Holy Collusion! A Personal Account of My Trip Downriver With Ukrainian-American Missionaries, Known as The Russians
It was their second trip to the Coco River in three months. This time, there were six Ukrainian-Americans coming from the "Assemblies of God Slavic District" in the United States. I looked them up online--11,700 members. The official name of Alex Semenyuk's mission organization is Bridge To Grace, but everyone on the river called them "The Russians" and were shocked to learn that they, being white people, spoke a language--nay, two languages--that I couldn't understand.
Alex and Andrey Semenyuk, Inessa Malova (Middle), Andrey Sushyk and Dmitri
They were to be joined by seven Nicaraguan teammates. Pastor Roger was from a town in the middle of nowhere called Ubu Norte. This trip, in addition to a (literal) boatload of clothing donated by Ubu church members, he brought along a squire of sorts, a young man named Harvin. Twenty-four-year-old Managua resident Aljawhara Manzanares, the only female on the first trip, decided to take her 18-year-old brother Jared along this time. Marcial Arauz was the Assemblies of God pastor in Waspam, but like the other Nicaraguans, spoke only Spanish. Clifford Stamp and Roberto Wilson, the two Miskito speakers, were from Puerto Cabezas. Clifford could translate for his fellow Nicaraguans, but only Roberto and I were able to translate for the Russians, who would have to speak in their third language--English. I had to explain that Miriki--Caucasians--aren't a people group.
Roberto, Harvin, Aljawhara, Clifford, and Pastor Roger
Jared (L), Pastor Marcial Arauz (R)
Another Mission group, called AMM, contacted me on WhatsApp and announced their “invasion” of Waspam three days before Bridge to Grace was slated to come. Composed of mostly Assemblies of God people with a smattering of “Pentecostal Baptists” from the Pacific side of Nicaragua, they had good materials and unwavering commitment, so I offered our meeting place in Waspam for their seminars and a generous financial contribution to provide food for the missionaries during their visit. I participated with them for two days, but when Alex and his team showed up, I left them to go downriver.
All this was very strange. I had recently prayed and asked God for partners to serve the people on the lower Coco River with us. Suddenly, two groups appeared out of the blue at precisely the same time—extraordinary, considering no other groups had come to Waspam in the 10 years I have lived here except the ones my wife Nutie and I have brought.
The Bridge to Grace team seemed to come together effortlessly, the Holy Spirit uniting our hearts. We were from different places, organizations, languages, ages, and ethnicities, yet we really fit together. Everyone was looking to give whatever we could contribute, regardless of whether it placed us center stage or in the background. We cared for one another. We were ambitious, but our ambition took the form of prayer, fasting, and expectation that God was going to do something big. We recorded data about what we did—numbers of people served and all—but realized that the big thing God was doing won’t appear on a stat sheet. Like trying to explain what made the difference after winning a ballgame, our shared experience must be conveyed anecdotally by individuals in reports like this one.
In The Boat
River life, watching the Hercules approach
We spent a good portion of our trip aboard a huge aluminum riverboat named Hercules, cloistered together and exposed to the tropical sun and elements. This wasn’t just wasted time, a simple getting from here to there. People don’t go on an ocean cruise just to go ashore at the various ports of call, otherwise, they would simple fly there. Likewise, our time on the boat was a spiritual cruise, mixing physical discomfort with spiritual comfort, uniting us and preparing us to go ashore at each village with power—not to purchase tourist trinkets but to give away the Kingdom.
Aboard, our camaraderie, singing, sharing of food and stories, praying and anticipating, served to build us up, unite us, and allow Gato, the man who ran the outboard, a chance to get in on the sweetness of Christian fellowship. We cared for him, made sure he was included in everything we did. He did not know the Lord, but he was getting to know him. Toward the end of our trip, we encouraged him directly to receive Jesus and prayed over him. Although he didn’t make a commitment just then, his eyes teared up. He was touched. I had a chance to witness to him in a special way, having lived a life similar to his. I was aware that God, who would leave ninety-nine to seek one lost sheep, would also not hesitate to arrange this entire mission trip just to draw Gato to Himself.
