by Shawn Small.
Our small group of Boise, Idaho, high school students sat under the shadow of the ornate, white-chalk Comayagua Cathedral in central Honduras. We circled up on the ground, most cross-legged, creating an ideal atmosphere to process an exceptionally challenging yet remarkably fulfilling week in the summer of 2007. The soft breeze, brought on by the setting sun and the predictable afternoon thunderstorm, cooled the young people who had come to the edge of physical and emotional exhaustion. The somber mood of the evening was punctuated by content Latin families wandering through the historic plaza, eating ice cream, laughing and holding hands. They all seemed too cheerful. The group had witnessed more poverty, abuse and pain in four days than in the rest of their lives combined. A week ago, their worlds seemed bright and full of promise, but they were now strangely darker and confusing. These middle-class teens had tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and lost some innocence from the experience.
About a decade earlier, I was a 30-year-old youth minister. Burnt out from my full-time clergy obligations and the circus of church politics, I decided to take a sabbatical. My wife had a fantastic job that allowed me to stay home, raise the children, and decide what I wanted to do when I grew up. Career life, in any normal sense, was out of the question. I had spent too many years, cried too many tears, and had too much fun participating in the transformation of lives to go into the daily grind of a 9-to-5 job. After a few months of contemplation I recognized that my greatest pleasure as a youth minister was leading young people on trips around the world.
On my first voyage, in 1993, I led a group of 35 teens to the village of Totonicapan in the interior mountains of Guatemala. Three weeks of cultural exchange with the indigenous population forever ruined my congested perspective on life. I became driven to educate myself, and others, about the wonderful planet we call home. Other trips soon followed. We toured the festival circuit in Ireland and Canada with a Gaelic musical-drama production and a punk rock band. Hiking in Southeast Alaska and working with the Tlingit people opened an unparalleled world of natural beauty through a Native American perspective. In New Orleans, we spent countless hours cleaning in the Fischer Projects until we had earned the right to be looked upon as family by those we had come to assist.
Everything else I did as a youth minister paled to the transformation these voyages manifested in the lives of the participating youth. A world of wonder emerged though a mix of foreign exchange, dedicated agenda-less service, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The fact was clear. Transformation travel was something I was gifted at and my heart’s greatest desire.
With a few dedicated volunteers, almost no money, a lot of passion, and a bit of decent business sense, I started the non-profit organization Wonder Voyage. Its main focus would be to create pilgrimages of service and exploration anywhere a team dared to go.
Today, we are privileged to lead hundreds of people of all ages, races, and creeds to locations throughout the globe, introducing them to cultural intricacies such as food, local arts, history, religious perspectives, sweeping landscapes, and stories. We regularly engage in heart-pounding adventures like zip-lining hundreds of feet over Costa Rican jungles, paddling through gator-infested swamps or climbing volcanoes. Our trips focus on giving back to the communities we visit; serving in practical ways such as painting, food distribution, or medical outreaches.
Our primary goal is to give participants an opportunity to encounter their true selves. When any of us travel outside of the ‘norms’ of our existence, our hidden motivations, internal struggles, and true views of life burst to the surface. We look at our travelers as pilgrims in search of the holy, and in turn, we act as guides in helping them walk through these ‘divinely directed，moments where epiphanies, healings and fresh faith may flourish. It is these touchstone moments that cause the greatest doorways for change in the lives of the trip participants. They are also the toughest trials for the voyage director.
This team from Boise, mostly freshman, had initially chosen Italy as their destination. For a year and a half they earned thousands of dollars through fundraisers. But at the beginning of 2007, the tour company they were using went under and the dream trip was shattered. William, their group leader, found the number to Wonder Voyage and placed a desperate call. They had lost hundreds of dollars and the young people were devastated. Was there any way to restore the voyage?
I talked to William for an hour, explaining our philosophy of cultural exchange, humanitarian service, and moments of wonder. We were a much different organization than the one he had booked for the Italy trip. He was to bring the information back to the group, and I did not hear from him for a couple of weeks. I assumed I had scared him away, but he called back to enthusiastically report that the group had decided to go with Wonder Voyage. Honduras was to be their new location. Much of the money they raised would go to special outreach projects that we would arrange, specifically benefiting elementary-age children. We would explore not only the history of Honduras from the original capital city of Comayagua, but also visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Cop an on the Guatemalan border. The trip was booked, and in July we gathered in the Tegucigalpa Airport ready to start our journey.
