Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Post -- 30/04/11

After such excitement yesterday, there's an understandable clamour out there for shots of the undisputed wedding of the century. We're only too happy to oblige...

The royal family

That much-anticipated first kiss!

An insider's glimpse of those reception hijinks

The first picture taken on our honeymoon (as we waited for our flight to Italy, though we did end up walking yesterday's parade route -- how prophetic is that!)

Back to the present day and I should start with last weekend's Easter service, for which we had requested much prayer. It all went off without a hitch, the Sunday School and youth group performed their sections with real finesse (not least the choir!) and, most importantly, the church was packed out, with a few new faces in the congregation who, perhaps for the first time, heard the gospel message explained simply and clearly by the church pastor, Elías. Here's a picture of the choir in full-flow, though it's been grabbed from Facebook so, to paraphrase the great Dr. Emmett Brown, please excuse the crudity of this image.

No bank holiday here, so it was back behind our desks on Monday and largely business as usual. I've found myself at times this week having to deal with mounting frustration over the education system here. You'll be aware that I began teaching English to two classes in a local school a couple of months ago. Well, the school has asked me to assess the class on their progress so that we can grade each pupil. And quite right too.

Except that I've been trying for the best part of a month to finally get this initial exam done and dusted. The month of April has not been one to savour in this regard. A couple of weeks ago we referred to the blockades and strikes that had brought everything to a halt, including education. There went two weeks of classes. Then last week I turn up on the Thursday and half of the class are on the football pitch, having opted to make an early exit before the Good Friday holiday. Not an eyelid batted among the staff.

But this week was a corker. Bolivia, for some reason, has a national obsession with what could politely be described in the developed world as Hallmark Holidays. You know, Day of the Nurse, Day of Friendship, Day of the Child...deary-me, there's doubtless a Day of the Day out there somewhere! Here's an illustration: about a month ago, it was Day of the Health Worker. It turned out to be the quietest day at FT in months, because the public all expected we'd all have the day off!

In a way, I can understand it. Folk round here don't have too much to look forward to, so might as well make the most of these little havens of celebration. Yet I hadn't realised till now that the authorities, too, are totally up for these things too.

So, for example, Day of the Child took place a couple of weeks ago when the strikes were taking place. The school had been due to have a celebration for this particular day, which was understandably cancelled. But we can't let an event of such significance pass us by, so the school's event was re-scheduled for Friday past. This meant that I spent our final revision lesson on Thursday trying to keep a track of the swathes of pupils who had just upped and left to practice a dance they were due to perform the next day. Furthermore, this being the May Day weekend, this coming Tuesday will involve a Day of the Worker celebration (though, I have to say, among the teachers, I haven't met too many of them at this particular school), so, despite the head-teacher's assurances, I'm already anticipating the Tuesday class's exam being half-empty.

It's hard to begrudge the locals the opportunity to celebrate. But what really gets me is the blind subservience to these events at the executive level. Nary a week goes by without some such event severely disrupting classroom education. Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying by any means that the classroom should be the sole base of learning. But in constantly granting such disruptive importance to these events, I believe the school system here is: a) creating yet another generation of Day-slaves; b) deliberately avoiding hard work; and c) denying children a basic education. And when I see some of the work of my 8th-grade class on Tuesdays, I find the last point hard to deny.

Rant over. But I really wanted to get that off my chest and give readers an insight into the struggles that face anyone who aims to do a good job within the educational system here. We'll leave you with our prayer points for the week.

• Keep praying for Amanda's visa (we went yesterday afternoon to check on it but Immigration was closed).
• For patience and grace for Craig as he gets to grips with the school system.

• For a fantastic Easter Sunday service last weekend, particularly for the visitors who came.
• For the chance to watch the Royal Wedding yesterday -- might seem a strange one, but it was really refreshing for us to get an extended glimpse of home (I can say that for both of us as Amanda's a subject too).

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday Post -- 23/04/11

This is Paul & Helen Burns, with whom we spent some time on Tuesday evening. Paul, from Stockton-on-Tees, has been to Trinidad for two spells over the years as a volunteer and they took advantage of the English school holidays by coming out to visit the work and catch up with old friends. We hadn't met Helen before and we very much enjoyed making her acquaintance.

Trinidad, too, is currently in holiday mode, with everyone enjoying a long Easter weekend. We took advantage of it yesterday for heading out to the lake, the first time we've actually left the Trinidad city limits in a couple of months. Saturdays and Sundays usually entail some kind of church involvement, so we thoroughly enjoyed a day devoid of demands.

But throughout Holy Week we've had plenty of opportunities to reflect on those seismic days. In morning meditations this week we read Luke's account of the Easter story. In the Community classes, we used a Palm Sunday lesson to highlight Jesus' rejection. Last night the church screened 'Jesus' at its monthly Noche del Cine. And, of course, on Sunday morning we're having a special, evangelistically-focused service, to mark the resurrection (the final choir practice is tonight).

