Fried Shrimp

We pull up just as the sun begins her habitual descent into the aquatic horizon, igniting highways from west to east of rippling, glowing fire. The gulf laps quietly against the bows of some fourteen fishing boats, resting sleepily after another long day of relentless toil. Gulls soar overhead, searching for one last treat before complete darkness. The wind begins to pick up, merciless in her endeavor to blast billows of sand onto every exposed inch of sweaty, sticky skin. Natural exfoliation at her finest. Delicious, enticing smells come wafting on the breeze, woodsmoke and frying shrimp. 

I remember the first time I was given shrimp in a home here in Campeche. They served us up enormous bowls of shrimp broth, heads and tails separated but still in the shell. Except I didn’t really know it was shrimp. I thought the heads were maybe some exotic brand of grasshoppers, six-inch long antennae, beady black eyes and oh the legs. So many legs! I whispered my doubts of horror to David. Shrimp, he assured me. I looked with mortification at my bowl. As far as I was concerned and according to small-town Michigan, shrimp came in vacuum-packed black bags in the freezer section of the grocery store with pictures of cute little curly pink things jumbled around a dish of dipping sauce. These enormous, whitish grey creatures floating in my bowl, of which I was expected to reach in and peel and suck and scramble through had to be of absolutely no relation! 

But that was 10 years ago. 

Our friends welcome us under a simple wooden structure, topped with dried palm branches. Their daughter is busy in the kitchen, frying shrimp and little fish, cutting limes, making up tortilla dough. They are old friends, dear people we have known for years. We peel our shrimp by the light of a lantern, it’s greenish glow casting just enough lambency to distinguish faces and whose coke is whose. 

The talk always turns to the sea. 

How do you know where the shrimp will be? Ah, the wind. The wind will tell you were to find them, in close or out far. 

Have you ever had a close call? One time. One time, yes. It was night and we were resting, but not sleeping. We saw a light coming closer and closer. Thankfully our engine was still running. It was a huge boat. It would have run us over but we were able to move just in time. 

Cazón that we eat, do they stay little or do they grow into big sharks? Oh, sister, those are just the babies. Out there are some seven kinds of sharks, there’s hammer head, black fins….all kinds. Because the oil rigs throw their wasted food overboard, the sharks all crowd around below. 

What are those two lights way out there? Those lights there you ask? That’s the Usumacinta oil rig. It exploded about 12 years ago. Those aren’t lights out there, actually. It’s really fire, still exploding from escaping gases. We were here when it happened; not long after a man in a life vest washed up to shore. He was almost gone. An engineer from the rig. We brought him up, washed him, gave him food and drink. We named our son after him. Another man was also found, his leg had been torn off by a shark. Most everyone else died. 

It’s totally black now, except for their couple lanterns. No electricity out at the beach. The kids are shrieking and laughing, spinning around and falling in the sand, loving having older kids to play with. We talk and laugh and share. Time doesn’t seem to matter. They hardly sleep anyhow, swinging in hammocks with half an eye open to watch the boats in their care. 

Good nights are finally said, they stay to their night long labor and to semi rest before another busy day tomorrow, ourselves gone to fly down the lonely beach, salty air whipping our hair into tangled messes. 

It is times like these that one feels so at home. So in love with the people God has chosen for us to live with. These occasions help smooth out the rough ones; they give new life and energy to flagging souls. God help us if we ever think we’re the only ones who can encourage and uplift. A plate of fried shrimp on the gulf shore did more for me tonight than any amount of literary genius scribbled across a thousand pages in Times New Roman ever could.

Emiliano Zapata, Campeche

Workers Together

I will be honest and admit that I have no idea which book I was reading three years ago when I took a picture of the page to send to some dear friends. The quote, however, has never left my conscience and so I share it with you today (despite perhaps not agreeing 100% with the entirety of the situation referred to).