Our first three days were spent acclimating to the culture, food, and lifestyle of Honduras. Things as common as flush toilets, safe drinking water, and sidewalks – everyday amenities to these American students—were rarities in Honduras. This would be the first time any of these young people had walked in a third world nation, and their eyes were bugging out at every turn. Although a tad overwhelmed, they did fantastic as we shifted gears, moving them to the mountains a couple of hours outside of Comayagua.
We started by spending three days restoring a school in a small village. Although playing with the children was the foundation of our mission, the crew spent eight hours a day painting desks and chairs, landscaping the schoolyard, and bringing food to needy families. The teens quickly realized that speaking Spanish was not necessary; they just had to know how to smile and laugh. Bonding with the children was the easiest part of the job. In the late afternoons, we retreated to our mountain camp where we swam in crystal clear pools filled by a jungle waterfall. In the evening, we would gather for a delicious Honduran meal that always included fried plantains, refried beans, and warm tortillas. We then slept under the stars, hoping for an evening wind to cool us in our sleeping bags. We were so tired that the thought of strange creatures crawling around the camp did not seem to faze even the most squeamish.
I was impressed at how these somewhat sheltered, middle-class kids were handling the discomforts, strenuous work, and Honduran heat with such grace. Because of the connection made with the children, leaving the village was tough for everyone. Our sad departure was eased by knowing we were spending one more day helping a school at another village directly outside of Comayagua.
Comayagua is a bustling agricultural community and prosperous for Honduran standards. Like most major cities, the outskirts of the town are where the poorest live. The majority of the homes here are constructed out of corrugated tin, broken pieces of plywood, and thick cardboard debris. It is not unusual for a family of eight or more to live in a 10 foot x 10 space. Health conditions are atrocious and abuse is rampant. Statistics show that 85 percent of girls and 50 percent of boys under the age of 14 here have been sexually abused. Teenage pregnancy, most often from a family member, is much too common. We shared these facts with the team before beginning our day of play at a local school. Mouths agape as I spoke, their safe worlds were pelted with an unimaginable reality.
As we pulled up to the school, the students in the vans grew quiet, as if they expected to visit a graveyard. They were pleasantly taken aback upon seeing a fairly normal playground filled with laughing children, bouncing balls, and soccer matches. The harsh realities of the children’s lives evaporated in a morning of playtime. Soccer became a big hit with the older children while another group threw a dance party in one of the classrooms. I learned to play marbles from an unbelievably accurate second grader, and another group of girls taught English on the chalk board. One normally quiet young man on the team took out his guitar and started to gently strum. Within 20 minutes he was surrounded by most of the high school students who had now become an adoring circle of fans, singing along and swaying to the music. The day had been great and the children from the school held tight to the arms, legs, and necks of the team as they started to leave. Loving, pure attention like this is rare in their lives and letting go was difficult. There were quite a few tears as we left the school and headed back to the safe and air-conditioned hotel.
Sitting with the team beneath the Cathedral on that cool evening became our touchstone moment of the trip. I started the conversation by eliciting the uninterrupted thoughts of the team members. What has been the toughest part of the trip? What creature comfort do you miss? Where did you feel you made the greatest difference? How did you cope with the language barrier? The team was unusually transparent and eager to share. Open conversation and the ability to communicate ideas that had been building in their minds for the last week was a huge part of the healing process. The atmosphere of honesty and the abundance of moments of wonder for the team was beyond anything I could have hoped for or contrived on my own. The third world immersion had shifted young paradigms.
The only hitch in the gathering was the brooding face of the oldest girl on the team. Sarah had remained unusually silent throughout the discussion and, even though the night was cooling, she seemed to be heating up. The others in the group, caught in the euphoria of their experiences, had not noticed the building volcano of emotion. Over the last few years of leading voyages, I had witnessed this scenario many times, so I waited for the inevitable explosion. Our greatest desire as an organization is to allow these moments to evolve and see where it may take the group.
