Hopeless No More

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

We last left off with Brenda and her mother traveling from Albellanas, a small remote village in the northern region of Nicaragua, to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, with the team from the U.S. to seek medical attention for Brenda’s infection. This was all very new for Brenda and this trip would have a life-changing impact.

Arriving in Managua, part of the team took Brenda and her mother to the hospital where they would begin treatment for the infection on Brenda’s scalp. It would be decided that Brenda should stay in the Managua area for a few months to ensure that the dangerous infection did not return. As the infection began to subside and the bandana spent less and less time on Brenda’s head, something both symbolically and literally beautiful began to happen- Brenda’s hair started to grow back.

Before long, what was once a picture of the hopelessness of extreme poverty, became the most beautiful head of flowing, light-brown hair any of us had ever seen. The restoration of Brenda’s hair was the beginning of a story of powerful tangible hope.

Remaining in Managua to finish her treatment meant that Brenda need somewhere to stay for a few months. Roger, who had himself been given an opportunity to leave Albellanas though for very different reasons, graciously decided to provide the support necessary for Brenda to live at the Casa Bernabe orphanage on the outskirts of Managua. Casa Bernabe was a very familiar place for Roger as it was the exact place to which he moved as a teenager to continue his schooling. Roger never could have guessed that his story would become someone else’s journey in part because of the very blessing he had been given many years before.

During her stay at Casa Bernabe Brenda took entrance exams so that she could continue her education. To everyone’s amazement, Brenda tested extremely high and began class at the Verbo School, a private school funded by the same church that manages the orphanage. While Brenda did receive basic primary school classes in Albellanas, no one could have guessed that she would be so intellectually advanced. Realizing that her daughter had a desire to learn and the opportunity of a lifetime to do so, Brenda’s mother decided that it would be best for Brenda to stay at Casa Bernabe if they would permit it and she so desired. To many on the outside, leaving your child at an orphanage might seem heartless. However, for Brenda’s mother it was a sacrifice of love to give Brenda the opportunity she had never had. What started out as a story of survival suddenly became a story of life changing hope.

This reality was not lost on Brenda. Now recovered from a potentially deadly infection because of a group of people that believed her life mattered, Brenda began to thrive. A young girl who was once ashamed to show her head had become a girl confident that she could do anything with her life. The practical hope given to her through the care of a doctor and the chance to learn had transformed her perspective on what was possible.

I know this is true because of what Brenda has accomplished over the years since that life-changing day. In May of 2016 I visited the Casa Bernabe orphanage with a small group from NicaWorks!, the organization I work with in Nicaragua. On that visit on learned that Brenda was at the top of her class and had been learning English. I could also see it in her eyes as she interacted with her North American friends. No longer worried about her most basic practical needs, Brenda was truly living. I do not know what the future holds for Brenda, but my guess is that it is bright.

Check back in next week for another story practical hope.

– James Belt


Behind the Bandana

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Last time I touched on the remote, impoverished village in the northern region of Nicaragua called Albellanas and the eye-opening day I met a little girl named Brenda. That day, the last day we would stay in Albellanas on our short trip to the community, has impacted the way I see the world even today.

While packing up to leave in the open-air school that had been turned into our team’s makeshift sleeping quarters, a woman approached a few of our team members. On the outside, the woman was calm, but on the inside she appeared to be carrying something very heavy and anxiety-inducing. After finding a translator, she began speaking frantically about one of the children who had been coloring with the team earlier that morning. We would come to find out that this worried woman was Brenda’s mother.

Brenda, a beautiful light skinned little Nicaraguan girl from the community, appeared to be like any other elementary school child. She enjoyed playing and interacting with the group, and seemed healthy from an outsiders perspective. The only difference was the bandana she wore around her head, but none of us assumed it was anything more than a fashion accessory. We would come to learn that is was doing much more than keeping her hair back.

