“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15.5
At the time of writing this, we are preparing to move tomorrow from the colonial city of Antigua to a rented apartment in Guatemala City, where the next phase of our time here will begin. It will mean more change in a year and a half of change! Our hope is that we will be living in that apartment for at least a year – but, as we are continually learning, we can never know what tomorrow will bring.
Last night we could see red fire spilling out from the local volcano and there were reports of a possible hurricane on the way, but thankfully there have been no earthquakes for a couple of months. Three days ago members of the MS-13 gang attacked a public hospital in Guatemala City to free one of their leaders who had been taken there from jail for treatment: seven people were shot dead and at least 12 were injured, including members of staff, patients and their relatives. The hospital is just down the road from the Mi Arca Protection House in Zone 11. The reality of violence is never far away from those living here and is not confined to gangs or particular social groups: indeed, it often involves innocent bystanders.
During our time in Spanish school in Antigua, any teacher who has taught us for more than a week has opened up to us about the violence that affects their own lives and those of their neighbours, along with the damage done to each of their families by alcohol abuse and addiction. One of Mark’s teachers said that although the civil war officially ended in 1996, the truth is that there is still a war going on, this time with the two main gangs – MS-13 and Barrio 18 – the major players. It is clear to us that the extraordinary work of Mi Arca not only rescues children and young people from being victims of violence but also from becoming perpetrators of it themselves, breaking generational patterns of behaviour and offering real hope.
We had intended to spend almost six months in Antigua learning Spanish, but things did not quite work out that way. On 1 April (yes, really), while we were spending a weekend away by Lake Atitlan with our son Dylan who was visiting us from the UK, Rosalie slipped and fell in the shower. She was bruised and suffered a slight graze on her shin. This developed into cellulitis and then osteomyelitis (infection in the bone) and led to Rosalie spending altogether five and a half weeks in hospital on IV antibiotics (with a couple of weeks’ break in between), split between Guatemala and Mexico City (where we were sent by our insurers).
The strong antibiotics and time in hospital contributed to her also suffering from thrombosis, tendinitis, major problems with her stomach, a small perforation in her colon, an infection in her intestine and a flare up of her glands and throat following an endoscopy, colonoscopy and a minor operation to cauterise her colon. She has been treated by two traumatologists, an infectiologist, a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist, a vasciologist and an otolaryngologist.
Through it all, we have received incredible support from the insurance company whom CMS have engaged for their mission partners and have known huge love and care from friends and supporters around the world – to know that so many people were praying for us was incredibly moving and encouraging. Now back in Guatemala, Rosalie’s health is much improved and her strength is returning daily.
Needless to say, none of this was part of our plans and at times it has felt like we were riding a huge rollercoaster (but not in a fun way). At one of our lowest moments during the first time in hospital in Mexico City, Rosalie put what we were both feeling into words – “I just want to go home but I haven’t got a home to go to”. That’s really how we both felt and it was, for a short while, pretty horrible. But through it all we sensed that Jesus was shaping something in us – as painful as it was – to do with our specific call to follow him and also the more general reality of what it means to be his disciple. We realised that our feeling of “homelessness” was something that could be used to help us to draw alongside others who are foreigners, strangers, not at home.
The very day after Rosalie said those words, we met for the first time a Spanish friend of Portuguese friends we had known in the UK. She was now living in Mexico City with her husband. We also met other friends from the UK who just “happened” to be in Mexico City at the same time and made good friends with the paramedic couple who transported us from hospital to hospital, continuing our experience of the last 18 months of unexpected encounters with people that we know are from the Lord.
We were reminded that all through our life together as a married couple – and even before – Jesus has continually brought across our path people who are living far from home and has called us to be their friends. We are sure that, as we look in time to develop a church community around Zone 4, it will be a multi-national, multi-ethnic church (for and of all nations).
On coming back to Guatemala we moved house in Antigua (to a place that was quieter at night) and Spanish school as we needed a course with more structure. We also began a small prayer group with other people on mission (from Germany and the US), which has been a real help. It has also been good to have a lot more contact with the Mi Arca team and, most recently, to be joined here by Azaria Spencer, another CMS mission partner.
We know that the basic reality of our life here will be that, as someone once said, “constant change is here to stay”. In the coming months, as we transition to life in Guatemala City and begin to explore further our role with Mi Arca, we will also be taking a much-needed holiday (not sure where yet) and making a short family trip back to the UK as Sam and Lois are expecting our first grandchild.
The work of Mi Arca continues to grow as more and more children and young people (and sometimes their families) are being reached. Duncan Dyason recently completed a 100km walk in a day, while CMS mission partner Steve Poulson did the same in Honduras, as they raised money for the work of Street Kids Direct and the development of the Protection House in Guatemala City. More volunteers from the UK are coming out to join Mi Arca so that the international flavour of the team is growing. We are both excited to see what will happen in the coming months.
Through it all we know that the main thing is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and stay close to him. We really do not want to do anything unless it comes out of intimacy with him as we know it is way too easy to be busy for Jesus without living in his presence – and that would be a disaster.
So please do pray – if for nothing else and above all else – that we would stay close and that listen to his voice (and do what he says), talk honestly with him when we pray, and enjoy his love.
With our thanks and our love
Mark and Rosalie
PS: if you would like more regular updates you can follow our blog – balfoursguatemala.wordpress.com or our Facebook page “Balfours in Guatemala”.
If you would like to receive regular prayer updates by email (usually every two-three weeks), please email Mark at revmbalfour@ btinternet.com
The Call in Action