Web site: www.danvanzoest.com
Nicaragua Christian Academy web site: www.nca.edu.ni/
Our mailing address: Dan Van Zoest; Nicaragua Christian Academy; Apartado 842; Managua, Nicaragua; Central America
Dear Family and Friends,
This letter has been floating around in my heart and head for awhile now. It will be good to get it down on paper. I will warn you now that it is long and will be a little "heavy". My heart is often to share things with you that will not only help you understand our lives here, but that you would globally apply it to missionaries in general. I am known to say things for better and for worse that many people would keep to themselves. However, my prayer is that by sharing these things, you would see God's strength in our weakness and recognize His infinite ability to transform and make new.
My focus in this update is to share more with you about what it is like to adjust to a culture that is so very different from our own. Our first year and second year have been unique with different challenges each year. As I share my own struggle with other missionaries both here and in other countries, I hear from them that their experiences have been and are similar.
Our first few weeks here in Nicaragua were both quite disorienting, but also very exciting. I've often thought of it as "reliving childhood" in the sense that everything was new and so interesting and we enjoyed the process of discovery. I can remember thinking that living here would be quite easy as we have modern grocery stores, malls that are comparable to those in the US, we have a comfortable home with running water (most of the time), and I have things like a washer, stove, and refrigerator, etc. This was not necessarily my vision of what living here would be like before we arrived. So, all of these things were pleasant surprises. This honeymoon time even seemed to last for months certainly challenges intermingled but, I remember this to be a very fun "phase".
Fight or Flight
In missionary orientation, they teach you that you will experience something called "fight or flight" during your time on the mission field. It is kind of a primal panic reaction that one experiences when he/she feels threatened sometimes you will become aggressive and try to defend and at other times you will just try to escape. Throughout our first year here, we experienced this a great deal. It was different for each of us. Dan would often get very quiet and would just need to go somewhere for awhile to be alone. I would wake up with panic attacks and I often felt angry which soon led us to purchase an exercise bike to give me an outlet to work it off. Like our neighbor says, "Happy wife. Happy life." Rebekah seemed to cry more easily which is not like her as she is pretty even mood-wise and would, like her Dad, need to spend some time alone in her room. Will, who so often identifies with "heroes" in stories he reads and movies he watches, would draw pictures of himself holding a gun and defending us, his family, from robbers who had broken into our home. This seemed to be his way of controlling or mastering what he very quickly realized was our reality.
This fight or flight experience is not a stage that you move through or complete. It is just a part of life here and we experience it at different times and in different situations still. I do remember thinking half-way through the summer last summer while we were in the States that I was finally feeling "safe" again, like there was a rhythm to life that was I was comfortable with. I could predict what would happen next and did not feel that I needed to brace myself for the unexpected.
I consistently ask you to pray for safety, but have not talked much about specific unsafe situations in our updates, in part, because I do not want to worry our families and in part because it is just difficult to talk about. I think that talking about it makes it just that much more "real". However, it is the reality we live with. I remember substitute teaching for the first time at school. I read a story with Will's class about something scary that had happened to a young boy. I asked the class to give an example of when they felt scared. The examples they gave related to being robbed and watching people get rocks thrown at their heads when they tried to escape and how their heads were bleeding. I will never forget that moment, as I thought about how these kids and now our kids live with a reality that they are not necessarily safe not even in their own homes.
Quite regularly, we hear stories of missionary friends and families at our school being robbed. Some of them have had guns pointed at their heads; others have been robbed in the middle of the night while they were sleeping; others have been gassed while they were sleeping so they would not wake up to detect the robbers; many have had their guard dogs poisoned; one family's Nicaraguan guard was shot and killed; and some guards are paid off and will open up the gate for people to rob the home while the family is away. We had friends over for dinner the other night who shared with us that while at a stop light, a man rammed his body into their car pretending to be hit by them. Our friend knew the man was not hurt and looked around to recognize clues that he was being set up. He was able to drive away, but were the police to be involved, it is likely that he could have gone to jail and been charged money for the man's "injuries". I've often thought about how in the States I've known - maybe a handful of people - who have been robbed. Here, I can only think of a handful of people who have not been robbed. Someone recently told me that a short term mission trip participant said to them, "Yes, but this kind of thing happens in the US too." The difference, however, is that in the US there is a good chance that the thieves will be caught. Here, there is very little chance of that happening. There are also many desperate people who are stealing just to survive particularly since the economic recession. I often think about how I would steal too if I had a child at home who was hungry.
