Colombia. Last August, I met with the leadership of our Venezuela Prison Ministry at the border city of Cúcuta. Our prison permits had been cancelled. Prison authorities were clearing up criminal gangs inside prisons, and many inmates were transferred to different prisons across Venezuela. After three months, our permits have been reinstated. Christian prisoners were moved all over Venezuela, and they are starting new congregations and sustainable development by planting gardens. I told our prison board: "We can't take any credit for all this growth..." We are now requesting seeds, fertilizing and gardening tools from prisons all over Venezuela. Pray.
Bolivia. After spending time with our Prison Ministry leadership team, my plane ticket included a trip to Bolivia. I took the opportunity to hike in the Bolivian mountains and stay at the home of an elderly couple. Mid-way through my stay, I learned that years back, they had also hosted "Che" Guevara, and to my surprise, upon my departure, they presented me with the jacket "Che" Guevara had worn and had left behind as a keepsake.
Canada. The River Worship. Attending the gathering, where thousands of mostly young people worship, was uplifting. Even more encouraging is seeing my son Jonathan taking a role in leading this ministry. Live concert recordings have started, which will allow this ministry to have a worldwide presence.
Spain. El Camino de Santiago. I had a great time hiking with my daughter, Andrea. She completed the ten-day hike wearing only thin sandals, and at the end, she was given a completion certificate under the name "Anna Banana." She inherited the same sense of humour her mother had. Several fellow pilgrims reminded me of how privileged I am to travel with my adult daughter, who has become a great communicator and an outstanding painter. It is humbling to be parented now by my two adult kids, yet simultaneously highly gratifying...
Türkiye. Ephesus. It was a rewarding experience to tour the ancient ruins of Ephesus with influential Christian pastors. Efesus is where Paul the Apostle was humiliated and rejected for preaching the gospel. Nevertheless, he moved on, and over two thousand years later, missionary leaders from every corner of the world returned to Ephesus because Paul had persisted despite rejection. It is even more encouraging to be part of a worldwide church missions movement supported by Bayview Glen Church of Toronto and IBC Costa Rica, two of my "home churches." I am preparing for next year's world gathering, a workshop on Emergency Management and International Churches, to be held in Argentina.
Rumania. Bucharest. My long bus ride from Türkiye to Ukraine started with a sixteen-hour bus extension because we were held by customs officers who had found contraband. Two passengers were detained, and everyone except me was strictly scrutinized! The reason is that one year ago, I had taken the same bus route, and both bus drivers had received medical care from me due to work-related injuries. Acts of kindness pay off...
Ukraine. Odessa. I stopped in the city to shop. The city has been under attack to halt the exports of grains. On my first night, the town was attacked by over two dozen drones, yet the next day, everything moved on as if nothing had happened. The most touching part of my stay in Odessa was spending time at the train station, the hub for military personnel to commute to the front lines. I could tell which soldiers were heading to the front lines and who were returning, as they looked worn down. I was moved to tears after seeing the reunion of a young soldier with his two small children and their mother. His face and hands were covered with lacerations. His army fatigues were torn down and covered in mud. He embraced his wife and two babies for a long time.
Ukraine. Mykolaiv. Here, I got to shop more while connecting with friends and a local church. I invited my landlady to the Christian Church I attend. She had never set foot in a Christian congregation, and to my dismay, the two Sundays she came along, no one of the four hundred or so attendees bothered to go and greet her. No one seemed interested in her presence, yet she said with a kind smile, "I like your church...". I became deeply self-aware of the many times I have not been bothered after or before Sunday church to make an effort and make newcomers feel welcome.
Ukraine. Kherson. Week one. Just before I arrived in this city, I learned that the Ukrainian forces had successfully started a counteroffensive and had made headway across the east bank of the Dnipro River. However, in retaliation, the city had been under relentless artillery fire. Every public and apartment building seems to have received damage or destroyed in the worst case. Upon arrival, my first surprise was to see how a missile had hit the north end of my hotel and had burned down a whole street market. I helped fix a roof quickly to protect our valuable humanitarian supplies. We worked on the fourth floor before the rain and under persistent artillery. It was not fun! The city has been abandoned by almost seventy percent of its population, leaving behind mostly older adults who do not want to abandon their homes or have no place to go because of their Russian background. On the medical side, there is little intervention needed on my part. However, plenty of hands-on work is necessary, especially in rehabilitating damaged homes. Our first mission was to repair the home of an elderly widow, and only several days before three of her neighbours were killed by a rocket in front of her house, dried blood was still on her sidewalk. My team also built wooden bunk beds, which were promptly delivered to the front lines, where I had plenty of close exposure to the horrific sounds of war. I also helped fix a rubber platoon boat, which likely will be used to provide humanitarian supplies across the river. At this very moment, we are waiting for clearance from the army to start delivering humanitarian assistance to the east side of the river.