A girl runs to retrieve candy, Kiwastara
Whizzing along with just enough velocity to pass a couple of men floating a raft of lumber downriver, we reached the first milestone on our way to Sawa long after our projected ETA. Someone got the idea of throwing little bags of candy at the women and children washing clothes and bathing at the water’s edge. Pretty soon, the sky was raining candy and the whole village—grannies and old men with staffs—were scrambling down the embankment and diving into the water to recover small treasures before the current swept them away. Nothing like this had ever happened there before. The glee that overcame givers and receivers alike was magical. We repeated this spontaneous action in the other villages also, announcing our arrival in a way that set the stage for so much more.
On days when we would serve one village in the morning and another in the afternoon, we would take Hercules over to a shady spot on the uninhabited Honduran side of the river in the middle of the day to eat and rest. Roberto Wilson was hobbled by a probable hernia that was giving him fevers. We all needed rest, but for him these breaks allowed him to survive. Roberto never complained, he would just scramble up the Honduran bank and find a place in the shade to sit down and eat his bread and sardines. It moved me deeply to watch him, as I’m sure it moved God’s heart.
Roberto Wilson's good to go
We ministered each evening till way-past-dark, and the Jesus film, which we had already seen multiple times, dragged on in Miskito till even the Russians could quote it. The boat rides back to our base camp at Sawa were also sometimes long—as much as two hours—and sometimes cold (yes, a boat on the river in theses tropics can feel cold), but always memorable. We were all exhausted but it was that good kind of tired, knowing we had given it all and that God had met us. Alex passed around giant bags of pistachios, each one of us removing our sweaty caps and scooping several handfuls into them. Pistachios were the perfect snack for such rides because their consumption was labor intensive and helped us wile away the time. Conversations were less frequent, more truncated, and either humorous—something about Pastor Roger’s seamanship—or urgent, because the business of guiding a boat through the fog machine of the river beneath a dark, moonless sky was urgent business. Some of our crew lay wrapped up, prone on pallets that protected them from the wash of bilge water below, while others contemplated a zillion stars above, but all of us were afforded time to meditate on the day’s events and commune with our God. This was medicine indeed for our souls.
Our base camp in Sawa
Set in the middle of a cluster of villages and encampments along the stretch of river we were to visit, Sawa was a logical place to establish base camp. Seek The Lamb has a facility where we could sleep comfortably and keep our supplies safe so that we could just take what we needed each day and store the rest. I have a lot of friends there too, including a little team that would cook fish, iguanas, and other kinds of food the locals among us are used to, wash any clothes we might need washing, and provide rainwater for Inessa and Aljawhara to bathe with while the men—even the aqua-phobic pastor Roger—immersed ourselves in murky river. For my part, I really wanted my Sawa friends to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit through their contact with us.
Dionisia prepared clam soup for our supper
Part of my role on the team was “The Expert.” I was the only one on who knew these villages, the individual characters, and their idiosyncrasies.
“It takes four hours from Waspam to Sawa,” I assured them at ten o’clock as we headed out into the morning sun of February 27. By the time we got to Kum, three hours had elapsed, not two. At four-thirty, the sun spent and low in the sky, we finally pulled up at the little quay in Sawa. Six hours, total. I wondered: Will they ever believe me again? I hadn’t taken into account the slow-footed Hercules.
We decided to show the Jesus film after dark, but wait to do the activities with the children and pass out the gifts to the heads of families in the morning. We set up camp quickly.
Beans drying in the Moravian Churchyard
There was some discussion over where we ought to show the film. Alex had a strong preference for the outdoors and site neutrality—i.e. not belonging to any particular denomination or church. I knew that Sawa wasn’t like Waspam—in Sawa there were only two churches—Catholic and Moravian—and they were allies. Furthermore, the Moravian church has historically been the designated meeting place for health workers or any other “big-wig” secular visitors who had something to discuss with the people. I took the set-up crew there so they could see the open field in front of the church. It was big enough, and a screen could easily be stretched across the front doors. I really wanted them to show the film inside the church where there were benches and at least some protection from the ravenous mosquitos that would appear after nightfall, but was afraid to push the idea too strongly to Alex. He seemed dead-set against it.
