It was Thursday night and we had been scrambling to prepare for another medical trip. The plan was to revisit some villages that we hadn't been to in almost a year and attempt some new ones.
The phone buzzed and I picked it up expecting to answer another question about what to bring or where to meet. The message was from the young Bolivian nurse who had volunteered for this trip. My heart sank as I saw the opening words in Spanish "Please excuse me, but I won't be able to join you..." DJ and I looked at each other with wide eyes. We were scheduled to leave Sunday morning.
"I guess it'll be us and Dr. Alex," DJ said slowly, "You could stay home if you wanted to," he added hesitantly. "But there is Alejandra," I said, "you'll be going right by her village and I promised her I would be back to visit in October."
We turned our attention distractedly to packing sleeping bags and medical gear, minds searching for ideas…people, volunteers. Lord how can this land-based medical work continue without them? Are we running out of help already? It was certainly too late to hope for more help on this trip.
Sunday morning, packed to the gills, the Land Cruiser crested the range north of Cochabamba and headed towards Marca Tigre, full of bright eyes and smiles. At the very last minute, through as series of divine appointments, Dr. Alex had recruited a top-notch team that included another doctor and a physical therapist.
The following morning we awoke to the plaintive cries of new lambs and crawled stiffly out of the single room mud hut where all five of us had shared the dirt floor. After caring for the medical needs of our host family and locking the jeep for the sixth time, we headed up the steep mountainside in the fog. Five hours later our destination was in sight, the village of Umamarca.
In the courtyard between several mud huts two fluffy puppies, an elderly grandmother, and three shy girls greeted us. After an unsuccessful attempt to communicate with the Aymara-speaking grandmother and getting only giggles from the girls, we were left standing there, thankful that the puppies at least made us feel welcome! The sun had sunk below the snow-capped peaks in the distance before mom and dad finally came home with the sheep and promised to spread the word to the rest of the village.
In each of the next five villages, the doctors helped the people with their various complaints and the physical therapist charmed everyone with her friendly wit and effective treatments for the common aches and pains of a hardworking lifestyle. And the potato soup never ran out.
Friday afternoon, we were rattling down the cobblestone switchbacks into Cochabamba, dusty, smelly, tired, and praising God for His blessings. What had looked like the beginnings of failure turned into one of our best medical trips ever. Each place had been hard to leave, some had pleaded with us to stay longer, and all had wanted to know when we could return. Since the how and when always depend on God and the volunteers He sends, we had promised that, "Dios mediante" (God willing), we would be back soon.
Reflecting on the spiritual lessons we learned from this trip I am struck by the familiarity of the oft-repeated question: "When will you return?"
Is it not the question we ask on the wider eternal perspective? Lord when will You return? When will the wrongs be made right and the suffering cease?
I'm reminded that, just like our answer to the villagers, part of the answer to this bigger eternal question also depends on willing people. People like you and me, in our daily lives, taking the love of God to our neighbor.
It is our privilege to look for and hasten the coming of the Lord.
"He who testifies to these things says 'Surely I am coming quickly.' Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus!" Rev 22:20