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Found in the Translation: The Short Story

I flapped my blanket as quietly as I could in the open air to unfold it the rest of the way and then let it parachute to the ground and land wherever it chose. In the process of sitting first and then trying to lie down on my back, I banged my head so hard against an unexpected rock that I sat up again involuntarily, dizzy from the blow to my head but dizzier still from rising so quickly. Uttering vulgarities I wouldn?t dare admit I knew the meaning of and wouldn?t have normally used in the presence of other Christians, I yelped pitifully before putting both hands over my mouth to keep from cursing out loud again.

Unhampered by any of man?s monuments to civilization or God?s own natural self-tributes, the moonlight shone brightly on the dry, rocky, trash-littered, dirt field and enabled me to observe at a glance the rows and columns of sleeping bodies belonging to other recent high school graduates?snug in their sleeping bags?from all over the United States. I breathed a quick prayer of thanks that no one seemed to have heard my un-Christlike language, and then I added a sincere postscript of apology.

I touched the back of my head gingerly, winced at the pain, and then sighed in relief at finding no traces of blood?wet or dried?on my scalp or in my long blonde hair.

After running my hands over the ground to locate a spot that seemed freer from rocks, I lay down again, nestled my head in the crook of my left arm, and closed my eyes. This was far too early to be having to go to bed, and I didn?t feel the least sleepy! I scratched my nose with finely manicured fingernails that would be worn down to utter ugliness by this time tomorrow. Suddenly aware of the size of my borrowed blanket?perhaps it was even king-sized!?I grabbed one side and started rolling towards the other side till my petite body was several layers deep inside. I hoped I wouldn?t need to get up during the night! At least now I could be snug and partially warm! But, still aware of the night chill, I made a mental note to move closer to the campfire the next evening, even if it meant being separated from my new friend, Alicia.

One more disaster dealt with, I thought to myself as I realized my dizziness had been replaced by a minor headache. This could have been worse. Or could it?

I fought with all the strength I had?and then prayed for more strength still?to keep from weeping aloud and being overheard by the same girls who?d slept so soundly through my outburst just moments before and tomorrow might remember only a vague dream about an angry, eighteen year old girl yelling vulgarities into the night sky.

But the tears I refused to cry were not from the pain of my injury this time; I could endure that till it went away completely. Nor were they from being miserable in my makeshift sleeping bag; a new day would break eventually, and the sun and the temperature would certainly both rise, and so would I.

No, these were tears of frustration?

* * * * *

I alone had failed to receive the crucial email message sent earlier in the week to alert these hundred and forty-four volunteer missionaries that the whole nature of our trip had changed. No longer were we coming to a semi-civilized Mexican town two hours south of San Diego to do evangelism and outreach with the local Baptist church, but to a tiny Mexican village so far out in the boonies that it was an unlabeled pin-prick on regional maps and had never been taken seriously enough?even after two hundred-plus years of existence?for census takers to bother going there to count the thirty-five remaining residents.

And my mission team was here now to do construction! I hadn?t even been permitted to nail picture hangers into the wall at home, and there were good reasons for that!

All of the sixteen or so houses in the village had been largely or totally destroyed by a freak tropical storm. Indeed, only the small, unused Catholic church seemed to be untouched, and that had made as much of an impression on the villagers themselves as it had on our team.

It had taken a lot of prayer in the first place to get pumped up and willing to minister to a town without malls, for I knew it would take me far outside my comfort zone. But at least it was a town with electricity, plumbing, and a single McDonalds. I?d been ready to share my testimony in song and drama and pass out leaflets in Spanish on street corners and perhaps even in local bars, but I was unprepared to face the task of helping rebuild Santa Mar?a. Santa Mar?a: a hole in the wall without a single place to shop or buy even a snack. Where did the villagers obtain food and clothing? And how could such a place exist just four hours from San Diego and yet have no electricity or running water?

It just happened that?I wasn?t yet prepared to admit that God was in charge of the circumstances?two highly qualified construction builders from Tucson were available during the same nine days my team was scheduled to be in Mexico. They?d gathered together a tractor trailer full of donated building supplies, food, clothing, and bedding (I?d borrowed my blanket from the donations), but it had proven impossible to find volunteers to do the grunt work on such short notice. So it seemed appropriate that the mission agency alter our plans and attempt to meet more pressing needs. And it seemed natural to put the two builders in charge of the project. Charlie and Rob seemed like pretty okay guys for being older married men in their early thirties.

