Lima Peru and the Missing Guitar String (Leaving the Rat Race Behind)
Unleashing Joy in the Midst of Life
A time travel novel that explores how hard circumstances play a part in who we are.
Missing Guitar String
Our group had arrived in Lima the night before. We had taken a bus ride past block after dusty, dirty block of thrown together wooden buildings where people lived and worked. Our destination was Scripture Union, a ministry dedicated to the service of abandoned boys and to gospel outreach, located in downtown Lima. I was a chaperon for our youth group’s mission’s trip to the place known by its residents as the saddest city on earth. The evidence of this sadness would overwhelm us before the trip was done.
Our group’s focus would be to serve the boys in the orphanage known as street boys. A street boy can range in age from six years old to the late teens. These are boys who have been abandoned by their parents for economic reasons and left to fend for themselves in the cruel streets of Lima. Most live lives filled with theft, prostitution and glue sniffing. But some accept the help and rules of the orphanage and these were the boys we would love and care for. To our surprise, by the end of our trip, Peruvians, street boys included, would do more for us than we could have possibly done for them.
I first met Saul Camarena while carrying sacks of sand as we helped build more rooms for the street boys. He’s a short man with glasses, dark hair and chocolate colored skin. He approached me on the stairway and introduced himself in English, inviting me to see his accounting office to see his computer. He showed me his Spanish version of Windows 98 and chatted briefly about our families and our faith. I felt an instant connection with him, amazed at how quickly a common faith in Christ can traverse cultural differences and connect hearts on a spiritual level.
In addition to his accounting duties, Saul would occasionally translate for us as we worked beside the Peruvians on the roof. When he was there, I would take a break and talk with him as we gazed over the half built wall down on the dry, dusty city streets below. Though this was July back home, we were experiencing the cool cloudiness of a Peruvian winter.
Though the buildings were smaller, Lima reminded me of a dirty, gray New York city; the constant sound of horns and motor rumblings with a pronounced smell of exhaust, trapped around us by the cloud layer.
During one of these visits with Saul, he invited me to bring a few of the boys from our youth group to his home to meet his family. I agreed and we settled on the Thursday night before we would leave to go back to South Carolina.
Saul lived 50 kilometers from Lima, about an hours drive. Each day, each way it cost him a Peruvian Nuevo Sol coin (about 33 cents) to ride to work. Though I argued, Saul insisted on paying for me and for all four of the boys from our group I had with me. I felt even more humbled when I learned later that he made only $200 per month.
As the dilapidated bus bounced past hill after hill, I noticed that each hill was crowded with small wooden shacks. They were brightly painted as if in an effort to dispel the dismal aura of poverty. I was saddened when I thought of each family crowded together, struggling to survive.
When we got to Saul’s village, we stepped off the bus into what felt like a scene from National Geographic; the poverty, the dirt, the trash, the sickly looking dogs in search of scraps. The sadness of the place dulled our hearts as we followed Saul down a couple of blocks and across the cracked street.
We walked up to what looked like a concrete storage area between two other buildings, but when Saul took out a key and opened the door, I realized it was his home. We followed him in and waited in the living room area while he went toward the back. The house had a concrete floor with a wooden post resting on two wooden blocks as a support in the middle of the room. A blanket separated the main room into a living area and a bedroom area. There was also a kitchen bathroom area that had only a portion of a roof and a little storage section that may have served as an additional sleeping area.
Though it was Thursday night, when Saul returned he surprised me by inviting us to go to church with him. Back home, my pastor had warned me to have a short sermon ready because I might be asked to speak at a church while in Peru. I’m so glad he mentioned this because this is exactly what happened. Also, since one of the boys played guitar, we were asked to sing a song we’d learned in Spanish, using a guitar that was missing a string.
Though a missing guitar string would be a big deal in a church I might attend back home, I began to understand that it was very insignificant in this little Peruvian church. We American’s would have maybe even delayed the service until the string was replaced, but not in Saul’s little church. Peruvians had learned the importance of putting missing guitar strings in the proper place, behind relationships.
Saul’s church would have loved to have had a nicer guitar, but they didn’t. So, they went ahead and gathered together on Thursday night anyway, focusing on each other and worshipping the Lord; this spoke deeply to my heart. I was falling in love with the people of Peru and beginning to dread returning to the rat race I lived in.
There were about 12-15 people at the church, dressed in simple clean but slightly ripped or worn clothing, fully focused on what we had to say and on the sermon Saul preached. During the singing, their zeal and joy was contagious. Though many of them were missing teeth, the delight of their smiles was beautiful.
When the service was over, the people hugged us and made us feel very welcomed. We then went back to Saul’s house to eat along with several of his friends from church. They seemed delighted to get a chance to get to know us.
Saul’s wife served us a wonderful meal of chicken, potatoes and fried yuca, which is similar to a potato. We drank a clove drink called chicha morada. They could only afford to give us portions of napkins (a forth of a napkin folded into a triangle), but by now I knew that they would have given us napkins of silk if they could have.
I’m sure the meal was expensive and it was very good. He apologized to us that he could not have given us more.
At this remark, tears began to well up in my eyes and as I looked around the simple room I saw that it had the same impact on the boys who were with me. How could he say this? He had given us all he could out of his poverty and now he wanted to give us more. That moment in Saul’s concrete home I learned how rich a poor man could make me feel and I determined to go forth and share that lesson with others and to remind myself of it often.
But this was not all I would see. As the meal ended and the conversation waned, I began to think about how we would get home. I felt as if I was in the most remote place my life had ever carried me. Yet I was responsible to get us all back to the highest crime district in all of Lima. Before I could give it a second thought, however, Saul informed me that he wanted to ride back with us on the bus to insure our safety.
I gladly accepted his offer and he took a night bus back to Lima. When we got to our stop, we expected to say our good-byes and make our way to Scripture Union. However, Saul insisted on accompanying us all the way to the front gate of our building, several blocks away. Then he waited for the security guards to unlock the gates. When he was sure that we were safely inside, he turned to catch another bus and ride home. Looking through the bars, I watched his short frame walk off into the dangerous streets of Lima by himself; having once more given us all he had.
We returned to the States the next morning, back to busy duties and abundant prosperity and newer guitars with all the strings. As I write these memories over five years later, the impact of my visit to Peru remains fresh in my heart. My gaze wanders over painted walls, lovely pictures, soft furnishings, my color television set and even my daughter’s guitar. Yet as I think of Peru, I feel dissatisfied. Sometimes I do get it. I’m able to lay aside the to-do list and the ever increasing demands of maintaining all my possessions, and focus instead on what will last, the people God brings my way. But I’m not there yet. I pray God will give me a heart like Saul’s and his family, and like the people in his church; even like the Street boys, who delighted in giving us simple multi-colored bracelets to remember them by. We had the audacity to think we were going to love and serve a few people in Lima, Peru. And by God’s grace, maybe we did. But far, far greater than how we might have loved and served them, was the lasting ways they loved us.