Ukraine, Kherson. Week two. My team leader informed me of a mission to travel to the Antonivka Bridge and assist a couple in rehabilitating their home since they had adamantly refused to evacuate. The Antonivka Bridge is the emblematic area where the counteroffensive started and was still going on when we arrived. Every home and building in this neighbourhood had been severely damaged. The community damages are apocalyptic. I was ordered to wear all my bulletproof gear. Performing window repairs wearing heavy bulletproof equipment plus all my emergency medical gear is rather uncomfortable! I found it hard to understand how this elderly couple was unwilling to evacuate their almost destroyed home. Only last week, when I travelled to deliver food supplies, did I find a brand-new rocket pit on their driveway. They are a wonderful couple, and I pray they make it safely through this ordeal.
Ukraine. Kherson. Week three. This week was the first anniversary of the liberation of the city of Kherson. However, we were ordered to avoid large gatherings as significant retaliation was expected. Ukrainian authorities were correct. Heavy and persistent artillery fire from both sides started around 8.00 pm and lasted all night. I could not believe the number of ordinances shut at each other. That evening a friend sent me this quote from the Bible: "Y la paz de Dios, que sobrepasa todo entendimineto, guardara vuestros corazones..." Filipenses 4:7 The relentless noise produced by the artillery, the cluster bombs and rockets did not let me fall asleep, but there was undoubtedly peace in my heart.
Ukraine. Kherson. Week four. Doctors ordered my team leader to take several days off so medicines for his herniated back could start working. I was enjoying my second day off. I went across the park to enjoy the autumn colours. Enjoying nature in a park while encountering crates left behind by exploding rockets felt surreal. I also planned to go to the gym and do some grocery shopping. I felt safe, so I had not been carrying my bulletproof equipment since the night before I only heard two artillery explosions. The local supermarket is incredibly well stocked, no different from a European one. Suddenly, the unequivocal sound of carpet bombing started, with one bomb exploding perhaps only one hundred meters from us. I was almost done with my shopping and ready to pay, and I could see everyone quickly making their way toward the cashier. As I headed to the shop door, I saw the bomb shelter and many people rushing toward it. Incidentally, this bomb cover was built right on the spot where I had given first aid attention to many casualties from the carpet bombing on Christmas day last year. I could run to my hotel shelter or stay at this one. I decided to stay with this refugee, and I am glad I did; otherwise, I could have been right on the path of the second bombing wave, which came only several minutes later. At the bomb shelter, there were two soldiers and many older adults. I was deeply touched by two elderly ladies who adamantly insisted I take the last chair. I reluctantly decided to comply because I have often experienced Ukrainians trying to go entirely out of their way to show gratitude for my service. What surprised me was that all who took refuge from the bombing were communicating in Russian. This was a reminder that the Russians are fighting this conflict against their own. Suddenly, the carpet bombing started again, but it was on our street and on top of us this time. I was surprised to see the reinforced cement structure shaking right over us. One man said that an ambulance had been hit. Five minutes later, a third wave of carpet bombing came down, but this time, perhaps three hundred meters from us. However, seeing at least two large clouds of black smoke racing to the sky was not reassuring, and a short time after the third wave of carpet bombing, people started to leave the shelter. I quickly entered one of the damaged buildings, looking for a friend. He was fine, but his partner had several lacerations. All patients had already been evacuated, and he told me that five people had died. I quickly went to my base and found my team leader leaving to assess the damage around our neighbourhood. Fifteen homes had been hit by the attack, including the business of a friend. I could still smell the freshly burnt gunpowder when we inspected one building, searching for casualties. After that senseless attack against civilians, I could not help but think of the painting by Picasso, "La Guernica," despising the senseless attack against civilians during the Spanish Civil War.
Ukraine. Kyiv. I had to travel to the capital of Ukraine for some desperately needed dental work. Just when I thought the capital city was safer, last Saturday, the town received sixty drone missiles. Air sirens went on for six consecutive hours. Pray for Ukraine. The war seems to be moving on without an end in sight. As winter settles in, we can only pray innocent people from both sides will be able to endure and survive this senseless ordeal.
"A thousand may fall dead beside you, ten thousand all around you, but you will not be harmed." Psalm 91.
Watercolor paintings by Andrea Duarte