Orthodox Mindfulness

In a culture that seems so set on searching alternative spiritual traditions for meaning and insight, I think we have largely forgotten the richness of orthodox Christianity. Perhaps this is due to over-familiarity with Christian practices: they have committed the sin of losing their zest and novelty in a culture that praises innovation and the latest craze. Or perhaps we as western civilization have allowed Christianity to lose touch with its multicultural roots, hemming it into big box church buildings and materialism. But Christianity is so much deeper than this, and perhaps even loyal believers are longing for a change.

I recently had the opportunity to take part in a four day workshop on nature-based trauma therapy, in which we focused on ways that the natural environment can provide tools for achieving emotional and mental wellness. Three of those tools are mindfulness (being fully present and aware of one’s internal state and surroundings), grounding (reconnecting with the present through the five senses), and resourcing (focusing our thoughts on the people, places, and things that we find supportive in times of need). These are tools we can use when overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, depression, and anger, and are particularly useful in calming a person who is wrestling with trauma symptoms.

Although nature-based workshops are typically presented in conjunction with Far Eastern meditative practices or shamanism, I noticed multiple parallels with Christian tradition. Given the scientifically proven effectiveness of mindfulness and resourcing on mental and physical health, perhaps it is time to dust off Christian traditions and represent them in terms understood by those searching for wellness elsewhere. Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening both internally and in one’s surroundings. It is more than self-awareness; there is an intentionality and purposefulness in pulling out of the sleepwalk or autopilot of daily life to focus on the here and now. Jesus said specifically that he came to enable us to live life fully (John 10:10). Countless other verses plead with us to awake from our slumber, to see with our eyes and to hear with our ears. God wants us to be mindful and present.

There are many ways to achieve this. Meditation is setting aside time for contemplation and reflection, and Christians are encouraged to meditate continually (not just once a day) on the word and character of God (1 Thess 5:17). Muslims do this with a specific call to prayer five times a day, and traditional churches observe official prayer times 5-7 times a day, known as Liturgy of the Hours. And while stretching (think yoga) is not typically incorporated, many pastors are now preaching that bodily position has some effect on the spiritual attitudes of the person, and that humility-inducing postures such as kneeling, bowing, raising hands, or prostration help us to acknowledge our position before God, and to connect more authentically.

Christian tradition has developed different techniques to help us achieve a more mindful meditation. Prayer beads, prayer cards, devotionals, maps, lists, rooms, gardens, candles, fountains, music, and journals are all utilized to focus thoughts on the spiritual. Gregorian chant and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Psalms, or Creeds are examples of intonation and repetition utilized to soothe anxiety, focus thoughts, and strengthen resolve and intention. If we have been utilizing one of these tools to enhance our times of meditation on God and it has lost its effect, we should change it up! Again, these are tools for mindful meditation, and once they become second nature, they become a hindrance rather than support. We should not be afraid to experiment and use a tool associated with Christian traditions different from our own. The body of Christ is extremely varied, and Christ gave us freedom to worship in whatever way we choose.

Another tool used throughout the world to achieve mindfulness is fasting. Fasting is a practice that is intended to draw attention to the spiritual and the present through natural impulses and needs (hunger). The deliberate act of weakening the self is meant to humble the self and realign it with the will and power of God. Fasting brings awareness to our actions, both past and present, good and bad, and increases our spiritual sensitivity so that we can be led by the Spirit throughout the day. The act of fasting seeks deliberately to subject the physical world to the spiritual. Jesus makes it clear that we are expected to fast (Matt 6:16).

Resourcing is a fancy word that refers to thinking intentionally about something that makes us feel secure and supported. When we choose to do this in the midst of a difficult or stressful situation, we can achieve greater control over how we act and feel. We have a choice to act based on our emotions or to act with intentionality and self control. God gives us this control, if we are present enough to ask for it. As Christians, we have multiple spiritual resources to call to our aid, no matter the circumstances. The Holy Spirit provides guidance, encouragement, counsel and power in times of need or distress. Jesus is our advocate, mediator, savior, and healer in times when we need rescuing, defending, or healing. God the Father is our attachment figure, creator, disciplinarian, provider, protector, and caretaker. We can even request angels to be sent to our aid (Ps. 91:11). All of these are real supports that we can call upon and rely upon, not just mind games to help us calm down. They are present for us internally in the mind, heart and soul, and externally in the spiritual realm and in physical sensations.

