Band of Brothers
“The Power of Compassion“
What happens when twenty-five men make a decision to act as one, to set aside personal interests and become a single “Band of Brothers” in service to the poor and disenfranchised of the world? The answer is something so powerful and so profoundly life changing, it is in many ways beyond words to describe.
From November 29th to December 3rd, a group of men from Chicago Fellowship shared in such a life changing experience. What follows is part of our story. A story shared in the hope that by it others will be encouraged to take God at His Word and put themselves in places where He is at work. Places where the fabric of the world is torn and the walls of protection are broken down. If they do, it is our belief that they will discover as did we, that there is no greater privilege or blessing than that of participating with God in extending His love and compassion to “…the least of these…”
It began as an idea in the mind of one man but soon became the mission of many. In July of 2006, while discussing an upcoming family trip to Hogar de Niños an orphanage in Honduras with Al Heerema, Tim MacKenzie threw out the idea of replacing some of the broken down play equipment at the Hogar with something that the kids could actually use. Tim’s wife Mary (who was helping with some of the planning) and Al both agreed. An email went out to other friends of All God’s Children asking for additional input and help and in very little time, what started as an effort to repair a single swing set became a mission to give the children of the Hogar a first class playground of their own.
With the help of Tim’s assistant Nicole Jackson, research began on companies that could manufacture and deliver the equipment that was needed. Ultimately, Steve King (CEO of Landscape Structures and friend of Mike Dahl from Chicago Fellowship) came into the picture. Landscape Structures had exactly the equipment needed for the job and through Mike’s relationship with Steve, the equipment was offered at a 50% discount! A budget of $30,000 was set for the project and an email for financial and prayer support went out. In six weeks, through the gifts of some 22 people contributing in amounts form $100-$5,000, the necessary funds for the project were raised.
Working from measurements of the Hogar that Tim had taken during an August trip; Landscape Structures completed the design and manufacture of the playground and had it in Honduras on October 11, 2006. Back in Chicago, Mike Dahl surveyed the plans and made sure all necessary tools for assembly would be on site when the team arrived in November and Al Heerema worked with the people in Honduras to make sure the site was properly prepared and that everything would be delivered on time. All that remained was the assembling of a team of men to do the work. In the weeks prior to the departure date of November 29, twenty-five men volunteered to make the trip. With the support of family and friends and other men of Chicago Fellowship, they began their journey together. It is safe to say that to a man, they had no idea just how much the next five days would change them.
Day One: November 29
Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
Day one began early! For those of us who are not early morning people, a 4:00am check-in at O’Hare left us wondering what we must have been thinking when we decided to join this adventure. But as we began to gather at the gate, much of the uncertainty and anxiety we brought with us began to give way to the growing excitement of doing something that mattered and doing it together. God was already beginning to make His presence among us known through the encouragement, support (and even the “hard time”) we were beginning to give to one another. Let it be noted that it is highly unlikely that men will travel together without giving one another a little bit of grief. After all, with aisle seats vs. middle seats at stake and even the option of a first class upgrade available upon request, no one was exempt.
After a trouble free flight to Miami (more trouble free for some than for others), it was on to Tegucigalpa and a landing more like a ride at an amusement park than touching down at an airport. The city of Tegucigalpa is situated in a beautiful valley in the mountains of north central Honduras and getting a plane over those mountains and onto the floor of the valley safely requires some maneuvers that give one quite a rush the first time you experience it. We loved it! Having landed safely, we made our way through the beautiful new airport terminal, threw our bags into the back of a waiting pickup truck and boarded a small bus for the 45-mile trip to Comayagua.
In our first couple of hours in Honduras many of us were struck by two things. Honduras is a beautiful country and the people of Honduras are a gentle and beautiful people. Yes, it is a third world country with all the problems that are often part of that (1/3 unemployment, more than 50% of the people living below poverty level) but the Honduran people we met and worked with were a hard-working, kind and welcoming people and the land on which they lived was at times, breathtaking.
Just before entering the city of Comayagua, we stopped by the farm where the older boys of the Hogar live to say hello and take a brief tour of the property. From there, we continued into the city, checked into the Hotel Quan and headed for the home for the girls and younger boys of the Hogar located in town. In our initial visit to both places we began to experience what is difficult to explain. If you have children of your own, perhaps the feelings that follow are more familiar but if you have no children, the experience is entirely new. When you see a child, especially a child who was born into the world with no protection and love, and that child comes to you for those things, when you hold that child in your arms you are standing on “holy ground” and you know it. You know you are standing in a moment God has created and that moment begins to change you. There is a deeper love you begin to feel, a greater sense of responsibility you begin to accept.