One hundred and forty-three people?everyone but me?had known about the change in plans days before arriving at the San Diego airport. Everyone else had been told to bring sleeping bags and one or two basic, light-weight hand tools. They?d been cautioned that there would be no need for cosmetics or small electrical appliances like curling irons, blower-driers, and boom boxes. They were told to bring only their oldest and scrappiest-looking clothes and to wear only their most comfortable shoes, for there?d be no occasion to dress in the kind of clothing we?d originally been told to bring. I?d had to pay $25 extra airfare for baggage made overweight by items everyone else knew to avoid bringing!

It?s little wonder I?d been in shock the whole length of the bus ride from San Diego to Santa Mar?a.

* * * * *

Several tears rolled down my cheek and landed on my borrowed blanket. My arm had gone to sleep beneath my head. I shook my hand and arm to get the blood flowing again and then?out of desperation?I unwrapped just enough to search the ground and find a rock flat enough to use as a pillow. The last thing on my mind before dropping off to sleep was, ?If Santa Mar?a is really this isolated, how had anyone known it was here and needed relief efforts?? That?s a question I never heard answered, but I knew God knew.

* * * * *

I was awakened at sunrise the next morning by Alicia, an African-American sweetheart whose plain face shone brightly when she smiled. She?d evidently been up for a while.

?Kim, time to rise and shine! You know what they told us yesterday??

?No, what?? I groaned irritably. My Cedartown, Georgia, accent had transformed those two simplest of words into at least three syllables and possibly more, and I could hear some of the Yankee girls laughing at my accent.

?That we?d need to use all available daylight for work?and sleep only when it?s too dark to do anything else. It?s light now.?

I shook my head groggily. I still had a trace of a headache. No, I hadn?t heard that regrettable bit of news. I?d been too preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself.

I instinctively turned on my cell phone?I?d turned it off upon realizing there?d be nowhere to charge it?to see if I had voice mail or text messages, but found no signal in this remote area. I tossed my phone lightly towards the foot of my blanket, but it hit a rock underneath, causing the battery to pop off. I laughed for the first time since leaving San Diego. Alicia laughed with me, but had no idea why I?d thought this to be so funny. I was simply thankful that nothing had popped off my head when it hit that same rock last night!

We walked together over to where the semi was parked. Packaged food was being passed out to the team members for breakfast, and Charlie and Rob?as project leaders?made signs to the villagers to come join us for breakfast. Charlie and Rob made an awkward and only partially successful effort to quiet the crowd enough for the blessing to be heard.

The drastic, rapidly-made change in plans had resulted in an equally drastic and disturbing oversight: our group had no translators! Although many of the kids had studied Spanish in high school, no one was fluent enough to carry on a meaningful conversation with the villagers. I thought about my own four years of high school French and shook my head in disgust. If only we?d been doing a relief project in France! Or, better still, evangelism!

Apparently the villagers had been made aware of our intentions prior to our arrival, for they seemed warm, receptive, and appreciative, and they obviously planned to be active participants in the reconstruction of their own homes. They seemed happy in spite of everything they?d been through, and that just blew my mind! I?d never lost anything of consequence before except an expensive gold earring, and yet these folks appeared to have lost almost everything they owned. I decided I could afford to display a better attitude and participate cheerfully just as if I weren?t doing dirty, sweaty, dangerous work in my favorite American Eagle jeans, Hollister tops, and Gucci leather flats, while freezing to death on the hard ground at night.

* * * * *

So much for my good intentions, I sighed silently. Rob and I had just returned from an emergency trip to San Diego to get my broken arm treated, and I could imagine the glares of the guys and girls alike as they expressed resentment behind my back that much of the day had been wasted because Rob had had to leave 100% of the work supervision to Charlie, and there just wasn?t enough of Charlie to go around. Why had I volunteered to climb to the second rung of a secure ladder?just eighteen inches off the ground!?if I knew I was terrified of heights? I was sure they were questioning that, too, and I felt horrible that I had now become a useless house builder who would have no choice but to sit around idly and baby my tan while everyone else labored and burned in the hot sun.

