Thursday, November 19, 2009

Work, Work, and Travel

As you can see from my pictures, we have been traveling a bit more in the last month on the weekends. We've had a lot of fun and it's been a great way to see a little more of this beautiful country we're living in. Three weekends ago, we went to a beach and national park called Manuel Antonio. One day we went inside the park on some short hikes and to a few gorgeous beaches. Around the beaches is rainforest, so we got to see all kinds of animals from monkeys to sloths to giant snakes. We were able to find a cheap hotel in Manuel Antonio, and we even had monkeys come visit! The week after, the whole EMI group and I went to Jacó Beach for the day, and then this last weekend the other interns and I visited San Carlos, where Volcano Arenal is located. Since it's the rainy season now, we were unfortunately unable to actually see the volcano, but we had a fun time in the area anyway! I realize to some of you, it might seem like I raised support to go on vacation, but of course we don't use our support money for vacation. We've been working hard too...

And speaking of working, I have also been really, really busy here at the office in the last few weeks. My first priority in the office is our project in Haiti (church campus), but I've actually spent more time working on a few other projects. It's really a gift to me to be a part of several great projects. I've spent the most time on a project in Guatemala called Casa Bernabé. At the sight there in Guatemala, there is an existing building that serves as an orphanage and a small school. As the orphanage is expanding, the existing building has been too small to support all their needs. The ministry wishes to add a second story and expand the footprint a little bit. The idea of this is provide enough living space for all the orphans and staff as well as enough space to provide school for the orphans and other children in the community. The design of a second level on a (somewhat weird) existing building has definitely presented challenges, but we finally finished it yesterday! I feel really blessed to be a part of such a neat and interesting project.

Another project I've been working on is called Spring of Hope, Promised Land. This campus is also in Guatemala, and the missionaries there want to help with the malnourished and uneducated population of children in their town. I say campus, because there are several small buildings to be built on the property, with schools, feeding centers, and housing. I've been working on the school buildings. All the buildings in Springs of Hope are small, simple and easily reproducible so the ministry will be able to construct the buildings now, and easily build more when needed and when funds are provided. Spring of Hope is like Casa Bernabé in that the ministry is active now, but in need of expansion to meet the needs of the growing population of children. We'll be able to finish this project soon, as well.

Although I've been working on these other projects, my team's Haiti project has progressed really well, too! We've got almost all of the construction documents ready, meaning the majority of the work is done, and now we need to go through them and make small changes. I'm excited that we'll be able to finish this project soon, too! The missionaries in Haiti have enough money to begin building some of the buildings -- the other church, housing, and basketball courts (yes, I know, not a building) -- so I'm excited that some of our project will be hopefully up and ready next year! I've also spent some of my time working on the other team's project here, which is a facility for YWAM (Youth with a Mission) in Haiti. This is a project for a local Haitian pastor, and He would like a dormitory and retreat center to serve the youth. In that town in Haiti, Gonaives, there is a huge population of kids under 18, so we hope this facility will provide a positive place for them. Like I said before, it's really a blessing for me to be a part of so many great projects!

When I'm not in the office, I've been doing some other volunteer work here in Atenas. My host mother, Ana, works at the elementary school library, and one week she invited some of us to come to the school and help with the kids. One class of kids (probably about 6-7 years old) came to the library, and two of the other interns and I presented a short story to them (in Spanish). Although it's just a silly story, it must've been a hit with all the teachers. Apparently a couple other teachers overheard our story, so then they wanted their kids to come here the story, too. After a while, I guess the news spread, so we have all these groups of kids coming to the library to hear us speak! We've been to the school now three separate times, and according to my host mother, there are more teachers that want us to come back. It's kind of funny, like we're some sort of traveling attraction ("Come See the Tall Gringos!!!" or "The Circus is in Town This Week"), but it's been a really good way to connect with the town here. People always ask why we're here in Costa Rica, and it's always a great opportunity to explain who we are and the work God's doing in Central America. I've also done some other volunteer work in Atenas, like helping at an English class once a week and helping one of the pastors here move.