As Brenda’s mother continued to talk, explaining that her daughter had a medical issue that she did not know how to address, she began to remove the bandana from Brenda’s head. Carefully pulling it away from her head, the mother revealed a serious wound that covered at least half of Brenda’s almost hairless scalp.

We would later come to find out that this was a bacterial infection typically caused by exposure to horse or cow manure. Unfortunately, these types of infections were not uncommon in rural communities affected by extreme poverty due to their lack of access to clean water and hygiene items. When you bathe in the same water as the animals it is hard to avoid exposure to infection causing bacteria. When you also often drink that same water your likelihood of illness is almost a foregone conclusion.

In Brenda’s case, the bacterial infection had eaten away at what was once a full head of hair. However, the bigger issue was the possibility that the infection could eventually travel to the brain through the bloodstream, causing disability if not death.

Beginning to cry, Brenda’s mom desperately pleased with us to do something about what she had no power to change on her own. The sad reality is that in communities like Albellanas these tears of desperation often go unheard by any person who can help. Child mortality rates, from what are easily treatable illnesses for most of the world, are tragically high in places suffering from extreme poverty. Brenda easily could have been a part of these statistics had what I believe was a divinely appointed moment not occurred.

“Please help my daughter”, she said in Spanish as she looked into the eyes of her daughter’s only hope apart from a miracle. Discussing a plan to help Brenda, we determined that taking her to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city, a trip of over three hours, was the only legitimate option. While there were health clinics in nearby towns such as Sebaco, none of them would more than likely have the staff, medicine, and equipment necessary to address this serious situation. The only solution was to take Brenda from the only place she had ever known.

After coming to this conclusion, the team told the mother that the only option was for her and her daughter to travel back to Managua with the group of “Gringos” they had just met. Without hesitation, the worried mother agreed to the life-saving plan.

Brenda, who had lived all of her short life in an adobe house without electricity or running water, was about to travel through generations of civilizational advancements in one afternoon.

Upon saying goodbye to the people of Albellanas, the team and their two guests jumped in the rented Toyota pick-up trucks to head to Managua. This was the first of many “firsts” for Brenda who had never been in a car. As we left Albellanas, I could not help but wonder if Brenda and her mother were full of hope, fear, or some combination of the two. I would later learn that this trip would produce life-changing hope in the heart of this beautiful, young girl.

More on the rest of Brenda’s journey next time.

– James Belt

From Practical Theory to Actual Reality

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Previously, I referred to the difference practical and tangible hope can make in a seemingly hopeless situation. While it sounds good, the old saying “talk is cheap” comes to mind. At an early I was taught that “your word is your bond”. While I think this applies to personal actions, I also believe it applies to theories and ideas. Theories without actionable evidence are dead, or maybe never existed beyond someone’s mind. In other words, what something looks like in practice or “in action” will tell you whether or not it is useful.

In the spirit of “talk is cheap” and theories being only as valuable as their real-life effectiveness, I want to share a few stories that make this “nice” idea of practical hope a powerful tool for change.

Shortly after moving to Nicaragua in 2012, I had an experience that would forever change the way I saw the world. Over my first few weeks living in Nicaragua, after years of just visiting, much of what I understood about life was challenged. From experiencing life as a minority for the first time, to feeling unsure about my purpose for being in Nicaragua and my ability to make a difference, to realizing that I was in even less control of the future than I had already accepted, I was in a “baptism by fire” classroom called Managua, Nicaragua. Then came Albellanas.

Albellanas is a small, rural village in the northern mountain region of Nicaragua. If I had thought life was challenging in Managua, Albellanas would show me an entirely new reality. No running (or even potable) water, no electricity, little educational opportunities, and no access to healthcare were just a few of the issues the people of Albellanas lived with on a daily basis. Extreme poverty was well and good in Albellanas and it showed no signs of changing.

