Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making Tamales Should Be a Group Effort

Whenever people get together to make tamales, fun and laughter are sure to follow. Both were prominent on Sunday night when my LIFE group merged with a Latin women’s LIFE group from my church to make tamales at the home of Eren and her mother, Olga.

Eren is the common denominator for both groups. She, Olga and friend Judy attend the same group on Wednesday night as my wife and I, in the home of Fair Oaks Baptist Church pastor Steve McCoy and his wife, Andrea. We’re all sort of new to the church, and Steve and Andrea recruit leaders by way of their home fellowship studies.

During one of our Wednesday night meetings, the Latinas and I started talking about Mexican food. (Eren and Olga are from Mexico and Judy is from Guatemala.) Before you know it, we were planning a get-together to make tamales. Everyone else in the group was like, “Yeah, we’ll come” – and eat!

Making tamales is a natural in a group setting. One of the traditions in Latin countries is for families and friends to get together on Christmas eve and make tamales, eat them for a late supper, then go to midnight Mass, stuffed.

Easily, there is room for 7 to 8 stations. People talk, laugh and work side by side for hours while making these tasty treats. In Central and South America, tamales are made differently in virtually every country. Some are made with corn husks, whereas banana leaves are more prominent farther south.

On Sunday, Mexico (Eren, Olga and Alicia), Guatemala (Judy) and Colombia (Lucia, Carmen and Dora) were represented, as well as a few gringo hangers on from Los Ustados Unidos. The Latin Ladies meet Friday night in Eren and Olga’s house and study the Bible together, sometimes in English, sometimes in Espanol.

Me? I’m kind of a cross-over between gringo and Mexican. I grew up on the border of Mexico and love the culture and the cuisine, which I have studied – in the kitchen and in word – intently over the years. When I started catering in 2004, tamales were my specialty. In 2005, I won a prize for my mushroom tamales at the San Jose Tamale Festival, against dozens of other competitors.

And, yet, it’s been three years since I last made tamales, with Susan. Making tamales is time consuming and a lot of hard work. When I pitched the idea to Eren, she readily agreed to host it.

Sunday afternoon, I was slaving away in the kitchen, making adobo (red chile salsa) and my three-mushroom (button, Shiitake, and portobello) concoction. Eren had prepared chicken, roast pork in adobo and cheese and jalapenos, so we had four different types of mushrooms to make – and eat.

Sue and I were the last to arrive a little after 4 p.m. All the ladies were eager to make tamales. My wife had an interesting observation. Why weren’t the Latin ladies teaching us how to make tamales? The answer is because most of them had never made tamales.

Eren and I traded off sharing a few secrets, then we got started. Eren had an oblong table set up in her kitchen covered with a plastic table cloth – when you’re done, you just throw the dirty thing away.

I gave a quick demonstration on how to make the little treasures, then I got out of the way and let them have fun. When they made a mistake, I stepped in to correct them. We had tall ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones and every combination thereof. Some were pretty; some were kind of hideous. Some had blogs of masa, and others were paper thin. Who cares? All that matters is what they taste like.

The Latin ladies – along with Andrea and Earlene (see Dec. 11 post) dived right in. There was much cackling – I mean talking – going on while they worked. The tamales are fitted into a steamer when they’re done for a 75-minute wet sauna. Eren took care of boiling the water, while I prepared the masa (corn meal, mixed with salt, baking powder, lard and chicken stock). Eren had soaked the corn husks in boiling water for an hour before we arrived.

Every 20 minutes or so, a new pot was boiling. Occasionally, we’d have the ladies switch positions and learn a new task. At one point, I led the group in singing the famous Latin song “Cielito Lindo.” The refrain goes “Ay, ay, ay, ay. Canta y no llores.” As soon as I sang those lines, the Latin ladies jumped in and sang. When they finished, they all laughed heartily. Later, I changed up the tune a little and sang “Ay, ay, ay ay. I am the Frito Bandito” and my wife took it from there with a solo. “I love Fritos Corn Chips, I’ll get them from you.” It was hilarious.

By the time we finished all four types of tamales, the first, Eren’s roast pork, were done. Everybody who came brought a side dish, and we had a nifty little potluck happening by 7 p.m.

We all sat around the table chatting. The gringos asked questions about life in Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia and what brought them to the United States. We asked about the foods they grew up with. Life sharing was going on.

That is what good food should do. Good things happen when food and people collide. That combination brings conversation and laughter, two essentials for budding friendships. As you talk, you get to know each other. A get-together becomes a celebration. When you're done, share the extras with friends and family, because Christmas is about giving and sharing with others.

Caption: Making tamales in group settings is a Latin tradition, especially on Christmas eve. Here, I gave a quick demonstration to Eren (middle) and my pastor's wife, Andrea.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Friendship Based on Love of Food

My grandmother canned various fruits and vegetables from her vast garden, and she taught my mom how to can. My mom didn’t have any daughters to pass on the art of canning, and, even though I’m a pretty good cook, my mom did not teach me how to can. (Don’t worry; Mom; I’m not mad.)

Frankly, I never thought twice about learning how to can until I went to Haiti in August and began planning a garden project at the orphanage my church is rebuilding in Leogane. Canning, as my vision states, is something we need to teach Haitians how to do because most of the country is without electricity and, hence, refrigeration. Canning is a necessity in third-world nations so they can eat healthy foods more often.

