“The first time that we went to Asaya there was a drug dealer on one of the corners. He was like, ‘Watcha guys lookin’ for?’ and he was asking us lots of questions. And then he was like, ‘be careful out here.’ People will just rob you left and right in Asaya. There’s a park up the road from the house of prayer there, and it’s the most dangerous park in Ibarra. You can just feel it. You get chills just walking around there. You feel it spiritually and the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up. It’s pretty intense.”
When we say that we send our missionaries into places where Christ is needed, we really mean it. After hearing Sam talk about the district he and his partner are working in, it’s clear that they are in a dark area of the city that needs hope. The Asaya District during the day wouldn’t seem all that different from some of the other districts in Ibarra, Ecuador, but when the sun goes down it looks particularly menacing. There are a few street lights and where there are, the shadows are cast heavy. From the house of prayer Sam and Jeremias host they b-line to the nearest corner to get a taxi. Fortunately, that corner is a taxi resting spot, so there is hardly ever a wait for the guys when they need to get into a moving vehicle, a moving sanctuary.
One of the hardest things about being an American on the mission field can be the simple fact that you look like you don’t belong there; tall, white, green eyes, blonde. Sometimes it makes it difficult for American missionaries to be able to go into more sensitive places like Asaya. That’s not really the case for Sam. His genes have given him a lot of help in this area. He’s Hispanic American with Mexican heritage on both his mom’s and dad’s sides of the family. It’s funny because it’s easy to note that he doesn’t quite have an “American” accent when he speaks English and then it’s shocking to learn that he’s only been speaking Spanish for the past year! On top of that, his Spanish accent is perfect! It seems kind of unfair for the other Americans who have been speaking the language for the same amount of time, but still struggle with sounding like gringos. All of that has made for the perfect situation for Sam working in Asaya. Sam and Jeremias draw a lot less attention than the other Americans and their partners would if they were working in the same district.
Sam has experienced a lot of Latin culture already in his upbringing, which gives him a very unique perspective on his team. One of the things he talks about having learned growing up was the importance placed on family. “My grandparents really put emphasis on being close to family and spending time with family and loving your family. And my parents brought me up to always be a part of the family and spend as much time with them as I can. When I’m home, I’m always balancing it out and hanging out with cousins and aunts and uncles. That’s always been something that’s been special to me.” It’s not just a lesson that Sam has learned, it’s a core value that reaches to the depths of his soul. It’s hard for him to know that he left his family behind and that he can’t just hop in a car to go watch an MMA fight or have a barbecue with his cousins.
Family doesn’t absolutely mean that the blood that pumps through your veins is shared by every member, though. Though physically it may be true, borrowing from an old adage, blood is thicker than water, it doesn’t mean family cannot be formed when genes are not shared. That is the beauty of the family and the Body of Christ. Through Christ’s sacrifice we can be adopted into God’s family, and not just adopted and then locked up in a room on the far end of the house. God has given us the same rights a flesh-of-my-flesh heir might receive. All this doesn’t just affect the way we relate to God, but it also affects the way we relate to those around us. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and if you can get over the antiquated feeling around that statement, it’s really inspiring to think we are all connected!
This connection, to feel a sense of belonging, is not just reserved for the latin culture. It’s something that each of us desires and longs for, and Sam has been able to foster and grow family among those he’s ministering to. “A few weeks ago, I was giving my testimony in my house of prayer and they asked, ‘What is it like leaving everything in the States? We’re super grateful that you’re here, but how do you get through that?’ I just shared with them how it wasn’t easy. I left my mom crying at the airport and they’re like ‘Whoa, chuta(dang)!’ You know?! But, I was like, it’s worth it, even though I left my family in the States, I have family here. And I told them, ‘I consider you guys family and I have my team and they’re my family. There is no lack of family for me.’”
One of Sam and Jeremias’ friends at their house of prayer, Esteban, is part of a gang. He is part of a gang and yet knows Jesus. “He’s stuck,” says Sam. “He went to a spiritual retreat with the church and for a while he was changing a lot, but then he started working a lot of hours and hasn’t really been coming to church. Then, he had surgery where he had a tumor taken out of his stomach. He’s struggling for sure. He’s really in his gang. It’s like his family. Like, how I talk about my team is my family, that’s how he views his gang.”
Sam and his team worry about Esteban and how he could ever leave the gang. The danger of him trying to separate himself from them is life-threatening. Typically, it involves the beating of a lifetime, leaving the ex-gang member beat near to death. Prayer is their answer. Sam mentioned that Sarah Ross, the Education Manager in Quito, encouraged them to pray that instead of Esteban having to leave the gang, that he would share his faith with his gang members and ultimately bring the whole of them to Christ. Sam says it was kind of a “duh” moment for him. “My hope is that Esteban would want to do that too. I would hope that he would get to that point where his relationship with God would direct him to think, ‘I want them to have what I have with God too.’ I want to show him that the family that we have in church is more real than the gang that he’s in. In his mind he believes that those guys are his blood brothers, his fellow soldiers. That’s how the gang mentality is. I want to show him that we can be here for him in many more ways than those other guys. There is just so much bondage in the lifestyle he is leading now.”
This is the atmosphere in which Sam is working. Esteban is not the only guy Sam knows who is involved with a gang. One of the guys in his youth group was recently charged as an adult and sent to prison. What he did, Sam is not exactly sure. But, what is obvious is that this is a part of his ministry. It’s not a coincidence that God has sent a young man who understands the value of family into this part of the city. Through his experience he can show those around him that belonging doesn’t mean having to sell yourself into bondage. Belonging can actually be the opposite: freeing.
There is no happy ending for Esteban yet. We will continue to go into battle for him in prayer as Sam comes alongside him to show him support and what true family looks like. Join us in prayer for Esteban, as he faces these decisions that seem terrifying at face value. And join us in prayer for Sam and Jeremias as they navigate how to relate to and guide Esteban.