We may share the conflict or shun it. When at length William Carey had succeeded in persuading his fellow ministers to form a missionary society, to Andrew Fuller “it seemed that the project of sending missionaries to the heathen world was like a few men deliberating the importance of penetrating a deep mine which no one had hitherto explored. We had no one to guide us. Whilst we were deliberating Carey said, ‘Well, I will go down if you will hold the rope.’ But before he descended it seemed, says Fuller “as though he took an oath from each one of us that whilst we lived we should not let go the rope.” Did we take hold of a rope some years ago and have we with the lapse of time let go? Shall we take hold of it again?

There are men and women across the globe who are holding the rope to the work in the south of Mexico. From the bottom of our hearts, the hearts of the believers, the hearts of the unsaved (though they do not know it yet), thank you.

This past weekend was a vivid example of men and women, some down in the mine, some up above holding the rope, working together with God to see the gospel penetrate farther and farther down the shaft of the world.

Believers in Canada had worked and organized to get John 3:16 texts printed and sent down. They had also labored for months to produce, publish, print and ship a gospel magazine called Via. Boxes and boxes arrived, filled with encouragement to get on to the streets and share the gospel.

Several couples in the state of Michoacán, some 15 hours away from Campeche, felt burdened to help in a practical way as well. They sent us bags and bags of good clothes to help the believers here and reach others with the gospel.

So, that´s what we did this weekend. The assembly here in Zapata organized a text and clothing distribution, going out in the morning to evangelize and invite. The clothing was spread out on benches after the gospel meeting for people to freely help themselves. Several women came who had never been to our little meeting place before. They heard the gospel. They were loved. They were filled up with Christian care.

Mission fields are not always (or even usually!) a place of huge, abundant, overflowing blessing, halls packed daily with searching sinners. Three, four, six new women and a bunch of kids is an enormous victory for the gospel.

It could not have been done on our own.

Workers, together, with God.

There is no other place I would rather be than down here in this mine and you there, up above, holding tightly on to our rope with all your godly might.

Spectacles of Insight

Preface

There are people the world over who live utterly unimaginable lives. The anecdote I choose to tell occurred less than a week ago, but it is not the first time it has happened, nor will it be the last. It is also a story that is in no way restricted to a small village in southern Mexico. So, I humbly ask you reader friend, to don your spectacles of insight, prepare to read some uncomfortable things, remembering that these are real people. I have hugged their sweet little children; they have played with my own. 

For delicacy´s sake, I choose to change names. For storytelling´s sake, I have taken the liberty to add descriptive detail and dialogue, which may or may not be exactly as it all went down. However, the heart and soul and main points remain unequivocally based on the sad facts of some of the most desperate lives I have ever witnessed. 

Story

Elizabet watched anxiously up the road for Pedro´s arrival. He had worked all week, she had even gone some days to help him, and today he would be paid. She looked down and her children´s gaunt eyes stared wonderingly back up at her. They had been to the garbage dump that morning, as usual, but had little success that day. 

“Mama,” little Pedrito said plaintively, “I´m hungry.” 

“I know you are little love, but just wait a bit longer. Papa will be home soon. When he comes I will get something to make you.” Pedrito appeared hardly convinced at this optimistic opinion.  

They heard the gate bang shut, all flinching involuntarily. 

Pedro came stumbling up the dirt drive, heaving himself through the curtained door. All five children huddled behind their mother’s tiny, skeletal body, wasted for their own sake, to give each a couple extra bites that should have been hers.  

“Where’s my dinner?” roared Pedro in the incoherent slur of any inebriated human. 

“Did you bring me money? How can I get food if I have no money, Pedro?” 

“Don’t talk back to me woman!” And as Pedro lifted his fist, Elisabet gave an imperceptible signal to the innocents behind her skirt. 

The sound of his slap was enough to cover the slight, harried shuffle of 10 feet out the back door. 

He continued railing, yelling, shouting, abusing, his bloodshot eyes bulging in anger. 

“Come, Pedrito, quickly! Come, oh come little Mary! Don’t look back, just come!” Isabel, in her anguish, fairly scooped up Pedrito in her thin arms and ran recklessly through the coconut grove. 

The others followed behind, trusting their big sister to take them as their mother had shown them so many times. 

Always take a different way, she had said. He might discover a worn footpath. Go quickly, go quietly. Skirt around the mango and head down to the dip. On they went, beating through the long grasses, the hot, hot sun burning mercilessly upon their heads. 