So when I received an offer to learn how to make pepper jelly from a friend at church, Earlene Boyd of Walnut Creek, Calif., I jumped at the chance. The benefit to me was twofold: 1) I wanted to learn more about canning; and 2) I wanted to learn how to make pepper jelly (think spicy jalapenos) so I can serve it over cream cheese as an appetizer for a dinner I’m catering in a couple of weeks.

Earlene had given my wife, Susan, and me a jar of pepper jelly awhile back, and we fell in love with the stuff. You pour it over cream cheese and dip your favorite cracker into the concoction, and viola, instant yummy appetizer at a fairly low cost.

As we worked, we chatted, which is how it should be while working together in the kitchen. I asked Earlene if her mom taught her how to can, and she said no, she just wanted to learn how to can and simply followed the directions. Ugh. I hate following directions.

I see Earlene at church just about every week. She and her husband, Duane, sit right behind Susan and me. She knows I like to cook, so we often end up talking about food, even during church.

What I learned from Earlene was that we both have a passion to use food as gifts for friends. Earlene gives away treats at church all the time. We have gotten into her inner circle, praise the Lord, which means regular goodies. A few weeks ago, we were guests at her home for her annual “pumpkin” dinner, in which pumpkin was the featured guest.

I told Earlene of my desire to set aside one day in the next few weeks and do nothing but make candy and baked goods for friends, and that set off a 30-minute conversation about food gifts. We agreed that it was a wonderful way to love on someone. My list started off with chocolate and peanut brittle, two of my childhood favorites my mom used to make (and, no, she didn’t teach me how to make those either.) I’m even thinking of presentation of the packages and how to make it … pretty. I might even buy bows.

So out of my morning with Earlene, I gathered up a few treasures. I learned how to can, how to make pepper jelly and our friendship blossomed a little.

How do I pay her back? She heard a few Hispanic ladies from church and me are getting together to make tamales. She asked if she could come. “Of course,” I told her. We’re both already thinking about how to invite others into the fold.

Food is a gift from God, and we should share it with others as often as possible. Celebrate the Christmas season by inviting friends over for a meal or by setting aside a day to make treats for cherished friends or maybe even people you don’t even know. Like a neighbor you’ve been dying to get to know better.

If nothing else, bring me some goodies, and I’ll be your friend!

Note: For the rest of December, I’m going to share some of my food secrets that I learn, such as my candy-making escapades.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Latkes for Everyone

Hanukkah began at sunset Dec. 1 and ended Dec. 9. Every year, the date changes slightly. According to, Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah) is a Jewish holiday also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorating Israel's freedom from the oppressive Syrian-Greek rule and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C.

Hanukkah is celebrated mostly in the home. Each night, families light menorahs, play dreidel (played with a spinning top) and sing songs. Presents are given, under the influence of Christmas.

And, yes, food is a big part of Jewish customs during Hanukkah. In particular, Jews eat deep-fried foods to commemorate the miracle of Hanukkah, in which a cruse of oil lasted for eight days instead of the usual one. Potato latkes are the most famous Hanukkah traditional food, usually served with a slow-roasted brisket.

I stumbled onto potato latkes years ago and absolutely love them. As Christians, I think it’s important that we understand Jewish customs and traditions. Food is a great way to connect with our Jewish brethren.

Here is a simple potato latkes recipe. Last week, I made them for my family, along with braised brisket for dinner. We all loved the dinner, shared in a family atmosphere.

Potato Latkes

Prep time: 15 minutes; cooking time: 15 minutes.

Recipe yield: 10 to 12 latkes


3 cups peeled and shredded potatoes (3-4 whole potatoes)

¼ onion grated

1 clove garlic, minced

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil for frying

2 tsp. chopped green onion for garnish


Place the potatoes in a cheesecloth and wring, extracting as much moisture as possible.

In a medium bowl stir the potatoes, onion, eggs, flour and salt together.

In a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until hot. Place large spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the hot oil, pressing down on them to form ¼- to ½-inch thick patties. Brown on one side, turn and brown on the other. Let drain on paper towels.

Serve hot, with applesauce (preferably homemade) or sour cream and sprinkle with chopped green onions!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Haitians, Orphanage Need Our Prayers

Day 7 continued (Saturday, Aug. 7)

Leogane, Haiti

After returning to our hotel from our Port-au-Prince jaunt, we all quickly finished packing our bags for our 5 a.m. departure time the next morning. Everyone wanted to make sure their suitcases were under the 50-pound maximum, so lots of filthy t-shirts and pairs of jeans were tossed in the garbage. Any extra food was given to Amy, who was staying the next week to work with the children.

By the time Saturday night rolled around, we all were exhausted and ready to go home. Everyone was anxious to go to bed, knowing we would be getting up at 4 to drive the two hours to the airport.

Saturday night also meant our last evening group gathering. Chris Stockhaus, missions director at Cornerstone Fellowship (Livermore, California), gave our 200 missionaries “Humility: True Greatness,” by C.J. Mahaney. Each day, we were to read two chapters for our personal devotional time, then talk about it later in our group time.

Frankly, every chapter was a little depressing. Do any of us ever feel humble enough to be worthy of the presence of God? We might feel humbled for a minute, but in that instance, our pride has kicked in and humility goes out the window. And yet, humility is something we all need.

I found it ironic that I received a book on humility. For the past nine months, I’ve been working on developing a new ministry, Feast With the King, also the name of the ministry book I hope to finish writing someday and get published. My morning prayer since January has been that I be a simple, humble servant, seeking to fulfill his God-given mission.