Well I guess this pretty much sums up my life in the past few weeks. As some of you know, I'm planning to stay for another term here in Atenas (January to July), and I need to work this week and the next on all the details. I'm going home for the holidays, and it looks like I'll be coming back here a week before the next group of interns so I can take an extra week of Spanish classes. That'll give me an additional 3 weeks of Spanish classes, which although is never enough, it'll help me some!

Anyway, until the next viewing, or as Mr. Schwarzenegger put it, Hasta La Vista!

Ben


One of classes at the school



 
 Some of them got to finger paint!





A big adios hug




Manuel Antonio - look at the sloth!



 
One of my amigos



 
Our group in Manuel Antonio



 
Jacó Beach



 
Our group in San Carlos

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Deep Thoughts

It has now been two weeks since we returned from Haiti.  Settling back in to Costa Rica has been enjoyable.  It’s weird, but I actually felt like I was coming back home.  Even a lot of the Spanish is slowly becoming a little more natural.  I’ve enjoyed spending time again with my host family and playing with the kids.  I think the kids in my family (ages 10, 9, and 4) still don’t totally understand why I went to Haiti.  Before I left, one of them even asked me (in Spanish), “You’re going to Haiti, tomorrow?  Are you guys going there to Bungee Jump?”  Nooo… I told him, we’re going there to work!  Plus, I would never trust any kind of Bungee Jumping apparatus in Haiti.

The biggest news in my life recently is that I have made a decision to stay with EMI for another term!  EMI has full time staff, and then they have interns (like me) who come for a shorter term, either 2 months in the summer, 4 months in the fall, or 6 months in the spring/summer.  Right now I’m in the 4 month fall term and I’m going to stay on for the 6 month spring/summer term.  This is something I have been thinking through for a long time.  In one sense, I’m looking forward to getting back to the United States where I can be more independent and begin a career.  However, I feel like I am in the right place here and that I have a lot more work yet to do in Costa Rica.  I feel like the work we do is a great way to serve the poor and help out other ministries, but I feel like the best thing about my EMI experience has been how I am changing as a person.  I’d like to explain a little more.

First, though, I want to warn you that the rest of this post will be a little bit different.  Instead of telling you more about what I’m doing, I’d like to tell you how I’m doing.  I have some thoughts that I’d like to share here, and most of them are regarding my religious beliefs.  Therefore, if you don’t want to hear about them, you don’t have to read any further.   The point is NOT to change you or convince you that I’m right and you’re wrong, I just want to share my take on everything.  Most of the time, my thoughts are so jumbled that it’s really hard to write them in a clear, organized fashion.  Everything below might not make total sense, but I’ll do my best.

Being away from the United States has opened my eyes in so many ways.  It’s so hard to explain, but being away from the United States has given a completely different perspective of the world.  I don’t only mean seeing poverty, but just seeing different cultures and seeing how much cultures affect people’s lifestyles is amazing to me.  I feel like I’ve learned so much about the culture of the United States just by being away from it for a little while.  I feel like I’ve also learned a lot about myself.  I feel like we are so influenced by the world’s culture that we turn away from who we really are.  How much of what we do is because of our culture in the U.S. and because of the culture of the world?

To be completely honest, I try to live my life so that people think that I have it all together, that I’m totally content with everything, and like I understand everything.  I’m really sorry about this.  Just like anyone else, I don’t know and understand everything.  I don’t understand why things are the way they are, and even things that I feel so convicted about, like God for example, I really don’t understand.  In fact, the only thing I do totally understand about God is that I don’t understand Him.  I do believe in God, but I often shy away from talking about it because I don’t understand how it all works.  People always throw out reasons for this and that, but to be honest, it never really makes sense.