External resources are people, places, or things outside of us that we can call on or think about in times of need. Christians historically have built built monuments, altars, and artifacts as external resources that help to increase our faith and reduce anxiety and stress by redirecting our thoughts to moments of faithfulness (1 Sam 7:12). The cross is an enduring symbol that appears everywhere. In my teenage years WWJD bracelets made their debut. Prayer journals can be used in this way if answers to prayer are recorded and easy to reference. Many of us have someone we consider a prayer warrior or spiritual mentor; just thinking about these bastions of strength in the midst of turmoil can be enough. Tatoos can be useful reminders of spiritual truths, battles we have won, or our identity. Christianity also boasts several ceremonies or rituals that we should utilize to anchor our minds and emotions. Communion and baptism are sacred rites that help us to self-identify with our convictions, with our identity in Christ, and with the body of Christ throughout the world. Baptism can be seen as a rite of passage and a declaration of identity and purpose. Communion (also known as the Lord’s Supper) is a ritual of rededication to beliefs, a reminder of identity, and an infusion of power. Both of these are sacred elements of the faith that are also resources that can be used when we experience confusion, anger, anxiety, or fear.

Nature-based mindfulness stresses the importance of things in nature that summon up certain emotions and sensations. David’s psalms refer frequently to elements of the natural world that communicate peace (quiet waters), plenty (pastures), strength (mountains, trees), power (storms), mirth, wisdom, trust, capability (animals), joy and warmth (sun), anger (smoke), mourning (ashes), life and power (fire), mercy and faithfulness (morning), permanence and reliability (rock), purity (gold), sweetness (honey), bitterness (vinegar), height and depth (sky and sea), confusion (darkness), and wholeness, vision, goodness, hope, and glory (light), among many others. It is absolutely permissible to use these elements of nature to reflect on God, our lives, our predicaments, and possible solutions. Indeed, most people receive a lot more from God on a mountaintop than in a Wal-mart aisle. The key in this practice is not to look to nature for the answers, but to the creator of nature (Rom 1:20-21).

One thing that has always captivated me and turned my thoughts to God is water moving among rocks. I love the interplay of three elements in the same place: liquid, solid, and gas. Without rocks to tumble over and swish around, water is pretty boring. Without water to rush around them, rocks can be pretty uneventful. Without air to pass through, there could be no waterfalls, or space for us to stand there and contemplate it all. Without gravity, there would be nothing to hold water in its course or pull it off a cliff. Light usually jumps in and makes a rainbow in the spray, adding color to the mix. The gush and roar of a river, a waterfall, or a wave on a beach is both invigorating and soothing. There is no other place in the world where my mind goes more readily to a state of contemplation. Nature-based mindfulness encourages us to find such a place, and to ask it what lessons we should learn. Orthodox mindfulness exhorts us to find such a place, and to worship God in the midst of it. We must not let the rocks do it for us (Luke 19:40). We can be sure that the lessons will come from the Teacher when we are fully present, and focused on him. And we will be sure to recognize and appreciate the subtle gifts he has for us daily when we choose to fully engage our senses in being present and mindful.

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Rivers of Mud

Brian and Santiago helped move kids across the river (before flood stage)

The rain continued to pound the tent and the roaring of the river grew louder. Turning onto my side, my arm met with cool buoyancy as it rested on the floor of the tent. I felt my legs lift and my inflatable mattress begin to float at the ends. This was not a good sign. Fumbling for my headlamp, I leaned over to peer out the door and discovered my boots floating near the edge of the tent, attempting to escape on a river of mud that flowed directly into the tent. My pack lay mired in chocolate water to one side. Through the middle, the stream coursed directly under the tent and over the plastic ground cover, slowly eroding the rocky ground and carving out a channel under my sleeping bag. To my surprise, the water was not passing through the floor of the tent, and I gazed up at the roof, amazed that not a single drop was getting through.

I fished out my waterproof pants from the sodden pack and rescued my boots, then sat waiting for a lull in the torrential downpour to open the door and investigate. I half expected my tent to be the last one standing, alone on a quickly eroding island in a wide, muddy stream. Once outside, the picture looked much less grim. All tents were standing and none the worse for the wear. Three streams snaked through our camp, and only one had found its way directly into a tent. Hiking up the gentle slope to the irrigation channel, I half expected it to be overflowing, but the true source of the flood was a primitive road that a tractor had carved into the hillside, scraping away the vegetation and now serving as a riverbed that emptied into our camp. After several minutes of futile attempts to divert the course of the water away from the tents, I gave up and trudged through the mud to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the river valley. Ambient light from the nearby city was sufficient to illuminate the thundering river, now ten times larger and filling the valley floor from edge to edge. It would be impassible for the next 24 hours.