When she could not take the stories any longer, Sarah burst out in a tirade that not only silenced the group but mired the memories and lessons learned that everyone had so generously shared. “I have a big problem with all of you people right now! How can any of you think you made a bit of difference? How can any of you believe that there is even a god?” The group had come from a church youth group so references to God’s goodness had been a central theme of the discussion. “I find it impossible to believe in a god that would allow children to be abused and abandoned; a god that would allow so much pain. How is that good? Answer me that!”
The busyness of the plaza, the coolness of the evening, even the exterior of the massive Cathedral became blurred by her stunning question. How do you deal with a 17-year old asking the greatest theological mystery of the ages? How can a good God allow evil to exist? How do we keep this whole experience from derailing; sending this group back to Boise with shattered faith in a loving God and the goodness of mankind? Would they ever believe they could make a difference?
The group leader from Boise imagined all was now in vain. Certainly this question could not be answered. He watched to see if I could salvage any of the discussion, fearing that no amount of psychology, theology, or counseling was going to work at this moment. Something much greater was needed to bring order to the chaos, and healing to the pain. I knew only one thing that could bring healing and sense to her questions – a story.
“Sarah, you have brought up the most important question of this voyage, maybe one of the most important questions of life. We have witnessed a lot of pain, the kind of pain that seems to make no sense, these last few days. I don’t have any brilliant answers or divine insights to give to you. What I can tell you is that fifteen years ago I asked those same questions.
“I was married, a father of a three-year-old daughter, and a youth minister, which also meant we didn’t have a lot of money. My wife Cheryl and I decided to visit my grandparents in Iowa for Thanksgiving, and our limited budget meant we would have to drive from Dallas to Iowa. Not a big deal. We were young and road trips were fun. We departed about eight at night knowing the drive would bring us to Grandma’s doorstep a few hours before lunch on Thanksgiving eve.
“Just before we backed out of the driveway, I held my wife’s and daughter Coeli’s hands and prayed. We asked for protection, guidance, and a sign if we were not supposed to go. A few moments of silence passed and we felt it was time to start the long night drive. We would switch off every couple of hours, allowing the other driver to rest. The first few hours were great. The excitement of starting a journey had always jazzed me, and going back to my grandparents was paradise. Their small town in Iowa held many of my best childhood recollections. It was these cheery memories that occupied my thoughts when the first snowflakes hit the windshield while we were coming out of Tulsa.
“We were unaware of, and completely unprepared for, one of the largest snowstorms to hit the Midwest in years. By the time we were driving through Kansas, the snowfall was whitening out our view. I could only see twenty feet in front of our car so I had to slow down significantly. The drive became unnerving. By the time we reached Missouri we were exhausted. The lack of cash and no credit cards meant we were forced to pull over and rest every couple of hours in a parking lot while we tried to wait out the storm. We would park until the cold became unbearable. This allowed for a few minutes of rest but the brutal blizzard only seemed to increase in intensity. By the time I would wake up from each very short nap the windshield would be coated with several inches of snow.
“Relieved when we made it to the Iowa border just as the sun started to rise, we stopped for breakfast and a much needed break from driving. I called my grandparents from a payphone to let them know we were safe and that we would be arriving around lunchtime. Grandma was relieved to hear we were so close. By sunup the storm had slowed but two feet of snow had fallen in less than twelve hours. We did not look forward to getting back on the highway, but the warmth of my grandparents’ home was calling. We drove up I-35 toward Des Moines. The highways were unplowed and the passing cars left the only tracks to follow.
“About thirty minutes south of Des Moines, we had a real scare as an aggressive semi-truck came barreling past us, creating a wind shear that caused us to lose control for a few seconds. Our car slid on the snow-packed road just slightly, but we all braced for the worst. I recovered control and told Cheryl, ‘We’ve got to get off this highway. That was too close. Let’s just go the back roads really slowly and get there in one piece.’ We took the next major exit, relieved to leave I-35 behind. Once on the farm road, we were thankful that there was almost no traffic. Heavy tractors had been driving along the road leaving a clear tire path to follow. Cautiously, I sped the car up to 45 miles per hour. The sun was starting to illuminate the beautiful desolate fields on both sides of the car. The whole world seemed to be bright, pure, and unspoiled.
