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Christmas Mission in Belize

by Ronald Knott

Damon should’ve never come on the mission trip. But if he hadn’t, Joann would’ve probably died.

    Most of us couldn’t hide our frustration. Damon* probably knew it was all directed at him, but for the moment he was too sick to care.

Maranatha mission trips weren’t supposed to be like this.
    Only four days into our three-week mission project over Christmas vacation, we suddenly found ourselves burdened with a deathly sick member who should never have come on the trip in the first place.
    As he now admitted, Damon had a chronic intestinal disorder that had flared up several times during his 18 years, always putting him in the hospital under close supervision for days at a time.
    So why, we asked with clenched teeth, had he taken the risk of coming on this trip?
    “I thought about that,” he told us through his agony, “when I filled out the application to join. I saw the question that asked about illnesses that might affect my participation. I asked my roommate if I should tell about my intestinal problem. He said no, because if I did they wouldn’t let me come on the trip.”
Great. Just great.
    Now we were stuck with him, way out in a tiny, remote village in northeastern Belize. We had no way to get him out by land. Seasonal rains had just ended and had turned the dirt road between us and what we called civilization into 15 miles of quagmire two feet deep. It would be several days before the road would be dry enough to get him out by truck. And clearly, Damon wouldn’t last that long.
    By now, in our frustration, it was almost possible to be less concerned about Damon than what his silliness was doing to our goals for this Maranatha trip.   Thirty-five academy and college students had sacrificed their Christmas vacation to build a church for needy believers—and we weren’t happy to have the whole thing scuttled in this way.
    We had expected to get the church up in 12 working days. We knew from the start it wouldn’t be easy. Everything would have to go just right. The church design, almost entirely concrete-block construction, required several skilled masons who would keep the rest of us busy tending to them. We had only five qualified masons in our group, so we needed every one of them all the time.
    But now two of those masons, our Maranatha club president and our faculty sponsor, had to spend an entire day desperately trying to make arrangements to get Damon back to the States for hospital care. Without their help we were behind already on the work site. It was hard to take.
    Moreover, the prospect of getting Damon home in time began to look bleak.     The only way would be by air. But who do you call for a plane? And how do you get it out to such a remote place?
    The town of Progresso had only one telephone—a radio telephone of uneven service in the home of a kindly town father named Mr. Pasos, a man who had lived in Progresso all but two of his 66 years.
    All day our sponsor and club president sat in the entry room of Mr. Pasos’ neat and humble house, placing calls all over the country—with the usual frustrating delays and callbacks. Eventually they located a company that had a pontoon plane that could land on the lagoon in the river adjacent to the village. But they wanted several hundred dollars to fly in. There must be another way.
    They called the British Air Force, who said they could send a helicopter for $2,000. They called the U.S. Embassy and even the prime minister’s office. Nothing. When they called back the first company to hire the pontoon plane, they learned it had just been rented out to others.
    One of my official tasks on the project was to take pictures. Late in the day, I left the construction site and walked over to Mr. Pasos’ house to see if I could get a few discreet shots of the drama taking place. When I entered the room, I found our sponsor sitting quietly, discouraged, in one of the straight-backed hardwood chairs.
    Mr. Pasos, his rugged but friendly face lined deeply with age and sun and sympathy, leaned against the door frame leading into his three simple rooms beyond. After a long minute of heavy silence, Mr. Pasos spoke softly. “Why don’t you call the Mennonite mission? There’s a Mennonite mission about 40 or 50 miles away. I think they might have a plane. Maybe they could help.”
    We found a number for the mission (they had a phone!), placed the call, and briefly explained the emergency. Yes, they had a plane. Yes, it might be available.
    Then we waited 15 minutes for a callback from the pilot. Our sponsor, a pilot himself, quickly and concisely explained our location, and what to expect for landing conditions.
    With help on the way, we grabbed two bags of lime from the construction site and hurried off to prepare an airstrip. We located the straightest, smoothest, and driest section of open road and marked out beginning and ending points with lime.
    An hour later a four-seater Cessna lurched, bounced, and skidded to a stop near the clinic where Damon lay resting. We loaded him by stretcher into the plane and sent a student nurse along to get him home.
    Now, with Damon safely on his way, it became even easier to grumble. Why had we been put through all this? We didn’t deserve this. We came down here to do something great for God by building a church in 12 days. Nearly two days of skilled mason’s time had been wasted just to get someone home who should have been prevented from coming on the trip in the first place.   Why would God do something like this to us?
    Four days later, about midmorning, I was racing back to Mr. Pasos’ house. Someone at the work site had grabbed me by the collar and shouted, “Call the plane! Call the plane! There’s been a bad accident. Call the plane!”
    I later learned that Joann, one of the nurses with our group, had decided to save a 10-minute muddy walk from the work site to the clinic by catching a ride on the back of a backhoe tractor. As she stepped off, her hand or sleeve caught on a hydraulic lever that controlled the backhoe.The huge steel arm swung to the left and crushed her abdomen against the tractor frame and tire.
    When I burst into Mr. Pasos’ house, I knew exactly what to do. I made the call, explained to the pilot the little I knew, and then ran back to find out what was going on.
    Two hours later, surgeons in the general hospital in Belize City, 70 miles away, worked to repair Joann’s crushed body. They sent word back that had she arrived 45 minutes later, she would have died.
Back at the work site, this news had an instant effect on our grumbling. It seemed to us a gentle but direct rebuke from our heavenly Father. We knew that it is often pointless to speculate on “what might have been.” And we also knew that God has a thousand ways to solve a problem before we even know it exists.
    But, all things being equal, it seemed to us pretty clear that if Damon hadn’t gotten sick, we wouldn’t have known how to call a plane quickly. Though he should have told the truth about his illness, if Damon hadn’t come on the trip Joann probably would have died.
    A few nights later—Christmas Eve—we strung up lights in the unfinished church for a special service with the villagers. We sang the old familiar carols and read again the greatest story ever told—about how our God intervened in the affairs of humankind to save us from death.
    It made more sense than ever.
*Some names have been changed.
Ronald Knott writes from Michigan.

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