I also thought I would need to take a brisk walk through the village to announce the film and Pied-Piper the children. I was glad when Aljawhara, Jared, and Inessa volunteered to come along because they would love to watch a hundred excited kids attach themselves to us as we walked along the path. However, the news had already gotten out, and by the time we got ready, the people were streaming in.
The attendance was quite a bit lower than I expected for a village of more than a thousand inhabitants. People had to sit on the ground. I overheard some conversations in Miskito, people complaining, “Why don’t they show it inside? There’s benches and less mosquitoes?” But later on, the mosquitoes died down and the attendance picked up. Alex unwittingly picked up an army of chiggers from the grass. Days later he was still wondering what had bit him and where come they came from.
I saw many of my religious friends there. Decent people who reverence Jesus, abhor such evil practices as cattle rustling, dancing, and smoking dope, while solicitous not to offend spirits of the recently deceased. They were visibly moved by the film. They prayed with us and meant it.
The Catholic lay pastor and his son, Duwait
I thought, To them, history is a collection of oral accounts filled with fantastic, supernatural events and legendary figures. How do we get them to discern between fact and fiction? To acquire knowledge? Synchronize their worldview and align it with the Bible? Is it necessary to get them to believe in science and historical accuracy? Is it necessary to discard the old wineskins of their religious institutions and their leaders? What exactly is the difference between a truly indigenous church and a syncretic sect? How many false gods can we have before us and still love Jesus? Is this guy saved, or that guy? I resist the temptation to make people jump through hoops to prove to me the acceptability of their faith, but I want to know. I wish I were God, then I could straighten them out.
Sawa kids (Clavel Guido, Foreground Right)
Alajawhara is our fashion captain and she says the team wears blue shirts today, please. Okay.
In the morning the people began drifting over to our camp early. There was no need to go out to the village and make an announcement: “There will be games and songs and a trampoline!” All hands were needed on deck. Still, the attendance wasn’t even half what I thought it could have been if we had done things at a more leisurely pace. But we needed to get downriver to Planghkira, and it would take three hours with big dumb Hercules—double the normal time. I saw how excited the kids were and I wanted to spend all day with them. I was a little disappointed we were just picking up and leaving them. Sawa is my village. Somehow, I feel it is key to all the others.
The hardest job we had to do was distribute clothes and rice. Giving stuff away always creates a riot. Giving stuff away exposes their weaknesses—their clever scheming and dishonesty. Precisely the kind of behavior that many Americans annoyingly refer to when they talk smack about illegal immigrants. But I love these people with what I think is agape. I have a mercy gift. I love it and I hate it.
Since Sawa was our first village, we didn’t have the system down yet. We wanted to give one package of clothes and three of a popular rice mixture called Manna Pack to every family. We didn’t have a checklist of heads of households to go by. I felt conflicted when team leaders told the men and women to form separate lines. Why not make a single line, couples standing together in front of or behind unaccompanied moms and dads? I saw Indira in one line and her husband in the other. I knew what was going down, but I let it slide.
Dexter Olayo (arms outstretched) says "Wassup" with the men's line
There were also a number of young men who may have engendered children but didn’t take responsibility for them. The lived at home. Did they stand in line for themselves, or were they there to receive on behalf of their mothers or housebound grandparents? Take Renso Rivas, for instance. His mother, mentally ill, rocks the day away on her front porch. Renso is the one who could speak for her, but he’s into drugs—and there he was in line with that bad look in his eyes. I spoke to him sharply while all the grannies in the line nodded their knowing heads and wagged their arthritic fingers. Giving stuff away isn’t an exact science, but we needed to improve our intelligence. Jesus could read people’s minds—“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
We were off to Planghkira and I felt disappointed for Sawa. But because we returned to our base every night, by the end of the trip I saw the impact our daily prayers and fellowship had on my friends and I was satisfied. But the little children who loitered around our camp just got way too much candy.