Sometimes, I think God is so funny. Was this book God’s way of telling me that I still need more humility? I thought I was doing pretty good there … for a minute or two. Or was it just a few seconds?

My gauge for humility has always my dad, who passed away 5 ½ years ago after a four-year battle with lung cancer. Pop was almost always who he was: a hard-working, simple farmer. That’s what made him happy. He was a deacon and sang in the choir for 40 years at the church I grew up in. I don’t think my dad ever sought attention for himself. He devoted his life to his God, his church, his wife, and his three sons. My dad was always willing to help others in need.

Me? I can find countless ways I bring attention to myself – every day. Sometimes, I get caught up in our “look at me” world.

It was equally humbling to hear others in our group tell their stories during our evening meetings. Going down to Haiti to help the orphans wasn’t the only thing this week was about. Short-term missions are God’s way of connecting with us in special ways.

I went down to gain some carpentry skills, only to hear God to tell me to plant a garden. I still don’t have many carpentry skills, but I grew up on a farm and worked in the fields for 10 years. God knew that when he recruited me. He knew both my brothers still work in the ag industry, so I have instant experts at my disposal.

As we went around that night, person after the person were so moved at seeing God work in the lives of these poor orphans and the adults associated with them. I think we all realized how rich we really are compared with Haitians, many of whom make around $100 a year. If I make less than that in a day, it’s a bad day. We all have air-conditioned homes and apartments to go to, cars to drive speedily to where we need to go, microwaves to heat up our dinners in a minute refrigerators to keep food cold, and freezers to keep food frozen.

Americans are so privileged to live the lives we do. Going down to a place like Haiti taught all of us who went how fortunate we are to live in the country we live in. In Haiti, we saw the worst form of poverty any of us had ever seen right in front of us. I’m a firm believer in being an Acts 1:8 church (paraphrase: go to Samaria, Judea and throughout the world to share the gospel), but where do you start with a place like Haiti? These people just saw the worst devastation they will ever see.

These people walk in humility every day. Many of the orphans lost one or both parents, friends and relatives in the January 12 earthquake. They see the same devastation around them every day. Hunger is a part of their daily lives. They battle near 100-degree temperatures and 90-percent humidity on a regular basis half the year. Drinking clean water is not a guarantee some days.

What do we do to help them? Maybe a better question is what can we do? Maybe you’re unemployed or underemployed and taking government welfare, and you don’t have any funds to send? Maybe you can’t get away from work or family to go to Haiti on a short-term mission trip. If all you can do every day is get on your hands and knees and ask God to help these people, then that is what you should be doing.

But, do not be one of those Christians who says “I’ll pray for them,” and then never think about them as you merrily go about your daily lives. That is one of the worst form of hypocrisy in the church today. Write a note in your Bible reminding you to pray for the Haitians. Keep a prayer list near your nightstand that includes a prayer for the orphanage.

2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV) says “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Haiti is a land that needs healing; Haitians need our prayers. When we pray, at home, at our churches and nationwide, change occurs, miracles happen, bellies fill up, clean water springs up from dirty wells, crops grow where only weeds grew before and people begin living again. Those things may need to happen for the Haitians to feel God’s love for them.

So if all you can do for Haiti and the orphanage in Leogane is pray, then pray earnestly every day. God hears our humble prayers.

Friday, September 10, 2010

These Boots Were Made for Working

Day 7 continued (Saturday, Aug. 7)

Leogane, Haiti

During our last few days at the orphanage, I began to think of ways to lighten my luggage load for the flight home, knowing I had to keep it under 50 pounds. I threw away a holy pair of jeans that were utterly filthy (and smelly). I tossed a white t-shirt that would never come clean, no matter how much bleach was applied.

The heaviest items left in my suitcase were an old pair of work boots. Surely, someone could use a good pair of work boots. I hadn’t used them in several years before this week; I surely wasn’t going to miss them.

Jonathan, our team leader, pulled me aside and reminded me of the church’s rules to not give personal items or food to the locals. Inside, I was sad, because, in my heart, I knew I was right in wanting to give one of the Haitians something he needed to work in local construction. But I also knew I had to follow the rules, whether I agreed with them or not.

After saying our goodbyes to the children, we headed back to the hotel to freshen up (so important for male construction workers), before heading off to tour Port-au-Prince. When we got back to our rooms around noon, the local construction team was hard at work on the second floor, where I was staying.

After changing clothes (I felt so refreshed), I started to head downstairs to our vans, ready to be a tourist. One of the workers passed by, and I just happened to look at his feet. He was wearing this ratty pair of tennis shoes feebly held together by short pieces of shoelaces. His heels hanged out over the back of his shoes, flattening them, and he was barefoot. The shoes looked like hand-me-downs that had handed down a couple of times.

I got his attention, then put my foot up next to his. His was bigger, but that was OK, because the boots were too big (they were given to me and probably a size 11; I wear a 10). I motioned for him to wait by my door while I fetched the boots. “Please, Lord, let these boots fit this man. He looks like he could use them.”

I put the boots on the ground for him to try on. Perhaps he was wary of me, thinking I was a used shoe salesman from the States. The young man slipped on the unlaced boots and smiled. I smiled back. If the boots fit, you must … keep them.

“Yours,” I told him. “Gift.” I was thinking, “You need them more than I do, fella.”

We shook hands, sealing the deal. He quickly slipped off his tennis shoes and put on the boots, without socks, mind you. I couldn’t help noticing this young man of perhaps 25 had the feet of a 70-year-old man.