Jhoel spots for Cristian as he links up with Miguel and Gabriel

I sighed. At least the rain had held off long enough for a solid campfire for chorizos and marshmallows! Even I knew that this was the most important part of camp for the kids. Never mind the team challenge to cross the slackline “bridge” that met with success after a full 90 minutes. Never mind the partner trust exercises that led to fierce competition among teams (and maybe some trust and coordination). Getting through the “spider web” as a team in the pouring rain without letting the rain ponchos touch the web was interesting. But ball games and hikes and river exploration all faded in comparison with chorizos and marshmallows.

The next morning we called a strategic retreat to the BLC and spent the next 6 hours washing tents, packs, and sleeping bags, hanging them up to dry and repacking them. Everyone pitched in and made the task less daunting, and I am so thankful for the BLC’s extensive roofed drying lines. I was even able to harness the pequenos’ overwhelming need to touch (move, disorder, carry off) all of the dry gear and employ them in restuffing the pack covers into their pouches, which immediately turned into cushioned ball-and-chains for gladiatorial matches. We concluded the camp with a round of ball-tossing to take turns sharing the best part of camp for each kid, and a review of their goals. While retention was difficult, most remembered their goals: obey the leaders and don’t get on their nerves, play with everyone, and help everyone. Happy to report that most of these goals were met. One of my favorite moments was when Francisco wrapped a rope around a branch and then hung from it with his legs wrapped around the tree in order to hold it tight for the rest of the boys. His goal was to help everyone.

Sebastian and Alejandro navigate a crystal clear stream high above the city

Earlier this week we held a 3-day camp for the plomos dorm in the same spot, and I was blown away by their focus and determination in achieving their goals to never give up, to endure more while hiking, and to reach the alpine lake. It was a full 9-hour hike up and down from the lake, with about 4,000ft in elevation gain. Sebastian, David and Freddy were first time campers, and I am so impressed by their sheer willpower to get up the mountain. Sebastian and Freddy even chose to carry a partially-loaded pack to do some strength training for future camps! Edwin, Alejandro and Jhilmar started the fire the second night, and Alejandro carried branches several kilometers and across a river to make sure there was firewood. Grover and Brian taught them how to start a fire the first night, and did an excellent job leading the hike and games.

Alejandro didn’t quite make it up the mountain…

Josue was a little aloof during the games, and he explained himself later using the new Ulead image cards by holding up a picture of a tent: “I wanted to be in the tent.” We also had Santiago shadow the group as a first-time helper, and he definitely has some great leadership potential, showing care for the campers and good decision-making skills. One of my favorite moments came when Alejandro fashioned a fishing pole from a stick, a discarded tin can, and the string from the sausage links and spent the entire hour at the lake coaxing a tadpole into the can.

This weekend we will head to La Paz with some of the young men from the city to mountain bike down the famous Death Road and try out the biggest zipline system in Bolivia. The following weekend will feature our last camp of the season with the BLC pequenos. Stay tuned for pictures and stories!

 

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Unstoppable

Zac killed this mountain

The stone beneath me wobbled and I lurched to grab a neighboring boulder. I looked back to where Zacarias and Julie picked their way through the boulder field, faithfully and foolishly following my lead. I had been sure that the easiest route for us would be straight up the ridgeline, connecting to a llama trail that lay faintly across a scree slope. Once we reached that trail we could follow it horizontally across the slope of the mountain, inching our way upward toward the pass instead of advancing straight up the grassy ridge. Now, mired in a pile of jagged rocks that had been hidden from view moments before, I realized our path was in fact the most difficult one. Not only were we fighting with every step to gain elevation with full packs strapped to our backs, we were also risking injury. I dropped my pack in frustration and scrambled upward to see where the llama trail intersected our floundering. To my dismay, the trail had vaporized.

I looked down the ridge to where the rest of our group edged through the much smaller lower section of the boulder field, quickly gaining the firm ground on the opposite side. From there they would climb a gently sloping ridge to connect with a much more clearly delineated llama trail than our own. I knew I had failed and clenched my teeth in frustration. Of the entire group, we three were the slowest, and could not afford to waste energy. I called back to my followers to abandon the climb and head left. Minutes later we struggled to cross the scree slope that the first group had avoided altogether. We slid down the hill with each step, risking sprains and exhausting our energy in the loose gravel. Somehow we reached the opposite side without injury and pounded across the firm ground in an effort to catch up to the group. I glanced at my phone; we had wasted an hour.

In these mountains weather changes by the minute, but afternoon storms are pretty reliable.

The sky darkened and I looked up at the mountain peaks looming above us. Mist swirled around them, gathering into clouds and darkening with the threat of hail. Could we make it through the pass before a storm broke? At this elevation, rain was likely to be accompanied by lightning, and the ridge provided no shelter from it. I looked down into the valley where we had hiked hard for three hours. Lush green pastures lay deceptively peaceful in the sun. Awaking on day three to clear skies, I knew God had favored our moment to get through the pass, but I also knew we had until noon before the sun disappeared. The boys had broken camp with admirable speed to take advantage of the weather, but if we failed to cross through the peaks before then, we would lose another day and be forced to camp in harsh conditions on this side of the ridge.

