DATELINE: Friday, April 1, 2005

Our final clinic day wasn’t originally supposed to occur on Friday at all. Our original schedule called for us to have Friday off entirely so we could go out and see the sights in San Salvador. However, since we didn’t arrive in the country until Monday, which nixed the planned Monday clinic, and since we still had plenty of meds in the pharmacy, we decided to go ahead and do a clinic on Friday. Tito and Jo Ann suggested we do a half-day clinic so that we could still have time for some sight-seeing, so we agreed to do that.

On the way to the clinic, Butch asked Flo if she would be comfortable giving her testimony to the crowd of patients that morning. Flo didn’t seem sure if she wanted to do this at first, and I could feel Butch’s eyes scanning the rest of us for any takers already. The trouble was, I could have given my testimony, but it’s not exactly an awe-inspiring one. It’s pretty run of the mill, in fact.

I first became interested in Christianity at a very early age. Though I grew up Baptist, my father was something of a religious free-spirit (well, a religious free-spirit with pretty firmly held views as to how things work) who wasn’t afraid to try out the services of different denominations or even altogether different faiths. I’ve been to Greek Orthodox services, Synagogues, Catholic Mass, Mennonite services, Holy Rolling Speakin’ in Tongues services, plus just about any variation on Protestant services you’d care to name. At the time I hated it, because there we’d be, driving across country when suddenly dad would get it in his head that we had to go be Quakers for the evening, and off my sister and I would be whisked to some strange little church where they didn’t do things like we were used to. Now, I really like that I’ve had all those experiences and have thanked my dad for taking me there.

Even with that background, it wasn’t until the age of 8 that things first started to solidify in my head. I wound up attending a three day church camp based at a local community college near the Mississippi town in which I grew up. This was my first time being away from home by myself, so it was kind of a big step for me. But my best friend Scott Long was there, so that’s where I wanted to be.

In addition to all the usual fun camp-activities, (including a talent show at which I came in 2nd and Scott came in 1st), we were also given Bible lessons throughout the day as well as hearing kid-tailored sermons from our camp minister. We also memorized Bible verses. The first of the two main ones I remember was, of course, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” This is perhaps the greatest verse in the whole Bible, for it contains the key to salvation. It’s got the whole Wages of Sin is Death thing built in, but it shows you the way out at the same time. But the real Rosetta Stone for John 3:16, for me, at least, was the other verse I remember. It was Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The camp minister explained that this meant that human beings are born sinners and there’s not a one of us who can live up to the commandments and laws God laid down in the Old Testament. (You know, all those rules and regs that the Jews of the day spent much of their time sacrificing things to gain forgiveness for breaking.) This was why Jesus sacrifice on the cross was so necessary. He, an innocent man, died a horrible death, the death of a criminal/sinner, so that we would not have to face the punishment of hell due to our sinful nature.

Hearing that verse and having its meaning explained to me was a profound moment for me. I can still see the inside of that meeting hall on that community college campus like a snapshot in my head of the moment the meaning hit me. The verse means, we’re all sinners, humanity as a whole with me included. No one is exempt, cause that’s the definition of ALL. Suddenly this nebulous concept of all these nameless sinners getting sent to hell for sinning, that everyone had been talking about, hit close to home. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that I too was a sinner. Sure, I wasn’t sinning big time or anything—I mean, I hadn’t knocked over a liquor store or killed anybody—but I couldn’t say I was even living up to the rest of the 10 Commandments to the best of my ability, let alone the myriad of other things a person could chose to do (or not do) that constituted sin. (Sin, after all, is defined best as disobedience to God.)

Ah, but then my little mind headed back to John 3:16 territory, particularly the bit about “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Hey, there ya go! I believed in God, I believed in Jesus, so therefore in my mind, I was saved. It was an amazing thing. I felt all tingly inside at the thought of it and figured that’s what happened to a person when they got saved—they felt all tingly.

I came home from camp and announced to my dad that I was saved.

“You are?” he asked, a bit hesitantly. So I told him about Romans 3:23 and my realization over its meaning and its correlation to John 3:16. I didn’t use words like realization and correlation, but you get the gist. Dad listened and then told me that my revelations on those verses were good, but he didn’t think I’d quite hit the mark. I wasn’t saved yet.

Dad let me stew on that one for a while and stew I did.