Interestingly enough, my introduction to this remote and mostly forgotten village came from a former resident of Albellanas who had been given the opportunity to move to the United States for college. Roger, who ended up falling in love with and marrying a girl from Virginia, was an inspiration to his village as he was one of the few people to ever escape their extreme poverty reality. Understanding his significance to his hometown, Roger did and continues to invest in Albellanas, providing assistance to those who did not have the chance to escape. Roger is a great picture himself of what practical hope can mean to someone stuck in the cycle of extreme poverty, but that is another story. It was on one of Roger’s trips to Alebellanas that I traveled to this place that would significantly impact my worldview.

In addition to Roger, eight or so other men from Virginia came to Nicaragua to make a difference in Alebellanas. “Off the beaten path” does not do justice to the road into the community. In fact, the “road” to Alebellanas did not appear to have been “beaten” for quite some time. After the hour and a half, ten kilometer drive from the paved road, we finally arrived in the village.

Over the next two days we had the opportunity to share our faith and serve with the people of Albellanas. Many great things happened on this trip, but none of them stick out in my mind quite like Brenda.

More on Brenda’s story and my eye-opening experience next time.

– James Belt

Losing Self-Preservation

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Over the past couple of weeks I had the opportunity to spend nine days in Nicaragua. I learn something on every trip to Nicaragua, but some lessons are more impactful than others. This trip taught me something particularly meaningful so I am going to take a break from talking about hope to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it!

Why do we settle? Why do we choose to live lives that are less joyful, vibrant, and meaningful than they could be? This was something that went through my head while spending time in Nicaragua over the past couple of weeks. The question came to mind in part because I tend to live with more freedom when I am in Nicaragua. Some of it is being away from the pressures of every day life, but I think there is more to it. What holds me back from living in a way that I know is more fulfilling?

As I pondered that question one hyphenated word came to mind- self-preservation. Before I lose you, or you begin to argue with me in your head, let me be clear- self-preservation at its most basic instinctual level is good and necessary. It keeps us alive and allows us to make important judgement calls when it comes to our safety.

It is when it becomes our standard operating procedure for life that it begins to be unhelpful and unhealthy. In other words, when life becomes all about protecting the status-quo and our own level of comfort it ultimately robs us of joy and significance. We become unwilling to take risks in the way we pursue life, love people, seek growth, and generally enjoy each moment of the life we have been given. One day we wake up wondering what could have been and why life seems so passionless.

We never end up in these places intentionally. It is a slow drift and the accumlation of many small decisions that lead us there. In the end, I think much of it comes back to trust and what ultimately matters most to you. I am reminded of Jesus’ charge to his disciple that life is gained in a willingness to lay it down. Jesus was primarily referring to laying our lives down for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, but I think it extends to the way we live generally.

In a willingness to trust God fully with our lives and to put our significance in his desires for our life, we lose our need for unhealthy self-preservation. We become willing to take risks to live, love, care, and enjoy fully knowing that God’s desires for us our good. We become willing to be vulnerable and fail knowing that true significance is found in embracing the life for which God designed you- a life filled, yes, with risk, but also with freedom and meaning.

Returning from Nicaragua that is where I want to live. I want to love my family and friends better. I want to care for people without concern for how it helps me. I want to live being willing to risk and be vulnerable, even at the prospect of failure. I want to stop living for self-preservation and start living for a life to the fullest. I hope the same for you.

– James Belt


Hopelessness Is Not the End

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Yes, the world is broken, but there is hope. This is where we left off last time. This hope is where we start today.

While we live in a world full of hopelessness and brokenness the good news is that it can be and will different- the Shalom I mentioned last time is the end of the story. The Creator, God, chose from the moment brokenness entered the world to redeem and restore his creation. This started with God providing covering to his created, Adam and Eve, a very practical solution for a very tangible need.

This continued on until God offered the ultimate solution in the form of Jesus Christ, who died to redeem and restore creation to its original form. This incredible act of love included the redemption and restoration of spiritual and relational connection with the God who created us. The Creator’s redemption and restoration plan also extended and still extends to His physical creation.

