Where Are You Going?

Good morning from Westminster, MD! While I have written a lot about my time in Nicaragua, I have not shared as much about how and why I ended up living there.

If you have ever wondered how this journey started (or even if you haven’t), below is Chapter 1 of my book Hope Realized, which will be released in mid-2022. Enjoy!


I vividly remember the day I felt called to move to Nicaragua. It was all a little frightening.

In January of 2011 I traveled to Nicaragua on a mission trip with Crossroads Community Church. Wanting to spend additional time in Nicaragua and specifically at the Puente de Amistad orphanage, I decided to extend my trip by a few days.

I was out for a hike in El Cañon with a group of boys from the Puente de Amistad orphanage. This was a common activity for me when I was in Nicaragua. It was a beautiful January day, not too hot and not too humid, at least by Central American standards. El Cañon is literally at the bottom of a canyon, more or less invisible to the rest of the world. As you drive down the steep hill entering El Cañon, you feel a little like you are headed on a jungle safari. Palm trees and other thick vegetation line the side of the hills, with a canopy of large trees sprawling above.

As you move farther from the road, beyond the mix of modest concrete homes and makeshift shacks, El Cañon is lined with a mix of forest-covered hills referred to as “mountains” by the locals. The community of El Cañon is on top of the remnants of a coffee farm, which remains evident in some areas if you pay close attention. Agriculture was and continues to be a staple of this community, although significantly depressed in comparison to its heyday.

That day we decided to hike up one of the steep hills that has been cleared for cattle grazing. This hill is covered in long grass and the occasional tree or bush. From the top of the hill, you can see most of the lower half of El Cañon, as well as the main road, which sits a few hundred feet above the community. The view is inspiring. January in Nicaragua is windy as the seasons transition from the rainy season to the dry season. This day was no exception. I stood on top of the hill catching my breath as I stared at palm trees swaying in the breeze on a distant slope.

With the boys from the orphanage running all around me, I remember a thought popping into my head. It was almost as if someone was talking to me through my subconscious. “Where are you going?” were the words I heard ringing in my mind as I stood on the picturesque hill in Nicaragua that day. Believing that I was not losing my mind, I decided that the thought must have come from God, which scared and exhilarated me all at the same time.

This journey had started four years prior in 2007 when I agreed to join my family on a mission trip to Nicaragua. They had been a part of Crossroads Church’s inaugural mission trip to Nicaragua and the Puente de Amistad Orphanage the year before and had been coaxing me to join them on an upcoming trip. Between their encouragement and my own convictions as a Christian, I decided I should follow their lead. What started as checking a box had turned into a deeply held passion and love for Nicaragua, its people, and the possibility of change.

The question “where are you going?” meant asking if I was supposed to return to the United States to live my relatively easy and comfortable life, or decide to walk away from it to move to Nicaragua. Gulp.

I never had a desire to live in another country, much less Nicaragua. I enjoyed my week or so long trips to Nicaragua to participate in mission trips and visit friends, but that was in part because I was able to jump on a plane at the end of them to return to my comfortable life. Sure, I cared about the plight of the poor, but I always imagined myself as the guy who made money to give to missionaries who had dedicated their lives to helping them. I was a business person. The idea of becoming a missionary, for lack of a better term, was so far from my radar that I never saw this moment coming in my wildest dreams.

As a leader at Crossroads Church, I had been telling others that real life is found in following God’s desire for your life, wherever that may lead. That you had to “take a step into the river” without knowing the outcome to truly experience life as it was meant to be lived. I was now facing a “put your money where your mouth is” kind of moment. Did I really believe the words I had so easily proclaimed to other people?

It would have been easy to rationalize away what God was putting into my head. I had bought a house a few years earlier. For the previous nine years, I focused on building a client base in my financial advising practice. I was well established and respected in my social circles and church. Leaving would mean going to a place in which I was relatively unknown.

I could barely speak Spanish. Sure, I took Spanish classes in high school and college, but I had barely ever used it, sticking to the basics such as “how are you”, “hello”, and of course “where is the bathroom?”

What about starting a family? Sure, I had been dating, but what would someone think when I told them I was moving to Central America? The idea of living in a foreign country and the reality of it are two very different things. Moving would certainly limit my options.

Growing up in Maryland, I have always been a fan of seasons. The transitions from cold of winter to the blooming flowers of spring to the heat of the summer and then the crisp days of fall always seemed to come at the right time. Nicaragua had two seasons, hot dry season and hot rainy season. As someone who sweats a lot, this was not ideal. Even worse, I would generally have to live without air conditioning in Nicaragua.

As someone who lived in the same general area their entire life, I knew how to get around and knew where to find whatever I might need at any given moment. Moving to another state would have been bad enough, but moving to another country would basically mean living as a lost tourist. I could picture myself driving around Managua like Chevy Chase driving around traffic circles in European Vacation, never quite sure where to turn.

I had worked hard to build my little life and saying no to at the very least pausing it for a few years made complete, logical sense to me.

As that moment on top of that hill in the middle of a forgotten corner of Nicaragua passed, I honestly was not sure what I would do. I am not much of a “spur of the moment” decision kind of guy when it comes to life-altering choices. However, over the coming days, I began to realize that this might be an incredible opportunity to be a part of something that would really matter.

I did not know for sure how I would make a difference, or even if I could. However, I believed God was calling to follow his lead, much like my family had years earlier. As many reasons as I had to say no, I could also see how God had been preparing me for this moment. Through the opportunities I had been given to lead at church and my experience in working in my family business and financial advising, I had a unique perspective and set of gifts that could play a role in creating change in impoverished communities. Now with an adopted sister, Emelyng, from the very orphanage that had been my introduction to Nicaragua, a land that had once been strange to me had become more like family. The path forward was not completely clear, but I knew taking the step and trusting would lead to something that mattered for more than just me.

In many ways it was the chance to put into action the epiphany I had while running on a treadmill a couple of years earlier—that hope was the key to changing hopeless situations. In the end, it was my belief in the power of spiritual hope that answered the question for me. Where was I going? I was going to live in Nicaragua.

James Belt

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