2011 PFIG Recipient Logan Gates
College of Arts & Sciences
Political and Social Thought and Religious Studies Major
2013 Graduation Year
Notes on the first week
5:33 AM. I wasn’t expecting any jetlag travelling to a country nearly due south from Virginia – but between exotic bird calls, no daylight savings (and a 5 AM sunrise), and the faint memory that I should write a journal entry, here I am, alert and awake, writing to you from Vera Cruz, Nicaragua.
I’m blessed to work this summer for ORPHANetwork, a non-profit that seeks to rescue, empower, and restore children in Nicaragua who have been abandoned, abused, or impoverished. My time this summer will be split between Virginia Beach, where ORPHANetwork is headquartered, and Nicaragua, where I just arrived yesterday – and where we are partnered with orphanages, feeding programs, churches, and schools, together seeking to reach and serve the neediest of Nicaragua: its children. ORPHANetwork has found that establishing long-term partnerships between American churches and Nicaraguan orphanages has built empowering relationships for many children whose lives have often been characterized by a dearth of love, affirmation, and self-confidence, coming out of extreme poverty, abuse, or even abandonment. For this reason, a major portion of ORPHANetwork’s work involves coordinating trips of American teams down into the country in order to build these relationships.
While in Virginia Beach last week, much of my work revolved around supporting the organization of these trips down to Nicaragua. Specifically this has looked like making phone calls down to our partners in Nicaragua to ask about their needs and to confirm trip details, as well as composing and distributing trip schedules so that both the American teams and our Nicaraguan partners will be on the same page logistically. Later this morning, the first American team – of 120 high school students (!) – will be arriving in Nicaragua, and the planning, we pray, will pay off and bear fruit. While I’m here living at Casa Bernabé orphanage in Nicaragua for the next 7 weeks, my work will entail coordinating the logistics of American teams, exposing them to the realities of poverty and injustice in Nicaragua, leading them to engage with the children and partners, helping them identify possible areas of impact where they could fill a need that our partners aren’t currently able to meet, and most importantly, stepping them through their understanding of these realities, especially with regard to their Christian faith.
ORPHANetwork believes it naïve to think that the Americans are the only ones who can serve and impact through these trips. We desire genuine relationships to be forged between our teams and our partners that build up the children we serve to their God-given potential. We also expect our teams to be directly impacted, by the sights, smells, and people of Nicaragua. Three years ago I wrestled with the realization that much more of the world looks like the extreme poverty I was witnessing than it looks like Northern Virginia. Even more difficult to fathom was how the vast majority of the Nicaraguans I was meeting possessed such a pure joy and hope – that far exceeded any I’d witnessed in the US. These people were genuinely happy; they realized what was deeply important in life – namely their families, and their faith. While I was busy wrestling with conceiving how a good God could allow such terrible suffering, these people – who unlike me actually knew real suffering – possessed a faith that served as an anchor of joy and peace in their lives, not immobilizing them, but rather sending them outward to love their neighbor, and fight injustice and poverty in their country. Every single team member will necessarily wrestle with these realities, and as an ORPHANetwork trip leader, I’ll be blessed to walk with them as they ask themselves these questions that will ultimately direct the course of the rest of their lives.
I’m also looking forward to seeing the children again and continuing to build relationships with them. Now on my sixth trip down to Nicaragua, I’m blessed to have a solid foundation of friendship with many of the orphans – especially the older guys. I hope to deepen and make more genuine these relationships as I live with these children and get tiny window into their world. I hope to understand more thoroughly the complicated idea of “development” and the non-profit world, and prayerfully ponder if this is the direction the Lord has for my life.
I’m writing to you under palm trees and star-splattered skies on a breezy Nicaraguan night, as the city of Managua sleeps. The past several weeks have been a whirlwind of experiences and emotions that send me into this journal entry like a waterfall into a pool; this is a welcome moment for me to pause and reflect.
My time working for ORPHANetwork in Nicaragua has been mostly split between two tasks: leading and coordinating service trips across the country, and gathering biographical information on the children at various orphanages. Each of these tasks has brought its challenges and radically impacted how I understand public service and my time working here in Nicaragua.
I’ve found leading service trips to be a precarious balance between rigorous coordination of logistics and broad-spectrum vision casting. In one moment, I’ll find myself scheduling, re-scheduling, and re-re-scheduling plans and reservations with orphanages, hotels, bus drivers, and caterers – and then pulling an “audible” on those plans when somehow they all fall through. Flat tires, broken down buses, unexpected region-wide power outages, and national holidays that shut down the city can really throw a wrench into one’s plans. Note to self: Nicaragua always wins (our plans being the losers). Then before I know it I’m thoughtfully reflecting on the day with the teams, and trying to cast a deeper, more meaningful vision for their work in Nicaragua – beyond having a good time, beyond finishing their work projects, beyond the one week they’re down here – urging them to “get over themselves” and stretch themselves beyond their own strength to serve these children here. This has been work that’s challenged me as a leader to develop confidence, indefatigable organizational skills, and a firm grasp of the “big picture” purpose of all of the work we do. I believe that these skills will be invaluable in any career I take in public service.