Praying with teachers Johana (red top) and Paula at Planghkira
A three hour boat ride brought us to Planghkira in the middle of the afternoon. Planghkira, the smallest, most out-of-the-way, swampiest village, is the last one downriver before you get to the river mouth, which is still a long way away off. It hasn’t enough high ground to support a lot of people. I counted 40 huts besides the church and the school. We set up in the school yard.
I don’t visit this village often even though we support one schoolteacher there—Paula. But I had a little bit of knowledge about its troubles. Planghkira is the bastion of the Castillo family, descendants of a cranky settler who sought an isolated spot for raising his cattle. The old man died a few years back, and now his oldest son is, as they say, “agonizando”. Almost everyone is related, but now there is a family of Talavera Castillos who are battling the other Castillos for hegemony. In the balance are tenured teacher positions—the only paying jobs in the village—and the non-salaried office of wihta, or village chief.
Children gathered quickly and began to dance along with the Castillo del Rey-type music. The oldest among them was a post pubescent girl dressed in bright, Brazilian-style yoga pants. She was really working it. She must have picked up some of her moves by watching grownups at naughty gatherings. I was reminded of the controversy over dancing in Central American Evangelical Christianity and I wondered if there were any Moravians around. Moravians were like Catholics except for dancing. Moravians don’t dance. In that way they are more like the Pentecostal churches, which call themselves “los evangélicos,” but the evangélicos don’t consider them evangelical even though their official name is La Iglesia Evangélica Morava. Anyway, I think Planghkira is almost exclusively Catholic. The Castillo del Rey type songs were just happy music to draw the kids in—Cristo es Mi Superheroe, Para Los Niños, etc—and this dancing girl conspicuously wore a white shirt on her head that wrapped tightly over her right eye and knotted under her chin. She had lost the eye and was covering up. Either Clifford or Roberto asked her about it. “Trik ai munan,” she said, alleging someone had put a curse on her. Ailments in the villages are commonly blamed on rival families practicing witchcraft.
Aljawhara and Inessa, lead choreographers. The guys, not so much
Teacher Johana Talavera helped us to collect a list of heads of households and screen the women as they came forward to receive their gifts. Johana was supposed to be the leading troublemaker in the village—she and her father, who claimed to be the Wihta. I was grateful for her assistance, though. Later, I saw Alonzo Yunkiath, from Sih, who had been assigned as school director to Planghkira and charged with putting things in order. “There are only 70 students enrolled in school here, and five teachers,” he said. He needed to eliminate at least one teacher position, probably two. Johana and her father were allegedly scheming to get rid of him.
With Johana’s help, we gave away packages to 77 heads of families or supposed heads of families, twelve of whom literally came out of the woodwork—namely, little camps in the woods up and down the river. Or so they said. Things didn’t add up. If there were only 70 kids in school, how could there be 77 families? Coco River people usually have lots of children. Of the 65 names on the list that Johana Talavera drew up, 46 were women. That’s 70% female, not because they were single parents, however, but because women administer the resources and are commonly considered heads of the household.
When night fell, we showed the Jesus film to some 80-100 people, many of them children. Afterward, the children prayed eagerly to receive Jesus while the adults hung back, reserved.
Utla Mahta and Livinkrik, Friday, March 1
Dressed uniformly in purple shirts, We served 95 families in Utla Mahta in the morning, 154 Livinkrik families in the afternoon, and then split into two groups to show the film in both villages after sundown.
The activities with the children in the Utla Mahta school yard went really well, with everyone participating. While the kids were busy bouncing on the trampoline, we herded the adults out of the sun and into the shade of the former schoolhouse, whose two ravaged classrooms were still being used for preschool. Alex ministered to the women on one side, Roberto translating, and Dmitri, Pastor Roger, and I led the men on the other. We gave the gospel and conducted a sinner’s prayer. I didn’t expect much response from a bunch of rough Miskito guys when we invited them to present their specific needs but after a round of achey knees and lower backs, an older man came forward, his face contrite.
