October 1st, 2002, was a memorable day for me. It was when I first set foot in Guatemala on what I thought was a four-month trip to serve as a short-term missionary, but instead began a journey that would change not just my life and that of my family but the lives of hundreds of other families as well.
When I walked into that orphanage in Guatemala, something stirred in me. I come from a broken family and experienced a childhood of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. I know what it is like to feel uncared for and forgotten, to be separated from my family and denied a childhood.
The fear, rejection, and pain I saw in the eyes of those children, were my own in a way that words could not explain because what they were living in that orphanage, I, too, had lived.
These children had caretakers and supervisors, but as is often the case, their focus was more on keeping the place running and less on the personal care of individual children. I knew from experience that even a well-run institution can have little correlation with the personalized care of individuals.
I knew I had to do something. It wasn’t a feeling or a desire. It was a certainty.
I had little knowledge of how to serve vulnerable children in a developing country. Yet, I understood, at a deeply personal level, that vulnerable, abused, traumatized, and abandoned children need to feel loved and cared for above all else.
My wife and I committed to staying in Guatemala. What began as a ministry serving 12 girls in an orphanage eventually became the Cadaniño ministry that now serves hundreds of vulnerable children and families through after-school programs at two Community Impact Centers through programs providing Spiritual Formation, Academic Reinforcement, and Family Strengthening.
Twenty years is a long time during which I’ve learned many vital lessons, all of which were important and few of which were easy. Here are a few that stand out.
It’s Not About Me
It’s easy for all of us, especially those in ministry, to find our identity in what we do instead of who we are.
When our profession takes up most of our time, we often look to it to define our identity. But as Christians, it’s not what we do to make a living but who we are in Christ that defines us.
For me, it’s meant understanding that I was a son of God, that I was loved, that I was forgiven for my sins, that I belonged to God and He had chosen to adopt me into His family.
Understanding this changed my perspective from doing things for me to doing them for God and His glory.
Invest in People
The right people make all the difference. When I started what was to become the first Cadaniño Community Impact Center in Santa Fe, it was just me teaching classes at a small school.
I soon realized that the need was greater than I could meet alone, and if I wanted to succeed in serving vulnerable children in their communities, I needed help.
Eduardo, our first teacher, came on part-time, and it quickly became apparent that we needed more people like him. Teachers from the neighborhood who live in the community know the families’ struggles and are trusted by the parents.
With each teacher we hired and trained, I saw increased impact in the lives of the children. It became apparent the most significant way to make a difference was by recruiting a team, training them in how to serve the vulnerable, and equipping them to pour into the lives of the broken.
The duo of Eduardo and me has become a committed crew of 14 that show up every day and make an amazing difference in the lives of the most vulnerable in Guatemala. The impact is so much greater than if I’d tried to keep doing everything myself.
Mission vs. Assignment
As a Christian, I know my mission is to bring the Gospel to people living in a broken and fractured world. Personally, my calling is doing so among the orphaned, vulnerable and poor. James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
God, Himself is “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” Psalms 68:5
Widows and orphans represent the weakest, most vulnerable element in society. Families are broken, often, the father, husband, provider, and protector is gone, and they are at the mercy of others.
These verses clarify my mission. But over 20 years, my assignment has continued to evolve.
Our journey has gone from: Visiting children in orphanages to bring food and clothes while teaching them the Bible (2002-2007), to Starting vocational training programs in orphanages, discipling, mentoring, counseling, and helping youth transition out of orphanage (2008-2015), to Founding the Cadaniño ministry which serves hundreds of vulnerable children and their families (2016-Present).
Our mission and core purpose of what we were here to accomplish never changed. But our assignment, the specific programs, and projects we run to achieve it have adjusted to meet the needs of those we serve, enabling us to stay true to our mission yet relevant to the task at hand.
Move from Betterment to Development
There is a place for helping those who are destitute and in need. But we must always be mindful of how we help so we don’t do so in ways that keep them from seeking a way out of their predicament.