That night as we sat together and talked about what might be ahead of us, we all knew in our own way that we were entering into something very different. We had a sense that what we were doing was important and that we were in a place where God was working. We didn’t know exactly how He would make Himself known to us in this effort but we prayed that He would and knew that He must. We were coming alive that night and we were becoming one. Showing up where God is at work has a way of making that happen.
Day Two: Thursday November 30
Isaiah 58:7 “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him…” “If you do away with the yoke of oppression,…”
Day two began with a mixture of both anticipation and worry. We had come to the Hogar to build a playground for the children but as of breakfast that morning, the playground had not yet arrived. It had been in the country for over a month but in spite of the efforts of those leading the project, the large crate containing the equipment had not yet been released from port and delivered to the Hogar. We had estimated that it would take a full three days to complete the project so if the equipment weren’t on site when we arrived, we knew there would be no way for us to finish the work before our time in country was done. There had been no lack of effort on anyone’s part. Numerous phone calls had been made to the government officials of both the United States and Honduras on our behalf. There had been more than one promise of release and delivery of the equipment but, as of November 28th, the day before our arrival, no such promise had yet been kept. Still praying but with no word on the playground’s status, many of us began to resign ourselves to the reality that an on time delivery of the playground was probably not going to happen. We had done our best and would do what we could to help with other needs at the Hogar while we were there but completing the playground was not going to be possible and we had to let it go.
On our way to the Hogar that morning we took a moment to stop by the school for the handicapped (no need to hurry to the Hogar, there was no playground to assemble anyway). As amazing as is the story of Mama Carmen and the Hogar, so is that of Nelly and her school for handicapped children. Crippled as a teenager, thrown out of school because she was handicapped and consigned to a life as an outcast, Nelly completed her education and began a school for others like herself. Opening in 1999, CasAyuda is now home to over 90 handicapped children. On this particular morning, they were having a graduation ceremony and Nelly had especially wanted us to attend.
When we arrived, staff members were hurrying about making preparation for the special day. Students were dressed in their uniforms and many of their family members were present. Seeing these children and families was a wonderful thing. These children were the outcast of their world, the lowest on an already heavily populated lowest end of the social order. Without this school they had no future and no hope and yet, because of it, they now had both. As we watched the pride with which they conducted themselves and took pictures of their smiling faces, there was a sense that we were joining with the angels as we applauded what was happening. There was also the sense that although, as of that moment, we had not yet done a single bit of the work we had come to do, we were never-the-less right where God wanted us to be, seeing exactly what God wanted us to see and it was beautiful!
The next thing that happed defies human explanation. As we were about to leave the school, a call came from the Hogar. A large truck with a large tractor trailer size container had just arrived at the orphanage and they wanted to know if we could come and unload it. The playground had arrived! With all human efforts exhausted. With no idea that morning of whether the playground would ever be delivered or even where it was, it was now at the orphanage waiting for us! We had all in our own way been wondering how God would meet us, how He would make His presence known to us, if what we had been planning and praying about for the past months was what He had in store for us to do. At the moment of that phone call, we all knew. This is not a moment one can experience outside of places God is working. To experience such moments, we must look for places God is at work and for people we believe God is working through and expose ourselves to both. When we do, we discover that God not only meets us in such moments but goes before us as well. All the time we had been anxious, God had been working. When we wondered if our prayers had been heard, they had already been answered. The playground had arrived and we were on our way to assemble it!
On the bus ride over to the orphanage we pulled to side of the road and took a moment to pray. We wanted to thank God for His Faithfulness and praise Him for the privilege of being used by Him in some small way in this greater good. We asked for His blessing and wisdom as we began the work and then just dove in. Immediately, Tim Mackenzie and Mike Dahl began organizing us into teams. Mike Hagan volunteered to receive the equipment as we unloaded it and get the right pieces in the right places for instillation. Blake Thole took on the task of parts manager for all the tools we had assembled for the work. Four teams were formed for all of the four major playground areas we were creating. Finally, a team of “mules” was organized to mix concrete and move equipment so that others could focus on the very complex task of assembly. (Note: Mules, you know who you are and though many see you as the least skilled of the labor force, you know “Mules rule”!).
Once on site, we immediately sprang into action. What was before us was a 40-foot container with 8,000 lbs. of playground equipment. The equipment was sealed on palates that had obviously been loaded by forklifts. With no fork lifts or other machinery available, we put a team of men in the trailer breaking down the palates. Another team carried the equipment to the staging area. A separate team began going over plans and checking the sites that were prepared. It was an amazing thing to see. In an absolutely selfless way, without any complaint, everyone found a part to play and did what had to be done. In just over an hour, everything was unloaded and ready to go. By the end of the day, all the sites were staged and partially assembled. This sounds simple, but each site was like putting together a very large and complex jigsaw puzzle. One site alone had 28 posts that had to be set in 3 feet of concrete. Before that could happen, all the parts had to be assembled, set, leveled and braced for pouring. This was no small playground and none of us had ever done such a thing before. At times it seemed like we would never get all the pieces to fit, never see the bigger picture of what the thing was really supposed to look like. In these times, men just kept working, doing what they could see to do until finally things began to come together. What an incredible day! What an incredible effort!