I tried to help by passing out water bottles and fetching items I could carry in one hand, but it was soon apparent I was in the way. It made the workers nervous to have to be on constant guard against hitting my broken arm with a careless 2x4! So I moved from the construction area and sat in the slight shade afforded by the overhang of the Catholic church roof. People passed by frequently as they entered the one-room building to get a reprieve from the glaring sunlight. And that?s where a plentiful supply of drinking water was kept. The villagers looked at me sympathetically and gently patted my cast; even the other team members became more understanding of the fact that my uselessness was more upsetting to me than to them. The villagers seemed to have great respect for their little church, and yet it seemed more a superstitious reverence?especially now after its miraculous survival?than love of a place God meant for Christian brothers and sisters to meet together in worship. As the simple houses began to come together, I noticed that crucifixes?many of them going back for generations or perhaps even centuries?were the first things the villagers hung on their inside walls. And yet I saw no Bibles?had they been destroyed in the storm??and none of the villagers seemed inclined to hold even the simplest of worship services that first Sunday morning.

I didn?t care whether these wonderful people were Catholic, Baptist, or something in between, but I was concerned whether any of them even knew Jesus as their personal Savior. There was no way I could make any inquiries or give my personal testimony. Why hadn?t I studied Spanish in high school instead of French? Surely God knew I would end up in this setting and could have prepared me for it better!

I realized I?d been neglecting my own Bible reading for the past few days, but?when I opened my suitcase to get out the bilingual New Testament I?d purchased especially for the evangelistic project?I discovered I?d accidentally bought a Bible that was in one language only: Spanish! And that was the only Bible I?d brought! As tempted as I was to toss it unopened back into the suitcase, I found myself starting to laugh. It began with soft giggles that built quickly to loud, raucous, side-splitting hilarity!

Okay, Lord, if that?s what you want me to do. But don?t ask me to do it without laughing. Please!

From that day on, I sat at the entrance of the Catholic church and read aloud from that Spanish New Testament for hours at a time. I became hoarse long before the end of the day and drank more water than those doing construction. I couldn?t pronounce the words accurately, of course, and I had no idea what they meant except where the Spanish was similar in appearance to English or French. I was certain that my mispronunciations were made all the more ridiculous by the mixture of my Georgia accent and my highly inappropriate attempts to read Spanish using French rules of pronunciation.

Then one villager finally looked over my shoulder to see what I was reading and recognized?apparently for the first time?that the writing was in Spanish! He started correcting me patiently?word by word?until he was satisfied I had the whole sentence down right.

Then he?d return to work, and someone else would take his place with me.

It became a popular pastime among the villagers to stop and help Se?orita Keem read aloud from her book. I?d not yet been aware of it, but Alicia told me one evening before bed that small groups of listeners had started forming nearby while my various mentors worked with me. Whereas they?d been amused at my initial efforts, they?d grown so interested that they would stand and listen intently during their entire break, often forgetting to go inside and drink their much-needed water.

Okay, Lord, I guess you knew what you were doing, but how can I know if we?ve reached anyone at all?

Concerned for the welfare of the villagers who stood in the hot sunlight to listen to me read, I asked Charlie and Rob to help me bring some water outside so the workers wouldn?t suffer because of their failure to go inside for it. They agreed that was the only proper thing to do.

But, Lord, are we getting through to people? Is this touching anyone? Anyone at all?

* * * * *

It wasn?t until we were boarding the bus to return to San Diego shortly after sunrise on the ninth day that a bashful young mother named Mar?a, whose retarded daughter I?d helped entertain several times while Mar?a worked with the other women, came to me and handed me a piece of paper?apparently a note of some kind written in Spanish with a red pencil. She eyed the Spanish Bible sitting on my lap and smiled shyly. She patted it lovingly, and I realized that someone had been touched by my reading after all. I handed the Bible to her, aware that it belonged to her and to the whole village more now than it ever had belonged to me, but she put it back on my lap. I smiled and handed it to her again, nodding my head in affirmation, and she clung to it as if it were a priceless treasure. I gripped her note and cried aloud without embarrassment, frustrated that I had no idea what it said. The first thing I?d do when I got home was to get it translated.

But I couldn?t wait that long! At the airport, I asked the first bilingual Hispanic I met to help me. The note said:

?Miss Kim, that book you read to us from must be very special. I heard when you read that Jesus was the Source of Living Water. And then you stopped and asked the men to bring water outside so we would not get sick while listening to you. I believe what the book says about this Jesus, but I need to hear more. Come back again soon. Please!?

I enrolled in the local community college a few weeks later. When asked my major, I responded with an enthusiasm that could have come only from God.