Heartbreak and hope

Our Central America mission partners catch up over a meal with visiting CMS mission development manager for Latin America, Paul Tester (far left, then from left to right: Steve Poulson, Mark Balfour, Azaria Spencer, Rosalie Balfour)

In 2017, Church Mission Society sent four mission partners to work among marginalised people in Central America. We caught up with them to learn how God is at work in Guatemala and Honduras.

Steve Poulson had known that Honduras would be a part of his future ever since he first visited in 2009. Likewise for Mark and Rosalie Balfour, their call to Central America started with a youth mission trip to a home for rescued street children in Honduras. Later they also ended up travelling to Guatemala. When the time came to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary they realised they “wanted nothing more than to go back to the streets of Guatemala City”.

Azaria Spencer’s journey to knowing that God was calling her to Guatemala was more gradual. She just knew she had a passion to work with people on the edges of society, particularly children and young people.

All four ended up training and being sent by CMS around the same time. All four are working with a local organisation called Street Kids Direct, helping to offer children and young people an alternative to gang life, violence and drugs. And in their first three years of service, all four have faced huge challenges – including the current crisis – and seen their roles change and grow in surprising ways.

Young white man and young Honduran man at top of hill overlooking lakes
“There is excitement about mentoring in Honduras because it’s still so new.” Steve Poulson with a mentee.

Mentoring matters

Steve reflects, “One of the difficult things about being in Honduras is reminding yourself that you can’t do everything. There’s so much need and so much to do.”

Mentoring young people at risk is a core focus of Steve’s work. He explains, “Mentoring is proven to be the most effective way of working with… particularly high-risk children and young people.”

A landmark study in the 1990s identified a caring and consistent adult as the only thing that changes outcomes for children at the highest risk from traumatic experiences in their lives. This is what Steve and his colleagues hope mentoring can provide through projects in Tegucigalpa and Talanga, a town about an hour further north where a mentoring centre was opened in 2019.

Interest in mentoring has grown: “There is some excitement about mentoring in Honduras because it’s still so new. People have told me that they’ve realised mentoring is what’s been missing in their ministry or project.”

Fernando, one of the boys mentored by Steve Poulson, with a book he can now read
New leaf: Fernando made huge progress in reading at Proyecto Alas

Steve comments, “One of the best things is definitely seeing transformation in people. One of the boys we work with is 18 and I’ve known him since I first went to Honduras in 2009. His mum died when he was four and his dad totally rejected him. It’s a privilege to see him now about to finish the equivalent of his GCSEs.

“The kids at Proyecto Alas in Talanga finished their first academic year with us in November 2019 and they’re doing really well. I was so proud when Cristian, who I’ve been mentoring for two years, was presented with an academic excellence medal and certificate.

“Another boy, Fernando, was illiterate. He couldn’t recognise any letters or numbers. Towards the end of the year, I saw him sitting in the corner reading a book. He was on page 190 of the children’s Bible that we had bought him. It’s amazing that in a few months he has learned to read. This year, he started school, and was moved straight up to second grade because of all he had learned at the project!”

Cultivating creativity

Much of Azaria’s work in Guatemala City has also been with boys at risk, which can be challenging. She tells of one Friday morning, going to work after a great evening with the young people. “We joined together and worshipped God…. But then heartbreak. We heard that Pablo, one of the young men who lived on the streets, had died that morning. He was only 20 years old. My heart broke for him, but also for those team members whom I love, who poured so much into Pablo.”

Danilo, one of the youth, helps distribute resources at Street Kids Direct Guatemala

Yet she also tells of Danilo, who in the midst of the coronavirus crisis took the lead in helping deliver food to vulnerable families: “The most unexpected part of my day was being blessed with the gift of seeing just how far Danilo has come. He is not just one of my youth, he is one of our team and a good friend. I’m so proud of him.”

In recent months Azaria has started leading a group for girls aged 12 and over, “to create a space where they will learn about God and have activities just for them”.

Azaria shares, “Building trust takes time, but we are having small victories. We follow a pattern of prayer to start each session and now they ask to do this if they arrive late…. I feel God’s gentle Spirit rest with us at these times.”

She also connects with children through art: “At one workshop, one of the boys was tapping his marker to spray ink on his picture the way you might with a paint brush. He was creating beautiful splatters of colour across the image of a peacock. He wasn’t doing it because he had been told or taught to. He was simply expressing himself, trying something new. I told him how beautiful his picture looked and how much I liked how he had used the markers. He blushed and said thank you. I was left inspired.”

A group of young girls in room with sofas, writing and praying
Azaria Spencer runs a group where girls can find space for themselves

Frontline friendship

Paul Tester, mission development manager for Latin America, said that Azaria, Steve, Mark and Rosalie “are [in Central America] to encourage, release and connect with people doing amazing mission – working on the frontline and walking with those on the frontline.”

In addition to the mentoring projects in Guatemala and Honduras, Mark and Rosalie have been involved with a whole range of groups either directly supported by Street Kids Direct or in similar urban contexts. These include:

  • Go Guatemala: in one of the most dangerous areas of Guatemala City, working with street-connected and at-risk children
  • Sigo Vivo, a church run on the streets
  • Tamar’s Hope, a project reaching out to women in prostitution
  • La Cafe GT, which trains and employs women coming out of difficult circumstances.
Creating space for rest and spiritual refreshment, both for disadvantaged young people and for frontline workers: Rosalie and Mark Balfour

They said, “We count it an enormous privilege to serve in Guatemala, but working in the midst of such violence and death carries an emotional and mental cost, one that we have seen borne out in the lives of others.

“Which is why we believe Jesus is calling us to a pastoral ministry that supports and encourages others working in difficult urban contexts. The work takes a huge toll and people can be verging on burnout. To have people to listen and pray with is really important.”

The Balfours have moved into a home that allows them to create space for both young people and those working in tough contexts to come for refreshment. Even amid curfew and lockdown, Mark and Rosalie have continued to provide pastoral support to frontline workers.

Could you help us to support people in mission sharing the love of Jesus with those on the margins? Go to churchmissionsociety.org/support or call 01865 787489.

Published 1 June 2020
Latin America

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