“I need to receive forgiveness for all the evil deeds I’ve done,” he said.
There was no wall to deaden the sound between our group and the ladies in the other classroom, but the intensity of the prayers on each side rendered the ambient noise inconsequential.
For the most part, distribution of the clothes and food was orderly, the teachers helping immensely. But Clifford came over to help out, and leaning over my shoulder, called out the names on the list as I checked them off. When someone didn’t respond immediately after their name was called, he called the next name on the list, trying to move things along. I didn’t like it. He went too fast and it got confusing. At one point, there were two consecutive names that were almost identical—Brijinda and Brujida Leastin (Typical. I’m sure their mother thought it was awesome to name them like that)—and one woman stepped up to claim both packages. At the end, she was still standing there, this Brijinda or Brujida or whoever, together with a handful of other disgruntled women who had each collected multiple bags. They still had their hands out, protesting, claiming that the gifts which they had received were for third parties—absent relatives and such. They were demanding their rights. I told them that I was going by the list that the Wihta gave me and had checked off every name. These ladies started getting abusive, yelling at me. Clifford took over, trying to straighten everything out, but he didn’t know. I wished Clifford hadn’t done that, but I could only blame myself for not calling him off in the first place. I need to be more take-charge.
Most waited patiently and said thank you when they received their gifts.
The same thing happened in Livinkrik, only it was a couple of men this time, and I suspected that the local Wihta had a hand in it. He was a Yatama party official who seemed like he had an agenda. He had made out the list. I wondered if he had deliberately left some people out.
Aljawhara guarding the packages set aside for Livinkrik
The Wihta called me aside and told me privately that there was a great need in the village for medicine. I explained how very difficult it was to introduce medications into the country—the customs authorities confiscate them at the airport. I made it clear that our hands were tied, we weren’t able to bring medical teams. A short while later, he grabbed the microphone away from Clifford who was giving a testimony, and he made a show of giving the same pitch so everyone could see what a great leader he was, tossing the burden for filling the need onto the shoulders of the missionaries with great authority.
A sick widow and her daughter wait to be prayed for in Livinkrik
Many sick people came forward for prayer in Livinkrik. The connection with the lack of medications was not lost on me. God’s presence was powerful. The team laid hands, prayed, and God answered. We didn’t record any dramatic testimonies, but I’m certain that healing had taken place.
After the movie, when everybody had already gotten into the boat, a group of ladies held me up. Oh no, I thought, I wonder what they want now.
“We want to become Christians,” they said.
I looked down at the boat. They were all getting ready to leave. Maybe they didn’t notice that I was being detained.
“Did you say the prayer at the end of the movie?” I asked.
“Did you mean it?”
“Well, then you are already Christians. What you need to do now is read your Bibles and receive some teaching about how to walk with God.”
I felt helpless. They probably couldn’t read well enough to comprehend, and there was nobody in the village with any real Bible knowledge to speak of. Lord, send them teachers.
“Pray to God. Ask Him to send someone to shepherd you,” I said at last, and scurried down the riverbank. In the boat, I tried to get a handle on what we had accomplished. Just a dusting, I thought. Spraying for mosquitos in a village surrounded by swamp.
Urang and Sih, Saturday, March 2
Boys turn on the Trampoline, Urang
We hit our stride in the village Urang.
Whatever it was, the Lord had prepared the way. Everyone was standing on the bank when we approached. We stood up in the boat, braced our legs against the cargo, and winged candy as far as we could. Some of it landed on the shore—more splashed in the current—but there was no shortage of children and grannies to dive in after it. We announced the festivities over a loudspeaker as we motored past Neblina, Urang and Sih, then doubled back upstream and landed at Urang. A great multitude of children thronged toward us.
A large circle formed in the churchyard. Clifford, speaking to the children in Miskito, was wonderful, and Jared’s gift for ministering to children also became apparent in spite of speaking only in Spanish. There was a hunger for God in the audience. Even the adults were charmed by the children’s activities.
