Down the highway, dodging potholes, we pass yet another bicycle struggling up a hill, firewood strapped to the back. Turning into town, the road becomes dirt. Chickens scoot to the side, letting us pass. A malnourished dog darts across the street, stopping to lick the salt off a discarded wrapper of chips. Time here moves as slowly as the bus negotiating puddles and driving around an oxen-pulled cart hauling adobe blocks.
It’s my second visit to Jesus de Otoro, a community of approximately 20,000 in the central mountains of Honduras. Six years ago, a group of Presbyterian churches in Michigan and Indiana along with a Christian Reformed Church in Iowa began working together to improve life in this community while sharing the love of Jesus Christ to its residents. This is the eighth visit for some in our group.
Dark clouds and light drizzle slows life even more. It’s cool in the mountains, but never cold. Smoke rises from the stovepipes, only to lie low, forming a blanket over the town. I imagine women inside, patting out tortillas while tending the stove. Their evening meal of beans and tortillas will be supplemented with a few eggs, some crumbled cheese, fresh bananas, and strong coffee.
We turn off the main road and pull up to the Hotel Central Otoreno where we get out. We’re back. We’re assigned rooms and I haul my backpack up to the second floor, dropping it at the foot of my bed. I look around. There are two beds and a chair in the main room. The TV on the wall is another surprise. It wasn’t there last year.
I head outside. Walking through the town, I visit familiar sites. The old church by the square is open. A machete, secured in a fancy sheath, lies next to the doorsill as a reminder that this is a sanctuary. I peek in and see the back of a lone man kneeling in prayer under the gaze of a rather dark-skinned Jesus who hangs on the cross. Nothing has changed. I head down to the park and shoot a few hoops with the kids. I teach them useful techniques with corresponding English words, like “break” “drive,” and “pick.” Their laugher is contagious. Despite the mud and trash and poverty, I’m still at home.
Jim Spindler, a retired physician from Hastings, Mich., has spearheaded these missions to Honduras. In college, Jim felt a call to the mission field. But upon graduating from medical school, he entered private practice and settled in Hastings. In the mid-1980s, at a Billy Graham Crusade, Jim rededicated his life and began volunteering for short-term medical mission work with the Luke Society, a mission organization of physicians that supports medical missions in improvised areas of the world. Since then, Jim has participated in more than fifty mission trips to Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and Kenya. “Those who are involved with the trips always come away feeling that they’ve received more than they’ve given and that they have a closer relationship with the Lord,” Jim says.
Jim’s vision is for us to work along side the people in the community to enable them to help themselves. This vision fits into CCD’s mission as they strive to minister to people at all levels: mind, body, and spirit. Over the years, Jim and his friends in the medical community have helped equip the medical clinic in Jesus de Otoro with a modern microscope, lab equipment, examining tables and lights, and much needed supplies. This equipment enables the community’s physician, Roberto Urritia, to make better diagnoses and offer more services to the community. In addition, Bill Adams, a dentist from Jonesville, Mich., helped secure two dental offices for the community.
In 2003, Jim asked one of the Honduran physicians what would make the biggest difference to them in their practice. They said wheelchairs. Asking how many they could use, Jim was shocked to learn they could use a hundred. Coming back to the states, Jim set in motion a wheelchair collection program that gathered more than 125 wheelchairs. First Church of Hastings also partnered with Wheels for the World, a ministry founded by Joni Eareckson Tada and dedicated to providing wheel chairs to impoverished areas around the world. Wheels for the World arranged for the shipment of wheelchairs as well as other needed medical supplies to Honduras. A wheelchair repair and physical rehab center blossomed through this partnership.
In additional to medical work, the churches provide Vacation Bible School opportunities for children of the community and support Georgetown School, a small Christian bilingual elementary school in Jesus de Otoro. Esperanza Vasquez, the school’s founder and principal, had received a scholarship to study in the United States. Upon returning to Honduras, she founded the school as a way to prepare Honduran children for leadership within their community and country. During our week there, the older students at the Georgetown School, those proficient in English, serve as translators for the doctors, nurses, and dentists in the clinic. In doing so, they learn the importance of service to their neighbors while providing our medical teams a valuable skill in communicating between the doctors and patients.
