"From the moment I stepped foot onto the concrete playground of the Refugio, I was embraced by a multitude of beautiful souls; the youngest being 3, the oldest 16."
Vicar Suzanne Stierwalt recently traveled to Ecuador for the first time with a team from St. Mark Yorktown and her photos from the trip are plastered with wide smiles of local children. When she is asked about the trip, her response is usually, "My arms were not wide enough to hold all of the love that the kids had to offer."
|Vicar Suzanne with two of her new friends from Ecuador
During October, Vicar Suzanne Stierwalt joined Pastor Joel Neubauer, Rob and Susette Goff, and Tom Teigeler as they visited Toctiuco, Ecuador.
Over the past 15 years St. Mark Lutheran Church in Yorktown has been fostering a relationship with this small community. The relationship is centered in the "Refugio de los Sueños (Refuge of Dreams)" -- a community center which offers educational, nutritional, medical, dental and emotional therapeutic support to about one hundred fifty children at any given time.
The relationship between St Mark and the Refugio is primarily a relationship of friendship. Members of St Mark use Skype to make video calls and make frequent trips in person to visit with the children and people of Toctiuco. However, there is a financial aspect to the relationship as well.
Toctiuco is extremely impoverished and suffers high rates of drug use, rape, child prostitution and physical abuse. The financial support for the community provides means for local advocates to work with children and families to break longstanding cycles of egregious abuse and systemic neglect.
Despite the poverty and abuse that these children have endured, their joy still remains.
|The Refugio de los Suenos where over 150 children go to find refuge
"We went to Ecuador to give something to the children of the Refugio," Pastor Joel Neubauer wrote in a recent St. Mark newsletter. "We brought suitcases of underwear & socks, schools supplies & surprises for babies, children, adolescents and young adults. Yet as soon as we arrived - before sharing a single gift - their hands opened to us with hand-printed banners and hands waving in song. Immediately our hands were filled - filled with the hands of immediate friends, pulling us in to dance with them."
Pastor Joel also shared this story from their time in Ecuador:
Vicar Suzanne was sitting with two girls waiting for their father (who works at the Refugio) to take them home at the end of the day.
It's not rare for fathers to be absent from children's lives in Toctiuco. And for children who do have fathers in their lives, it's not rare for fathers to be sources of physical and sexual abuse. But these girls have a good father, and his work at the Refugio is a rare model for young men of how to be a loving and responsible man.
Knowing how greatly loved and respected their father is -- and as a new dad to a daughter myself -- I asked: "What's the most important thing for a man like me to do for my daughter to be a man like your dad?" One of the girls -- a girl who'd been adopted into the family when her mother died -- answered immediately: "Quererla."
"Quererla" has a double meaning --
Love her &
We want to be loved and we loved to be wanted. She hadn't missed a beat. It's the only thing that matters. It's the truth we encounter far away and the truth we know at home. In a world where fathers are feared, this little girl needed me to know what makes a father good.
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Child, in whom I am well pleased. (Romans
8:15, St Mark
From St. Mark's relationship with "the Refugio," the Yorktown congregation has also begun to make connections with the local Roman Catholic Parish and the local Lutheran congregation. These partners are especially valuable in sharing God's love with the children and neighbors in Toctiuco, especially now The Ecuadorian government permanently withdrew its financial support of the Refugio funds last June.
"On the one hand, this trip was focused on joy and friendship." said Pastor Joel Neubauer. "Much time was spent sitting with government officials and community leaders, looking for ways to continue the work of the Refugio among the most neglected of Ecuador's children. We were blessed by the faith and commitment of our Ecuadorean Lutheran partners to provide $2000 per month for the children's food and nutrition."
When the group wasn't in meetings with local partners, they were experiencing the direct impact of the Refugio de los Sueños. They colored with the children, shared stories of faith, and built friendships with laughs that crossed language barriers.
|Children from the Refugio working on their crafts for the day
"Most of the children come from homes where abuse is so horrific that I cannot share, yet they come to this place of refuge that is their safe haven, if only for a few hours a day." said Vicar Suzanne Stierwalt. "It is here that they can be a child; laugh and play, receive counseling and a hot meal."
Oftentimes when one has a life altering experience, words just aren't able to serve justice and it seems like this Ecuadorian escapade was such a case.
"Words cannot begin to describe it all -- but the Word Made Flesh describes it perfectly." said Pastor Neubauer. "This was a visit made in the kind of love that God is."