Once upon a time I ate an iguana.
Though I guess that is a poor place to start. So let’s back up a bit.
About this time a year ago, I was a fresh university graduate and I wanted an adventure. More than an adventure, really, I wanted a season of growth and personal development. At just 21—newly minted, as it were—I recognized that in so many ways I was a child. I needed more time and more experience to cultivate myself and lay that cultivation as the foundation for my entry into adulthood. Having spent a large portion of my formative childhood years outside of the U.S., I also specifically wanted to go abroad to once again see the world beyond my birth country. And so when I was offered the job to come and work at El Ayudante for a year, I am sure you can imagine my excitement. Within a couple of months, my bags had been packed, my goodbyes had been said, and I had arrived in Nicaragua.
I’ll never forget my first day. Undeterred from my late night arrival, I was up bright and early in a desperate pursuit of coffee, a self-guided tour, and a brief exploration of the trees (Quick sidenote: I rather like trees, another point of comedy no doubt for the gardening staff when they noticed this gringo stranger walking around staring at their trees. But I digress.). I was ready to get started on work. You see, I’m what you might call driven…and what many others might call “obnoxiously Type A and anal retentive.” But let’s not split hairs.
In classic gung-ho American style, I asked what I should work on as soon as introductions were made and small talk was done with. “Okay, I am here to help.” I said, “What can I get started on?” But instead of a work assignment, I was met with, “Go rest. There is time for work later.” And sure enough, time and work abounded both.
In the days that followed, I slowly began to immerse myself into the work and flow of life in León. Along with work came, for me, Spanish classes at one of the language institutes in the city. I take very seriously Paul as our example of a missionary. If indeed he became all things for all people, then I felt it my responsibility and honor to learn Spanish more fluently so that I could meet my new Nicaraguan neighbors where they were. I really should also mention that along with the particulars of my missiology there was another motivating factor in improving my Spanish skills. One of my first experiences going out with a team, I was helping provide fluoride treatments at a small schoolhouse. Never one to enjoy seeing children in fear or pain, I sought to gently reassure them by explaining the little procedure ahead. “First, I just need to dry off your teeth with this gauze,” I’d say in Spanish, “I promise it isn’t going to hurt.” Here’s the tricky part. The Spanish verb meaning “to dry” is “secar.” Simple enough, but that is dangerously close to another verb “sacar.” Bonus points if you can reach back to your high school Spanish days and parse that one out. That’s right. I was, in effect, saying, “Don’t worry, I just need to take your teeth out. I promise it isn’t going to hurt.” And all with what I am sure was a terribly creepy smile. The lesson here of course being: If you are going to do extended mission work, learn the language of the people. It is respectful and traumatizes fewer children.
As I gained greater skill not only with Spanish but also with the particulars of my work, I progressed through the year and grew closer to the EA staff. With them I worked, shared the gospel, played Uno, laughed, and yes, even ate an iguana. And so it was that I came to feel at home with my Nicaraguan family. I also had the privilege of seeing growth in the communities in which we were working. A testament not only to the importance of EA’s efforts but also of the strengths and potential the Lord has imbued in each individual with whom we worked. So many of them are claiming victory over their broken past and imperfect present and are walking boldly on toward a brighter future. That is such a beautiful and joyful thing to have been a part of.
It was not all fun and games of course, and not everything felt like victory. There was pain and brokenness. There was pain when I sat with community members telling me of their struggles to provide for their children. There was pain when, very recently, one of our own lost her young son to an unexpected heart attack. You know, I always told teams that they must allow themselves to feel the reality of the circumstances they see, and to share in the experience of them. If that means tears are called for, then by all means weep. And so I too wept from time to time. But where there is pain and brokenness there is also, thanks be to God, a space for the Father’s love to comfort and heal.
Before I knew it, these experiences both painful and joyful—and all necessary—led me to the end of my mission. Now that it is all said and done, I am called on to reflect. It has been over two weeks since I returned to the states, and here I am still struggling to write a worthy reflection of my year in Nicaragua. Just the other day, I sat chuckling as Jonathan Larson’s Season of Love came to mind. “How do you measure, measure a year?” How indeed?
I suppose you measure it by how much you change. Not just how much you change, though, but also why. Why did I change? I changed because of El Ayudante. Because of my Nicaraguan family composed of friends, coworkers, and the beautiful kids at the HCN. I changed because of Nicaraguan community members. Because of one short-lived but long enjoyed iguana. Because of encouragement from my family and church. Because of a saint of a patient girlfriend. Because of opportunities to share the gospel in another tongue. Because of teams both good and…uh, challenging. And because of the ongoing grace of a Savior. By all of these, I am changed forever.
So, to all that helped, encouraged, and challenged me over this past year: I heartily thank you. To all whom I wronged, misjudged, or did not help sufficiently: I humbly apologize to you. To all still working at El Ayudante: I lift you up in prayer, I miss you, and I love you. And to all reading this: I give to you the same challenge I gave every team that came to EA—Never do for what you could instead do with. Partner. Participate. Serve. And above all, love.
Be well and do good,
Nicholas H. Dean
Mission Team Liaison ’14-‘15