The scientific evidence we have can explain a lot about our world, but it’s never explains everything.  Maybe one day it will.  However, all the scientific proof makes me for some reason even more certain that there is a God, and this is what I can’t explain (so I usually don’t try).  I guess I feel like all the explanations of science reveal other holes in our understanding.  For example, the theory of evolution may seem reasonable, but I’ve never heard an explanation for where the first life came from.  So a bunch of dirt somehow appeared, somehow exploded, and then with billions of years the dirt turned into an organism?  And why is there such a large gap between the capabilities and intelligence of humans and ever other animal?  Who knows?  Every person in the world has to put their faith in something.  Some people call themselves atheists and they put their faith in scientific theories that can’t be fully explained.  I’ve decided that I put my faith in God who we also can’t fully understand.  I have had feelings of a present God in my life, which I can’t explain other than that they are there and very real.

I read a book by a guy that lived in the Soviet Union through World War II and the height of its communist power.  By the nature of the communist government, people were firmly atheist and even tortured and imprisoned others who claimed to believe in a God.  He brought up a point that I really like: when the atheist soldiers were facing near death situations, they all prayed and cried aloud to God.  I know that when I am scared, the thought of God always pops in my mind.  Maybe the same is true for you.  Why?  I guess you could say that when people are very scared, they either make up a false hope to make themselves feel better, or they act on what their heart really believes to be true.  I think in these types of scenarios, people just react without thinking.  The Bible says that God put a sense of Himself as a superior being in our hearts and minds.  This would explain why people throughout time always crave some kind of religion.  Maybe when we just react on something, we act on what our hearts know to be true, without thinking “logically.”

I guess my point with all of this is that when I have removed everything that I’m used to, I can really sense a presence of something greater than myself, which I call God.  In the United States, I can blend into the culture.  Here, when I look at my life away from our culture, I feel like I can see myself without some of the mask.  In our culture, we revolve our entire world around money and power.  I can see now that this is a huge weakness of mine.  All my desires are in making myself appear more successful, which in the end might give me a slightly bigger TV and larger bank account when I die. Don’t get me wrong I like having a bigger TV as much as the next guy, but I really think our lives have more of a purpose.

The Bible also says that we all have a giant “hole” in our heart which we can never fill without a love for God.  To me, this is so true.  We all try to fill up an emptiness in us with money and material things, but after a while, we aren’t any happier.  I saw an example of this in Haiti.  The people there aren’t any more depressed that we are in the United States.  Whether or not they have lots of material things isn’t making any of us happier.  So many people I’ve met have disillusionment in their life, myself included.  So…. we go to school to make money to have a family and buy lots of stuff and all for what?  Then we die and that’s that?  That’s what we were created for?  In this sense, life is pretty depressing.  To me, there’s no purpose of that life.  Unless you think that the entire world is a complete coincidence, there has to be more than that purpose.  I believe that we were created by God for the purpose of glorifying Him, and I’m just starting to realize that at this point of my life.  That’s how I am changing.

I know once again that this post is getting long, so if you’re still reading it, thank you for your commitment!  Again, the purpose of this post was not to try to convince you to convert to my religion.  I just want to say it in an effort to vocalize my thoughts and my opinions.  I often cover up who I really am and what I really believe, and I think that we need to talk more about this stuff.  This is hypocritical of me because I never wanted to in the past.  Again, I’m changing.

In the future I don’t want to have long, deep posts such as this, but I just wanted to get it out there.  Now here are some pictures!  My host mother, Ana, took me to a volcano named Poas here last weekend.  These pictures are all from the volcano, except the last one.  The last one is just a pretty view near where I live in Atenas.








Thursday, October 8, 2009

8 days of Haiti

As some of you know, I spent the last week in Haiti with our team from EMI. We returned to our homes-away-from-homes in Costa Rica late last Sunday night. Speaking for myself, I was exhausted, but very reflective of our time in Haiti. I'll do my best to share my experiences with you of Haiti.