We must be cautious that our endeavors don’t cause them to become content and complacent encouraging them to simply holding out a hand whenever they need something.
If we truly want to help them, we must encourage and facilitate the development of people’s God-given gifts and talents. Otherwise, our assistance can encourage dependency and have the opposite effect of what we seek to accomplish.
A few of the ways we do this is by:
Investing time, lots of time. Development is much more time-consuming than Betterment, requires a long-term commitment, and is messy and frustrating.
Building relationships, getting to know the people, the culture, and the country. You can only truly help that which you truly understand. Listen to those you are trying to help so you don’t put time, energy, and resources into solutions that aren’t needed.
Start small. Development is challenging on a large scale. Find the few things that are genuinely needed and can be impacted on a grassroots level. Create a model that works and the results will speak for themselves, then you can grow with time.
Always be learning, ask the hard questions, listen to what other people say, actively seek out advice and be your harshest critic.
Continually asking, “Am I doing for someone what they can do for themselves?” If so, how do I move beyond that?
Understand This Is Not My Ministry
It’s something I often say; to our staff, students, and primarily, to myself.
For many years I thought of what I did as “my work”: my discipleship classes, workshops, youth groups, and my ministry to orphans and vulnerable children.
Yet as time went by and the ministry grew, it became more apparent that this was bigger than me. I’m not smart enough, wise enough, or rich enough to have gotten things to where they are.
So, how has it come about if it’s not by my strength, power, and abilities?
Through God’s strength, His power, His wisdom, and according to His plan, this ministry has grown in scope and depth from 35 kids in a small garage to 200 students in two centers with local staff making a profound impact in the lives of those we serve.
What I have is the privilege of walking in what God IS doing and HAS been doing since before the foundation of the world and will carry on long after I am gone.
He gives me the privilege to be a part of His work, serving His people through the power of His Gospel to bring about His kingdom and impact lives for eternity.
Never Forget Why I'm Here
During my time here, I’ve faced many challenges. I’ve been through armed robberies, an attempted kidnapping, and had a gun put to my head. I’ve faced extreme poverty, sickness, and financial hardship struggling to provide for my family while serving others.
Working with broken people from broken places means you are constantly faced with the worst of what humanity has to offer. At times the effects of all that sin can overwhelm you.
We believe that the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we are giving students to learn, stay in school, get better grades, and give them the skills they need to succeed, can change the trajectory of lives for generations to come
Yet, at the same time, we know that the extreme brokenness that exists all around means that despite our best efforts, their lives may end tomorrow, tragically cut short before they have a chance to see their dreams realized.
Living within that tension is one of the hardest things to accept. How do you create a long-term discipleship program for those you serve? How do you work with students to develop a life plan of what is possible when you are constantly confronted with the reality that, because of the violence that surrounds them, it could all end tomorrow? It’s not easy.
Deep down my heart breaks for the lives lost and students no longer with us. I grieve for the children who have lost family members and are living with heartache.
Yet I dig deeper, past pain, suffering, and sorrow, past my feelings to a faith that is grounded in an unwavering conviction and the ultimate reason why we are here.
To give those we serve the opportunity to know a God who loves and cares for them enough to send His son to die for them. So that no matter what challenges they face or when their earthly life ends, the promise of eternal life through salvation in Jesus Christ awaits them for eternity.
On one side, helping our students discover their God-given gifts and abilities and use them in a way that Glorifies Him can change their life here on earth.
And on the other side, holding fast to an eternal vision, remembering that we are a small part of what God is doing to redeem and restore lives to Him for eternity. We can take comfort in the job He has given us today and trust Him for the work He is doing tomorrow. Whatever that may look like and whether or not we get to see it.
John 5:11-13 “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Though not exhaustive, I hope that these hard-learned lessons will be a blessing to you as you live out your faith in service to others,