The boys shouldered their packs and trudged upward, picking their way up to 15,000 ft and stopping occasionally to regroup. Carlos and Wilder accompanied us as we forced our legs to take each step, trying not to fall too far behind. Multiple llama trails snaked up through the pass, evidence that this was the easiest route to the eastern slopes. One by one the boys disappeared over the crest of the hill, and I prayed that was the highest we would climb. A minute later and we stood on level ground, gazing across a barren and rocky landscape with a single boulder perched in the middle, and a group of boys gathered around it laughing and passing around a lizard they had caught. I smiled. We made it.

Heading downhill from the pass.

It is difficult to describe the sense of accomplishment that comes with tackling a new route through the mountains, using every ounce of your strength to haul yourself over them with all of the necessary implements for survival strapped to your back. But the reward of looking out over a green valley ringed by misty mountains as your tired legs welcome the effortless descent is well worth the effort it takes to get there. I glanced at my phone: 11:54. We had charted our own path through an unknown wilderness, and despite several setbacks had reached our goal. The going would be easy from here. Nothing but downhill and hot springs lay in our future.

The view is always worth the effort!

One of the things we work on most consistently with the youth is resiliency. The ability to get back up and keep trying in the face of setbacks and barriers to success is imperative for kids who are used to losing. Losing families, security, trustworthy relationships and their place in the world is all too common for them. With every mountain or river crossed, they learn to take charge of their circumstances and fight for the outcomes they desire. With every success, they grow in determination and tenacity. As we work on communication strategies, they learn to advocate for themselves and refuse to take what life hands them sitting down. With each camp, they also learn to work together, to depend on each other not just to build a bridge across a river, but for the harder tasks in life like getting good grades, avoiding the pull of alcohol and drugs, and holding down a job.

This trip met its fair share of obstacles. Brian got a parasite and had to head to a clinic on day three. On day one our transportation fell through, and plan C resulted in a 5pm departure from the BLC. Once we reached the mountain valley where we would start our trek, we hoofed it uphill for two hours into the darkness only to find we had chosen the wrong road and ended up on the wrong side of the river. We regretted that decision on day two when we found ourselves at a creek swollen with rainfall, and our path up a sharp hill on the far bank. For two hundred yards up and downriver, boulders lay just out of reach for a jumping teen, and the milky water rushed with just enough force to make falling in dangerous for inexperienced swimmers. Brian waded into a calmer section and found a way to ford the freezing water, but the creek reached his torso and would sweep away more slender campers. A human chain is the go-to method for crossing this kind of water, but nobody seemed eager to start day two of a five-day camp soaked to the bone. Bushwhacking to find an alternative route up the valley was even less appealing. Several boys sat dejectedly on rocks lining the river. Already we had missed our goal for where to make camp, and this new obstacle slammed the brakes on our eager efforts to recover time lost on day one.

It was a moment when one chooses to either give up and take it easy, or to forge a way forward. An hour later, we had built a bridge out of rock piles and a tree trunk hauled into place by Alex, Carlos, Ervin and Wilder. Harold passed packs to Brian, who threw them across the water while perched on precarious islands of stone. With our second obstacle overcome, we raced to make up the time we had lost on day one. With each day, the boys’ determination to reach their group goal on the far side of the mountains grew, and their enthusiasm grew with it. By the time we had crossed the mountains it was all I could do to hold them back and make them eat lunch before continuing.

Personal goals were a big part of this trip. At the start of camp, the boys wrote their goals down on a piece of paper, and after a paper snowball fight, we read them aloud. Some boys committed to being completely honest for the entirety of the camp. Others vowed to pack out their trash, some to refrain from insults, and two of them made the significant commitment to work as a team with people they do not care for. Throughout the trip we checked in on those goals, and by the end the boys could claim success both as individuals and as a group. To close the camp I asked them to summarize their experience in one word or phrase: Success. Achievement. Happy. Desire. Experience. Difficult. Really Tough (x3). Something New. Kindness. Challenge. Exhausting. Teamwork. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

This is the last time I want to hear “oh, poor things!” They are tougher than any of us. We help them discover that.

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Overcoming the Blockades

panorama

Day two: heading to Toro Toro Canyon

Tuesday morning we awoke to news of blockades all over the city, and my heart sank. Was our first camp going to be postponed indefinitely? All the gear lay in the back of the truck, ready to transport to Fundacion Emanuel in the red light district, and our volunteers arrived at the apartment one by one, ready to start the camp season with a four day camp in Toro Toro National Park. I sat at my computer, refreshing the browser on the newspaper website, while the latest reports from the TV rumored that police were forcibly lifting the blockades. Could we get through? We decided to at least make an attempt.