For me, however, the highlight of this Easter week has come from a more unlikely source: Trinidad's men's penitentiary. As part of the website development I'm involved in, I've been trying to add to the image portfolio we have available. We didn't really have anything to show for the prison ministry side of FT's work, so I took a trip out there on Tuesday afternoon. In reality, FT's involvement is chiefly supportive. The ministry has been led by a believer called Wilson Soleto for many years, but Sammy, who is my co-worker in the Community classes, accompanies Wilson on Tuesdays and Thursdays to lead the singing.

Wilson (left) and Sammy (centre) at work

To be honest, I'd been planning on turning up, taking a few shots and then heading back to the office. But I was about to see something special. As Wilson did his usual pre-meeting walkabout in the prison, he introduced me to two men who in the past few days had put their trust in the Lord. Shortly afterwards, as the meeting began, another inmate shared that he, too, had in the past few days come to a saving faith. We sang hymns together in the small, but packed, meeting area. Wilson proceeded to teach the men about Palm Sunday, skilfully relating those events in the context of Easter week.

The three of us were about to take our leave of them when we were interrupted by a voice in the opposite corner. Tears streaming down his face, another inmate declared publicly that he wished to put his trust in Jesus. What a humbling experience, and what a wonderful insight into the work that God is doing in this city. And yet, as I looked around at these men, very much at the margins of society (which is some going in a place like Trinidad), I was reminded that, around 2,000 years ago, Jesus made himself lower even than these in order to save us all from sin's chains.

The Lord bless you all this Easter weekend.

• For the Easter service tomorrow at the church, that we'd see some new faces and that the gospel would be preached faithfully.
• Continue to pray for Amanda's visa, which we are hoping will be ready soon.

• For the work at the men's penitentiary.
• For the opportunity to share the Good News with so many this week.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Friday, April 15, 2011

Saturday Post -- 16/04/11

And a happy Palm Sunday to all our readers. This is a Totaí tree just beside our house. Not quite a palm tree but a decent substitute.

It's not generating anywhere near the international news coverage of last year's proposed fuel hike but the country is very much in the grip of civil unrest once again. Worldwide food prices are rocketing, due in part to the instability in the Middle East and its impact on oil prices. Bolivia has not been immune to this. We've seen our own grocery bills rise considerably over the past few months. Indeed, we reckon we're forking out roughly what we did for our weekly shop back in the UK. But while it means cutting back on other expenses, we at least have the means to cope. For public sector workers who earn around £1.70 per hour, many with several children to attend to, the squeeze is keenly felt.

And it's those workers who have taken to the streets this week in protest over what they consider a derisory wage increase of 10% from the government given the 20% rise in food costs. Their initial demand was 30%, then 20% and it seems they've settled on 15% for now. But after a week in which schools have been closed and the country's main roads have been blocked, the powers that be haven't budged.

So the country has more or less ground to a halt. But we're still standing and the Bible's take on international politics is always a source of reassurance: Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7)

Please keep praying for next weekend's Easter Sunday celebration at the church, to which we're inviting many from our community and family/friends of regular church attenders. I followed somewhat amblingly in my father's footsteps a week ago, leading my first choir practice with the youth group. Amanda certainly spotted a few glaring similarities in our conducting styles. Anyway, most importantly, the young people certainly enjoyed the song (a Spanish version of "Worthy is the Lamb") and we'll continue to iron out the creases later today.

According to our hosts, Blogger, this is our 100th post. I think back ten years ago when I first came to Trinidad. This was back in the days when we were all still working out what to do with this new internet thing -- Napster, for example, was still very much alive and well. I considered it an achievement back then to get a monthly email off to a list of friends and family. So I reckon we've done alright to get at least one post a week done and dusted. Most importantly, it seems lots of people out there are reading and finding out what they can be praying for. And that, as the Hokey-Cokey would tell you, is what it's all about.

• For continued preparation for the Easter service.
• For the tense situation in the country.

• For the Lord's constancy in the midst of uncertain times.
• For the ability to stay so well connected with friends and family in this way -- the internet does have its up-sides.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday Post -- 09/04/11

Important developments on the visa front this week, though like a big tin of Christmas Celebrations, it’s decidedly mixed. The Galaxy Truffle is that my two-year extension came through, meaning I have permission to stay here till March 2013 and, best of all, I have my passport back in one piece. Meanwhile, Amanda’s news is the Topic lounging desolately at the bottom of the tin around Valentine’s Day. Her visa application was returned to Trinidad due to a perceived inconsistency in her application. Her Bolivian I.D. card states that she’s an administrator, whereas her work letter states that she’s a nurse (in reality, of course, she’s both). So we were initially pretty frustrated, but we are told that we should know within the next couple of weeks whether the re-submitted work letter and judicial statement have done the trick.