Within a day or two, though, it began to really bother me. How could I not be saved? I’d felt all tingly and everything, like something had changed within me. Then, in true Michael Binkley style, (that’s a Bloom County reference, folks—pay attention), I woke my dad up in the middle of the night and asked him how I could become a Christian. Dad groggily realized I was serious and he woke up enough to explain a few basics to me.

Dad told me that the way to become a Christian is that first you must admit to God that you are a sinner. It’s not enough just to realize that you’re a sinner, you must actually admit it to God. You must also ask him to forgive you of those sins. Next you must acknowledge that you believe Jesus was God’s son and that he died on the cross in our place as the ultimate sacrifice so that we didn’t have to endure the punishment of hell. And finally you must ask Jesus to grant you his Salvation and accept you into his eternal kingdom. With Dad’s help, I prayed that prayer.

This is not to say it’s been all smooth sailing since. Not by a stretch. And it wasn’t the last time I would pray that prayer. See, as a child I was always a worrier. After I’d been particularly bad, I used to spend a lot of time fretting that somehow I’d said the salvation prayer wrong the first time and wasn’t really a Christian. No one wants to go to hell on a technicality, so I prayed it again and again over the years. My father finally pointed out to me that most people who aren’t Christians don’t worry over their salvation or lack thereof so much and it’s usually the people who are already Christians that spend so much time worrying about their sinfulness and seeking redemption. Made sense.

I also have to admit to falling by the wayside with my faith quite a bit over my life. I felt pretty strong in it when I was a kid all the way up through high school. I had my ups and downs, but I felt like I was on the path. During college, my ups and downs became more frequent, but I had good friends who were Christians who helped keep me on the path most of the time. After college, though, I spent several years away from church, not out of any philosophical differences but mostly because I was unwilling to upset my comfortable life by actually getting off my duff and going there only to be reminded of how much I was disobeying God in the first place.

These days, thanks in large part to my wife’s influence, I’m a pretty regular church-goer. Not that that in and of itself means anything, because I’m probably just as big a sinner as I was before in many regards. But I have a good church and good friends in it who go a long way toward helping me stick to the path and grow in my relationship with God. And that is the ultimate goal that many people miss. There’s a common misconception that Christianity is all about Do’s and Don’ts, but at its core Christianity is supposed to be about an ongoing relationship between you and Jesus, one where you allow him to steer your life where He would have it go and you’re just along for the ride, putting your faith in him that He will bring you through the experience. I’m thankful to say that I’ve had quite a few Step out on Faith moments in my life, this trip being a big one of them. God has always brought me through.

So my testimony is pretty normal. Not that it would have been a bad one to give, being as how the vast majority of people who become Christians probably have fairly normal testimonies to give. As it stood, though, I didn’t have to give mine. Flo went ahead and gave hers that morning and I was left wondering what I might have said.

Only 65 patient numbers were given out Friday morning, but we let some more in after we saw that there were some people truly in need who arrived too late to get numbers. One lady who arrived late complained to us that she had not heard our clinic was even in the area until that very morning. We wound up seeing her anyway.

I know this number system for seeing patients seems cold and clinical, but it’s almost the only way to run things. Dr. Allen remarked through both weeks of this mission that he had never seen such smooth and seemingly practiced organization outside of mission work. Such things certainly don’t happen so spontaneously back in the states. We knew, though, that this was not practiced because this was indeed the Word of Life El Salvador Team’s fist such medical mission.

Because we had so many meds left, much of it in vitamin form, all prescriptions Friday got vitamins whether they wanted them or not and usually a two month supply. We also discovered that we still had loads and loads of candy, so I began bagging up fistfuls of it into our ziplock prescription bags and kept it in a box by the pharmacy window to dispense to any children who happened by with their parents.

In the morning, I spied a little girl out front who didn’t seem to be having such a great time, so I went out with a bottle of bubble stuff and blew bubbles for her to demonstrate how it was done, then gave her the bottle. She smiled and began blowing bubbles and soon had friends gathered round. A few minutes later, I looked out again to see one of her older friends running around with the girl’s bubble stuff. At first I was mad that this older girl might have taken the bubble stuff away from the younger one. Then I figured out that they were all just sharing. I grabbed a couple more bottles and went out to give to the girl and some of the other kids out there. Soon bubbles were floating freely throughout the clinic.

