What Lake Grove Presbyterian Church taught me about faith, love, and letting go
Linda, Andrea, Jan, and Libby of Lake Grove Presbyterian Church's Honduras mission team with girls from Bella Vista.
The people who are going to replace me
The Honduras missions team at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church is going to put me out of a job. I'm not kidding.
This was my main takeaway from a recent visit to Lake Grove, a Portland church who's faithfully supported the 32 families of Bella Vista, an Agros community in Honduras, for the past 7 years.
The "bella vista" or beautiful view from Bella Vista, the Agros community of 32 families near Santa Barbara, Honduras that Lake Grove supports.
After spending just a few hours with the group, I knew I was out-Agros'd. That despite my title and official employment as the message-bearer of the organization, I'd choose them over myself for our next speaking tour, hands down.
You see, for me Agros International is a cause and a passion. It's a plowshare for justice and a way to extend a fair opportunity to families who didn't win the birth lottery like I did.
But for Lake Grove, Agros is a matter of love.
Lake Grove team member Jan hugs Marina from Bella Vista. Marina visited the Lake Grove and Seattle in 2012 with her husband Carlos to share their story. Before Bella Vista, she lived in constant fear of her young daughter drowning or getting hit by a car while she and Carlos worked to survive. Listen to their story here.
The men and women of Lake Grove aren't just committed to the families who've become their friends in Bella Vista, Honduras. They love them - patiently, unconditionally, and joyfully - like extended family. They've stitched their lives together across thousands of miles in an unlikely partnership, and both sides in this exchange have become deeply invested in each other's futures.
Lessons from Lake Grove
Our occasion for visiting Lake Grove was a presentation they put on about their latest visit down to the community. They framed their discussion of the community's progress using themes from Mark Lutz's UnPoverty: Rich Lessons Learned from the Working Poor.
Lutz, a leading Christian voice for dignified development, looks at poverty as people, rather than an issue. His book aims to bring readers down - and the poor up, in readers' estimation - to a level playing field where individuals can learn from each other, teach each other, and collectively build systems where opportunity is available to all. (If you're looking for a justice-bent beach read this summer, look no further.)
One by one, each member of Lake Grove's team stepped forward to share lessons from the book on topics like persistence, family, and justice, each grounded in personal anecdotes of their own relationships and learnings in Bella Vista.
The Lake Grove team spends quality time with families on a beautiful day in Bella Vista.
What I remember, however, wasn't Lutz's take on poverty or the emerging signs of prosperity in Bella Vista. In each story, I heard Agros. Here were people who embodied our mission to bring hope & opportunity to the poor, who'd built transformational relationships with families thousands of miles away …
So, like any good student before a masterful set of teachers, I took notes, to document and share their lessons here with you. We can title this text, in the spirit of Lutz: UnOfficial Employees: Moving Lessons Learned from Generous Agros Donors.
Gloria and Juan Jose moved to Bella Vista from the slums of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the murder capitol of the world. Read more of their courageous story here.
Lesson #1: Faith
"How do I go about eliminating injustice in the world?" asked Jeff Kempe, one of the team members, "For me, it's very hard to know." For Lake Grove and for Agros, faith is not a resting state. It's a struggle. When Christ oriented himself toward the poor, he called us, too, to give our lives to the eradication of injustice in our world.
If our faith compels action, then the next question is how? How do we solve the injustice of billions being born into poverty? It's staggering, which is why I admired Jeff's calm response. "We should," he concluded, "wisely support effective and lasting solutions."
Bella Vista's farmers demonstrate a new coffee mill that Agros and the community have invested in to add more value to their coffee crop. Production of high quality, high altitude coffee has been Bella Vista's economic engine, enabling numerous families to pay off their land loans early, improve their homes, and achieve the peace of mind afforded by a secure and sustainable income.
He hits it on the nose: We (this isn't a one-man job; rouse your church, family, coworkers, or friends) should wisely support (you don't need to have the answer; research groups with a track record of success and invest there) effective and lasting solutions (impact has two dimensions: magnitude of change today and likelihood that that change will endure; look for both).