He went back to his labors, with toes stretching out, and I skipped off, gleefully. I had lightened my suitcase load and I had gladdened my heart. (The next day, my suitcase weighed in at 50.3 pounds, close enough to not pay the additional fee.)

I probably bragged too much about my thoughtful gift, but I was truly happy that I could help someone in need. Our team rules said nothing about giving your stuff away to the locals.

Caption: These are the shoes worn by the Haitian before my free gift.

One of my teammates, Amy, has returned to Leogane to care for little Charlie, who was sick the entire week we were there. Read her blog at

Friday, September 3, 2010

Not Even the President Escaped Devastation

Day 7 continued (Saturday, Aug. 7)

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

I felt a bump. It happened in the blink of an eye. I looked down to find a boy about 12 years old, dark as midnight on a starless night, looking up at me. “Hey, don’t do that,” I said to him in a firm English voice, thinking he was pick-pocketing me. Of course, he probably didn’t understand me, because most Haitians speak Creole. He stood smack dab in the middle of a group of 12 American tourists, bunched tightly, looking about at the rubble around us.

I reached into my zippered pocket, and my cell phone was gone. Our Haitian interpreter, Fred, acted quickly, prodding the boy for answers and trying to scare him into cooperating.

“He doesn’t have it,” someone in our group said. “That kid over there has it,” pointing to a boy 20 yards away in the street, halfway between our side of the street and the other, a large (read thousands) tent city.

Fred, still thinking quickly, pulled out his wallet that contained a fake badge from his days as a security guard. Later, he said he yelled at the boy that he was a policeman and if he ran, he would arrest him. The boy froze, then slowly started inching backward.

It was my turn to act quickly. I sprinted toward him as fast as my 51-year-old, sweating profusely body could go. The boy turned and ran just. All I could think of was to say stop in Spanish. “Alto!” I yelled. The boy dropped my cell phone in the street, and I was never so thankful. Thankful that I got my cell phone back and that I didn’t have to run any more. That 20 yards winded me.

A few minutes later, Fred pulled me aside and told me how lucky I was. “Had you gone another 20 yards, you would have been in the middle of all those Haitians. Had (the boy) screamed out, the Haitians would have come to his rescue.” The implication was that I was a bigger, White American seemingly taking advantage of this scrawny, probably hungry, probably orphaned, Haitian boy with no shoes.

I couldn’t help thinking about those two boys, working in tandem as pickpockets for food, for survival. I immediately thought of “the artful Dodger” in the classic Charles Dickens book “Oliver Twist.”

That was the highlight of our afternoon touring Port-au-Prince. At 11, we left the orphanage, stopped off at the hotel to freshen up and change clothes, and by 2, we were in Haiti’s capital.

Touring Port-au-Prince on our last day in Haiti was our reward for our hard work here and … surviving. One of our guides, Jean, promised us a decent meal at a “safe” restaurant. We stopped there, got out, but the sandwich/pizza/burger joint was tiny, seating perhaps 20 people. We had 25 in our group. The owner was unwilling to let us take over the place and displace his regular customers, so we moved on.

Whenever we stop and get out of the vans, people stop us and ask questions. Who are you? Why are you here? How do you like it here? Some of the Haitians can be downright funny. They laugh and joke with us because … “Why would you come to this?” one of them said. Some of the Haitians were genuine in wanting to chat with us. Sometimes, we realized they were cordial because they wanted money, but most of the time, they were just friendly nationals.

Frankly, Port-au-Prince is disgusting in every sense of the word. Billions of dollars, more money than was donated to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2004, has flooded into Haiti, population 9 million people before the earthquake, yet little has changed in eight months. In a August 22, 2010 article, the Washington Post said 230,000 people have left Port-au-Prince for outlying areas. The story said it is believed that 1.3 million people are living in tents in Haiti. That’s one-tenth of the total population. Everywhere we drove in Port-au-Prince, we saw tent cities. Between the medians on the main thoroughfare, in city parks, on bridges, next to rivers.

Before the January 12 earthquake, Port-au-Prince was home to 2.3 million people. The BBC Network reports that 230,000 people died from the earthquake, and it is believed that tens of thousands are still buried in the rubble. Everywhere we walked, we could smell the stench of dead bodies.

Our church sent teams of people to work in a 55,000 person tent city in Port-au-Prince, and the space it filled was no bigger than a couple of football fields. Allies of maybe 10 feet separated tents that were usually about 10 feet by 10 feet. The next tent was no more than a foot away. As far as the eye could see, blue tents filled your vision. Sometimes, you could see what organization had given the tents away, such as Samaritan’s Purse or the Red Cross.

Walking around the capital, it is hard not to feel deep sympathy for these people. Our group would talk awhile, then feel rage at how this country had gotten to this point. Haiti has been pretty much this way for centuries, mostly because of a corrupt political system. The nation has nearly a 50-percent literacy rate.

Jean and Fred, our interpreters would tell us the background about what we were seeing. Jean pointed out the national stadium, where the national soccer team played before the earthquake. He says he played semi-pro soccer earlier in his life and had played there “once or twice.” We walked past what Jean described as a once beautiful city park that once was a place for families to come and relax on hot evenings or weekends. Now, a mega tent city resides there and no grass can be seen anywhere. The national museum was closed, though not because of rubble. The Presidential Palace was in shambles, as was the national treasury and the national cabinet building, all within a few blocks from each other.