*Note: attempting to get through blockades can result in broken windows and slashed tires, and beating the driver.

We piled into the truck and made our way along back roads toward the Foundation, only to find that the way in was thoroughly blocked. I got out and tried to convince the protesters to let us through. Sometimes this works, especially if you have the logo of a foundation emblazoned on the vehicle. But there was no success today. Tracing more back roads we got within a block of the Foundation and carried in the gear piece by piece. All of our campers were ready to go, and after distributing the gear and setting goals, we were ready for departure! We hoisted packs and trekked a mile through the city to where our trufi sat waiting, only to hear that the route out of town had been freshly blockaded as well. With some encouragement, our driver agreed to seek out an escape from the city crawling up precariously steep roads, with most of the passengers running ahead to lighten the load. An hour later we found ourselves on the open road, bound for Toro Toro.

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Campers from Fundacion Emanuel pose at the end of day 3’s trek from the caverns

From this point on, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the camp season. The weather was absolutely perfect: hot when we wanted to go swimming, sunny when we needed to pack up or set up camp, dry enough (despite rainy season) to explore caves and cross rivers that tend to become impassable in the rain, and rainy when we needed to hike long distances across the desert, making it cooler and less tiresome. Rarely is this the case, and I simply cannot overlook this blessing, especially when my primary goal was to stretch the endurance of this group while backpacking. Cooperative weather reduced the latent difficulty of the camp and kept spirits high, allowing us to focus on individual challenges, group activities, appropriate handling of gear, and times for reflection and processing.

I am proud of the progress these kids have made. This is just their third camp, and already they have developed a reliable independence in handling the tents, packs, and cooking equipment. Many of the girls from Fundacion Emanuel are in charge of cooking for their families at home, and so the new challenge of miniaturizing the experience is a fun one for them. The boys have also learned how to prepare an edible meal, to the degree that the low point for almost every camper was the lack of salt for cooking!

Alejandra waterfall rappel

Alejandra braces against the cold water of El Chiflon waterfall

The high point varied among our campers, ranging from exploring the caves to swimming in the canyon, but the dominant response was rappelling at the waterfall. This is a huge leap in overcoming fears for this group, as most of them were absolutely terrified the first time we did it a year ago. With some experience under their belts, Alejandra was the first one down the rope getting soaked by the cascade of cold water, while Jhair intentionally subjected himself to the dread of descending the dry route. As I received each one at the bottom of the rope and helped them unclip, they all said they loved it!

I have noted a big increase in their overall maturity this year, both in the way they all handle challenges, and in their ability to voice their thoughts during debriefs. I have been anxious to apply the new strategies I learned for facilitating more active times of processing and reflection during the past few months, and we put them to the test in this camp. I am happy to report that adding an element of play certainly helped our campers to open up and relax, and the groans and evasion that oftentimes accompanied the call to gather for a chat have vanished. On day one everyone answered their questions with hesitant and shy responses, but by day three kids were volunteering thoughts even without the aid of a game or prompting.

My favorite moment during this camp came on the last night as we gathered to reflect on the day under a dark sky bursting with stars. The boys threw themselves on the damp grass (and sheep droppings) and gazed up at the night sky, amazed by the display they cannot see living so close to the center of Cochabamba. Mauricio asked to play with the debriefing ball, leading to an impromptu game of soccer on the pasture where we were camped. Laughs and shouts filled the night as headlamps bobbed in the darkness, swarming around the tiny ball and dropping to the ground as players tackled and tripped each other in the frenzy. It was a spectacular time of bonding among the older and younger campers, and our volunteer leaders as well.

canyon crossing

Campers help one another cross the river at the bottom of Toro Toro Canyon before the climb up the goat trail

Headlamp soccer was also great evidence that the long hikes we undertook during this camp were not too much for their ability, despite the whining and foot dragging that took place at the end of day two. To be fair, covering ten kilometers with a full pack, descending into a canyon and crawling back out of it by a goat trail is tough and tiresome for most people, especially when the pack weighs as much as you do. But on day three the kids adjusted to the challenge and were impressed with their own improvement, marveling at how fast they covered the distance between the caverns and the town. They know that their hard work and determination in this camp opens doors to more adventures in and around Cochabamba, and as we parted ways Friday evening they pestered me for the dates of their next outing.