The crowing of roosters begins our day in Jesus de Otoro. Starting about 3 a.m., hundreds of roosters throughout the valley try to outdo the others, ensuring that the last couple hours of night will be restless. By the third night, we’re used to it. In the predawn hours, the town slowly comes alive. Before I get out of bed, I can hear trucks banging along the pot-holed streets, loading workers in the back for a day in the fields or in factories in Siguatepeque. Smoke from burning trash and cooking fires, held down by the heavy humidity, fill the air as we get up and prepare for the day. Our hosts from CCD have breakfast ready shortly after 7 a.m. Afterwards, we head over to the clinic where a crowd of people have already gathered. We work steadily until lunch and then return in the afternoon and continue until dinner. Hundreds of people are seen each day. In the evening, we gather for worship, a time for singing and reading Scriptures, and sharing testimonies of the how God is touching people in the community.
The stories are touching. Dr. Sherrie tells about a woman who walked more than two hours from her village to the clinic to get help for her ailments. After providing medications and praying with the woman, she was sent on her way. That afternoon she walked back and presented Sherrie with a small bag of vegetables as a gift for her care.
Karen, a member who is fluent in Spanish, tells about working with Dr. John. They were closing up for the day when asked if they can see this one last patient. She has a difficult time translating as he has a slur. He’s dirty, having just come from the sugar cane fields above the town. He pulls off a pair of rubber boots to show a boil the size of a baseball on the back of his leg. The doctor drains the boil and wraps it and Karen translates about how he must keep it clean and how he must wear shoes as the boots are rubbing the boil and making it worse. But the man has no shoes. Seeing that his foot was about her size, Karen takes her shoes off and gives the only pair of shoes she has with her to the man. A huge smile comes over his face as he looks down at his “new shoes.” “I felt the coldness of the cement floor,” Karen notes, “but felt warm inside after seeing his huge smile.”
Dr. Jim, a dentist, tells about the excitement of a young woman with two badly decayed front teeth. In the past, the only option would have been extraction. But with a portable dental unit with a drill he is able to save the teeth and her smile.
Jim Spindler, as part of a medical brigade that held a clinic in a mountain village, tells about Chavelo. He was living on the street and came into the clinic seeking vitamins. Jim knew his need was much greater. He was dirty and shoeless, with a severe back deformity. His glasses were cracked. Jim said a silent prayer asking God what he should do. Then he remembered he had stashed two pairs of glasses in his medical bag. One is the right strength. Then he and his nurse arrange for Chavelo to have a bath and find some shoes and clean clothes for him. Coming back all decked out with his new clothes, they invite him to eat lunch with them. Chavelo eats two lunches.
Of course, not everyone can be helped. Jan, a volunteer from Iowa found an eight-year-old boy with a severe neurological disorder waiting in line with his parents. She picked the boy up and carried him into the clinic with tears in her eyes. A physician looked at the boy. He too begins to cry. There’s nothing they can do. They give his parents some vitamins and some medication for seizures, which may or may not help. Then they pray with the family, knowing that only Jesus can make a difference.
By the time we leave, the medical team has seen well over a thousand people. They have all received tracts and many have received New Testaments. Hundreds of children have participated in Vacation Bible School programs. The clinic has been restocked and new supplies given to Georgetown School. And maybe even more significant is that new friendships were begun and older ones fostered. Thousands of smiles have been exchanged.
Jeff Garrison is pastor of First Church in Hastings, Mich.
The Christian Commission for Development (CCD) is a Honduran Christian organization whose purpose is to promote and enable local governments and citizens to address and solve environmental, education, social, political, and health problems. CCD promotes local development, avoiding dependency while building self-sustainability. CCD was founded in 1982 under the leadership of Noemi Espinoza. She had to flee the country because of her stand for the rights of women in a largely male dominated society. CCD promotes the rights of women in society by encouraging women to be involved in community and governmental affairs. CCD supports a seminary in Tegucigalpa that trains pastors for ministry throughout Honduras. Each year CCD hosts numerous short-term mission groups from North American churches. These groups with support from CCD provide medical and dental care as well as assistance for community construction projects. CCD is inspired by Galatians 6:10 … as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people ….