Last year, whenever I would hear a story about someone being robbed at gun point or in their home, it would take me weeks to work through this. And by that time, another incident had occurred. This year, I personally feel that I've adjusted to this as our reality. This seems to be the case for our family as well. We have had no incidences of robbery in our neighborhood, although we suspect someone tried to enter last year by climbing the wall. He/She was detected by the many dogs in our neighborhood who went crazy and the person fled. I've complained at times about the noise level here and how we all kind of live in one house noise-wise however, this is also an advantage as it would be very difficult for someone to slip in and out of our neighborhood undetected. There are other times too like when we pull up to a stop light to see many people with missing limbs begging. I remember depositing a coin into a can that a man held under his arm pit with a very short stub of his arm. I remember looking into his eyes and thinking, "the impact of this moment is what is hard to explain, and it is so frequently a part of our days and weeks." Another night, while Dan and I were driving to a restaurant for a date, a little girl stepped up onto our truck, pushed her soiled face into my rolled up window, and banged on the glass, begging for money. Never will I forget the impact of that moment as well. One other night, while Dan and Rebecca were on a date, Rebecca said, "I hate that lady with the knife." Dan said that he panicked looking around for a woman near their car with a knife. What Rebekah was referring to, however, was a billboard with a woman holding a razor. This incident illustrates, however, our constant vigilance and need to be aware.
Fight or Flight. The only way to get through it is to keep taking the next step forward and trusting the promise that God is with us. He meets us in the place where we try to escape our vulnerability by reminding us that He is El Shaddai - The All Sufficient One. He comforts our fearful and angry hearts by reminding us that He is Jehovah-shalom The Lord is Peace.
A few months ago, I was riding in the back of a truck that had no shocks down a very bumpy road with several teachers who I had just had dinner with at a Nicaraguan restaurant nestled in a wooded area. Something was happening to my ear drums due to how rough the ride was which I can't completely explain besides the fact that after that ride, I could not hear very well in the days following. In the midst of that ride, one of the teachers shouted (she had to shout so that we could all hear her) "I can't believe this is my life!" I feel that her statement kind of sums up this next phase.
You may have picked up in our updates this year that we have struggled. Particularly, I have struggled. I think the struggle this year is deeper than last year, as we are at a place of trying to understand who we are in this new context and how we can best function. In fact, for several months I was saying to Dan, "I just miss being known. The people back home know me, know my heart, and it is just so hard to start all over again. I just want to be known." As I was driving home from school one day after dropping Dan and the kids off, God spoke to my heart saying, "Lisa, the person that you want people to know no longer exists. I am doing something new. You are new. Allow people to get to know you for who you are this day." He is so good at reframing and changing my paradigms. I could not ask for a better Counselor.
I identify this stage as "grief" because that is the only way that I can really explain it. I've recognized how our family cycles through the stages of grief each one of us in a different way. I think that for Will and I, the struggle is more intense just because of who we are we are both very reflective and experience life at a very deep level. He and I can often get stuck in thinking about "the good old days" and the people and things we miss about home.
I think next year, I will be more proactive as I can now predict the times that are most difficult. When we return to Nicaragua at the beginning of the school year, there is a flurry of activity and it is exciting to start school again and reconnect with everyone. Thanksgiving can be difficult because there are no signs of fall here, it is hot which makes it challenging to cook a big Thanksgiving dinner, and we think of our family traditions/reunions back home. The winter months here are the easiest for me I think because we do not miss the challenge of driving in the snow or the cold. All the emails you send about how cold it is in MI and IA are really quite helpful thank you! The weather here at that time is also just perfect sunny and very comfortable, sometimes we even wear jeans and drink hot chocolate! Christmas is very big here too, so there are lots of things going on to celebrate this holiday and I've instituted several celebrations in our neighborhood which we used to do back home. These celebrations/activities have helped us through this time to feel "normal". It was so great too to have my family here last Christmas it was like having the best of both worlds! The most difficult time, it seems, last year and this year has been the spring like March and April. For one, it starts to get extremely hot and it is very dirty due to the months without rain. We also miss spring the fresh after-the-rain smell, the first robin, the signs of new life from the green grass to the blooming flowers . . . . Most significantly, however, is that Easter is not celebrated in Protestant churches. What I have heard from others is that Protestant churches stay away from celebrating Easter because they do not want to be confused with the Catholic Churches who have many activities and rituals going on during what we call Semana Santa (Holy Week). So, there is just a deep void during this time. I realize how we heavily depended on our church back home to lead us in traditions leading up to Easter and the day itself. I plan to think and pray through next spring to try to be more proactive next year with our plans. I know that this will help.
