At The River

This is Ingrid.

If you’ve been visiting me here for long at all, you’ve probably already seen her sweet face in other posts I’ve written about my mission experiences in Belize.  Over the past two years, something about this sweet girl has struck a particularly strong chord in my heart, and she is – as I tell her every time I see her – my sweet girl.

Since the first time I met her, less than 24 hours after I arrived in Belize for the first time, she and I have been inseparable.  As soon as the big white school bus pulls up toting kids and adults from the villages, I begin scanning the crowd for Ingrid.  She has usually already been scanning the crowd for me, though, and it usually happens that I look up and she is making a beeline for me.  (It probably helps that I, um, stand out a little in a crowd of Belizeans.  Just a little.)

In any case, Ingrid and I have something of a special relationship.  She is very shy, at least around me, so our conversations are not long and chatty.  They don’t have to be.  I think she knows she’s special to me, and I’ve told myself that she is quiet because she is comfortable with me.

I digress.

During a couple of previous trips to Belize, a “free afternoon” was built into the schedule to allow for relaxation and fellowship with the members of our sister church there in Belmopan.  For one reason or another – usually related either to fatigue or leadership responsibilities – I’ve never been able to spend any time like that with my Belizean friends.  When I do see them, it is usually in the context of worship or other organized ministries.  (I use the term “organized” very loosely here.  Sometime I’ll explain that in more detail.)  I have never really had the chance, prior to my most recent trip, to simply play with the kids from EQC.  There has always been a schedule (albeit a loose one) to keep to…a plan (a loose one) to remember…a lesson (an informal one) to teach.

This time, though, when an afternoon at the river was presented as an option during our first afternoon in Belize, I was thrilled to be able to go.  As worship wrapped up that Sunday morning, the kids all began asking if I was going to the river.

“Are you coming this time, Jessica?  Jessica!  Jessica!  Are you coming?  Are you swimming?  Can you come?  Will you be there?”

If I had intended on not going, I doubt that my willpower could ever have sustained the pleas of those sweet children.  Soon after lunch, I ran over to my room and changed my clothes, then piled into a van to join everyone else already at the river.

As I arrived to the rocky bank of the Belize River, the introvert within me cringed.  It was mayhem, and I was not at all comfortable with what I saw.  People – what looked like dozens and dozens and dozens of people – were milling around on the bank and wading in the water.  There was no order whatsoever, and I immediately wished that I had gotten there earlier so that I could have arrived with the masses rather than walking into the chaos after it had already begun.  I never like walking into a crowd, and I wasn’t sure quite how to approach the situation.

I walked down the bank, though, and immediately heard my entourage begin calling for me.

“Jessica!  Jessica!  Jessica!  We wondered where you were, Jessica!  We didn’t think you were coming!”  Ingrid, Sandra, and Joanna ran up, grabbed me by the hand, and pulled me toward the water.  I was more than a little nervous.  The rocks were incredibly slick and, despite my little friends’ promises that the water was not cold, I soon found that the crystal clear water was actually freezing beyond belief.

Into the current we went.  We struggled against the rushing current and I did my best not to think about the consequences of losing my grip on any of the tiny girls who were clinging to me.  I distinctly remember laughing – a lot and loudly – both because of the hilarity of it all and the sheer nervousness I had about such a crazy-to-me situation.

Every time I moved, I had three girls tugging and pulling on my limbs and my clothing.  I’m amazed that I was able to move at all, and that I was not immovably sore from the exertion.  Very, very slowly, my entourage and I made our way across the river to a more shallow spot on the other side.

For the next hour or two (I really have no idea how long it actually was), we made some of the best memories I have from my weeks spent in Belize.  We splashed.  We played.  I pulled and pushed countless children in inner tubes designed for far less weight than they managed to cram in.  I battled what I call the phenomenon of the Belizean monkey, as I would put one little girl down only to have her literally climb back up me as though I were a ladder.

The whole scene was hilarious.  I’m not normally one to really let loose and play, so as I did so I felt an almost out of body sensation.  We had a fantastic time getting chilled to the bone and not stopping even once a random Belizean rainstorm showered us.  We were already soaked.  There was no reason to stop.