“About 150 yards ahead, I saw a black car come over the hill in front of us. I knew I would have to slowly push on the brakes and both vehicles would have to drive at a snail’s pace while passing each other. As I pushed on the brake pedal my heart dropped. The brakes froze. My car was not slowing down. At that same moment, the driver of the other vehicle hit his brakes, and they also froze. We raced at each other, both going 45 miles per hour.
“Seven seconds is a long time to fly at another car. My life flashed before my eyes, then layers of thoughts began running through my mind. I remember yelling into the back seat, where my wife and young daughter were sitting, ‘WE’RE GOING TO HIT!’ I pictured the youth group crying at my funeral.I knew, being in the back seat, Cheryl and Coeli would be okay. How would they cope? I prayed for God’s grace and a new husband for my wife and father for my child. I remember thinking, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ I knew I was going to die. We were traveling entirely too fast toward each other for that not to happen. But the strangest thing was that I was not afraid. In fact, I was improbably excited.
“Even though we had a 90 mile per hour impact, I saw the face of the other driver a split second before we hit. His mouth was agape and his hands were raised as if to stop the crash. I was struck with the thought that he looked really funny. The next moment brought the grinding sound of metal upon metal. The crunch has never left my head; thinking about it still makes me cringe. Had there been no snow on the road we would both be dead, but on impact his car flew backwards and spun into the deep snow-filled ditch. Our car rotated around and ended, after a few spins, facing backwards. It was then I saw the second vehicle- the one traveling behind us – right before it slammed into our front left fender, sending us, once again, sailing down the road.
“When the car stopped spinning, I jumped out in a rush of adrenaline. Hyper shock took over and I felt no pain. Looking into the back seat of the car I saw my wife, who had been sitting behind me, unconscious, with her face planted in the headrest. My daughter, who seconds before the crash, had crawled out of her car seat to pick a book up off the floor, lay still on the floorboards. As I jumped over the front seat, I started to hear Cheryl moan. She was bleeding out of her ear and mumbling, ‘What happened?’ I quickly picked up Coeli; her head face down in my hand and her body along my arm, the way you hold a choking baby. She was not breathing or moving. I started to cry and pray in desperation, ‘God, don’t allow her to die. She’s too small. God, she needs to breathe.’ As the prayers were leaving my lips I thought back to my first aid training. Never move a victim if there is a possibility of a neck injury. I froze and prayed, waiting several seconds for a response. In the most marvelous yell I have ever heard, Coeli screamed in pain. My hot tears fell upon her back. ‘Don’t move baby. Daddy’s got you.” The woman in the second car that hit us, ran up to the window, looked in, and yelled, ‘Oh my God!’
“The hazardous road conditions delayed the ambulance for 45 minutes, leaving us waiting in minus 10 degree weather. Three ambulances arrived; one for the first driver, one for Cheryl, and one for Coeli.
“I rode with Coeli, who was strapped into a baby board on the upper right side of the ambulance. I lay beneath, on the adult board. I could see her but she could not see me. She started to go unconscious so the medics tried to stir her. When their attempts failed to work, they told me I had to keep her awake. ‘How?” ‘Any way you can Mr. Small.’
“I gently asked Coeli to stay awake. I’m so tired Daddy.’ She started to fade. In a firm voice I said, ‘Coeli, listen to me. You have to stay awake!’ ‘No Daddy. It hurts too much.’ If Coeli had been able to see below, she would have seen her father, strapped to a bed, tears flowing because he knew that the pain his daughter was in was so intense that what he was about to do would seem cruel even though it was going to save her life.
“COELI MICHELLE SMALL. IF YOU SHUT YOUR EYES I AM GOING TO SPANK YOUR BUTT! ‘She wailed, ‘Why are you being so mean to me?’ but she remained awake.
“The next few hours were a blur. All three of us were in different rooms at the emergency room. Of the 14 major accidents that occurred in Des Moines that morning we were the only one without a fatality. All I heard was bodies being wheeled into the same room as my wife or child, frantic doctors trying to save lives, and more than once saying, ‘We’ve lost her. I would have to wait for several minutes before a nurse would pass so I could ask if it had been my wife or child who had died.