The success of this camp came thanks in large degree to our volunteer leaders. Without them the task of caring for, encouraging and setting the kids up for success is much more difficult, not to mention the logistical preparation that goes into each camp. As a foundation we have been blessed by a growing number of young people who are anxious to serve as leaders in our camps, and we organized a workshop last weekend to train them in everything from wilderness first aid to group management and decision-making. Ten young men and women gathered at our apartment, representing different organizations that we have worked with over the years, and bringing different perspectives on camps, leadership, and life. We formed strategies for how to react in a variety of dilemmas that have surfaced in camps, competed to pitch and pack the tents properly, and explored new ways of guiding group discussions using games. I am excited to see our group of volunteers grow and mature, and continue to pray for local leaders who can take the reins of our mission and make it thrive in Bolivia for years to come.

tent competition

Volunteer leaders race to pitch tents for speed and precision during a pounding rainstorm

 

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Here Come the Ladies

I literally had to fight off the moms to keep their younger daughters from coming on the first real backpacking trip exclusively for young women, it was so popular. “The vans can’t hold any more!” I protested. “But there is an extra pack! My daughter can share with these other girls,” a mom countered. “But there is nothing to put IN it,” I had to explain. “No food, no tent, no sleeping bag, no headlamp…but the main reason is she is too young. Please sign up next year! We don’t want her to have a miserable first experience.” The moms were not satisfied; we were forced to flee.

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4km in. Still smiling!

In the end, 22 ladies between the ages of 12 and 19 spent three days in the wilderness of Toro Toro National Park, and after the first 100 meters of backpacking, the girls began to ask what sort of military punishment camp this was. Several encouraged me to raise the minimum age to 14. But as the whining subsided, they settled in to the trek, and 8 kilometers later, they rolled into camp, none the worse for the wear. Most were amazed they got this far, and wondered how it happened. Day two was similar. We even had one girl crying as she reached the edge of the canyons under the burning midday sun. But she made it.

We slowly upped the ante as the girls became aware of their own capacity and relied on God and each other to go farther and complete ever more difficult tasks. The descent down the canyon wall placed many of them face to face with genuine fear, and at the bottom we discussed the different ways to express it and control it. Some had nightmares after crawling through caverns and shrieked at the idea of being left alone in the dark. But after some recommendations on how to carry the packs and a challenge to stay ahead, most girls became accustomed to the weight and fell into a good pace. I overheard one of them say with a laugh on the ride home that she used to complain about carrying her books to school.

1Day three saw 20 young ladies rappelling down a waterfall. I was duly impressed by their willingness to trust the guides and the gear and to walk off the ledge backwards. We discussed who and when to trust others during the camp closing, and then had each girl explain her camp experience in one word. “Spectacular. Tiring. Amazing,” came the responses.

At each stage of the camp, the girls were anxious to know how they were measuring up with the boys, who did the same route a few days prior. In all honesty, they hiked every bit as strong, were better at keeping to the schedule, accepted every challenge given them, and got more out of the debriefs and devotionals than their brothers and friends. Not to say that the boys didn’t have a great experience! One guy, physically disadvantaged, showed up the rest by hiking as fast as his legs would go, and consistently made it to camp before others who were in better shape and taller than he. Another, nearly paralyzed by caution as he descended the canyon wall on day two, appeared in the line to rappel down the waterfall. “I want to face my fear,” he explained.

One woman stood out during the first of our three camps. Accepting the challenge to mount a bike almost for the first time, she showed the boys what courage looked like. After falling several times, she kept getting back on the bike, refusing to give up, and showing us all what determination looks like. After a nasty spill that cut her face, she continued to exhibit a joyful attitude that amazed and shamed me. She was clearly infused with the Holy Spirit in a way that demonstrated she has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” (Philippians 4:12-13).

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Melissa and Katie share thoughts on empathy at the second camp

This season’s camps were a major challenge in terms of logistics. Managing three camps of 30, 20, and 27 people stretched our ability to facilitate meaningful learning experiences and individualized attention for all. But thanks to our numerous and talented volunteers, we pulled it off! They carried extra weight, shared in the suffering of the campers, led devotionals and contributed their observations to the chats, and spoke words of life and encouragement along the way.

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Encouragement. Gatorade helps too.

There is an interesting association of terms in English and Spanish that reveal the meaning behind the practice of encouraging another person. In English we say “encourage”: literally, to give courage to another. In Spanish, we can say “animar”: to animate or give life to something stopped or dead, or “alentar”: literally to give breath or vigor to another. All three terms capture perfectly what we do when we come beside someone who is struggling, offer to help them with their burden, and speak words that will infuse the other person with the determination to finish the task.