When we sat down together at dinner that night and later for a time of reflection and sharing, it is hard to overstate how much joy we felt. We had worked hard, worked together, worked for a cause greater than our own self-interest and it was wonderful. We had seen God’s hand clearly at work in the delivery of the playground. Thinking He was going to be late, we began to realize His timing had been perfect! Had the equipment been released and delivered earlier, there is no way the few people available at the Hogar could have unloaded it (meaning it may have been returned to port). Even if they could have unloaded it, our not being present would have made it almost impossible to later figure out which parts belonged with which and where everything went. Finally, had it come a few hours or days later, we would have had no chance of finishing the job. God’s timing was perfect and what that did in each of us to affirm that we were in the place God had called us to be doing what God had called us to do is something that cannot be explained, it can only be experienced. This is what God does when we show up where He is at work. Following Him is a rich life and we all found ourselves wanting more. Little did we know just how much more we would find.
Day Three: Friday December 1
Isaiah 58:10 “…and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
One of the biggest concerns of day three was the weather. The forecast was for the possibility of heavy rain at times throughout the day. The problem was, we had no margin for delay if we had any hope of completing the playground. We had already dug a number of large three-foot deep holes for the footings but none were yet filled with concrete. All the supports were in the holes but nothing could be poured until each of the different structures was complete. That morning, we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed and went to work.
The day didn’t begin well. Completion of the assembly of the different structures was going slow and until that was done; none of the concrete could be poured. Finally, one truck load of gravel arrived and the men not working on assembly quickly spread it around a portion of the new swing set. By the time that was done, things began to pick up. One of the two main structures and some of the individual pieces of equipment were complete and ready to pour. Everyone went immediately into action. Some delivering sand and gravel for the concrete, some mixing, some pouring. Again, the way everyone just did what needed to be done was amazing to see! We mixed and hauled and poured for four hours and while there was rain all around us, there were only light showers on site. This may seem like a small thing, but to those of us who were in the middle of a mission we knew we could not complete if there were any delays; it was no small answer to prayer.
As the work day ended and we cleaned and stored all the tools, there was a clear sense of gratitude and excitement. Gratitude for the chance to be part of something that we knew would give joy to the children of the Hogar and excitement that we might actually be able to complete the mission on time. By days’ end, all but one structure was set and poured. A day that had begun with so much uncertainty was now ending with unbelievable satisfaction. As we headed back to Hotel Quan, the storm that had threatened us all day long, now arrived. Had it come any earlier, it would have been disastrous. Coming now, it would only make for a good night’s sleep.
Later that night, after a great dinner and some ice cream at a little shop on the town Plaza, we sat down for our nightly time of sharing. The openness with which men shared was growing. We were getting closer. We were sharing in something that was building trust and respect between us. We were becoming brothers and we felt good about it. We prayed for one another as roommates that night and slept well. We couldn’t imagine it could get any better. We had no idea.
Day Four: Saturday December 2
Isaiah 58:11 “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
This was our last full day in Comayagua and it would be our most varied. In the morning we finished pouring the footings on the final playground station. In the afternoon, one group took a group of children from the Hogar on a shopping spree. A second group went out to the farm to spend time with the boys and catch part of a soccer game they had scheduled that afternoon against a local team. The report on the shopping spree went something like this – by the time the kids were loaded on the bus and taken to the local “Mall”, taken from store to store looking for and purchasing particular items, loaded back on the bus and returned to the Hogar – it was judged to be the single most difficult task of the week. No one was able to say exactly why but it seems to have had something to do with men and shopping. That’s all we should probably say about that.
As for the soccer game, it was fantastic! The boys from the farm have quite a team. We had played a pick-up game against them the year before and they destroyed us. On this particular afternoon, they beat a local team that appeared to be very skilled by a score of 12 -0! As some of us watched, we were not only impressed with the skill of the boys but how well they played together. They seemed to play as one – like a family – like brothers. As we watched, we couldn’t help but think where these boys would be without the ministry of All God’s Children. It was just another wonderful thing God allowed us to see.
Later that afternoon, after the shopping was done and the game was complete, we gathered around the small above ground pool at the Hotel Quan for a baptism service. One of the men on the trip (Rob Svendsen) wanted to be baptized as a way of affirming his faith in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of his sins and he wanted the men on this trip who were becoming his brothers to be his witnesses. It was a special moment for all of us and testimony to the fact that the redeeming work of God is not confined by boundaries of time and place. For four days we had been privileged to participate with God in “doing the Gospel”. Now, as brothers, we were privileged to “declare the Gospel” with Rob through his baptism. What a life this is and oh, what a Savior!