I have so much to share about Haiti, and I know this post will again be very long. As much as I’d like to share everything with you, I realize that you have lives, too. I’m going to try to organize my thoughts and experiences into sections, so that if you care about one thing more than another, you don’t have to read the whole thing. Here we go…

Pictures First!


The Country of Haiti

First I want to share a little information about Haiti. Someone told me that Haiti is among the 5 poorest nations in the world. When poverty gets to a certain extreme, it's hard to say one country is worse or better off than the other. My point, though, is that Haiti is one of the poorest and most oppressed nations in the world. Haiti used to be a French province that was very involved in the slave trade from Africa. Therefore, Haitian people look African and speak Creole, which is a combination of French and several African dialects. I was amazed at how similar Haiti seemed to Africa (people, the heat, carrying stuff on their heads, etc.), yet how close we were geographically to the United States.

Haiti is a very small country, but a very dark place. The religion of vodou is very popular among the people and has mixed with the Catholic Church. I don't understand how these two can mix because it seems to me that the Catholic Church and vodou have very different agendas. One of the members on our team, named Junior, is an English-speaking Haitian, and he spent a lot of time explaining vodou to us. From what I understand, because of the poverty and oppression, the Haitian people are extremely superstitious. According to Junior, many people believe in God, but claim He is too slow. Therefore, they worship many spirits and perform many rituals in hopes of receiving "prosperity." Sometimes the rituals can be as extreme as human sacrificing. Junior said that many people make some sort of contract with spirits, where they'll receive "prosperity" for a short time, and then that spirit receives their soul. I certainly don't understand it very well, but I find it very interesting. In the context of my own beliefs and experiences, I also find it very, very sad.

Anyway, my point is not to scare or depress you, just to present my own understanding of the facts of Haiti. We did see several vodou temples, but my experience of Haiti was actually much different than how I described the country above. We met some fantastic people, and shared many great experiences.

Our Project and Mission in Haiti

The goal of our project is to help a missionary who lives in Haiti. The people we are building the project for are Bill and Marilyn Fair (from the U.S.). They have a vision to serve and help local Haitian pastors and the Haitian people in any way they can. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving out clothes or food, and other times it’s supporting a local church or teaching. One thing they like to do is train Haitians how to be pastors. Many Haitians are Christians, but don’t seem to understand simple things like they shouldn't steal. Bill and Marilyn have a vision for a church and housing complex to be located in Arachaie, Haiti. It will consist of a church (which also will serve as a school), their house, some houses for Haitians, and a small “Bible College” where they can train Haitians to be pastors. This will be our job to design a simple, affordable, yet practical solution for them.

Our Week in Haiti

I was surprised that the first thing I noticed about Haiti from the airplane was the absolute beauty of the landscape. While traveling and preparing for Haiti, I tried to get my head around the poverty we were about to see, and meanwhile failed to realize that Haiti is actually a very, very beautiful country. If it wasn't for the intense poverty, ever-present trash, and lack of trees (Haitians cut down all their trees), then I think Haiti would be one of the most scenic places in the world. Maybe that's just me.

Bill (the missionary living in Haiti) picked us up from the airport in Port-au-Prince, and we stayed at his house in Bon Repos. They are staying in a simple house now inside a locked gate. They had enough room for all us to stay. They cooked us some good American food, which although strange for Haiti, tasted quite good to us. We had two very cold showers, which actually felt great because of the heat. We were able to work in their living room area. Other than the heat, we were comfortable there.

We arrived to Haiti on a Saturday, so the next day on Sunday we went to one of the local Christian churches. This was one of my favorite experiences of Haiti – just seeing the people and how much they cared for each other and the church. The people that attend this church are the people that will use the new church we design. Right now, they are meeting in very small outdoor room from someone’s house, which only has a grass thatch roof and is not very practical for the people wishing to attend. The new church we are designing for them will be a very simple building, but will be able to hold almost 200 people, and will offer them the shelter and the place they need. As of now, Bill and Marilyn have enough money raised for this building, so this will be the first to be built in the complex, hopefully sometime next spring.