Jean got a kick out of seeing the crumbled treasury building. “We don’t have to pay taxes anymore, because there isn’t anyone to collect them.” He was speaking in jest. Or was he.

A single patrol guard stood near the tattered Presidential Palace, easily as large as the White House. The Post story quoted President Peval as never having walked across the street to talk to people in the mega tent city Champ de Mars. While we were in Leogane, President Clinton traveled to Haiti to represent his nonprofit and make a sizable donation to the cause. Every time we saw a helicopter, we joked that it was Clinton. Even Clinton got out and walked about the rubble. But not the president of Haiti.

The Haitian presidential elections are coming up in the fall. One of the people running is a popular rapper, Wyclef Jean. The joke was that he couldn’t be any worse than Peval, who is described as “distant” by the locals.

As we drove around, most of what we saw was more devastation. We could see green hillsides in the distance, and our interpreters said there were still pockets of Port-au-Prince that remained undamaged, mostly homes of the affluent. Our interpreters described the aristocracy as being mostly uncaring about the poverty around them.

We saw lot of big homes hiding behind sturdy gates and tall walls, keeping them away from the population around them. The rich speak French, considered more proper than the pauper Creole.

Our interpreters said the displaced include many of the rich. Jean said he knew of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who live in the tent cities because their homes and business crumbled in the earthquake, and they have nowhere to go. (Jean himself lost his teaching job in Leogane, because the school was destroyed by the earthquake.)

By mid-afternoon, we made it to our destination: MacEpis, a wannabe Haitian McDonald’s. One half of the roughly 2,000-square foot restaurant was reserved for ice cream and desserts, with the other half for hamburgers, fries and sodas. All week long, I had craved a cheeseburger, so I ordered a … cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. After waiting a good half hour, my beloved burger finally arrived, with bacon and cheese.

This truly was a sad day. I nearly cried. The burger was awful, easily the worst hamburger I’ve ever eaten. The bacon was chewy and unedible. The French fries, though, weren’t bad. A Coke is a Coke, even in Haiti. We were told it was safe to drink the carbonated drinks here because the restaurant has a good reputation. (It was safe, as the guards outside carried scatter guns.) In other words, the water was safe. I got a tiny scoop of ice cream for dessert, but it wasn’t the same as Haagen Dazs.

I left with a full stomach, but with memories of more bad food. I refused to claim this as my burger fix. I would have to wait until Miami 24 hours later for that luxury. Ugh.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Saying Goodbye Is Always Difficult

Day 7 (Saturday, Aug. 7)

Leogane, Haiti

Today was difficult because we had to finish our projects and say goodbye to the children. I went back and forth between my construction projects and the kids playing under the trees. I gave Oligas one last romp on my shoulders and spent some time hanging out with him.

We told the kids through the interpreters that we were leaving soon and flying back to America the next morning. We told them that if we never saw them again on earth, we would one day see them in heaven. Sad eyes all around, both adults and children. We prayed in English and in Creole, then we headed out.

The construction guys said goodbye to the seven Haitian men we trained in carpentry and cement skills. This morning, Bill, Paul and the Haitian crew frantically put up a wall around Amalia’s kitchen. I also had to say goodbye to Amalia. She came out to the van as we all piled in and said “au revoire.” I grew to admire her for the hard work and dedication she puts into preparing close to 180 meals a day under adverse conditions. Seven days a week, she cooks and sweats in her outdoor kitchen.

Leaving mission stops is always difficult. I remember leaving my last two mission trips feeling the same way: empty. We had to say goodbye to relationships we had nurtured over the week, not knowing if we would ever see them again. We have to accept that, for one week, this is where God wanted us to be, serving these little lost lambs. Loving these little children was an unpaid job, but we all know we will attain riches in heaven one day because of the love we gave.

Granted, I am hoping to return to the Leogane orphanage again, to plant a garden. First, I must make sure God is, indeed, in this. I have to ensure the farming plan has the necessary support financially farmingwise make it succeed. I knocked off one item on my to-do list by asking one of our interpreters if he thought we could get a local farmer to come in with a tractor and chisel/disc to turn the soil over before we planted. He assured me it was possible.

Before I left, I packed a few pounds of soil from the orphanage in a gallon freezer bag to take home to have it analyzed for nutrients. Yes, I knew it was illegal, but I asked God to overlook my sin. I packed it in the middle of 40 pounds of dirty, stinky work clothes from my week in Leogane. If the customs people in Miami can find it through that mess, they can have it.

Just dreaming such dreams for the kingdom means waiting on God and doing the legwork to make sure that God is opening doors or not. It’s a conundrum of sorts. We can’t do it without God, but it still requires our efforts. Several people in my group asked about coming back to work with the children. Absolutely. This kind of ministry needs irrigation engineers, carpenters, dirt farmers, chicken farmers, bee keepers and canners. Bringing along people to love on the children is a natural.

As I look ahead, I have already started to write down names of people who can farm, build chicken coops, keep bees and design an irrigation system. I am amazed at the resources God is filling my mind with. We need seed companies to donate seed. How do we get bees down there? How do we get hand farm tools down there? Where do we buy chickens to lay eggs? Will the local Ace Hardware have the necessary fencing on hand?

Those are all questions to be left in God’s hands. I will turn to him in prayer, ask others to pray, ask questions of people I think might have answers or solutions to the problems I foresee and watch God work. The project to-do list is rather substantial. I know I can’t do this task God has put upon me without his strength and guidance.