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2). I got to see a lot of that happening over the past two weeks. Both as younger, stronger boys came back for struggling hikers and carried their loads to camp, and when our women leaders shouldered their burdens alongside the girls, and hauled themselves on all fours up the steps, forcing themselves to take that next step in order to be an encouragement and an example for the girls. It has been a joy for me to witness and experience this ministry expanding to include new groups and new volunteers. I have been able to take a step back and watch the Lord at work through others, strengthening and healing people through adventure.

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This is why we do what we do: helping at-risk youth dream and achieve everything they are capable of.

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His Arm Doesn’t Matter

There are times in leading adventure education activities when you are suddenly hit with the weightiness of what was just accomplished. Yesterday was one of those days. Interestingly, it did not occur during the two hours that the high schoolers scrambled up the newly constructed third side of the climbing tower, but an hour later.

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Simon leaps to reach a hold above the gap

With the intense afternoon sun at 8,500 feet beating down on belayer and climber alike, all faces turned skyward to witness a feat not at all normal for our facility. A new resident at the boys’ home, Samuel, was nearing the top of the tower. It was his first time climbing, and he was overwhelmed by the ropes, harness, and all the people shouting instructions and encouragement at him. It was a routine event for Fundacion Aventura, one in which it is even possible to become bored if you focus on the activity, repeated hundreds of times, rather than the individual.

But Samuel is different. Just minutes before, the other boys in his dorm had shouted “he can’t do it,” partly out of strategic positioning to get the next available harness, and partly in a genuine belief that Samuel for some reason would not be able to complete this task. His barrier was insurmountable. His was not only psychological, it was physical. Samuel is missing one hand below the elbow.

In a culture where people with disabilities are frequently hidden from the public, live off a measly government pension, or are relegated to begging on the street, most people are not used to thinking that a person with any kind of disability is able to accomplish almost anything. Julio has proved them wrong time and time again by traversing exposed rock-faces, jumping across creeks, and carrying a full pack for miles, despite his autism. Now it was Samuel’s turn to show the rest what he is capable of.

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Rodrigo pulls against the vertical crevice to counter his foot pushing against the hold

Naturally, rock climbing is a lot easier with both hands, both feet, nimbleness and a lot of upper body strength. Even the name of the “holds” on the tower implies that you should have hands to grip them. But that didn’t stop Samuel from putting on a harness, clipping into the rope, and picking his way up the wall. He faced the normal, genuine fear that he would fall at more than one point, but he overcame this one step at a time, hooking his elbow around the silicon rocks and hauling himself up the tower. If this were a Disney movie, his reaching the top would have been met by an astonished hush or a cheesy chorus of emotional cheers. Thankfully, the real-life reaction was much more practical and realistic.

“Great job, Samuel! Now hurry back down, it’s my turn.”

Most people in life are not waiting to cheer our every move, and celebrate our every victory. And honestly, it is more productive and healthier for the boys to skip over the momentous way that Samuel rejected letting others define his abilities for him. They took it in stride, incorporating this new evidence-based truth into their little paradigms. Samuel can do what he sets his mind to. His arm doesn’t matter.

And that’s the point. Just like that, Samuel became “one of the guys”, no longer marked by the fact that he has only one full arm. No longer separated from the group by a physical characteristic he has no control over. “All” that Samuel did was climb a tower. But what he accomplished was to establish a foothold in the dorm, gain belonging, and teach an important lesson to the group. All because he accepted the challenge.

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Jhasmani stretches to reach a hold

We had a slew of other winners yesterday. Andres is pretty overweight, and that fact definitely hampered his ability to get up the wall, but he did it too, trusting the ropes, carabiners and Wilfredo to not let him fall. Sebastian conquered the harder side of the tower after a series of five attempts, refusing to give up. Jilmar made it halfway up the same side, frustrated that Sebastian could beat him, but achieving much more than he really thought possible. Just months ago, his fear of heights overpowered him, freezing him near the top on the easy side.

The high schoolers embraced the challenge of the third wall with abandon, which we built to incorporate a gap of more than a yard, with a slight overhang. Reaching the gap, they stretched to reach the holds on the overhang, leaping to gain purchase, and twisting their bodies like contortionists to scramble past the section with no holds or even surface area to brace against. Each one arrived at the top, exhausted, sweating profusely, and exhibiting a huge smile. After two weeks of maintenance, it was a blessing to see the tower built five years ago continuing to challenge, stretch and grow the boys at the BLC.

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When you’re as buff as Fabricio, you can simply pull yourself up, no legs necessary.

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The Camp Season in Quotes

Jesus hauls himself up the rockface, surprising himself and everyone else when he achieved it

Jesus hauls himself up the rockface, surprising himself and everyone else when he achieved it.