At one point, though, most of my entourage fell away and I soon found myself alone with Ingrid.  Someone pointed out that there were hundreds of freshwater snail shells on the floor of the river, and I – a sucker for shells of any variety anywhere I go – became intent on collecting some.  When I expressed my interest, Ingrid joined in the hunt.  Before I knew it, my pockets were swollen with shells.  Ingrid would scoop up handfuls of sand and rocks, holding everything out for me to take what I wanted.  Occasionally she would hand me one in particular, saying, “This one’s pretty,” or, “I really like this one.”  I managed to fit a couple dozen of the shells into my pockets, plus a few rocks that Ingrid deemed collectible.  (At one point she found one that still had “an animal” in it, which prompted an immediate emptying of my pockets to make sure I wasn’t taking anyone home with me.)

When I climbed onto the bus with shell-swollen pockets, our Belizean bus driver asked me what in the world I was going to do with all of the shells.  I told him, “I have absolutely no idea, but they were gifts, and I will keep them.”

As our time at the river came to an end, I marched back up the hill to the bus, Ingrid’s hand in mine.  I felt a new kind of friendship with her, having spent a new kind of afternoon with her, and I was thankful even then for the experience.

As the week went on, though, I grew increasingly grateful for having had that time.  Our ministry schedule and my leadership role within our team made it difficult for me to spend meaningful time with individuals during this trip, and I didn’t really get any additional time with Ingrid at all.  During the night on Thursday (early Friday morning), I became ill with what I can only call the Belizean Plague.  It was a stomach anomaly of all varieties, and it had me bedridden until our departure on Saturday morning.  I did not get to finish out the ministry tasks I had helped to plan, and even worse, I didn’t get to worship with our sister church community on Friday night.  Because of that, I didn’t get to say goodbye to Ingrid or any of my Belizean friends.

That was an indescribably horrible feeling.  I had waited months to get to see those sweet faces, and then to have to leave without saying goodbye?  Absolutely terrible.  I told my teammates that I felt like I had abandoned Ingrid and the other girls, and I have prayed since then that they didn’t see it that way.

Truth be told, I have been in a pretty deep pity party since we got home.  The feeling of unfinished business is always heavy after these trips, but this has been worse.  This has felt personal, and I’ve wrestled with God a lot on why He would allow my week to be wrought with so much disappointment when I had poured so much of myself into preparing for the experience.  Over the past few days, though, as I’ve been reading everyone’s Thanksgiving-related posts on Facebook, something has occurred to me.

God allowed me to have Sunday because He knew what the rest of my week would look like.  He allowed me that special time with Ingrid – and Ingrid alone – because He knew I would need that memory.  He provided that afternoon as a gift.  I don’t think it was meant to diminish the ache of disappointment that the week brought.  I do think, though, that in appreciating it as a gift, I can redeem the bitterness of my farewell (or lack thereof) and blot out some of the stain it made on my memory.

I think that’s really how God works.  He does that with me, anyway.  I often don’t appreciate how special something is until I am faced with something extraordinarily UN-special.  Then I can look back over my memory and, upon seeing something shining brightly there, I can recognize the gifts for what they are.

And today, on Thanksgiving, I’m reminding myself of what gratitude really is.  So often, we have to force ourselves into gratitude by intentionally pushing from our minds the things we don’t have.  We have to remind ourselves that yes, we are grateful for our homes.  They aren’t the biggest or the grandest, but they are home.  We have to remember that yes, we are grateful for our jobs…our families…our pantries full of food and our cars and our closets full of stuff.  Thankfulness, though, is in the acceptance of and contentment with what we do have.  It has nothing to do with settling for what we’ve been given or with convincing ourselves that yes, our lives are actually not that bad.

It’s been a journey for me, as it always is when I return from these mission experiences.  The lessons keep pouring in.  What I’m taking with me from this one is that in all things, there is reason to give thanks.  Even if I can’t see it at the time, gratitude says that I thank God anyway.  So my thankfulness for my experience in that cold Belizean river….well, it stands alone.  It is gratitude, pure and simple.  It is not gratitude in light of what I lacked or missed out on, but gratitude for something that I did not have to be given.

I have a little shrine, of sorts, on my kitchen windowsill.  There is a glass bowl that Ingrid gave to me on my second trip to Belize, and tucked within that bowl are the flowers she gave me when I arrived on my second trip, the shells she helped me collect, and a picture of a woman washing her dishes in the very river we swam in.  If I could ask God for anything right this minute, it would be that my lesson of gratitude would come flooding back every time I see that collection of trinkets.

Gratitude.  It needs no justification or explanation.  It just is.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.  May it be blessed.

Thankful for you,


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