At last they arrived, panting, to their special hideout. Mama had made it herself, a refuge from the storm of a drunk and violent husband. It was just a little structure, four wooden poles as corner posts with an old, faded canvas sign strung across the top. The children, heaving with fright and exertion, sat down on a couple of logs Mama had dragged in the last time and said nothing. 

Pedro by now had crumpled on the floor, his soiled pants filling the house with their rank odor. 

Elisabet quickly, silently, grabbed a jug of water and followed her children out. There was no telling when he would wake again, no telling what else he would do to her or the children. Between alcohol and drugs, he was completely unpredictable. She remembered clearly their last child, conceived not of love but of drunken, lustful, brutal demand.  

She arrived to the little tent, hugged her frightened children around and gave them all a drink of water. 

“Come, little ones, Papa’s bad off. It’s best if we were gone. Follow me quickly and quietly.” 

She scooped up the littlest and the four others fell into single file line behind this tiny woman who would give her all for their little selves. They walked through the bush, eventually cutting across to the main road, keeping always to the shadows, an ear open for a follower, eyes alert to certain danger. The children said nothing. They had nothing to say. Hardship, hunger, poverty and violence had beaten into their brains the uselessness of complaint. Silence hung about them, broken only by the buzz of mosquitos and the whistle of a golondrina, as they trudged on into the village to find help. 

They made it at last to the home of Elisabet’s sister who, knowing the drill, ushered them in, closed the door then peered up the street for a long, long while. Convinced at last Pedro had not perceived their escape, she turned her attention inside. Fresh fruit juice all around, the baby on her hip, forcing her sister to sit, the children to play, Soledad was a flurry of activity. She made them empanadas, filled them to the full. Showered them with the love and attention they all so desperately needed. 

“Come with us tonight to hear the gospel preached,” Soledad suggested, knowing her sister’s urgent need for Christ in her life. 

“I would go. You know that. I would love to go. But he will find me there. Remember last time? We had to hide in the bathroom, the believers had to lock the front door for us. He will find me and make a scandal, cause a terrible scene, try to fight the brothers. He won’t even let me go when he’s sober. And now like this?” 

Soledad acquiesced, determined instead then to show her the love not just of a sister, but the love of Christ to a poor, lost family. Elisabet and the children stayed until they could find out if Pedro was finally sober again to go back home, which they did. Admittedly, quite anticlimactic.

Epilogue

But how did they? How could they return to such an environment? Questions abound. Why does she put up with him? What will happen to the children? Will there ever be any change? 

There is a strength in impoverished women that supersedes any I have ever seen.

Today, we think of strong women as ones who have climbed the corporate ladder, who run their own businesses while homeschooling 6 kids, women who write long articles on how they are equal to men.

Strong women are women who will go hungry for their children. They are women who are faithful to their husbands even when they deserve everything but. They are women who have no running water, yet manage to wash clothes and kids and dishes and floors every day. Women who are not afraid to look for help. Women who will risk their lives for those of their children. Strong women are ones who wake up every single morning and simply do it all again without murmuring against their unfortunate lot. 

As much damage as a husband like that can do, it is impossible for his wife to leave him. She needs the physical security of a man’s presence, she needs the occasional money he actually does bring home, she needs his help and even his love, for when sober he is truly a pleasant man. She is left with little choice. 

And the children? Where does it leave those precious, sunburnt kids with big brown eyes? It leaves them with little education, little hope for advancement, little opportunity to learn what a functional family should be. They will only watch and grow up believing it is somehow normal, leading down similar paths in life. 

Oh, if only the wretched cycle could be broken! If only the light of God’s glorious gospel could shine into their dark hearts! Hope, love, joy could all be theirs. 

As I ponder back over what I have just written, I am remembering the last time I talked to Elisabet. She came over to the house with her sister and we had a lovely little chat. She was happy and peaceful, laughing and enjoying conversation. Yet her 22 year old eyes always belied her mirth. They are the eyes of an old woman, eyes full of miserable, hard knowledge. They are heavy with care and pain. I wish I could scoop them all up, take them home and make everything better. But I can’t. Only God can work to make it all right, only He can provide the necessary miracle to save their family. 