A sudden rain shower erupted, and we herded adults from 118 families into the church building to minister and pass out the gifts. Seeking shelter, many children ducked inside also. Dmitri spoke while I translated, but it was too noisy and chaotic to be effective. We did manage to pass out clothes, rice, and candy in a relatively orderly fashion. The rain let up before the people dispersed. It was past lunchtime, but there were still a lot of hangers-on. Several local guys I knew complained that there were no teachers assigned to first and second grades, and that they had taken it upon themselves to act as volunteer teachers in the interim. They wanted me to give them jobs. I had them address letters to Danilo Cunningham to that effect, and promised I would talk to him about it. Four Catholic leaders who claimed to be pastors requested Bibles. I took their names, wondering whether I ought to chide myself over my skepticism. Bibles can be just another thing to be possessed.
Alejandro Alvicio's grandfather hit me up for a teaching post in Urang
We took lunch in a shady spot on the far side of the river across from Sih, where we would all be spending the afternoon. We could see people from the village straining their eyes on the opposite shore with great anticipation, spying on our every move. The crowds could be very stressful on us, and it was critical that we pull together well as a team.
Kids representing their families in Sih
Alex asked me to divide our team into two groups for the evening, so we could show the Jesus film in both Sih and Urang . Since we had as yet to perform the demanding task of passing out the food and clothing to 117 families in Sih, I had to consider who I wanted to retain with me for that detail. It struck me how much I appreciated the people who had been with me in this work up till that point. I made sure that Pastor Marcial, Harvin, Pastor Roger, and Aljawhara remained with me. Afterward, we would take the film upstream to Urang while the two Andreys and Valentin set it up in Sih. It struck me that everyone had found a place to be useful and was working with their whole hearts, regardless of how humble the task. Dividing the team into two groups was merely a process of recognizing what God was doing among us.
Boom and Klampa, Sunday, March 3
Pastor Glent Dino's son on the front steps. His house used to be 100 yards in from the river, now sits at the very edge.
It was election day in the Autonomous regions of Nicaragua. I was really glad we were wearing blue shirts instead of red ones today. Most of us had black pants to go with the red shirts, and those were the colors of the FSLN—the Sandinista Party. We had no desire to play partisan politics.
The people from Klampa would be voting in Boom today, so I suggested that we do Boom in the morning, Klampa in the afternoon. Ironically, when we arrived in Boom, we were reminded that I had overlooked the fact that it was not only Election day, but it was also Sunday. We were supposed to be the God-Bringers, yet I had forgotten that everyone was going to be in church. Indeed, those who were not at the school casting their votes were attending the Moravian Sunday Morning Service. We set up and had the music blaring—the loud volume and the happy rhythms, it probably sounded like heathen songs to the sedate Moravians. Hardly anyone gathered around us.
I found myself obliged to go to the Moravian Church and make an announcement. Moravian Sunday Service usually went long—at least three hours, with Sunday School divided according to sex and age, and then united worship afterward, complete with a sermon. If they didn’t abridge it, they wouldn’t get out till after twelve, and then we would need to head over to Klampa. My big problem was that I was wearing shorts, clothing that was seriously frowned upon by the Moravians. You don’t step inside a church building with shorts on.
But the leaders in Boom were my good friends, pastor Glent Dino, his brother Jhonsnel, and Marcos Conrado. “It doesn’t matter,” Glent said as he beckoned me up to the pulpit with one of those Miskito arm signals that in American mean “Duck—Get down!” I was thankful that my long-time testimony with them spoke louder than my attire. Dmitiri and I stood before the congregation, gave the announcement, and the elders determined it would be all right to shorten the sermon that day.
Boom Town is rapidly becoming a ghost town. Located on the outer rim of a looping bend, the river is quickly eating away at its bank. Houses have had to be moved away from the precipice. Many Boom villagers have resettled in Waspam. There’s a whole barrio of them whom we wave to when Nutie and I take our late afternoon walks. They seem to move around a lot, mobilizing to wherever there’s an opportunity.
