Two weeks ago, at 8 a.m. on a Monday, art instructors, interpreters, and support team members stood waiting anxiously on the side of a volcano overlooking a beautiful lake in Guatemala. No one was paying any attention to the lake at that point, though. We were anticipating the arrival of students for I AM ART, a camp presented by an international team on behalf of Athentikos, a Nashville-area-based non-profit that helps kids discover the uniqueness of who they are in God’s greater story and unlocks the possibilities of who they can be. This particular I AM ART camp was held at Opal House, a working organic farm and school on high above Lake Atitlan, the second largest lake in Central America.
The art media we worked in was different, but each workshop leader took their students through a five-day curriculum that included the following themes: story, setting, conflict, resolution, and community with the overarching principle that each student is a beautiful work of art, the art of I AM. I presented a collage workshop and our daily theme was reflected in the cutting, gluing, and creating we did each day.
Before leaving Nashville, several people asked me what they could pray specifically for me on this trip. I’ve never taught art before and I felt a self-imposed pressure to do good work, to represent both Athentikos and Christ well. It would have been very easy to request prayer that I do a good job. But, even though I’m a recovering performance-oriented perfectionist, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted most. Instead, I simply asked that they pray that I love the kids well.
As I look back on the week, I realize that in all the performance metrics I can imagine, I bombed. I’ll share more of these stories in another post, so stay tuned, but my plan for the week was wiped out the night before camp, due to materials being unavailable in country. My kids may not have experienced the depth of discussion or understanding I wanted them to. The leadership of my group made what felt like a glaring error in judgment that happened right as the camp team leader walked past, our final celebration day had major conflict, and our final project didn’t work the way it was supposed to. I’m fairly certain it broke before we left the art show on the final day. If this was the whole story, I’d feel like a complete failure.
But, it’s not the whole story. Because performance isn’t what the kingdom of God runs on. The kingdom of God runs on love.
On the last day of camp, some interpersonal issues between a few of my students surfaced and the morale of the group went from high to very low. The energy we’d had all week was sucked out of the room in the space of an hour. We experienced conflict day on the day we were supposed to be experiencing community. We’d not seen anything like it all week and nothing we did as leaders seemed to help. We finished our tasks, but they lacked heart and the joy we’d seen all week was missing.
We needed a break. I took the kids outside and we sat in the sunshine. All the buildings and most of the outdoor spaces are oriented toward the lake. It’s a powerful presence and a stunning backdrop to all that happens, a constant reminder of God’s creative power.
But, at that moment, the most beautiful thing in my sight was five Mayan children. I took a few moments with each one in turn, held their hands, looked in their eyes, and told them each that they were the beautiful art of God and that he loved them more than they could imagine. One struggled to meet my gaze at first. One held it with rapt attention. Each of them heard me speak words of love and encouragement directly to them. All of us left that moment with tears in our eyes. I will never forget their faces as I spoke love into their hearts.
A few hours later, as they enjoyed the art fair with their families there were lots of hugs. Lots of tears. Several of my group didn’t want to leave. At one point I was buried in hugs. I don’t know exactly what seeds God planted in those lives over that week. But, during team sharing later that evening, in answer to the question, “How did you see Jesus this week?” A team member said she saw Jesus in me as I loved my kids. While all the performance metrics the world uses might label my week a failure, I count it as a success. Those prayers were answered and I loved well. My heart is full.
Other favorite moments from the trip:
Children of all ages (including Opal House kids as well as team members from college-aged to older than I am) standing shoulder to shoulder along a sidewalk, high above the lake painting a wall mural together in bright, happy colors.
Seeing my thirteen-year-old son step way outside his comfort zone and lead an afternoon rotation, teaching 25 kids cartooning each day. I was able to walk through the class occasionally and see him teach through an interpreter and see the kids loving it. I could hear them from my assignment on the mural repeatedly count down with glee and laughter as part of a class project each day.
Watching my fifteen-year-old workshop assistant be so engaged in my workshop projects that she was doing alongside the kids that she skipped snack break to keep working by herself. Twice. It was amazing to see her creativity and joy in art-making come alive in a medium she knew nothing about.
Hearing my group randomly sing the worship and camp songs throughout the mornings as we worked on our projects. I know that they’ll be singing the declaration that they are the art of God over themselves for months or years to come. Because it’s just that much of an earworm. In the best way possible.
Hearing over and over (with glee) “Más alto, Michelle!” as I pushed one of the girls on the swings daily at break times.
Watching the kids run at top speed across the patio on their way to the large group meeting and throw themselves into my arms. Hugs were the absolute best.
Praying in the early morning before conflict day with part of our team as the sun rose over the lake in front of the chapel. God was present in a powerful, tangible way in that hour and I was privileged to partner with him in prayer and sit in his presence.
Seeing the pride on the kids’ faces as they showed their parents their work at the art show and watching the parents amazement at all they had accomplished.
Hearing the youngest in my group, a seven-year-old, tell me that what she’d learned this week was that she can respond to conflict with love.
Guatemala is the largest country in Central America and it has one of the highest disparities between rich and poor in the world, as well as one of the highest poverty levels. The indigenous population, the Mayans whom we were serving, are disproportionately affected. Wealth and poverty often exist side by side, not separated by physical distance as they typically are in the US.
It’s a stunningly beautiful country and we did ministry in a special corner of it. Special because the volcanos fold themselves down to the blue water’s edge in rugged green creases creating a glorious view. But, more so because there are people who are working hard to better the lives of the children and families in their community with the love and grace of Jesus. Because there are children with warmth and laughter in their eyes. Because God has placed a piece of my heart there.
If you helped support us in any way as we made this trip, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ll share more specific lessons learned in the days to come but wanted to give you an overview.