As we waved good-bye to our little Haitian friends, I, like everyone else in the group, began to cry. I looked for little Oligas, and he gave only a half-hearted wave back. Was he hurt? Or was he used to feeling abandoned? I know I have to return to my life in California, but that notion still hurts me. For the next few miles, our van was silent.

Only God knows if I will one day return to Leogane, Haiti … and see my little buddy again.

Caption: From left, Hilary, Fred (our interpreter), Amy and Geannine were the backbone of our kids' team.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Preserving Identities With a Paper Trail

Day 6 (Friday, Aug. 5)

Leogane, Haiti

We stumbled upon a potentially embarrassing problem today at the orphanage when we discovered, shall we say, irregularities, in its filing system for the children’s important papers. The paperwork included report cards, medical reports and birth certificates. Everything was in one, 6-inch stack of random papers, which I estimated to be over a thousand pages.

What’s the big deal? For most of these kids, these papers represent their dwindling identity. Many of them lost both parents to the earthquake, some lost only one parent but were dumped off at the orphanage because the surviving parent could no longer care for them after the January 12 earthquake.

One of the teenage girls was in tears when she showed us where the files were kept in the storage room. Little care had been given to the files. No methodology existed for the Haitians, it seemed. The files were infested with ants (major disease carriers) and most were sopping wet from one of the recent storms. We could see mold and mildew on some of the papers, which could make the kids sick.

After making the discovery, several of the people in our group were livid. “How could they be so careless?” was the common cry.

Then we discussed it some more. Part of our dilemma was our common dislike for the orphanage’s director, who is just 18 and barely an adult. She has made her disdain of our presence known by her ever-present frown. She is rarely at the orphanage, doing who knows what while away. She has clearly left the children in our care. We have witnessed her berate the cook and anyone else who gets in her way. Yet she is in charge, and we have to respect the chain of command.

In truth, this job fell on her after the earthquake. She doesn’t really want to be here, but is here by necessity. This job means survival for her. She wasn’t trained to run an orphanage, and she wasn’t trained to file paperwork. So she stuck everything in a big pile and walked away.

The big issue we faced was this: did the Haitians even want our help with the paperwork problem? If they didn’t, should we take action on behalf of the children in the name of righteousness. This is one of those dilemmas with no right answers. So we prayed: “Lord, what would you have us do?”

Fortunately for us, the Haitians eagerly accepted our offer to help. We separated the files into four sections and even built a storage box with four bins. Our solution to the birth certificate problem came to Catharine in a dream. No kidding. Catharine stayed at the hotel yesterday because she was sick. In between sweating and the sound of hammering by the hotel workers, she slept periodically and … dreamed. She dreamed of taking pictures of the birth certificates.

We used one of our cameras to take pictures of all the birth certificates, giving a paper trail to any potential lost items in the future. One problem solved.

Then a few of our people (all parents) went to work doing what they do best: organize. For people like me who have ADHD, people who organize are gold. These people went above and beyond the call of duty. They showed those kids that their identities mattered. I could see a few of the teenage girls watching them with gleeful anticipation.

One day, these kids are all going to walk away from the orphanage. When they leave, we hope that each one of them has his or her treasured birth certificate in hand.

Perhaps a few of them will remember the time when the Americans came to visit for a summer. Maybe a few of them will leave the orphanage with an identity based in Jesus Christ because of our presence here this summer. That child’s life will be impacted for a lifetime because of his hope in an eternity with God in heaven. Maybe a kid or two will choose to help others around them because of the love we showed these kids.

That’s why we came. We can’t impact every kid here, but we hope to impact a few. As our week winds down, each one of us has special memories of time spent with at least one kid. I hope each one of those kids has special memories of us, too.

Caption: Nora, a mother of two daughters in Pleasanton, California, was one of four people who helped organize the orphanage's important papers. The discolored papers above is from exposure to the sun.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Building Boxes to Store Treasures

Day 5 Continued (Thursday, Aug. 5)

Leogane, Haiti

Many of the Haitians don’t understand personal responsibility or pride of ownership because of one very good reason: They don’t own anything. We decided to build open-ended boxes that would slide under the children’s bunkbeds so children could have a place to store their possessions, what little they have. Most of what they have has been given to them by our church’s short-term missionaries who came here this summer.

Throughout the week, we could tell when the kids were wearing t-shirts from the Bay Area. My favorite t-shirt was emblazoned with a tennis club from Marin County. I don’t think there are many tennis players at the orphanage. But every day, those kids had clean clothes to wear.

One of the things that slowed us down in the building of the boxes was the thought of only some of the kids receiving the boxes before we left. We could not built all 40 needed for the girls side of the orphanage, to say nothing about the 38 boys across the street.

In every decision we made, we tried to think how it would impact the children as a group. We were told to do certain things out of fairness to the children, such as not giving individuals presents. We didn’t give individual kids snacks. We didn’t want other children to feel slighted, and we certainly didn’t want children to be emotionally or physically abused so another kid could have a gift we had given to someone else.

Most of these kids have few possessions. Everyone has a toothbrush and toothpaste, and everyone has the necessary toiletries. Everyone has their own bed, but that’s about it. Kids don’t have toys to play with, for the most part, except for what we brought. And because the toys don’t belong to the kids, there is little personal responsibility on the part of the children to take care of them so they could play with them the next day. Often, toys disappeared for a day or two, only to be found later, in the weeds or on the other side of the compound.