You only have to look at Jesus’ life to know this is true. In addition to offering spiritual hope to his listeners, Jesus healed many people, provided food to the hungry, and offered safety for the endangered. Jesus did not see the practical and tangible as unimportant as some would suggest. Instead, he modeled a process of providing practical and tangible hope to the otherwise hopeless.

This model of hope is a picture of what we should do to break the hold of the same hopelessness. If Jesus, who rose from the dead and redeemed the world, thought it was a good plan, it makes sense to me.

The impact of taking this approach can be great. We will take a look at that next time.

– James Belt

Intentional or Accidental?

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

How did we all get here? An age old question with more answers than I could possibly list here. Where you stand often comes down to whether or not you think we were created with intention or formed through a cosmic accident. I believe this question of hope and the lack thereof in our world today speaks to the reality of a creator.

I know that the idea that there is a creator is controversial, but it is hard to deny that there seems to be a created order. Realities such as poverty and hopelessness pull at the fabric of this created order and make us feel uncomfortable. Some people choose to dismiss this feeling as guilt for their own fortune, but I tend to believe that is a form of denial. Hopelessness and brokenness make us feel uncomfortable because they were never meant to exist. This is why we, the created, can look at a situation and know that something is not right. Consequently, it is also why we are so disturbed by people that seem to lack the innate ability to tell right from wrong at the most basic level.

Creation in its original form was meant to be in a state of what Judaism calls “Shalom”, or nothing missing, nothing broken. To say it another way, the world was created “very good” as it suggests in the book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible. This perfect state was interrupted when the creations decided to walk away from their gracious creator. The Creator, God, gave his prized creation, humankind, free will and, therefore, the ability to walk away from him and live based on their own desires.

Unfortunately, the created decided that it knew best and took advantage of the Creator’s trust and love. Much like a parent with a wayward child, God allowed humankind to make its own choices and live with the consequences. Not surprisingly, the created was not very good at making the right choices to follow the created order and has been suffering from the results ever since.

We live in a fallen world of our own creation and sense this fallenness on a daily basis, especially when it comes to our tangible world. Our sense that we live in a fallen world is a primary contributor to our hopelessness. We wonder if this fallenness that is can ever change.

The good news is there is hope. We sense this as well. More on this next time.

– James Belt

Where Does This Lead?

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

Last time we ended with the question, “Where does this lead?” Where do the realities created by extreme poverty and the insecurity of basic resources lead for people like Gladys in places like Nicaragua?

Well, I am not sure it always leads to the same place and, in fact, I am quite sure the answer is “it depends”. However, I do know one path, possibly the most common of the many, is a certain level of hopelessness. While the practical, tangible “things” of life do not provide meaning and hope, the inability to access the most basic forms of them can create a bleak outlook on life. Instead of dreaming of a better future, “this is how it will always be” becomes the pervasive attitude. This worldview gets passed on from generation to generation until it creates what is almost an informal caste system based on a lack of hope. Hopelessness abounds, and so do its byproducts.

This is not just a Nicaragua problem. Many communities in the United States, especially in inner city neighborhoods, struggle with this generational issue. The truth is you can find this sad reality in all corners of our world.

It would be easy for the “most fortunate” of us to dismiss these places as having been dealt a bad hand and not “our” problem. Many sadly do. However, even if one does not care about the impoverished among us, the impact of hopelessness unavoidably becomes a societal issue. Hopelessness creates a sense of “haves and have nots” that leads to separation, avoidance, and ignorance on all sides.

I tend to believe that most people do not fall in the “I don’t care” category but rather in the “I don’t know what to do” category. It is not so much that they do not want to be a part of finding a solution, it is that the problem seems so big that they avoid it in an effort to not feel hopeless themselves. Whether intentional or not, hopelessness created by “tangible poverty”, a lack of basic practical needs, cannot be ignored without consequences.

In the end, I think we all, or at least most of us, innately feel that there is something wrong with this situation. This is because the world was not created to work this way.

More on that next time!

– James Belt