Boom kids carrying water during the flood season
A lot of them were back on this day, perhaps because the election apparatus offered free transportation. I was surprised when teacher Centeno James came up with a list of 109 families. During the give-away, I called out teacher Mairus Marcelino’s name. He came forward and said Thank You when Pastor Roger handed him his package. A short time later, I halted when I came to his son Tever’s name. Tever Marcelino is in the fifth or sixth grade—he lives with his Mom and Dad. I let it pass. Then, Erwin’s name appeared. Mairus had asked for prayer for his son—he had just been in the hospital with tuberculosis. I remembered having seen Mairus collaborating with Centeno on creating that list. Boomers have a knack for over-representation.
Children kneeling to pray with Aljawhara and Clifford in Klampa
The late afternoon light was spectacular in Klampa and we got plenty of great photos. I also observed some spiritual beauty. After they had finished their aerobic session and Bible story with the kids, Aljawhara and Inessa had them make a circle, gave them candy, and instructed them to kneel in the grass. The two women also knelt in the middle and prayed with them to receive Jesus, then arose and ministered to them individually. I can tell the difference between passive compliance and desire. The children prayed eagerly. Then, Pastor Roger preached to the adults a proper backwater homily—there were boats and fishermen and Jesus—as Clifford translated into Miskito. When he gave the altar-less call for salvation, a dozen hands went up.
Pastor Roger preaches and Clifford translates, Klampa
Half the crew returned to Boom to show the movie there, while I remained in Klampa with the others. While the film was playing, most of our group sat on the edge of the riverbank by a fire while Paastors Roger and Marcial went looking to make some coffee. I had the opportunity to talk at length with Aljawhara’s 18 year old brother Jared, exchanging our life stories and encouraging one another. Several weeks later, Nutie and I went out to dinner with Alja and Jared in Managua as we prepared to leave for the United States.
Andris, Rayapura, Auhwiapura, and Kiwastara; March 4 and 5
Big fun in Kiwastara
Since we were only doing one village on Monday, Alex told us to take the morning easy in Sawa, spending some time in prayer and reflection. I decided to take anybody who would want to go pray for a retired teacher who is in the later stages of Parkinson’s. Alex’s older brother Valentin was among those who came along. I was pleased because I hadn’t seen him in action much, other than as videographer and set-up man for the portable movie theatre. He and Andrey Sushyk were always business-like and subtle in their participation. While Alex had spoken of his doctorate in theology and the depth of his understanding, he himself had made some comments about the superfluousness of his Russian and Ukrainian language skills in this setting.
Pablo Suazo, Sawa
At Pablo Suazo’s house I had the opportunity to see Valentin’s thoroughness and the strength of his focus in ministry. While Pablo was understandably clinging to his present earthly needs and aspirations, Valentin had me ask him some pointed questions about his readiness to meet God. They were hard questions, the ones the Spanish-speaking preachers broach directly and the Miskito preachers hedge with cushioned language, about doubt and assurance, the possible use of traditional Miskito medicine and its practitioners, known as sukya. I had to make a decision whether to translate or interpret from Valentin’s pointed English. I chose to translate and was pleased that my dying friend gave straight answers. I don’t even know if he’s Catholic or Moravian, but thanks to Valentin, I have no doubt about Pablo’s faith and conviction.
Andris in the afternoon, we carried our equipment along a broken cement walkway to the Moravian churchyard several hundred yards from the river. I am not very familiar with Andris; we don’t have a school there because it has always been connected politically and well supplied by government agencies. It looks more upscale than the rest of the villages. There’s more high ground—fruit trees grow better and are more fruitful in its soil.
Even though the churchyard was beautiful—large and manicured—Alex seemed unsure about where to set up. He kept saying, “I think we were in another location the last time around.” Physically, it seemed perfect to me. I offered to go to the parsonage and ask the pastor for permission to stretch a screen over closed windows on the wall of the church. We wouldn’t be interfering with any church activities on a Monday evening.