The attitudes and reactions of our campers in the face of planned adversity and intentional suffering are perhaps best captured by Jesus, who upon hiking up the hundreds of stairs to the top of the canyon with a full pack in the sun, exclaimed, “I want to die.” One day later, Jesus accepted the challenge to try some rock climbing on an overhang, and he did it! Upon reaching the top, his euphoria was succinct: “That was super!”  Another of my favorite quotes from the season came from Fidel, who confessed that he rappelled down the waterfall “Because it scared me, so I knew I needed to do it.”  Two other boys from this group went back for a second descent down the rope because “It was so much fun!”  The adrenaline they got while going off the edge was well worth overcoming the fear.

Just like in real life. When we accept the challenges and face our fears, the rewards are often a rush of adrenaline, a spurt of personal growth, and a realization of our potential.  We overcome the risk of failure with determination and will, and accept the consequences.

Mickey celebrating his baptism with a descent down the waterfall.

Mickey celebrating his baptism with a descent down the waterfall.

Mickey (Miguel) accepted the risk of a life of constant surrender to Jesus and the fear of public humiliation when he decided to be baptized in the canyon in front of the group. His public testimony spurred discussions with the other boys, and it was the crowning moment of his camp. At some point he will fail; at some point he will succumb to the temptations of the world and have to swallow his pride in confession and repentance. At some point God will ask him to give up something he really, really wanted.  But the life of peace, purpose and joy he gains in Jesus outweighs all of the risks.

Cristian shared the reason behind his sudden string of accidents on the mountain bike during the final stretch of four hours of madness down the muddy slopes of the mountains into the Amazon: “I had lots of fun during most of the ride, but I was holding back to stay safe.  Toward the end I went all out on the bike, pushing my limits even though it made me crash three times. It was so worth it.” How often are we holding back, playing it safe, instead of experiencing the fullness of life?

Experiencing the fullness of life sometimes mean getting muddy and rising hard in the freezing rain for five hours.

Experiencing the fullness of life sometimes means getting muddy and riding hard in the freezing rain for five hours.

Some of the young people to participate in the Tarija church camp came away with solid decisions and valuable personal insights. One girl confessed that “I wanted to give up something easy, but I gave up the hard thing to God.” One of the older boys shared that because of the personal devotion times anchored with deep-thinking questions to answer, “I feel empowered to fight my temptations. I understand them better and have a plan to avoid and overcome them.” These are just a handful of the victories achieved in the lives of our campers all season.

Teens devoting time each morning to prayer and reflection.

Teens devoting time each morning to prayer and reflection. When we are plugged into God, we have access to the Author of Life.

A different Cristian complained “I can’t do this” literally just steps away from camp heading uphill for a day hike. He repeated the conviction at least thirty times, without exaggerating. But three hours later he reached the high alpine lakes with the rest of the group, just putting one foot in front of the other, not focusing on how much it cost him, but focusing instead on the goal. I was so stinking proud of that whole group for making it so much farther than I ever thought they were capable of. How often do we restrict ourselves because of the effort involved, or accept other people’s inadequate estimation of our ability? Is there someone in your life that needs you to tell them thirty times, “Yes you can,” even when their defeatism becomes annoying?

What is your compass?

What and who is your compass?

Do we have the courage to force ourselves to do the hard thing, like Jhair and Josue on the rappel line? To take a long, hard look at the risks, to know the fear, experience the struggle firsthand and then decide to take a second stab at the problem? Victory is waiting on the other side. Sometimes victory is slogging through the jungle, getting bit by mosquitoes, getting rashes from plants, and after checking your compass heading time after time in doubt and lack of confidence, finally finding the treasure chest full of chocolate candies and rubber snakes. But usually it isn’t.

For us victory meant pushing teens to become more than they were the week prior. It meant accepting and utilizing the teachable moments that invariably appear during each camp at times when we have not planned for them to occur. Victory means our sponsors covering the entire cost of Josue’s broken arm. It means an entire group of kids trying the waterfall rappel when two years ago none were ready to make the attempt. Victory is not losing or damaging a single article of equipment thanks to the newly-implemented safety deposit strategy, resulting in greater personal responsibility in all of our participants. It means unforeseen business contacts and a small army of volunteers that helped with logistics, supervision and mentoring. It means impromptu fireside chats and unexpected mentoring opportunities. It means God glorified and God enjoyed.

We were blessed with fifteen volunteers this season!

We were blessed with fifteen volunteers this season!

Thank you for being a part of our cadre of supporters! Thanks to your prayers, donations, encouragement and even your likes on facebook, we enjoyed a phenomenal camp season this year. Be praying for the youth that made real commitments to be a better big brother, to resist temptation, to be a light in their neighborhood and home, to speak encouragingly, to act with confidence, to show determination in their studies, and to focus their thoughts on what is good and right. Check out facebook to see the albums of photos from (most of) our camps.

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