Part of what I thought about with the boxes was how the children would feel when they got the boxes. “Great, I got a box for my stuff, but I don’t have any stuff to put in it. What good does that do me?” Or maybe, “Thanks, and does this mean you’re going to give me something to put in my box?” I wish I had better answers. (Many of the teenagers did have their own cell phones. Where they got the money to pay for them, I don’t know.)

Sometimes, Americans have grandiose illusions of things they can do for the children of third-world countries such as Haiti. Does it really benefit these kids if they are given some luxury item that’s going to disappear in a few days or weeks or months?

What happens to these kids after we leave this summer? Did we build up their hopes for nothing? Did we promise something we couldn’t keep? That’s a question our church is wrestling with now: What next? That answer will come from more discussions and much prayer.

The worst part about the boxes (aside from the fact I worked on them, and none of them were plum, or square) was that we would not be there when the children received them. The decision was made to not give them the boxes until all of them were completed and could be given out together.

* * *

Working with the Haitians can try your patience sometimes, whether it’s the language barrier or the difference in speed of life. The children’s boxes were to be painted today. Oopsie. We fine American mathematicians, many of us college graduates, didn’t add so good. In fairness to Doug L and myself, the boxes were designed by a certain contractor who shall remain nameless. The original design didn’t consider the half inch on the bottom of the box, which made the fit under the beds a little too tight. One could not put their fingers on the top of the box without smacking them into the metal bed frame. New design: wack off an inch on the sides.

As the group’s designated painting teacher, I was an abject failure. The interpreters were not around, so “what we had here is a failure to communicate.” I tried to teach Jid, one of the Haitian teenage boys, how to paint, stroking going with the grain. Every time I would look away for a minute or do another chore, I would return to see Jid painting up and down instead of side to side. Perhaps “with the grain” doesn’t translate in Creole.

Then, two of the boys did not seal the lid on the plastic paint container, and it spilled all over the grass around us. It’s hard to get mad at them for attempting to something they’ve never done before. I tried to stop them from using the paint on the ground because of the dirt and grass combination, but it didn’t work so well. “Non” suddenly became indecipherable to the Haitians.

When they finished, the box really looked sharp. I congratulated the boys on a fine job. They beamed. Later, I saw it after the paint had dried. Then, I could see the grass imbedded in the paint. It was actually kind of funny. I told everyone we were seeking a natural look. “The green tones bring out the color in the white paint.”

When we finished painting, I told Jid we needed water to wash the paintbrush, so I marched off, bucket in hand, to the neighborhood well a hundred yards away. Thirty yards later, I realized I was not alone; Jid was walking with me. I pumped the water, then grabbed the bucket for the return trip, but Jid took it from me and insisted on carrying it. At that moment, I felt the respect of a teenage boy. I don’t know when Jid lost his dad, but it sure felt like he appreciated another man doing something for him.

The Haitians see certain jobs belonging to women, water carrying being one of those tasks. Jid did not look at it that way. That skill will one day make Jid a better employee, a better employer, a better husband, a better dad, and a better man. Today, Jid discovered humility.

* * *

We never know how little things might impact the Haitians. Yesterday, while the men were getting lessons in using the skill saw, one of the men, Jacque, who is 53, did not have a pair of safety glasses, whereas the other six did. I saw the problem and quickly went over to Jacque and pulled off my own glasses and offered them to him. His broad smile said “thank you.” Jacque felt a part of something.

Today, Jacque is still wearing those glasses, quite proudly, I might add. Even though we were told not to give the Haitians presents, I later gave Jacque those glasses. He needs them more than I do. I can’t remember the last time I used them. I didn’t like them any way.

* * *

Random happenings from our group today:

Three people from our team went with the Haitians to take a few of the sick children to a local free clinic. One of the boys, Charlie, had severe diarrhea, but didn’t get to see the doctor. The doctor used the triage method, taking the worst cases first. Charlie’s case wasn’t severe enough. After six hours of sitting, our team felt like it didn’t get much accomplished today.

Said Hilary, a first-grade teacher at Cornerstone Christian School in Antioch, who was with that group: “DMV has nothing on Haitian hospitals.”

Said Catherine, also with the group: “I’ll never complain about American health care again.

Amy, who quit her job to come to Haiti, had the best story, though. She had to go to the bathroom and stood in line for a few minutes. When she finally got in, she laughed, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear her. When she came out, all the locals were laughing with her, knowing why she was laughing. She was laughing at the fact that the toilet consisted of a hole in the ground.

One of the sick children at the hospital needed his diapers changed. “Anybody up for the task?” one of the ladies asked. John, one of the 17-year-old twins on our team, said he would do it, and took the child in hand. Then he asked, “How?” Everyone in our group roared with laughter.

* * *

I’ve decided I complain too much. I complain about the lack of space back home in our 1,100-square foot, two-bedroom 1.5 bath condominium, shared by my wife, her son and her dad at the moment. I whine when I have to wait 15 minutes for the shower. Yet, every day, I get to take a hot shower. Every day, I write on my laptop, search the Internet on the Wi-fi. Every day, I grind coffee beans to percolate my fine, Colombian coffee. Every day, I reach into my 38-degree refrigerator for cold half/half. I have a 33-inch TV (though no cable, by choice). I am a chef by trade, but at home, I cook in a teensy-weensy kitchen, but at least it’s inside; my kitchen is also indoors; I have an air conditioner that keeps our house at a cool 72 degrees when it’s 100 degrees outside. Most of these Haitians would think I live in the lap of luxury.

