words by chris

After arriving back to our home at 2 AM on July 4th from the United States, we slept a few hours, packed up our coastal wardrobes, assumed the seated position in our cars and drove the six hours down to the port city of Manta. Why would we do such a cruel thing to our children, and to ourselves, you might ask? Friends visiting. Grace Covenant Church Chicago hosted me as a pastoral intern for just over a year while we were in seminary. It is a community that patiently permitted me to begin to explore my pastoral identity and taught me practical urban parish ministry lessons. So we wanted to see them as they partner with another urban church, which happens to be La Victoria Covenant Church in Manta, Manabí, Ecuador. The way summer schedules panned out made the quick turn-around necessary, but it was worth it.

Grace’s partnership with La Victoria was focused on the latter’s initiatives and work as a congregation in earthquake recovery and now in empowering their neighbors in the rebuilding process. La Victoria, partnering with Covenant World Relief has been able to establish two projects: the Nehemiah Project and the Good Samaritan Project.

The Nehemiah project is about rebuilding walls. Just as the Old Testament Nehemiah led his people in rebuilding their city, La Victoria has created this organization to coordinate construction work for those community members who have not received needed assistance for housing through the government or other faith based organizations. None of the work is done for church members, instead they have focused the work primarily on community members most vulnerable and in need. Grace helped with a particular blind woman whose lack of reconstructed walls around her has led to people entering her home and stealing from her while her family members are out working or searching for work. Working alongside the construction crew, Grace helped in rebuilding a secure home.

The Good Samaritan project focuses on rebuilding the economic assets of the city by organizing and empowering small business start-ups. This project includes market study, finance training, and credit for about 75 small businesses. Like the housing work, the project is focused on the broader community. What is often forgotten about in the recovery is the long term relief and recovery work needed. Once the humanitarian concerns are confronted most aid and attention leaves. It is at this point that the reality of the effects of the disaster are really taken in and people begin to realize that beyond food and shelter, everything has to be built again, including an economic market. This project takes the initiative and assets of community members and gives them the power they need to make those goals a reality.

We visited a proposed site for building a retreat and recovery center, for members of the area to receive care and experience healing in a quiet and cool environment a short drive from the beach. The church hopes this will be a place of refuge for community members and congregants alike to tackle the effects of trauma and fragmentation. Pastor Mandy from Grace, myself as well as children from both churches were asked to plant banana trees as a symbol of the hope we have for growth and sweet fruit that will be a result of such a place.

A few times the churches visited a community of displaced people. The residents of this area have moved from near the center of town to the extremities, leaving behind neighborhood, memories, and a way of life. While given more permanent housing by the government, the building project is far removed from public transportation, the port, and fish canning facilities that the majority of the residents worked in before the earthquake. Like many government housing projects the world over, the intentional or unintentional neglect of the long term needs and access to education, community, commerce, and food has created a difficult environment with an increase in crime and other at-risk behaviors.1 The church has taken particular concern with the youth and children of the community. Members of Grace came prepared to join in the activities, particularly providing material and instruction for more creative outlets for the children.

The team flew out of Guayaquil, a few hours south of Manta. There we met up with our friend and colleague Dennis Garcia for a walk through the city she calls home. It was hard to say goodbye to our Grace family, but such a good time to be with people who have been a part of our journey, whom our kids knew and could easily feel at ease with. Grateful for the opportunity to show them a glimpse of some of the amazing people and ministries we get to partner with.

On our way back up the coast from Guayaquil for a few days of rest at the ocean we stopped in Puerto Lopez to go whale watching. While in Puerto Lopez we also happened to run into Richard and Liz Santana, the Merge Trip Facilitators who are now in the position we formerly served in planning and facilitating church partnerships. It feels like a very small world at times and the list of friends visited, however briefly, grew.

We made it back to Manabí, meeting up with friends to simply breathe in the ocean air, explore tide pools, and walk the beach. At the beach where we were staying are a series of large rock formations. These rock formations, for part of the year, are completely exposed to the sea, creating an amazing rippled effect. A few months ago we were clambering over them being sprayed by the crashing waves. Now, blowing sand had completely covered the field of stone except for the largest. It felt like visiting a completely different beach. Even the little creatures we admired in the tide pools last visit had changed for others. Awed by the sand-covered rocks reminds me that the potential of transformation always remains when we remain committed and hopeful.

We are grateful for the lives and work of Pastors Cesar and Alma, Walter and Maria, and Sally and Jose Luis whose passion and care have been a point of light and hope for thousands in Manta through their church and projects. We are grateful to all of Grace Church Chicago, particularly Hilary and Jonathan Wildt for their leadership and planning to begin this partnership, as well as Pastor Mandy along with her family who have always offered mentorship to our family. We are grateful for Daniela, Juan Carlos, and Mary, the Covenant Merge staff who facilitated the partnership, allowed us to help as we could (including a TV appearance…that’s for another blog), and dealt with the constant changes and challenges of intercultural partnerships.

May we all be awed, hopeful, and committed to the process of transformation in each of our cities and communities.

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