I travelled to Nicaragua on a mission trip before the coronavirus crisis forced us to come back
I didn’t know anything about Nicaragua before God called me to join my church’s 15th mission trip there.
I went to the information session at church one Sunday afternoon. I listened as they told us that Nicaragua was one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and how our church had built relationships with their local organizations to help in whatever way they needed. I heard them talk about the different ways we would serve the Nicaraguan community: bringing toys and equipment to an orphanage, teaching lessons at a church, helping to run a women’s empowerment conference, setting up 40 new laptops at a school, giving new mothers or soon-to-be mothers a spa day, distributing food to hungry school kids through a feeding program and much more. The end goals were to show love to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, form relationships and offer our help. It all sounded like work I’d want to do, but I wanted confirmation from God first.
Weeks before going to the info session, I had read my Bible, prayed and asked God to tell me what he wanted me to do that day. He told me, “Feed my sheep.” In John 21:16 in the King James Bible, Jesus tells his disciple Simon that if he really loves him, he will “feed [his] sheep.”
Renowned 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon translated the phrase this way in his 1877 sermon:
“The Lord Jesus Christ connected His examination upon the matter of love with the commission ‘Feed my sheep,’ because our work in feeding the flock of God is the proof of love to the Lord. Do we not tell our people that love must be not in word only but also in deed?”
So, according to Spurgeon and other Biblical philosophers, loving God means loving his people. In Nicaragua, there would be many ways we would get to love people who have less than we have. So it was settled. I was going to Nicaragua.
Leading up to our departure, COVID-19 was just starting to spread in Canada. It was still safe to walk around and work as usual, but my father had said he was concerned over my mission trip. He didn’t want me travelling to another country and interacting with so many people because of the coronavirus risk. But, because I had heard God’s words clearly and Nicaragua hadn’t reported any cases of the virus at the time, I thought it was safe to go. Also, my team was keeping an eye on things – we knew there was a risk, but it seemed the bigger risk was in Canada, a country that welcomed people from all over the world flying in each day.
On March 12, 2020, I flew from Canada to Nicaragua with my church’s mission trip team. We left Canada almost a week before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau advised the country to “go home and stay home.” In total we had 17 members ranging in age from 15 to 65 years old.
Our plan was to land in Managua, stay for one night, and then take an eight-hour bus ride to Bluefields, a rural town where we were going to serve.
However, in this rapidly changing situation, our plans did not stay the same.
We left Canada feeling safe and secure. We didn’t wear masks in the airport nor on the plane, we didn’t see anyone else wearing gloves and we weren’t warned of anything on our way to Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, I noticed some of the airport employees wearing masks and gloves, but not all. It seemed like COVID-19 was not a big deal.
We got to where we were staying for the night, and I was just about settled into my bed when I heard a loud knock on the door. “Emergency team meeting!” yelled Grace, an older woman on the team. Our group waited for our pastor to explain. He told us that COVID-19 had spread more widely and countries were making efforts to close their borders in order to keep the virus out. The United States had closed its borders and instated travel bans to certain European countries; our fear was that Mexico would close its borders, and then we, who had booked our return flights through Mexico, would be trapped.
That night, we had to make a tough choice: stay in Nicaragua and try to complete the mission trip we had planned for several months; or fly back to Canada so that we wouldn’t get stuck in a foreign country for an indeterminate amount of time. We made it clear that no matter the choice, it wasn’t a reflection of our faith in God or the mission He had called us to – because either way, we had served for one day. God can do a lot with one day.
Each person was given their own voice and choice. We had older members who wouldn’t be able to last in Nicaragua without refills of their medication. We had younger teenagers whose parents would jump at the chance to bring them home.
The next day, two of our teammates decided to head home. A senior high school student had to leave because her mom was anxious about her possibly getting stuck in Nicaragua, and an older graphic designer didn’t want to worry her family by staying.
The group continued on, albeit a bit more somber without our friends. We got to Bluefields and followed the plan.
The experiences I had in Nicaragua were life-changing. Despite not having a lot of money or material things, the locals were so joyful and caring. For example, at the orphanage, I complimented a young girl on her beautiful beaded bracelet. Within moments, she slipped the bracelet onto my wrist. I accepted it because it was made out of string the team had brought over – her kind gesture warmed my heart. But then I looked down to see her putting a silver ring onto my finger. She smiled at me so sweetly while doing it, but I had to refuse it, because I didn’t want to take something so precious to her. I declined it, but hugged her and tried to explain that I simply couldn’t take it. She was so sad. But from then on, she was like my shadow, staying by my side as I went around playing with the kids and serving dinner.