Members of our team often joke about how many Haitians we could “cram” into our tiny homes. We could get 3-4 Haitian families living comfortably in my condo. None of them would complain about being cramped. Dustin and his wife live in a 1-bedroom, 600-square foot condo. Twelve was the number we came up with for his home.

My dinky 4-cylinder Honda Accord goes twice as fast as most of the cars in Haiti. I don’t think it’s ever held more than the maximum allowed by law, five seat-belted passengers. Here in Haiti, the locals would cram a 10 people in my car, with a few more in the trunk and maybe two on the roof.

It’s all a matter of perspective. The next time my toilet seat is a little cold in the winter time, I’ll remember that I don’t have to squat, as the Haitians do (and which Amy refused to do in the doctor’s office) every day. When I complain of a poor night’s sleep because my mattress is too hard, I’ll be thankful I’m not on the cold, hard ground. Next time I start sweating in my house, I can walk over to the air conditioner and turn it on to cool off.

Thank you, Lord, for the many luxuries you give me.

Caption: This simple, wooden box will one day hold the treasures of the Haitian orphans we cared for in Leogane.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Passing on Godly Legacies to Our Sons

Day 5 (Thursday, Aug. 5)

Leogane, Haiti

Everything I needed to know about Bill, I learned while hanging the orphanage’s gate earlier in the week. Our leader, Jonathan, looked at the gate at one point and said to Bill, “That’s good enough.” To which Bill responded, “It’s good enough for government work, but this is for the Lord, and I have to do it right.”

That’s the voice of a servant who wants to do his best work for God. That’s what we all should be striving for.

As the week went on, Bill’s expertise on everything construction came to the forefront. No matter what we were up against, Bill had a response based on experience to share with us. And, as a teacher, Bill was top-notch. Bill had a knack for getting the seven Haitian men who worked under us to convey his desires, often without our esteemed interpreters. Bill, no doubt, has the same reputation with his employees who work under him at the Lawrence Livermore Lab.

But the best teaching Bill has done in his life is with his son, Paul, who also is on our team. Bill tried to teach everything he knew about construction and fixing things to Paul, and he did a commendable job. Paul had the same desire as Bill to teach the Haitians life and carpentry skills. Not only did they try teach them the right way to do various carpentry skills, they also tried to teach them the meaning of hard work and integrity on the job, traits that seem to be sorely lacking with many of the Haitians.

Watching Bill interact with Paul was a joy all week. They had the kind of relationship every father and son should have. It included one important element: mutual respect. When Bill was away from Paul, he talked admirably about Bill's ability to play games with kids and be a team leader in the corporate world. Later, Paul marveled at his dad's vast knowledge of all things carpentry and the like. They had fun working together, razzing each other.

Christians need to always remember to exhibit those two characteristics when on the mission field. Bill and Paul lived that out throughout our week in Haiti, and with a good sense of humor.

Bill has passed on a legacy to his son, something that all fathers need to do with their sons. My dad taught me how to be a godly man simply by setting a lifetime example for me. I can remember having only one or two conversations with my dad about what a godly man looked like. I knew what one looked like by looking at my dad.

My dad also had a knack for fixing and designing things and would have made a fantastic engineer had he not wanted to be a farmer. My only regret I have with my dad is that I didn’t seek him out more on how to fix things. He would have taught me everything he knew, but I never had the desire – until he died five years ago.

The Haitians quickly took to Bill, too. They came to know him and trust him, even giving him the esteemed nickname, “Papa,” an endearing name in Haiti.

Men, what kind of legacy are you leaving your sons? We should all strive to be more like Bill and Paul, who is working to pass on his own legacy to his son.

When I think of legacies, I think of what Joseph passed on to his son, Jesus. By age 12, Jesus knew enough of the Pentatauch (books of Moses) to teach in the Temple. No doubt, Joseph was there in the temple studying God’s word with his son. For at least 10 years, Jesus made a living as a carpenter. Because we know he never sinned, we know that Jesus always gave his best work and never cheated any of his customers or lied to them about his workmanship. The Bible doesn’t say, but I think Jesus had an outstanding reputation as a carpenter in Nazareth.

I think about my own legacy to my sons. I am nowhere near the godly man my dad was, but I constantly try to instill in my 23-year-old son and 16-year-old step-son (Julian) the importance of hard work and integrity. My son, Matthew, is not walking with the Lord, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have godly characteristics. The things I taught him as a boy growing up in the church can still be seen in him.

Like Bill and Paul, I, too, want to go on a mission trip with my sons. When the prospects of going to Haiti came up in late April, I told Matthew I was planning to go. I hoped to instill in him a desire to go. Because he’s studying architecture in college, I tried to pump up the unique design my church is using in the rebuilding of the orphanage. In the end, Haiti lost out to an architecture class in southern Europe, where Matthew drew pictures of buildings of antiquity. Go figure.

I won’t give up in my hopes of trying to persuade my sons to go on mission trips with me. I will return to Haiti one day to plant a garden, and perhaps my son will come with me. Maybe another city will be devastated by the likes of a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami, and our church will decide to go and lend aid and care for the dead, sick and the injured. That’s where my heart is, to go on the first wave of relief aid and write about it.

Matthew is preparing to apply for grad school in architecture, and I keep pushing Habitat for Humanity on him. Not only would it be good experience for his studies, it would put him in the midst of other like-minded people who believe in helping those less fortunate than us. That’s the legacy I want to leave with my sons.

Caption: Paul is in the middle smiling broadly, while Bill stands in the background at far right, admiring the work of one of his students.