assistant team leader.
Trouble was, the team never quite materialized. The uncertainty about the exact dates may have had something to do with it; by the time all the specifics were in place, some of our regulars had no doubt made other plans. In retrospect, that turned out to be a good thing -- the unavoidable misunderstanding and miscommunication that accompanies going into a new territory created some situations which Debra and I took in stride (sort of) but which would have been disastrous if we'd had a team with us.
Some of the challenges stemmed from the fact that we weren't really where we expected to be, and our actual surroundings weren't exactly what we had prepared or hoped for.
We thought we would be in a rural area, somewhere outside Cochabamba, similar to the rural areas in which we had worked in Kenya in 2005 and 2006. The blurb promoting the trip on LEAMIS' web site put it this way: "Your team will be working with the Quechua Indians (descendants of the Incas) in a rural area outside of Cochabamba."
Well, guess again. We actually turned out to be in Villa Candelaria, a neighborhood on the north side of Cochabamba on a hillside at the foot of the mountains. There were needs in Villa Candelaria, to be sure, but because it was within the city it wasn't the exact type of poverty which we had been expecting, and some of our content had to be changed as a result. Debra's curriculum for the health and nutrition workshop, which we had planned to team-teach, was intended for a more primitive audience and didn't really apply to the people in Villa Candelaria, who had much easier access to electricity and much more opportunity to purchase a variety of foods.
Dealing with the unexpected is part and parcel of mission work, whether short-term or long-term. Sure, it's easy to feel frustrated -- and you do -- but sometimes when you grit your teeth and move forward, that's when you discover God at work in the unexpected. I didn't have a clear view of Cristo de la Concordia from the home where I stayed or the school where we did most of our work, but I took comfort in knowing he was out there, looking down at us from atop his mountain.
TOMORROW: Our wired correspondent