So, yes, this is our life. And we are thankful, so thankful for this life. We are at peace with our calling and know that this is where we are called to be. But, we do struggle. A picture that came to mind for me this Easter as I was struggling so much with home sickness was the picture of Jesus carrying His cross to Calvary. I thought, "I wonder if this is how He felt at peace that He was doing what God called Him to do, but still feeling the pain and the impact of what He was doing and was about to do." Peace and pain in the same step. It can be difficult and sometimes quite overwhelming, but our Loving Father nudges us to "keep walking".
I will just end my email here with a story of an experience I had months prior to our specific calling to Nicaragua. It was February and I was in a lot of pain physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I will not go into all of the details of this, but the bottom line is that I was a mess. I was very angry with God, feeling that He had been leading us on a wild goose chase as we tried to discern what He was calling us to do. I was so tired of living life on the fence.
It was around Valentines Day, and I walked into Wal-Mart to buy Valentines presents for the kids. I got about half way down the Valentine aisle and had a very strong panic attack (I started getting these after Rebekah was born, some years not experiencing them at all. But, at more intense times in my life, I experience them occasionally). In fact, I felt paralyzed and started shaking and crying. Then, God spoke these words, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths." And then He said, "Lisa, keep walking." Immediately after He spoke these words, the panic attack was over and I no longer felt paralyzed. I looked around to see all of these huge foil hearts with the words "I Love You" written on them in very big letters. I still get tears in my eyes as I remember this special moment with the Lover of my soul there, in the Valentine aisle at Wal-mart.
Weeks later, someone from church who did not know me very well nor did she know anything about my internal struggle gave me a plaque with the words, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart" and below the words was a glass heart. I recognized it as another gift and reminder from the Lord. The words God spoke to me, "Lisa, keep walking." became my focus for the weeks and months that followed and I slowly - through the support of loving and grace-filled mentors who consistently walked with me - began to once again open myself up to trusting the Lord with my life once again. A year and 8 months later, we arrived in Nicaragua. As we drove along a highway one of our first days here, I looked up to see a billboard with the words, "Keep Walking" written on it. I still look at that billboard every time we drive by it and each time, I am renewed in my resolve to keep taking that next step with Christ on this road . . . the road that leads to a death to myself and a life of seeing God's glory here on earth and someday, in heaven.
1) Dan and the kids are on a camping trip with the Boy Scouts this weekend. They drove 4 hours north to a remote location near a canyon river that they will be tubing down and hiking around. I had planned to go on this trip, but I have bronchitis and am needing to rest. So, please pray for their safety, peace for me, and for my healing and Rebekah's healing she is now coughing as well. Will is doing well thank you for your prayers for him when he was sick! Dan arrived safely from Costa Rica in March, having had a wonderful experience with the students.
2) Next Thursday, Dan's Mom will have surgery to remove a spot on the area where she had a mastectomy a number of years ago. Please pray for a successful surgery and for peace of heart for her and for all of us, her children.
3) Please pray for Bible Study leaders for our teacher Bible Study for next year. I'm looking for around 5 to7 leaders to lead groups of 5 women. This ministry has been valuable to our teachers both in their spiritual growth and in developing community among them. Several of them are new believers and as they grow in the knowledge of the Word, they are better able to communicate the truth they learn in their classes.
Finally, I would like to thank you for reading this update. I know it was long. I've not written in awhile, so you got two months worth. I also wanted to let you know that I've struggled this year to return email as people write to us. My struggle is related to all I shared about grief - my connections with people back home are just harder for me to engage with in the midst of my working through this. So, I pray you understand. Know that everything you write to us, we read and so appreciate and are encouraged by. Thank you all so very much. We are so well taken care of in so many ways.
Peace to you,
Dan, Lisa (the writer), Rebekah, and Will