After the baptism we boarded the bus back to the Hogar for a Saturday night celebration. This is always one of the highlights of the trip. The boys from the farm join with the girls from the Hogar for a time of music and dancing. A local Marimba band supplies the music and all of us join in. What a blast! To see the kids laughing and dancing and forgetting a world that had been so very cruel to them at times is like seeing a little bit of heaven.
We ended this final full day with a time of open sharing back at the hotel. It was evident from the things that were shared that the last four days had indeed begun to change each of us in very deep and personal ways. The world we had come from was beginning to look different to us. People were beginning to look different. Things we valued were beginning to take a different place in our lives. Some of it might have been a little unsettling or even frightening to us, but there was something about it that just seemed right and good.
It was our last night in Comayagua so many of us sat out late into the evening talking and telling stories. There were a few cigars and more than a few laughs. The freedom and joy that come from service to others in Jesus name make more than a little room for both. What a wonderful God we serve and how wonderfully rich is the life to which He calls us!
Day Five: December 3
Isaiah 58:12 “…you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
As we packed our bags, separating out the items we would leave behind, it felt good to be going home. A couple of men were fighting some “south of the boarder” illness that would make traveling difficult but they too were excited to be returning to more familiar ground. It had been a great four days but in a strange way, such experiences can make one miss the family and friends left behind even more than we might have expected.
Before we headed to the airport, however, there was one final stop at the Hogar to say good bye to the children and share with them in the moment we had worked so hard to make a reality. This was the day the playground would be open to the children for the first time. They had been watching us work on it for the past four days but could not get on it until now.
As we pulled in to the Hogar, the kids surrounded the bus as usual. Today was different because they were dressed for church. On the final day we always walked to a nearby church for Mass with the children before saying our final good byes. Today, before that walk, we escorted them down to the playground and turned them loose. What happened in the next few moments was nothing short of amazing! The children rushed on to the playground with energy and excitement like most of us had never seen. The smiles on their faces, the literal screams of joy were unbelievable! This is what God wanted to show us. He wanted us to know that we cannot out give Him. We cannot make a better investment of our lives than to release them fully to Him. If we will only trust Him, we will not be disappointed. We had come to give the children the gift of a playground but what we were both giving and receiving in this moment was of greater and more lasting value. We were giving and receiving deep and unforgettable joy!
One night earlier in the trip, we talked about living an “uncommon life”. Living a life that would give us a chance to get to the end of our life and look into the eyes of our Savior and really know Him. To know in that moment that we had shown up in places where He was at work in the world and that He had met us there. To know we had seen the world with His eyes, heard the cries of those hurting with His ears, felt the pain of the world with His heart. What this trip had shown us all is that this will only be our experience if we are courageous enough and intentional enough to get outside ourselves and go into places where the fabric of the world is torn and the walls of protection are broken down and become part of reweaving the fabric and restoring the walls.
For five days in November and December of 2006, twenty-five of us from Chicago Fellowship took such a risk and acted with this exact courage and intention. For those five days, the “uncommon life” to which God calls us was truly our own and to a man, we all say it was worth it. Not only that, but to a man, we all say we want more days like those five days. The opportunities are certainly there. There is so much more to be done in Honduras and Chicago and many other places God may put before us. This has been but a single act of compassion in a much greater work of love we are invited to join. All of us who are part of Chicago Fellowship are excited to see what our next place of service together might be. This is our calling, our passion, our commitment. We invite you to join with us in this greatest of all adventures. Thank you Jesus! To God be the Glory!
Names were intentionally left out of most of the above account. We men of the Fellowship steer away from being singled out. But we didn’t want to end without publicly giving thanks to God for the efforts of the following people:
Allen Heerema – Brother Al, your faithfulness to God’s call on your life continues to challenge us all. Thanks for the way you allow Him to use you to make our time in Honduras both a joy and a blessing.
Tim and Mary MacKenzie – Tim, thanks for a great idea and for all you did together with Mary to get the ball rolling and make the playground a reality. Well done!
Mike Dahl – Mike, without your contacts, expertise and hard work, this project would have never been completed “under budget and on time.” It was a privilege to follow your lead.
To the men of Chicago Fellowship who supported this project financially and with prayer – it is an honor to have you as brothers. Many of you were not able to make the trip but those of us who did were greatly strengthened and encouraged knowing that you were standing with us. We were all in this together.
To the families and loved ones of the twenty-five men who traveled to Honduras – we thank God for your encouragement and support and for the sacrifices you made while we were gone. We could not have had this experience without your blessing and we wanted you to know how much your partnership in this meant to us.
In His Grace,