The other part of my work this summer has involved long conversations with the orphanage directors and psychologists, gathering background information on the children to support ORPHANetwork’s child sponsorship program. This work has been especially taxing emotionally; orphanages aren’t places known for happy stories. Most of the children have backgrounds of abuse and abandonment, which have left physical and emotional scars on these kids that often send them into spirals of depression and drug addiction. The hardest part of my work this summer, however, has not been hearing the distressing stories themselves, but realizing the fact that some of these children aren’t getting any better in the orphanages. I’m seeing now that I’ve come down here with hopes to “change Nicaragua,” and ambitions grounded in my American “fix-it mindset”– and now have come up against the harsh reality that not every child’s pains and brokenness will be immediately transformed here, no matter how much love and care is poured into their lives. It’s a humbling realization to see that in the end we’re not the ones writing the story of these children’s lives, and that there are things beyond our control (but not necessarily out of control).
This realization, along with reading Henri Nouwen’s book Compassion, has profoundly impact my outlook on public service. I’ve come to see that if we go into serving others with an “activism mentality,” where the value of our work is derived from the “success” of our plans and goals, then we won’t be around too long. When the setbacks hit, when the children slip backwards, and when it all seems to grow darker – we’ll be quick to quit if we’re just in it for the good feeling we get knowing that we’re “making a difference.” There must be a deeper reason to engage in the struggle.
What makes serving others worthwhile is the mysterious cosmic force called “morality” that tells us to persevere in serving our brothers and sisters simply because it is RIGHT. Departing from a results-based assessment of self-worth isn’t a blind plunge into ineffective toil; rather, it’s a logical recognition that the world is more than atoms and cells – that somehow there is a spirit of Truth that threads through stone and sinew to push us onward in what’s Right even when the storms blow. And if there’s any takeaway I’ve had this summer, it’s that the storms WILL blow, and that for survival, it becomes a search for a more solid rock upon which to build the houses of our lives.
The rock we’re founded on makes all the difference in our ability to stand the tide against temporary adversity and to patiently foster and grow the seeds of hope in the dark places of the world. Working this summer in Nicaragua has convinced me that the value inherently found in serving others is the fingerprint on our world of a compassionate God who sent his own son to a broken world, not to have an easy triumph, but to suffer greatly and unjustly, and then, through perseverance, to attain the sweetest of victories, with has a value beyond what this world can comprehend. It’s to this rock I hold fast, and am held fast to, when all can seem to fall to pieces around me – and on this solid ground I eagerly push on to the final weeks of my internship with ORPHANetwork.
My final weeks of my internship with ORPHANetwork this summer involved leading one more church trip at an ORPHANetwork orphanage (with a former PCIG grant recipient, Cole Bingham), interpreting for a microfinance meeting with community leaders, and lying in bed sick for four days with a frighteningly-high fever.
Reflecting on this summer, I see that I’ve developed professional skills in planning ahead, articulating the vision of an organization, and expressing confidence as a leader. This summer has not been without challenges, as I’ve mentioned already. With every trip that I led, I received doubtful looks from team members that seemed to say, “Can I really trust this college kid to safely lead me around this country – does he really know what he’s doing?” Logistically, I repeatedly bumped into the “Nicaragua Always Wins” axiom (which furthered the uncertainty of team members about my leadership abilities). These collective challenges, on top of the often depressing nature of my surroundings in the orphanages and slums, repeatedly pulled me far out of my comfort zone. Most mornings I would awake with an anxiety about the day to come – and a tempting urge to just hide under the covers. And yet, out of the discomfort of my days grew something I did not expect in the slightest: deep and sincere relationships.
I found myself building deep relationships with other ORPHANetwork leaders, team members, translators, orphans, and bus drivers in a shared place of discomfort and stretching. It wasn’t necessarily that they too were experiencing the same challenges as I was, but rather we met each other in a place of joint realization that there were parts of our lives that were difficult and out of our control. Again, Henri Nouwen’s book Compassion gave more articulate words to the free-floating thoughts in my mind. While he refers to the Christian community in particular, I believe Nouwen’s words are applicable for all types of human relationships. He writes,
“The paradox of the Christian community is that people are gathered together in voluntary displacement. The togetherness of those who form a Christian community is a being-gathered in-displacement. According to Webster’s dictionary, displacement means, to move or to shift from the ordinary or proper place. This becomes a telling definition when we realize the extent to which we are preoccupied with adapting ourselves to the prevalent norms and values of our milieu” (61).
This summer was one of the most fruitful ones in my life with regard to community, which became the source of great joy to me. For this reason, looking forward, I’d pursue a career that will be relation-intensive. What I’ve found this summer in meeting others in a common place of displacement is that it’s in the uncomfortable aspects of life that we truly encounter each other as humans. It drives to the core of man’s dilemma: inner brokenness and insecurity. The beauty particularly of such a Christian community is that it steps beyond just meeting one another in suffering, to adopt a hope for Redemption, enabling community to also be found in hope and joy, made all the sweeter by the present trials.
Regardless of your beliefs, there is much to say about the value of displacement in our lives. I doubt that many inventions, revolutions, and great triumphs of mankind have occurred within people’s comfort zones. I challenge you to ask yourself, “Am I being displaced – and where?” Follow where that leads you.
I grew significantly this summer in terms of professional skills and understanding of the world and my place in it. Thank you to the Parents Fund for enabling me to complete this internship that has had a lasting impact on my future goals and comprehensive worldview.