The word “joy” has so much emotion tied to it. People work so hard to find “happiness” and maintain a state of “joyfulness”. They believe that it will bring about a sense of security once it is found, a security that is more or less circumstantial. Fortunately for the believer, joy is not an emotion to be discovered and maintained based on circumstance. It is a way of life that can be chosen. It is something that far exceeds any circumstance for one reason alone, “they are an offspring the Lord has blessed. (Isaiah 61:9b)”
I was able to learn the weight of this truth in a rather remarkable way. In late 2013 my mother had a miscarriage that started me on the journey of discovering “true joy”. The whole season surrounding the miscarriage was rather joyless for me. It was the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I felt out of place and overwhelmed with school, and I had decided the only happy thing in my life was the fact I was going to have another sibling. I was angry at God for taking that away from me. After wrestling with God and fighting my grief, I finally heard the message God kept whispering to me, “cast your burdens on me, I care for you”. Once that sunk in I melted into his arms, and the seed of “true joy” was planted.
The summer following my mom’s miscarriage, my father, mother, brother, and I accompanied my churches Hispanic Pastor, Samuel Ruiz, and a team of six others on a mission trip to Pastor Ruiz’s hometown of Ignacia Zaragoza, Chihuahua Mexico. On past mission trips, Pastor Ruiz discovered a care home called ‘Casa Hogar’ that our church decided to support. This is where we planned to serve during our trip and where God transformed a part of my heart.
When you hear the words ‘care home’, what picture pops into your mind? It would make sense for a picture of a building with multiple rooms and nurses rolling carts of pills and cranberry juice to the various elderly residents to come to mind when you hear those words. But for me, I think of ‘Casa Hogar’ and boy is it far from the typical care home one would imagine.
Casa Hogar was started by a sweet woman who everyone called Mama Lupe and her husband who had hearts for abandoned people and even bigger hearts for Jesus. They wanted to provide the home and care many neglected elderly and physically and mentally handicapped people deserved. But it was not an easy calling. Unfortunately, Mexico does not have the same standards for care homes that their Northern sisters do. Nor does the job of caring for abandoned people bring in a lot of income. When I went, Casa Hogar was staffed by Mama Lupe, her grown son who had become a nurse, and daughter who was the cook. The health of her husband had deteriorated, and he became one of the 20 or more (I can’t remember the exact number) people the three cared for.
I remember walking through the gate for the first time, glancing at the residents sitting in the areas of shade found in the courtyard, then walking into the main living space. The room had high ceilings and the open concept space was divided into three parts: the kitchen, dining room, and small living room furnished with a couch and a couple chairs. There was a door dividing this large room from the six bedrooms and two bathrooms on the other side. As soon as the door was opened, I was hit with the foulest odor (think full porta potty left in the summer’s heat a week too long).
Remember I said that Mexico does not have the same standards for care homes? Well, due to the limited funds, resources, and manpower, oftentimes the residents soiled their beds and clothes. Mama Lupe and her family did their best to keep everything sanitary, but there is only so much three people can do. The tour continued. I put my shirt over my nose and took notice of the smelly bug infested beds with worn blankets and mattresses in rooms with walls that were once white but were now brown due to the urine and excrement from both humans and flies that now coated them. It was revolting. I wondered, “how can anyone live like this?”
That week, our goals were to replace the toilets and stalls in the bathrooms, paint all the bedrooms, and install a solar hot water heater. Our church had also bought new mattresses with medical covers for all of the beds. But God had bigger and better goals for my heart.
On one of the days, my friend and I were tasked with peeling the potatoes for dinner. As I stood there with a potato in one hand and a boning knife in the other, I remember thinking about how easy I had it back home. If you have ever peeled a potato with a boning knife you will understand the thought. Potato peelers are a luxury. But the thought had to do with more than just a potato peeler. You see during my time at Casa Hogar I heard testimony after testimony about how God changed lives because one sweet lady took the time to care for them and show them the love of Jesus.
Despite being abandoned, living in unimaginably bad conditions, and having nothing, these people were joyful. Joyful beyond understanding. That is when I realized that joy is not a meal you slave in the kitchen to prepare only to end up hungry again in a few hours, but an everlasting gobstopper that your father gives to you because you are his child, and he loves you. Joy is not a feeling of happiness because life is good, but a way of life because God is good.
I came home from that trip transformed. God used Mama Lupe and the beautiful residents of Casa Hogar to draw me closer to him. He showed me that he was good, and I could have joy through him even though my heart ached because of the loss of my sibling. That loss, those people, and the way God spoke to me, lit a fire in my heart to grow closer to him, learn more about him, and then grow some more. I think it is safe to say that the cycle is still in motion.
“Despite being abandoned, living in unimaginably bad conditions, and having nothing, these people were joyful. Joyful beyond understanding.”