“Coeli had a broken right arm and shattered left leg that had to be pinned for weeks. Cheryl suffered from a broken jaw that would be wired shut for months and a broken left hip. My wife was placed in one wing of the hospital while Coeli was transferred to the children’s wing. During the first evening, Coeli would wake up every few minutes screaming, ‘Daddy, pray for me! It hurts so bad.’
“By the time Thanksgiving morning arrived, I was in physical and emotional agony. It took me a long time to walk down the hallway to the shower so I could wash the caked blood from my body. In misery, I crawled into the shower. As I turned the water on, I was hit with a cold blast that caused my chest to buckle. My sternum, damaged from the accident, cracked as I pulled back from the cold water. Grabbing the sides of the shower, I fought to keep from fainting. At this point I looked up and shouted to God, IF THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE ABOUT – IF THIS IS YOUR LOVE – I WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU! STAY OUT OF MY LIFE!’ The young, passionate youth minister became an unbeliever at that moment.
“We spent six weeks in the hospital with hardly any visitors. Coeli was put in a full body cast and Cheryl had to learn to re-walk and eat with a straw. Everyone had daily physical therapy, and we all went through the emotional wringer. I grew deeply angry for what had happened to my family. We had faithfully served God for years. We prayed for safety before we departed Texas. How could God let this happen, especially to an innocent child? Shortly after Christmas, we were released, and flew back home to Dallas.
“We were greeted at the airport like soldiers coming home from war. It took all I had emotionally to muster a smile. When we arrived home, our youth leaders – a group of parents who helped us with the teens – had fixed up everything in the house. The pantry was full of food and a huge Christmas tree was overflowing with gifts. A new set of bedroom furniture decorated the master bedroom. Yet, my dark battle remained. I went to church and watched my youth leaders share while I sat in the back wondering if it was all bunk. Every day, one of our volunteer mothers would come over and sit with Cheryl and Coeli.
“For months, when I came home from work, Cheryl would be crying. Daily, at the peak of her pain, she felt like God gave her a tiny touch of His love that did not remove the physical pain but filled her with hope. It was this hope that brought the tears.
“My healing started when Cheryl was finally released to drive. She came up to the church one evening with Coeli in tow. I saw her pull up so I headed out to help. An unknown church woman had walked up behind her as she was putting Coeli into a wagon and asked, ‘What did you do that caused God to take his hand of protection from you?’ Cheryl calmly grabbed her cane and hit the woman, knocking her to the ground. My jaw dropped as Cheryl calmly spoke, ‘What did you do that caused God to take his hand of protection from you?’
“The truth of her words started my healing. Cheryl had never grown angry at God. In her mind, the accident had nothing to do with God. It was a bad thing that happened. But God was very much in the healing, through loving friends, moments of grace, and kind deeds. Months later I started to recognize the goodness of God through the actions of others. The pain had to do with my perspective. Just like Coeli’s view in the ambulance, my perspective on why things happen is limited. I felt God was cruel, but had I seen the face of God over my pain I am sure there would have been healing tears.”
The group, including Sarah, seemed to have softened. Before sending them to journal, I concluded, “I don’t believe anyone can answer the question about why these painful things happen to the innocent. Divine perspective is out of our grasp. Coming from a place of anger and pain I can say the real question is ‘What are we doing to relieve the pain of others? Does the world see God’s love through us?’
Our touchstone moment had arrived. The only thing powerful enough to open hearts to healing and understanding and to make sense out of this crazy world was a story. This is one of hundreds of moments where a story on the journey became a journey of its own. Long after the voyage fades, our hope is that the story will remain alive in the hearts of these pilgrims.
This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2008.
Shawn Small loves his job as the executive director of the non-profit organization, Wonder Voyage, (www.wondervoyage.com). When not coordinating trips and speaking at retreats, Shawn spends the majority of his time with his best friend and wife, Cheryl, and their three children in their hometown of Flower Mound, Texas. Writing which started as a hobby is now a passion. His first book, The Via Crucis, was published in January of 2008. Two more books are scheduled to follow: a collection of worldwide cultural tales, due for release next summer, and his traveling adventures.