Not too long later, I had a little more time off and went out to juggle for the kids. I’d been saving my juggling balls for most of the trip and had brought quite a few. Most of them were from my personal juggling materials collection, many of them just rubber balls and raquet balls, the very ones I’d used when I first learned to juggle. I don’t use them anymore, preferring to use juggling bags when I juggle at all, so I figured relocating these to Central America would be a good thing. After I’d juggled two balls with one hand and three balls with two hands for a bit, I threw the balls to the three nearest kids and nodded that they should keep them. (You can communicate so much with a nod, at least in my mind.) They dashed off to play with their new toys. Soon after I returned to work, I began to notice children gathered at the pharmacy door. Word had spread I was giving out toys and the kids were looking awfully hopeful. After letting them stare in at me for a while, I did another juggling routine and then passed the balls out to the gathered kids. They disappeared and were replaced with new kids. So then I gave out the remaining balls I had and more kids arrived. Then I gave away all the rest of the bubble stuff and more kids arrived. Finally, I handed out some of our prescription bags full of candy to the remaining kids and that seemed to do the trick. They grinned and dashed away.

In addition to giving out extra meds for diagnosed problems, the docs on Friday also began prescribing some placebo meds as well.

Placebos, for those who don’t know, are medicines or harmless substitutes for medicines given to patients in place of real medicines. These days, they’re mostly used for control groups in pharmaceutical testing labs, but in the old days doctors prescribed placebos all the time when they suspected a patient’s ailment was mostly in their head.

In our clinic, we weren’t exactly using them in either manner, but instead used them in cases where we could not medically treat the symptoms described. I’ve said it before here, but it stands repeating: Doctors can attest that medicine is often more art than science. If a patient can be sold on the idea that something is going to make them better or will cause a condition to stop, they will very often get better or the condition will stop.

Dr. Allen said that this sort of practice used to happen all the time in doctor’s offices across the U.S. And pharmacists, back in the day, were used to seeing prescriptions for a veritable wonder drug called Obecalp, (that’s placebo spelled backwards), that was used to treat a huge variety of conditions. However, in the intervening years, medicine has become a whole lot more regulated, so these days doctors in the states pretty much have to put up with their hypochondriac patients.

The placebo meds we gave out were genuine meds, like Benadryl and Chlortrimeton, but they were prescribed for conditions they were not intended to treat. Throughout the morning, we in the pharmacy would get prescriptions for Benadryl and beside the drug-name on the prescription would be a little note from Dr. Allen explaining what condition this drug was being prescribed for, so if a patient asked if it was for his nerves or for his insomnia we could say, “Yes, that’s what it’s being prescribed for.”

While dispensing meds Friday morning, one of our patients surprised me. Though I had Claudia there as a translator, I gave the lady instructions in Spanish since the instructions were simple.

“Tres diarias. En la manana, en la tarde, en la noche.”

“So, it’s one pill three times per day?” the lady replied in perfect English. I was dumbstruck at first, then grinned at the patient.

“You speak English,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

So I explained the rest of her prescriptions in English and finished up with “God be with you” instead of my usual “Dios te bendiga.”

Claudia asked me about my Spanish skills. I had to admit that to call them skills was really pushing the definition of the word. Sure, I’d taken over six semesters of it in college, but technically what I’d really done is take 6 semesters of a 4 semester course. I took Spanish I, enjoyed it, did fairly well in it, and then promptly sat out of it for an entire year before taking Spanish II. Naturally, I had forgotten so much of my knowledge from Spanish I that I began failing II miserably and had to drop it. So I came back for round 2 the next semester, having not so much as cracked my Spanish I book for a brush up, and proceeded to fail the class yet again and was forced to drop it. After this, I decided to audit Spanish I and really do the refresher course right. That helped tremendously and I proceeded through Spanish II, III and IV. I can’t say I got through them with no troubles, but I got through them.

I found, however, that throughout my two weeks in Central America, much of my Spanish skills had returned to me, far more than I had expected. Verb forms that I’d forgotten were reconnecting in my head and little bits of things would filter out every now and then.

“Hey, I remember Tener!” I said, just after a patient asked me if I was the guy who had the patient numbers. I didn’t know what to tell her so I directed her to someone else. Then I realized, I could have just said, “No tengo numeros” or “I have no numbers” and answered her question.