We all spent the next few days falling more in love with the people and their culture. Days flew by, with different serving opportunities, watching the sunrise sitting on the roof and eating lots of beans and rice.
At the same time, the team was also keeping an eye on the international response to COVID-19. Each day, team members would check on international borders to make sure we’d have a way to get home.
Five days into our mission trip, we had a team meeting in the living room. Our pastor told us that we needed to discuss our plan moving forward. We couldn’t pretend like COVID-19 wasn’t spreading in the world around us.
We had come to Nicaragua to love the people and support them in whatever way they needed – but was it more loving to leave the country, and lessen their exposure to us, Canadians who had traveled from plane to plane, country to country? We were a bigger threat to the Nicaraguan people than they were to us – their country hadn’t even reported any cases of COVID-19 at that time. Canada, however, had reported more than 500 cases by March 17, 2020. Not only that, but countries around Nicaragua like Costa Rica and Guatemala were starting to report cases, so it was clear that the virus was spreading through Central America. More countries were also closing their borders, and this would be a major problem for some of our teammates who had limited travel visas or had flight transfers through certain countries.
We went back and forth, talking about how God had led us to Nicaragua for a reason, but also that we wanted to love these people and protect them if we were carrying the virus. It seemed that if we wanted to stay, we would be demonstrating our faith in God by continuing to work during COVID-19, but if we left it would show that we didn’t trust that he’d keep us all safe. But I argued that either way, God would be honoured, because both decisions would be made out of love for the Nicaraguan people. Words were said, tears were shed, but two final things determined our answer.
A native Nicaraguan that had moved to Canada with his family a few years ago had returned to the country on this mission trip to love and serve his people. Even he said he wanted to leave. He, who out of all of us had the most ties and most connections in Nicaragua, thought we should leave to keep his people safe.
And then, Panama suddenly closed its borders. One of our teammates had booked his tickets through Panama, which meant he’d need to find a new ticket home or he’d be stuck. Once that news broke, we all went into response mode and started finding the quickest flights home. Our hearts were breaking, but we knew Panama’s closure was the sign we needed to go home.
Thus began a night-long scramble to find 17 flights back, going through multiple American states for most of us.
In the Nicaraguan airport, I didn’t see many masks or gloves being used. On the plane, I started Lysol wiping my seat and headrest, and I was not the only one. Once the airplane from Managua touched down in Miami, however, suddenly every passenger had on a mask and a pair of gloves. In Miami, we went through full body scanners and were asked if we had any symptoms of the virus, but not many airport employees wore masks and gloves.
Arriving at Pearson Airport in Toronto, I was surprised to see that there were even less precautions taken than in Miami or Managua. We got off the plane to enter a long and busy queue of people –there were more than 50 people in line and more than 50 people touching unwiped kiosks and talking to border officers. People in line crowded one another. Not very many people were wearing masks, including the border officers and other airport personnel. It looked like business as usual.
I felt weird: the government was saying the situation was serious enough to shut down public schools and close businesses and restaurants offering non-essential services, and yet they were not taking measures in the airport.
I came back with eight other team members. Because many of us have vulnerable family members — for example, my dad is older, recently had a heart attack and has Type 1 diabetes — six of us decided to self-quarantine together in one member’s house.
Today, I’m living in a new house, with a new family and a new dog, trying to wrap my head around all the changes that have taken place. I was in Nicaragua; I was playing and hugging and singing with locals. Then we heard the news of COVID-19’s spread and the sudden closure of many countries’ borders. New plane tickets were booked, and I was suddenly torn from the people I loved in Bluefield and put on a plane back to Canada.
Now, I’m living in a new house, with five new family members and celebrating my 22nd birthday without my mom, dad, sister or best friends near me. The hardest moments are when any of our family members or close friends come to visit or drop off food. We see them come onto the porch, heaving bags in hand, and drop them less than a metre from where we’re standing, watching them from the door window. I saw my pastor’s wife place her hand on one side of the glass, while he put his hand on the other. Happiness and sadness seem to go together at this time.
But we are all safe. None of us have shown any symptoms of COVID-19 so far. We still have food to eat, shelter covering us, and we have each other to talk to when we get emotional or stressed out. We did have to cut our mission trip short: but I’d say that we did everything we had planned for the 12 days. We got to deliver all the toys, equipment, laptops, baby clothes and care packages for the new mothers. We got to form amazing relationships with the local Nicaraguan people despite the short time we had. We were able to feed God’s sheep and show His love to the people by playing with them, cutting hair, teaching lessons, running events and helping wherever they needed it. Now it’s all in God’s hands to take our six days of work and make a lasting impact.