I said “Buenas” several times before the flight of steps leading to the elevated living quarters and a robust man finally appeared at the door above me. He bid me come up and ushered me into a screened porch area. I sat down and in a few minutes a squat, bespectacled man emerged from what appeared to be a bedroom, putting a shirt on. Obviously the Parson had been resting. When I stated my purpose in fluent Miskito, he squinted at me suspiciously like they didn’t want any new religions trying to get a foothold in their village. They began to interview me about what brand of Christian I was. I mentioned that I worked with Truman Cunningham and with the schools downriver. I knew that would do the trick. They immediately became quite friendly and began to talk piously of Don Truman, May He Rest In Peace. Truman was a good Catholic, a known commodity, widely recognized as a leader all along the lower Coco River. I took advantage of their sudden geniality and asked if we could borrow some benches from the church and set them up outside. I promised to return them to their proper place.
The robust man—he was a deacon—corralled a couple of idle youngsters and we began to haul benches outside, two by two. We had a half dozen of them when Roberto came up to me and said that Alex had changed his mind. He now thought it better to do the film in the open space by the river. That way it would be easier to pack up and leave. Roberto didn’t like the idea, neither did Clifford. We already had a crowd right where we were. I grabbed my local volunteers and packed the benches back inside before they could walk away. The others finally convinced Alex to stay put, but I refused to ask my helpers to take the benches back out, not because I was unwilling, but because I knew that this kind of indecision was anathema to the Miskito way of thinking. The film started and two hundred people stayed to watch, some dragging plastic chairs from their homes. After a few scenes, the attention of the crowd was focused on Jesus and the evidence of His deity. Parson, comfortable that his hegemony would not be challenged, was not in the crowd.
After the film, Pastor Roger issued an impassioned challenge. The response was tepid. Andris, with all its advantages, seemed harder to me than the other villages.
The following day we travelled to the “Tri-Cities”—Rayapura, Auhwiapura, and Kiwastara— before heading back to Waspam. I felt a little checked out at first. I didn’t put on a uniform shirt. I think the color was red. Alex remarked that Gato was wearing the red shirt that he gave him. He was making a statement—he had joined the team! I put my red shirt on. One more day.
Inessa narrates as I Play Goliath out of uniform in Rayapura
At Rayapura I had fun being Goliath one more time. All the children shrieked in feigned fright. But the ground looked real rough and when little David shot me with his slingshot I looked for a soft place to land and fell cautiously, which is not how dead people usually go down.
Two more alleged volunteer teachers came up to me asking for tenured jobs. I told them to write a letter of petition to Seek The Lamb.
God's mercy was great over Kiwastara
In Kiwastara—notorious for its witchdoctors—the Spirit of God was moving! I felt a great sense of His mercy over this place. We set up beside a construction site where they were cutting lumber with a chain saw. It seemed highly inappropriate, but there was a good crowd and the chainsaws stopped their mouths after the music started. I recognized the chief builder. He was an old friend—Robert Finley Foster—who was erecting a house for his pregnant daughter next to his own. An old concrete slab lay between the two houses. It looked like it wasn’t doing much other than being used to dry rice and beans.
“What was that slab?” I asked.
“It used to be a Pentecostal church,” Finley said.
He had been the lay pastor. He said the church blew up after a Sunday school teacher was discovered sexually abusing a child.
“He went to prison,” Finley said. “And the Church of God pastor in Kum got transferred. No one else wanted to help us.”
During our visit I observed a lot of sensuality in the young people. More than usual, I mean. Girls running around acting flirty, guys with marijuana leaf tee-shirts and smirky faces. But the Spirit was powerful over the place. In the evening after the movie some people prayed for salvation. People who wanted God were encouraged. We all heard God calling us back here.
The long trek back upriver had us offloading Hercules at the quay in Waspam at one in the morning. When I finally arrived home, I was surprised to find the house empty. Nutie was supposed to head up to Krinkrin for a girl's conference the following day, but plans had changed and she had left a day early. So the following night I invited my whole crew for pizza and a sleepover. We chilled and sang Russian worship songs.
Guess how you say Alleluia in Russian!
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