Toward the end of our clinic day, some kids from the neighborhood came up and asked if we were seeing any more patients. The missionary staff member whose job it had been to give out numbers explained that we weren’t and that we were sorry. The kids left. On their way down the street, they happened to pass by Butch, who was coming back from the store with more goodies. He noticed that one of the kids was barefooted and limping and was bleeding from his toe. Butch got the kid’s attention and helped him back to the clinic where he was put right into the system. Turned out his injured toe was in pretty bad shape and in danger of going septic on him. It was providence that Butch happened by at that moment and noticed it. Kid would have been bad off otherwise.

At 1:30 p we saw our last patient, filled our last prescription and then went next door to our final clinic lunch. I savored the home made potato chips one last time. We all feasted and had extra sandwiches afterwards and enjoyed the company.

After lunch, we packed up the clinic. Even giving out as much extra meds as we had earlier, the pharmacy still had quite a lot of medication left over. We packed as much of it into the plastic tubs as we could and the rest into the remaining suitcases. We would be leaving it in the care of Tito and Jo Ann for use with future missions or to distribute to those in need as they saw fit.

When the clinic was packed away, Butch wanted to get a group photo with everyone. Unfortunately, he chose to take this photo beneath the cicada tree. He asked Dr. Allen and I to take up positions as the end markers for the photo and then once we were positioned he asked everyone else to file in between us. There we stood, beneath the cicada tree while Butch got us into position, the cicada urine literally raining down upon our heads. It was so very very foul. Fortunately, I remembered that Ashley had made me pack a disposable plastic rain poncho, so I pulled it out of my backpack and put it on. After much jostling, we were finally in place and Butch snapped several photos before we revolted and dashed out from under the tree.

I will not miss those bugs.

We drove back to the hotel to freshen up and rest a bit before heading out to see the sights of San Salvador. The plan was to souvenir shop for a while, then go out to dinner with much of the mission staff round 7.

We headed first to an Indian Market to shop for souvenirs. There were enough translators to go around, but mostly the shopkeepers were used to dealing with Americans so it wasn’t always a necessity. I found some really nice gifts to take back home for very low prices. Once again the American dollar goes a long way, and where it didn’t there was always the opportunity to haggle. Ashley found some really nice pottery, including a colorful chip dish with salsa bowl and a clayware set that included a large urn in which you could put a Sterno to cook through a smaller pot that rested on top. It was sort of like a fondue pot, without the long forks.

After shopping there, we still had a bit of time before our reservations at the restaurant, so Jo Ann and Sylvana took us to a very swanky supermarket. I had mentioned to Jo Ann that I wanted to visit a supermarket at some point because I was looking to buy some instant soup for my boss. My boss’s sister-in-law is Guatemalan and she introduced my boss to a Knor-brand instant soup from Guatemala that was terribly delicious. My boss wanted me to score some if I could. I never got the chance to grocery shop in Guatemala, though, but figured El Salvador would probably have the same sorts of things. Meanwhile, Ashley wanted to shop for some fried plantains and Fresca. So we all followed Jo Ann to a grocery store located in a high-end strip-mall full of expensive shops. Our translators told us as we arrived that this was where the wealthy people of San Salvador came to shop. True enough, the place was surrounded by a very Yuppie-like crowd, out for their Friday evening.

Once inside, we located the soup aisle, but while they had plenty of Knor soups, they didn’t have the particular flavor I was looking for. I loaded up on them all the same since they were only a quarter each. We also found some individual bags of fried plantains to take back with us to give as souvenirs as well as some El Salvadorian coffee and Fresca.

While we were still browsing the chip aisle, one of the missionaries, Nestor, looked down into our basket and said, “You are buying whiskey?”

“No, no,” Ashley said, thinking he was joking around. “We’re only buying soup and chips.”

Nestor pointed into our basket again, where there indeed was a bottle of tequila in the bottom.

“I’ve been framed!” I said, looking around to see if the culprit was near. Not that I eschew alcohol by any means. I’m not a Christian who believes that merely drinking alcohol is a sin, and I believe Jesus drank enough wine during his time on earth to prove my point. However, even with that in mind, we weren’t really looking to buy any then. It took some time and guesswork to figure out who stashed the tequila. Naturally, Butch was our number one suspect and he seemed happy to take the blame. Too happy. In the end, I think it was Flo who figured out that it was really Sylvana who had stashed the booze in our basket. When confronted, Sylvana laughed and laughed.