We immediately fell in love with the people at the church Sunday morning. Many of these people don’t have much as far as clothing, but they wear the absolute best they have on Sunday mornings, regardless of the heat. I found it fascinating that men would wear ties and sport coats and women would wear these huge dresses, and then stand out in the 100 degree heat for hours. At church, kids would run up and pile in the back in Bill’s truck for Sunday school, and then everyone would cram into these small benches for a church service. Throughout the service, different people would get up and sing. Many are very gifted singers! Everyone is so loving and caring for each other. Like I said, I think we all fell in love with the people there!

The next few days we traveled from the house to the site (about an hour drive) for the afternoon. The only mode of transportation we had was Bill’s truck, so we would all ride in the back of it. The breeze felt great! At the site, the architect’s worked with Bill to get a handle on the project and how best to lay everything out. I worked with one of the project volunteers to survey the site (to basically make a simple topographical map of the site). All the people from the area thought this was the coolest thing. They would follow us around and look at all of our crazy equipment. They would offer to help in any way possible.

The latter part of the week was spent working on the design at our “office” (Bill and Marilyn’s house). There we worked with one another on different aspects of the design. We also argued – over things like who was hogging the fan (it was very hot!). We also spent a lot of time with the Haitian family that lived next door. They had 4 kids that always wanted to play in one way or another. Sometimes it was play fighting or singing or throwing a Frisbee, but it always involved lots of laughter. I really admired their continued happiness and joy in the simplest things.

On Friday night, we presented our design (so far) to Bill and Marilyn, and they offered a few constructive comments. To this point we have a layout of the site, including the buildings and bus routes, etc. We also have the layout and preliminary design of most of the buildings. Some of the buildings are to be completed when more funds arrive, but for now we are working on a more complete and technical design of their house and the new church. The church will be a large rectangular room, with a patio out front for Sunday School. There will be plenty of windows and a vent at the top of the church, which should allow for good ventilation in a very hot climate. This church will be used as a school during the week, so I really feel like it will be put to use in a great way!

Final Thoughts

To wrap up my overall experience in Haiti, I’d like to share a few thoughts. First of all, based on all the statistics and information about Haiti, I expected it to be very depressing and just an overall evil place. Fortunately, I was surprised. The people of Haiti are very beautiful and loving people, and for the most part they really do care and love one another. We experienced genuine happiness and laughter when playing with the kids. I told the group that I saw a certain joy in some people there that I can’t explain. Even though they have so little, they are completely content with the simplest things. They have plenty of time for each other, and families seem stronger because of it. I think in the United States we continue to try to fill a void in our minds with more and more material things, which really don’t make us any happier. I think the same depression in Haiti from having so little can be found in the U.S. for having so much. I’m not telling you to go and sell all your stuff, I’m just explaining a little bit of my confusion.

Anyway, now that we’re back in the office in Costa Rica, we have lots of work to do. Another team from our office is working on a different project (also in Haiti). We hope to finish both by December. I’m sorry again for the long post, but I feel like I can’t cut any out (but I could add a whole lot more!), since we experienced so much in our short time there. Until next time, hasta luego!



Friday, September 18, 2009

Four months of adventure in a few paragraphs

Before I begin with my updates, I want to first apologize for my tardiness in getting in contact with you! Because I'm starting this so late, this first post might be a bit overwhelming. We shall see...

I've been with eMi for about a month now, and I must say the time has flown by! I spent the first 8 days at the Hideaway in Colorado Springs with the interns from all offices and the eMi-Colorado Springs staff. We had a busy, but very fun and informative week getting to know each other and learning about eMi's world mission. I can assure you that God is very real and very alive in our world, and I'm ready to go to work for Him. I agree with C.S. Lewis (and Kevin Spacey in the "Usual Suspects") that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist. We need to work to fix that.