I am well aware that this family is not the only of it’s kind. There are others in this town, this state, this country. Families like this exist the world over. 

There is only one word left to add. 

Pray.  

The Story of Quinta Querit

We sat on our camp chairs and looked around at the beginnings of our new life. It was just a single story ranch, surrounded by flowering pink maculí trees, mangos and towering melina, sandy soil and beautiful silence. A small enclosure held a few hens. Several sheep grazed in the grass behind us. The day was grey and windy and we looked up into the rushing clouds, wondering at God’s merciful goodness. 

Just a few weeks before, we had left the city for the countryside, leaving behind a rented house full of the saddest memories a family could ever have. Emotionally, our cups were full and running over. We clung to each other and to God. There was nothing else we could do but hold tight and wait for the storm to pass. 

But now, we were here. In this little jungle square God had given us, there was peace and beauty, there was new life and new hope. We had felt backed into one of humanity’s most desperate corners, we had gasped for breath, asphyxiated by the wretched pressures of satan’s pestle. But there was oxygen here. We could finally fills our lungs and actually begin to breathe again. 

The difficulties and sadness had not gone away. Not at all. Yet there was something about this place of peace that refreshed our weary souls. The black, silent nights, graciously restoring to us the rest stolen for months by nights of tossing and distress. The whispering of nature reminding us daily of new life and hope for tomorrow. The animals: promising a welcome diversion of work and a healthy provision for my children’s stomachs. 

“Let’s call our home and farm Quinta Querit,” I said on a sudden impulse. David looked at me inquisitively. 

“Yes, Querit, for it was here that God miraculously provided for us a refuge when we could not take another step. 

He agreed. 

“Penelope, man can do what they will but God, He is always faithful. He has never abandoned us through all this time and He never will. Quinta Querit it is.” 

(Querit is Cherith, for my linquistic contemporaries.)

Israel was a barren land. With a king and queen devoted to idolatry, false prophets and a hatred of all things righteous, it was no wonder God brought a famine through Elijah the prophet. With more tenacity than I could ever muster, Elijah announced to Ahab there would be no rain, or even dew unless he, Elijah, commanded it to come. You can only imagine the king’s exploding fury at this one who dared to invoke God’s holy name against him! Elijah the prophet fled, at God’s command, towards the east, the rising of the sun, down to the little brook called Cherith. It was a place of undeniable, miraculous, God-given refreshment. Bubbling through the harsh Jordan Valley during the rainy season, Cherith was a haven of unexpected rest in that arid mountainous region. Yet God did not only provide water to His fugitive servant. He commanded the ravens to feed him as well, every morning and every evening, bread and meat.

Oh the abounding, excellent, merciful generosity of our God!

We had felt like Elijah, desperate for a place of God’s refreshing. He, in His lavish mercy, gave us the very thing we needed, our little Quinta Querit. 

And so it began. Some hens, a few sheep, a batch of broiler chickens. They were for our personal consumption but as time went on, we realized the demand that there was for farm fresh products, free from hormones and chemicals and unkind living conditions. People were excited to be buying local and to be eating clean. We opened a Facebook page and started taking orders in to the city, about an hour away. At first it was only a few dozen eggs and a couple of chickens. Soon there were more and more orders we simply could not fulfill. We started ordering chicks by the hundred, waiting anxiously for the months to pass until those first little eggs were found in the boxes. Today, we have about 700 hens who lay around 300 some eggs per day. We take them in by trays of 30, twice a week, into the city of Carmen.

It was hard to keep up with several different kinds of animals. Between sicknesses, space and demand it soon became obvious something would have to give. 

In this area of Mexico, lamb is consumed very minimally. We couldn’t find a consistent market for our sheep, so off they went. 

Broiler chickens are prone to getting colds and coughs (chickens coughing=weird), so there was a constant cost of medications and special care. We finished raising the last batch, filled the freezer and said good-bye. 