Agros exists to implement deep, sustainable solutions to the hunger, trauma, and wasted potential of poverty in rural Central America. Motivated, like Lake Grove, by Jesus's love for the least among us, we strive to be Kingdom-builders today. And with partners like Lake Grove, we're actually getting there: Bella Vista's vibrant coffee fields and giggling school-bound children are the proof!
There's no question about it, today Bella Vista is a much safer and healthier place for a child to be born than where these families came from. Here parents have pregnancy and early childhood support from trained healthcare volunteers, or brigadistas; access to safe housing; yards full of livestock and kitchen gardens; civic connections to supply the community with teachers; and the resources to build farming businesses that will provide, securely, for their families.
Lesson #2: Love
Andrea Anderson has travelled five times to Bella Vista and claims she doesn't enjoy speaking to a crowd. But when she spoke about the children of the community, love animated her voice. She told a story about some Spanish Bibles they'd brought down, signed by all nine team members. Ramon, one of the community members, brought his, open, to Andrea, looking concerned. "I had no idea what he needed," she remembered, flustered. "I honestly didn't know if he could read. So I started reading off the names - it was open to the signed page - and I realized that Jan's was missing. She'd missed this one."
"So," Andrea continued, "I went to find her and get the missing signature. And I realized that Ramon didn't know which one of our signatures was missing. He just knew there were nine of us and only eight signatures."
Jeff Kempe, one of the Lake Grove team members, captures the warmth and trust of Lake Grove's relationship with the families of Bella Vista in the photos you see throughout this blog.
To be loved is to be known. To matter - so if your name is missing, it won't go unnoticed. The families of Bella Vista and Lake Grove love each other profoundly. These aren't transactional or one-way relationships. They're mutually caring and supportive. They endure.
Andrea's story is powerful because we can't measure the effects of love like we can evaluate food security or crop value. But they're no less real. Women in Bella Vista have told me they feel supported through all their hardships, knowing that Lake Grove cares: they're praying, they'll keep coming, they won't give up. And Lake Grove's trips to Bella Vista are like family reunions. The team is fiercely dedicated to seeing these families succeed.
Linda, a retired Spanish teacher, often acts as Lake Grove's unofficial translator. This spring she helped lay the cornerstone for a new school that will be built within the community.
I think love fuels the outsize outcomes we see all the time at Agros: migrant farmers who send their children to college. Firebrand donors who rally their entire community to support this work. It's potent fuel, this love. And it abounds at Lake Grove.
Lesson #3: Letting Go
After Lake Grove's presentation, we circled up for lunch. The topic at hand was tough: Bella Vista's impending transition to self-sustainability. They would be ready to "graduate" from the Agros program at the end of 2017. As you can imagine, this was cause for celebration - Lake Grove's goal has always been to partner with Bella Vista's families to the point where they no longer need their support.
Joel (at left), Agros's Central American Director, celebrates a Bella Vista family's crowning achievement: becoming a fully titled land-owner, at a community-wide land title ceremony.
But it was also cause for heartbreak. After seven years of laying kindling to their relationship, it was now time to prepare to say good-bye.
I end with this lesson because it impressed me the most. After pouring themselves into these families, they were bravely preparing to step away.
Everyone packed into Bella Vista's community center/school house for a land title ceremony as well as the presentation of certificates, prepared by the community, honoring their brothers and sisters from Lake Grove.
And rather than feeling grief and abandonment, they listened intently as we spoke about a group of hopeful families in La Bendición, Nicaragua - tired of being swindled renting land, hungry for the chance to learn and build something better for their children - new families laying the groundwork for a new community, who needed a group of determined supporters like Lake Grove to care about them.
Love Yourself Out of a Relationship
Nonprofits sometimes talk about working themselves out of a job. What we desire is a world where the problems we're trying to address - hunger, cancer, poverty, violence - disappear permanently.
The future land-owners, businesswomen, mothers, and leaders of Bella Vista.
Sitting with Lake Grove, I realized that at Agros we ask donors to love themselves out of a relationship. To commit every ounce of their care and their commitment, their social capital and resources and hearts to a group of families in the hope that one day they won't need them anymore.
It's a rough deal. But that's love.
Thank you, Lake Grove, for giving so much of your time, prayers, resources, and especially your hearts, to the families of Bella Vista. All images © Jeff Kempe Photography.
Marketing and Communications Manager