Twice now I have traveled to a tiny little jungle town in Colombia. Leticia is beautiful and wild, but it is considered impoverished by American standards. When I first traveled to Leticia to spend time with the orphans and vulnerable children at La Aljaba, I expected to see children obviously lacking and wanting the things I took for granted. I expected to see less smiles. Instead I was greeted with children full of joy and laughter, wanting to embrace me and share our worlds.
The Colombian culture in Leticia is different than anywhere I have ever been in the world. Leticians are a mix of Colombians, Brazilians, and local tribes like Ticuna. Wayne says it is very different than other places in Colombia, more like its own Amazonian culture than Colombian.
If you ever visit, you will understand. Bogota is a booming high tech city of 8 million, Leticia is a tiny jungle town isolated from the rest of Colombia. The only way to get to Leticia is by boat or by plane. There are no roads leading in or out, which means you see very few cars. Scooters are the norm, but they rarely exceed 30 miles per hour (although they drive like crazy motorcyclists in Italy!) The buildings are typically one to two stories, built of modest wood, concrete, and brick. The streets are littered with trash, hundreds of stray dogs and cats. There are food vendors cooking “carne” on sticks, which looks suspiciously like guinea pig meat and probably is. The Amazon River is the source of life for Leticia. I ate some local fish for dinner and it was very good. Many in Leticia run local small businesses, but many more fish for a living.
The culture is relationship based, not efficiency based. The family unit is the most important thing to Colombians, with patriarchy being the standard. The way of life feels much calmer and more relaxed, with appointments and time being a vague concept rather than an understanding. It is hard for my American brain to wrap around. I experienced a more relaxed environment in Europe, particularly around lunchtime, but this does not even compare.
So when our mission teams go, we try not to force our American gringo culture on them. We go and attempt to adapt as much as we can. We try not to give presents to children while we are there. We do not want them to associate us with gifts. Fancy American gringos giving presents every time they visit starts to feel like Christmas all year round, rather than the focus being on Jesus.
We intentionally spend time building relationships with the kids, rather than worrying about completing a project. As Wayne says, he could pay someone in Leticia to paint a wall much better and for much less than sending a group of 15 people to the Amazon. We are there to love on those kids. These kids in themselves are not projects, either. We do not go with intention of converting them to Christianity. We do not win any awards for number of conversions on a mission trip. That’s not the point, and good thing that’s not up to us anyway. We may be the proverbial planter of seeds or even the lucky one to see the plant bloom, but only the Lord can cause it to grow. We go for one simple purpose: love the children, learn about them, then do something to help.
By “something to help” I don’t necessarily mean throwing money at the problem. That’s a very Western way of thinking. These trips to Leticia are opening my eyes — there are many different kinds of poverty, and I tend to assume financial poverty is the only kind. How wrong I am! These kids might be financially poor, but we aim to make them rich in love.
The kids at Aljaba come from diverse backgrounds. Very few are true orphans without father and mother and no other family to help. Many have at least one family member to care for them, but for whatever reason are unable (or unwilling) to care for the child. Some of the parents are highly devoted and love their child, but life circumstances keep them from giving their kids solid consistent meals. About 25 kids live full time at Aljaba, the other 60 come for the after school programs, where they are intensively tutored in their school subjects, fed nutritious meals, and given the love they need. Aljaba does not split up children from their existing family unless there is a situation of abuse or abandonment. The family unit is the most important thing to Colombians.
These children receive wonderful care and love from the staff at Aljaba. I have seen it with my own eyes. They are not lacking in love from staff, but the love and encouragement and social interactions that you and I take for granted, they crave to receive from somebody else. We try to show them Jesus. And they touch our hearts as much as we touch theirs.