Most Mexicans (again, in this area. I can only speak for what I know) would consume egg nearly daily. There would always, always, be a demand for eggs. So we decided to be the first and only regular supplier of farm fresh eggs straight to the doorsteps of the people on the island of Carmen.

The reason we live in Campeche, Mexico is to spread the gospel and see New Testament churches established. We never envisioned adding “farmers” to our list of occupations. Yet we arrived to this little village on the shore of the Gulf and a few things were evident immediately. Everybody, every single body, has animals. We, that first month, were the only people in the entire town not raising animals for meat. 

Let’s put that into perspective. There are like 1000 people, maybe some 300 houses. We are white. We have freckles. We speak English. We live in the last house. We preach the gospel. And we have no animals. Whaat?? There is an automatic rejection reflex because we are just too different, too strange, too confusing. It would have actually been a bad testimony to the gospel for us to not raise animals. 

Aside from that, a little town means everyone knows everything about everyone else. “Pastors’” lives least preserved from that minute inspection. They needed to see us working. They needed to have the confidence we were not here to live off their meager salaries. They needed to know the absolute contrary was our actuality. We were here to help.

People were shocked when we would arrive with a chicken to help them that day. They could not believe we would gift them a dozen eggs. They watched in awe as we were able to give jobs to men who had no work, so they could once again provide for their families. It just wasn’t what a typical herald of the gospel did.  

As we learned more about the different animals, it became one of the easiest ways to start conversations and make connections with people, so necessary when coming into a place with the gospel. It doesn’t work to just start knocking on doors and expect people to fall over each other to hear the good news! They often need to know you care, that you are human but with a hope they long to have. They like to see you care not just for their soul, but for their 15 turkeys with colds, for their husband who was out all night fishing, for their mother who is blind from diabetes. 

Then, they will be willing to accept you have something special; it is then that they will want to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified. 

God’s love shining through your questions of concern will convince them they need His love for themselves. 

It has been a journey of discovery and self-examination, a wonderful opportunity to let go and see God’s beautiful plans unfold. Our fortuity to run an egg farm has been an enriching experience for ourselves and also for our children, as they observe and learn about every detail and phase of this project. 

Quinta Querit continues to be a place of freshness, renewal and stress relief, a spot where worries fly up to God, borne on the back of weaver birds and warm ocean breezes, where His mercies and miracles are still new every single morning. 

A Special Day at Quinta Querit

It was my intention to write once a week on Wednesdays to keep myself accountable. I suppose that works for the uneventful, mundane weeks but I am learning that I also shouldn´t limit my writing schedule. Sometimes interesting things do actually happen!

A few weeks ago, a couple teachers from a nearby university stopped by our place. Responsible for classes on communications and specifically English, they came up with the idea to bring students to our home where they could be encouraged to study the English language and to work hard, no matter where you are from or where you live, focusing on our hen farm as an example. They also asked us, in so many words, to encourage them to seek God above all else.

It was no ordinary request. Since when do we normally have 50 some 18 to 20 year olds obligated to listen respectively to the benefits of a Christian life?

They arrived today on two large buses and parked a ways up the street to not block our little lane.

I watched them through the kitchen window, row after row of young adults coming down the two track, past the bamboo, on to the palapa and my heart was filled with thankful humility. We did nothing to arrange it, except to open our doors to a bunch of seeking strangers. God led them straight to our doorstep.

We had a half hour talk in which we shared our story, why we are here and what we do, the ways in which being believers has helped us in life and encouraged them to choose the road that leads to God. We had a time of dialogue in English and answered their many questions, ranging from how many hens we have, to what the style is of our meetings, to what our favorite Mexican food is!

They enjoyed a tour of the hen farm, orchard, and grove then spread out to have their lunch, hold the puppies, and buy their moms some eggs.

Just a few days ago, several boxes arrived with John 3:16 texts, so we were able to share them with the students. One young woman from the island of Carmen exclaimed to David, “my mom has one of these at home!” It was some 10 years ago those texts were distributed.

And I definitely forgot to turn off the porch light this morning…..

These are the little things that keep our flame of service burning, our love of souls warm and reaching, our minds clear and focused on the why of this life.