We were to get another shock when we went to pay for our purchases. After the cashier rang up everything, the total price according to the register screen, was like 170.50. Fortunately, Nestor was there to aid us in translation and explained that the 170.50 was in the old El Salvadorian currency, back before the economy switched to American dollars, so we really owed around $15.

Next we climbed back into Sylvana’s van and rode to the restaurant of our dinner reservation at the Hunan Chinese Restaurant. (I know, I know, we came all the way to El Salvador to eat Chinese food. Shut up.) Sylvana, of course, was driving like a mad woman and that extended itself to parking. The restaurant was in a multi-story office building that we later saw consisted mostly of doctors offices and the like. However, we approached the building from the far two lanes of a very busy four lane road and in order to park we would have to cut across the two lanes of oncoming traffic. Sylvana waited and waited until we had just enough time to squeeze through a gap in the traffic and then she started to gun it before coming to a screeching halt in the middle of the lanes.

What we didn’t realize until then was that the road itself, through paving and repaving, was now quite a bit higher than the parking area in front of the building. In order to park, the van would have to drive down the rolling dip of the edge of the asphalt and then onto the rise of the concrete sloped parking space. With all eight of us in the van, however, this was an impossibility without gouging out the bottom of the van in the process.

“Uh oh,” Sylvana said.

“We have to get out?” Flo asked.

“Yes.”

So there we were, pouring out of the van like a Chinese fire-drill (ironically enough), two lanes of honking cars beaming their headlights at us as we scrambled to get out of the road. Our weight no longer a factor, Sylvana gingerly pulled into the parking space and we were set.

Dinner was fantastic and the restaurant quite nice. In fact, I hadn’t realized it was going to be that nice when I’d dressed for the evening.

“I’m glad I wore my best dirty T-shirt and flip flops,” I told Ashley. I didn’t have much of a choice, though. If it wasn’t a T-shirt and shorts it would have been the world’s wrinkliest dress-shirt and pair of corduroys, since my dressier clothes had spen the past two weeks wadded in my luggage.

Inside, we met up with many other members of the mission staff and were seated around an enormous round table that seated 16 people. Soon we had hot tea and shark fin soup to sample while our choice of dishes was prepared. When the food arrived, they came on big platters that were placed on the giant Lazy Susan in the middle of the table, and we took turns spinning it and sampling from a variety of great food.

After dinner, Jo Ann told us that Tito wanted to say a few words to us.

Though Tito is the leader of the Word of Life mission in El Salvador, we’d heard very little from him all week long. We’d been told in advance that he was a quiet man, but a very good soul and he had proved to be that throughout the week. I think we all assumed when Jo Ann said Tito would like to say a few words to us, that he would say a few words in Spanish and that she would translate them into English for us. However, what happened next surprised us all. Tito began speaking English—very good English. And he spoke in very good English for ten minutes straight. When he was finished, all we could do was grin and congratulate him on having fooled us all week. He’d never said he couldn’t speak English, but we’d all assumed as much from his quiet demeanor.

After dinner, we said our goodbyes to most of the mission staff and headed back to Tito and Jo Ann’s house to deal with the luggage. All of our clinic supplies had been brought back to their home following our day and it was time to divide it up and see how we were getting things back to the states. The meds and remaining toys and candy we left behind for future missions or as Tito and Jo Ann saw fit to distribute. There were a few other sundry supplies and items of donated clothing that we left as well. This left a lot of empty luggage, which we treated like Russian nesting dolls, putting bags within bags within bags to consolidate space. We also made plans for breakfast the following morning. Jo Ann knew of a place that sold an El Salvadoran dish called a pupusa which was supposed to be a great breakfast food. The place also sold genuine fried plantains, which is what I wanted. The only member of our team who wouldn’t be able to go was Flo and this was because she had an early flight out at 8:45 the next morning to go to Honduras, where she would be staying with some friends she had from previous mission trips. She’d have to leave the hotel around 6 a.m.

We left all the empty luggage with Jo Ann and Tito and headed back to the hotel in the van. Ash and I got to sleep around 11:30, savoring the knowledge that we’d get to sleep in a bit in the morning, go have a fabulous breakfast, pack up our stuff and be ready to go by our 1:45 p.m. flight back home.

NEXT

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