We arrived in Costa Rica very "late" on a Monday night, the 24th of August. I must say the definition of late in the night is quite different than we are used to in the United States. We arrived at around 9 pm, which may seem early to you. However, if you consider that everyone's days typically start at about 5 am, it's really not that early. After my first day in Costa Rica, I was ready to sleep well before 9 pm.

The first week here, we had a another, more specialized orientation for just our office. We got to meet the staff here: Dan, Tim, Tom, and each of their families. There is one other staff member, Micah, who is coming here next week. I'm looking forward to getting to know each of them both in and out of the office. They taught us a little more about Latin American culture and prepared us for some of the different customs here. One way to fit in in a different country: be 6'6" and white. Speak scratchy Spanish. I love it here :)

During this first week, I also met and moved in with my host family, who live about a mile or two away from the eMi office. They are Anna and Edgar, who have three children: Esteban (9), Andres (8), and Ana Maria (4). I'm having an awesome time with them. I am able to understand Anna and Edgar for the most part, but I'm still not catching all said by the kids. I don't think the ninos quite understand that my Spanish comprehension level isn't the highest. I'm getting pretty good at the smile and nod technique, especially when Ana Maria goes on long rants to me about who knows what. Fortunately, we can communicate in many other ways, such as laughing and playing. Sometimes I'll play soccer in the evenings with the boys, and other times I'll color with Ana Maria. I hope you won't be worried about me if I tell you that the night before last I spent much of my evening coloring pictures of dogs, ducks, and kittens. Before you know it, I might be wearing a Peter Pan costume...

One thing I forgot to bring is an alarm clock. At first I was worried about this (my host family doesn't have an extra one), so I planned to buy one immediately. However, I've noticed in Costa Rica, it is almost impossible to "sleep in." Every morning at about 6 am I am wide awake thanks to the abundance of sunlight, roosters, dogs, and cows. I'm convinced these three animals make enough noise to wake up the entire country, let alone me. I still don't have an alarm clock, but I'm not at all worried about sleeping in too late!

After our week of orientation, we spent two weeks in a Spanish Language School. We learned a lot in the midst of much frustration (since our teachers didn't speak English). Now that it's a week after the school, my brain is finally starting to catch up on all that we learned. I feel like I'm starting to pick up the language pretty well now, and I'm hoping to be much better at it before I leave in December.

After two weeks of language school, we started working in the office and here we are. Today is Friday of my first week of work. I've done much of the same stuff I learned last summer at my internship in Broomfield, Colorado. I feel like I am very well prepared for this job, and I'm excited now to be working. I know that sounds a little funny, but because of the purpose of our work, it is truly an enjoyable job!

This brings me to my last thought in this post: project trips to Haiti. In our office, there are two projects that we will be working on. One is a youth facility for YWAM and the other is a church. Both are in Haiti. Two of the interns, Avery and Nick, are leaving with their team tomorrow (Saturday) for Haiti. The two other interns, Christy and I, are leaving with our team a week from tomorrow (next Saturday). We are defnitely praying for the mission and the well being of those off to Haiti tomorrow. The voudoo religion and customs have a very strong hold of the Haitian people, and I think this one of reasons for all the corruption and poverty in Haiti. Haiti is not a safe place to go, especially for Christians. Please keep our two teams in your prayers the next few weeks.

Once again, sorry for the long post, but I got a little behind. In the future I'd like to keep this updated about once every week or two. I'll try to let you know when it's updated.

If you want to contact me, the best way is through my email at benjamin.gunden@colorado.edu (I've kept the same one from college). If you have any questions or want to talk, please contact me through my email or facebook -- I'd love to hear from you!



video
Last weekend I went bungee jumping with some friends from our language school. Check it out!