In some ways though, this was the easy part. It was simple to receive them, give them a tour, befriend and show them the love of God. Now, for me, comes the difficult part.

Is there much purpose in handing them a Bible verse, sending them on their way and forgetting about them, leaving them to the rude chances of university life?

Help me, please, to pray for these young men and women. Pray that their day here at Quinta Querit would be remembered not just for a lovely time out of school in the countryside, but that it would be the special day they realized their need for Christ as Savior.

La Reina

She is often little more than a despotic queen. Demanding and unpredictable yet maddeningly indispensible, she ascertains man’s heart of fear and his soul of dependence. She is a moody monarch: one day deceptively sweet, honeying man out to her depths, the next roaring with insatiable anger and destroying whatever be in her all-encompassing path. She knows he can do nothing against her and will merely wait for the squall to pass before re-entering her enslaving waves to search for a few fish to feed his family. For without her, they will starve. 

It is the story of all fishing villages, of all the world, of all ages. 

Life is found within her watery swells. She yields kilo after kilo of shrimp and fish, putting food on the table and cash in the pocket. It keeps the economy running: women stand huddled around large wooden tables, sorting, processing, dying shrimp for many hours and happily arrive home with a few extra pesos tucked into the top of their shirt. Trucks arrive to haul loads all the way to Mexico City. They can buy their kids’ shoes, finish stuccoing their house, take the Virgin for a spin in their boat to thank her for their success. 

Except it’s not always like that. 

Men go out in the early morning, a few to a boat, loaded up with gasoline, nets and high spirits. All morning, the hot tropical sun beating down on their leathered skin, they throw the nets this way, then that. Nothing. They head back. Again in the evening, another try. Nothing. 

What will their family eat? Never mind meat and vegetables. Just a few pesos for some tortillas, a few fish to fry and share. They have no choice but to try again. 

They go all night, all the long, dark night. Nothing. 

Desperation strikes. They head farther out to open sea, farther from the relative safety of the bay. Out to where there is possibly some hope. 

Far, far out on the eastern horizon the clouds are rising, cumulating into dark, frightening masses. They are out too far, there is so little hope. Some make it home, some do not, their little fishing boats tossed like little toys on the violent sea. Her rage hardly mitigated even for the desperate cries of desperate men. 

But the ones who make it home have no choice. It does not matter they have almost lost their lives. Their family has to eat. 

Out they go, again and again. Searching, hauling, mending. Ceaseless, driving force to provide at least something. 

They head out, just as the bright red sun sends its final rays flickering across the rippling sea.  It’s just two of them this time. The boat is fully loaded, ready for an all-nighter. They wave good-bye to the family on the beach who watches their boat when not in use, and off they go. Gone for a few kilos of fish. 

They go and night falls, the sea rocking to drowsiness her unsuspecting dependents as a mother lulls her baby to sleep. 

Days go by and they don’t return. Not on the first, nor second, nor the third. The families begin to get desperate, but who has money to pay for the gas to go look for your husband, your father, your brother? The fourth, the fifth. 

Some men finally go, out again to the depths of the sea. 

There! Finally one cries. There, oh, there they must be! Oh, the grief, the disillusion! The demolished fragments of what had once been a fishing boat, floating all alone on that azure field of waves. Struck, no doubt by a large ship, unseen in the blackness of midnight. Farther on, what had once been a man, now recognizable only by a chain he wore. The other, lost. Completely lost. 

I am at this moment at a loss for words, for these are true stories. The men lost in a sudden storm happened 3 years ago, the two men just last week. 

They lived here, they worked here. Their wives and children are up the street, grieving. 

There was no option. For all the danger, for all the uncertainty the life of a fisherman affords, there is little choice but to go again and again into those murky waters and hope for just a little catch. The sea, like an abusive relationship, can burn their skin, can steal their sleep, can take their very lives, but man will always go back to her again and again. Civilization demands it, the economy demands it, their children’s empty stomachs demand it most of all. 

And what can one do? I suppose my three year old said it best. 

Mommy, I hope God saves all the fishermen. 

So do I, little man. So do I.