But I couldn’t put my feet up quite yet. Upon successfully receiving my new visa, I had 25 days to apply for my new I.D. card, or I would be charged a fine, which would increase on a daily basis. Two of the certificates which were required for this were the same for which we had to provide stacks of paperwork from all sorts of different people and organisations in our visa application. Happily, the chap who produced these for us told me the information he had on file would suffice, and so I was able to submit my I.D. card application at the expense of just a couple of work mornings (a new personal best there). However, I’ve been advised to wait 3-4 months for the plastic itself! Of course, a decade ago, it was produced there and then for you with the help of some cardboard, a passport photo and a laminator. Only in Bolivia could the so-called digital age complicate things even further.

The English classes have brought further encouragement this week, with around half-a-dozen new students turning up for the second modules, which began this week. And crucially, in contrast to last year, we haven’t lost many students. Last week we had been a little concerned that those who didn’t pass the exam would call it a day, but the majority of those have returned and are keen to keep going.

Another key ministry for us as a couple is the young people’s group in the church on Saturday evenings. And this weekend we start a short series focusing on Easter. Last year, if we’re honest, Easter was a little underwhelming. It was simply another regular Sunday service, and it seems it has been this way for several years now. The church are keen to change this and use the Easter service as an evangelistic event. And to encourage families and friends to come along, the young people will be preparing a couple of items. One is a drama set to music told from the perspective of one of the soldiers guarding the tomb. The other is a simple choral performance of the contemporary favourite ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ (Thank you for the Cross) in Spanish. Now the locals here love their music but, truth be told, they’re not too gifted vocally. So I’ve manfully volunteered to take charge of the operation, though we’ll keep ourselves limited to the melody. It’s a great song, however, and I pray that the youth would feel blessed by the opportunity to perform it.

More importantly, we pray that the significance of Easter would become clear to them. And, to that end, we’re focusing on three important aspects of Easter over the next three Saturdays. I’m kicking things off by looking at Jesus’ trial and its importance, e.g., the difference for our lives between Jesus being innocent and guilty. Please pray especially for these next three Saturdays. Rare is the Saturday evening that a new face wanders in (this being Bolivia, usually halfway through the evening!) and we know there are several in the group who have not yet accepted Christ as their saviour. Furthermore, many of the young people who are Christians would struggle to explain what being a Christian means and why, for example, Christ had to die – for most of them, their experience of the Christian faith is strongly tied to their experience of having grown up in the church. Pray that, by thinking about these things for themselves (something which is not encouraged in the educational system here), these young people would develop a firmer faith foundation.

• For the Easter series with the young people.
• For Amanda’s re-submitted visa application.

• For new faces – and new opportunities – at the English classes.
• For the granting of Craig’s two-year extension.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Saturday Post -- 02/04/11

Here are a few happy customers from this week's English classes, where, as well as enjoying cheese empanadas and Coke, we awarded the certificates for the first module of classes, which ended the previous week with a short exam. The majority of students scored a solid pass, but we stressed to those who hadn't that their recent progress in a new language was the most important thing to take away from the experience and their mature attitude and determination to keep going was a real encouragement to us.

In the first picture, with the students from the Elementary class, is Ruth Young (2nd from left), from Scotland, who is here as part of a new gap-year programme called 'First Serve' co-run by UK missionary organisations GLO, Echoes of Service and Interlink. During her time here, she has mainly concentrated on administrative tasks, but she has been a great help, too, in the English classes, particularly during conversational tasks. She's leaving after three months here next Sunday, and her input in the class will be much missed.

In the third picture, with me, are three of the students from the Basic class (the whole class is featured in the middle picture). They are, from left to right, Kevin and his cousins Daniel and Diego. Diego is the keyboard player in the new church band which had its first rehearsal on Monday, with my friend from work Wilson on the guitar. We managed to practise two pretty rudimentary songs which we sing fairly regularly in church, though it will be some time before we can play as a unit on a Sunday. The goal is to have a group of around 20 songs that we can play fairly capably together and which I can leave my band-mates with when I'm not around (such as later this year when we'll be in Canada for a couple of months).

Aside from that, it's been a busy week, with all hands to the laptop most evenings as a result. The end of the month brings its usual slew of reports and I've been preparing a sermon for Sunday, the second in a new series on the gospel of John in the church, on the topic of John the Baptist. As I've studied this week, I've found the passage a little dry on personal application, but big on the gospel, and it will probably be the first overtly evangelistic message I've preached for some time. Anyway, I have to get motoring on that just now, so I shall leave you with our prayer and praise points for now.

• For a successful end to the first modules (of four for the year) of English classes.
• For more invaluable training for Amanda this week, with another visit from former FT audiologist Maricarmen Fernández.

• For Craig's sermon, tomorrow, and his preparation.
• For our visa application. We were advised to make contact within a month of submission to check if anything else is required of us, or if there have been any other hitches. So we need to start chasing that up this week. As ever, patience is the key.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda