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Copper Canyon, Mexico

Lone Tree on a Ridge in the Copper Canyon, Mexico

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (March, 2011)

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Deciding to leave the comfort of one’s home to enter the world of the poor in another culture is not to be done blithely.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Once determined to enter such an experience, a traveler must brace for a test of endurance and flexibility.  I am reminded of Bilbo’s warning to Frodo in the epic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

I had heard of the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyonof Mexico over 20 years ago when friends of mine made

Tarahumara Woman

annual trips with blankets and clothing to donate to them.  Their plight then was very bleak.  It seems that it has not improved much in 20 years.  There are somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people who live in the Copper Canyon.  The exact population is unknown because the Mexican government does not count them.

Three native Indian tribes make up the population in the Copper Canyon: Tarahumara, Pima and Yaqui.  Each tribe has its own language.  The Tarahumara alone have 5 distinct dialects which can make communication among their own tribe difficult at times.  They prefer the name of their own language, Raramuri  (“those who run fast” or “runners on foot”), and are known for running very long distances.  Living isolated and deep in the canyon has helped them preserve their culture, language and music.

The Copper Canyon is over 25,000 square miles or 4 times larger (some say 7 times larger) than its sister canyon, the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, U.S.A.  The Sierra Tarahumara is actually made up of 6 large canyons with rivers that feed into the main part of the canyon and the Rio Fuerte which empties into the Sea of Cortez.  The remote and rugged nature of the area isolates the Tarahumara and makes getting help to them very difficult.

This area of Mexico has been under a drought for the past several years.  This has made the bleak living conditions of the Tarahumara and other Indian tribes very difficult.  Death from hunger is a very common occurrence.  The infant mortality rate is 50%, mostly due to nutrition issues.  The high elevation (8,000 ft) and cold winters can also bring its own misery.  The winter of 2010/2011 was particularly bitter and reports of children freezing to death were regularly heard.

There are a number of different non-profit organizations and Christian ministries at work attempting to bring relief to different parts of the Copper Canyon.  My church, Central United Protestant Church (UMC), in Richland, Washington, partners with Tomas Bencomo and Tarahumara Ministries based out of El Paso, TX., and Juarez, Mexico.  We have had Tomas and Maria Bencomo and their co-worker and translator, Brenda Granados, to a few of our missions conferences, which we call Global Impact Celebrations.

Our team flew into El Paso, TX, and stayed at the Micromotel right next door to the airport.  We spent the night and then got up early in the morning and rode to a little village 8 hours south called Rio Chico.  Rio Chico is the staging area for humanitarian trips into the canyon.  It also has an experimental farm to train Tarahumara farmers.  Another experimental farm is located in Rio Bravo about 12 miles away.  These help train farmers in better farm methods.  After a season, the farmers are sent back home with seed and a steel plow that can be pulled by a mule.

The first few days were spent planting 200 fruit trees and digging and pouring a foundation for a small building.  This was done all by hand with broken shovels and picks.  So, it not only made for hard work but also frustrating work.  The elevation of Rio Chico (about 7,000 ft) made the work seem even more difficult from us lowlanders.  We joined a group at Rio Chico from Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota.  So, at least we had plenty of hands to do the work.  Still, those few days produced sun burns and lots of blisters and sore backs.

Finally, we loaded up to go down into the canyon with a supply of food.  We took a large four-wheel drive box truck and a four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban.  It is a 10 hour ride from Rio Chico down into the Copper Canyon where Tomas Bencomo and his team have a boarding school.  It serves about 300 families.  It takes 4 1/2 hours to travel the last 60 miles of dirt road.  The last 2 1/2 hours is descending 20 miles into the steep canyon by a steep twisting road with 31 hairpin turns.  They are so sharp that the driver must stop in mid-turn, backup and finishing the turn.  Fortunately for our driver, we descended it at night so he did not know what he was facing as the headlamps of the Suburban shown out into the pitch black night.

Finally, we arrived at the canyon camp tired from 4 1/2 hours of constant jarring and jostling in close confines.  It was

good to get out.  The night sky was brilliant with a splash of stars, but only the narrowest portion of the sky could be seen as the walls of the canyon pinched the night sky.  It would not be until morning that we would gaze up the steep canyon wall and be amazed at what we had ignorantly descended in the dark.  We all agreed that we were glad we had done it in the dark.  Some of us may have gotten out and walked down the road otherwise.

The morning was clear as we made our way to the main boarding school.  Out buildings were scattered all along the sides of the canyon, which meant that almost everyone had to move up or down its walls.  Level ground is a precious commodity reserved for buildings and gardens.  The sounds of chickens and children filled the morning air around the school where 80 – 90 children are housed and fed.  A government teacher comes in, when she can make it, to provide education at a small building close by.  This week, apparently, she was not able to make it.

The children that stay at the boarding house or who travel up and down the canyon to go to school travel long

Food Distribution in the Copper Canyon

distances to get there.  Parents send them because they know that their children will receive food and an education.  A few of the mothers come with their children and help in the kitchen and with other duties with the children.  They are paid with food to take home on the weekends.  Typically, children head home on Fridays and return late Sundays for a new week.  The ages range from a couple years to almost 6th or 7th grade.  After that age, there are no other resources for the children.  Many of them go to work.

One young brother and sister there had been rescued last Fall from starvation.  The family could no longer feed the 1 and 2 year old boy and girl.  So, they asked another family to take care of them.  However, that family too finally came to the heart wrenching decision that they, too, could no longer feed these two and feed their own kids.  So, they were placed in a corner, covered with blankets, and left to die of starvation.

One of the workers at the children’s home heard about it and went to see what she could do.  She encouraged the family to give the children to her to feed.  They were somewhat reluctant because they were afraid of the social stigma that may accompany when others find out about their plight.  After much coaxing, the two youngsters were given to her.  She drove the 4 1/2 hours over the rough dirt road to take the children to the nearest medical clinic.

The doctor at the clinic took one look at the 1 year old boy and declared there was no hope for him.  The two year old girl seemed to be in much better shape and a chance to live.  The compassionate worker who had spent all day hiking into the canyon to rescue the children and then driving over the jarring road to get there refused to allow the doctor to deny the boy treatment.  Finally, the doctor declared, “Fine.   If you can get him to eat something, perhaps there is hope.”  The only thing she had available was a small bag of potato chips.  She gingerly took out a small piece of a chip held it up before the listless boy.  Once the morsel was registered by the boy, he lunged at the potato chip and jammed it in his mouth.  “Well!” declared the surprised doctor, “It looks like he’s going to live.”

Tomasito - saved from starvation

While we were there we had the joy of holding these two lively kids.  They were full of life and joy.  This is one story among many that reveals the importance of this type of service to the indigenous people of the Copper Canyon who are locked in poverty.  Our team passed out bags of groceries that families were able to take home.  The food was available to everyone and anyone who came to receive.  The week’s worth of food, which many of them would attempt to stretch into a month, was gratefully received.  Women received food first and then the men who had come received food for their families also.

There are no shortcuts out of the Copper Canyon.  A train rides along the rim from Chihuahua to the Pacific Ocean.  For most of the residents of the canyon, the only supplies available are those that the hike out to receive and then pack back in to their families.  Some, a few, are fortunate enough to have a burro to help with the chore.  Most, however, continue to live as they did when the Spanish Conquistadors pushed them into the canyon 500 years ago.

So, we climbed back into our vehicles glad that we did not have to hike out of the canyon.  Instead, we bounced along for 4 1/2 hours until we got to a paved road, that led to the town of Creel that brought us to a good road back to Rio Chico.  After 10 hours on the road, we fell into our sleeping bags exhausted only to get up early the next morning for the 8 hour drive back to Juarez and El Paso.  It would be good to get home.

The illusion of short-term mission trips is that one has experienced fully what it means to be embedded and fully embraced in a mission project.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  We were returning home.  We would go back to our routines in our American suburbanvilles.  The ones we were leaving behind would continue the work.  On Sunday, the next day, Tomas would preach a 7 am service in Juarez, an 11 am service in El Paso, and another 3 pm service in Juarez.  Then, Monday morning, he and his team would take the long torturous road back to the land of the Tarahumaras.  And do it all over again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (April 18, 2011)

Tarahumara Dwelling

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So, I have taken the plunge and started a new career.  I completed a required 60 hour course in real estate through Rockwell Institute, passed the Washington State Real Estate exam and applied for the state license.  Now I am getting settled in with a broker, Mike Alvarez and Cypress GMAC.

New beginnings are always tricky things.  Starting new and starting over always takes much longer than what one first thinks.  Beyond the obvious education and training, there are also the adjustments to new ways of thinking.  The rhythm of life changes take time to adjust to their criss-cross ways.  Navigating the unsure waters of unfamiliar places with unfamiliar landscapes can be disconcerting.  It can also be exciting.

I am no stranger to change.  I have moved more times in my life than I like to remember.  I have had so many different jobs that I can no longer remember them all.  The only steady occupation I had for the last 25 years was as a pastor of various churches, which almost always required some kind of ability to supplement my income.  So, I look at this change in life as another chapter of a long journey with twists and turns.

I like the independence that a career in real estate brings to a person.  It is not necessary to punch a time clock.  A person is rewarded for their own hours kept and hard work.  A real estate career is also people focused and people driven, which is something I’ve always enjoyed most in whatever job I was doing over the last 25 years.

The training and education for a real estate career is important.  The real estate course and state exam covers all of the important definitions and legal aspects of real estate.  However, after those are passed, then one must learn all about the real estate forms and contracts, broker policies and procedures as well as the in-and-outs of marketing.  It is important to find a broker who will take the time to mentor and train you.  It is one reason I picked Cypress GMAC and working with Mike Alvarez.  He is very good at training his agents well.  It not only helps his agents, but it also helps him as a broker to have well-trained and well-educated agents out in the field.

This past week we covered buyers’ agreements or purchase and sales agreements.  We will be next going over sellers’ agreements or listing agreements.  At the same time, he helped me to set up my own real estate agent website under Cypress GMAC.  My personal website introduces me and the number of services our brokerage offers their clients.  A client(s) can also set up their own web site portfolio and do searches from my web page for houses and properties.  They can then save these and do comparison shopping in our housing market across the Tri-Cities of Washington State or within each one of the cities: Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and outlying areas.

The way real estate is being done is quickly changing.  The internet is changing the house shopping and marketing procedures.  However, the basics of real estate do not change.  It still requires entering into contracts and making sure the right paperwork is correctly filled out.  The best interest of the seller or the buyer needs to be guarded.  This is one of the best reasons for engaging a real estate agent in buying or selling properties.

A good real estate knows the area, knows the contracts, knows the legal jargon and can help make sure you are getting the best deal under the best circumstances.  There is nothing worse than completing a contract only to find out later that you could have gotten a better deal or that things were not included – or excluded – in the contract that should have been.  A real estate agent can explain the preliminary paperwork and sales agreement so that either the seller or the buyer knows and understands what they are signing.

Mayan Architecture and Art, Chichen Itza, July 2003

Mayan Architecture and Art, Chichen Itza, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In a society that is “suit happy,” it is wise to have someone who can help you avoid that kind of pitfall because of contract disagreements or misunderstandings.  In such a litigious culture as ours, a person cannot go wrong paying to guarantee that they are covered in all aspects of any contract they enter into.  When Mike Alvarez was going over how to fill out contracts and agreements, he would often initiate a section by saying, “Now, if you miss this, this could really mess you up!”  It is good to have someone who knows real estate contracts on your side.

All of this I have learned in just the first couple of weeks! I cannot imagine what more lies in store as I continue with training, classes and mentoring.  I actually find it fun and exciting.  I get to help someone else purchase something that is very significant to them and in which they will be enjoying life for the next number of years.  I get to help someone else sell a home so that they too can launch into new opportunities in a new location.

New career – new beginning:  It is an exciting time and place to be in one. Maybe I’m too naive to be so optimistic, but I look forward to a successful career that will give me an opportunity to interact with people and provide a very valuable service to them.  As I work on my real estate web site, I see opportunities to help others in new places and new beginnings.  So, my hat is off to all those who are also in new careers, new relationships, new beginnings, new places of starting over and new opportunities.  May your future be as bright.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It is so odd to parent teenagers. Their maniacal mood swings create for some incredible drama.  A parent can go from being the best dad/mom to the worst parent ever in milliseconds.  When I give permission for my daughter to do something she wants to do, I get hugs and smiles and a giggly girl excited about life.  However, if I decide that what she is asking permission to do is not permissible or that she must obediently follow-up on something I requested or required her to do, then I become an unthinking, ugly ogre who has no more sense than an aphid and my beautiful girl turns into an unrecognizably grouchy and surly carbon-based life form.

The parent of a teenager can exhibit all the brilliance of Einstein and still not be recognized for any measurable contribution to his/her child’s well-being the same said child. My teenage son can bounce into the room, ask for my opinion about something, presumably because of my 21 years of education and life experience, and then turn around and do just the opposite.  This, of course, leaves me completely dumbfounded, especially when I become blamed for the outcome in spite of the fact that my counsel was exactly opposite of his own chosen course of action.  It is still my fault in some sort of vicarious way.

It is amazing how a child’s perspectives about his/her parent can change on the flip of a dime. When they are going well, according to their desires and plans, the parent is all-loving, all-wise and full of beneficence.  When things are not going so well, then the same parent – in the twinkling of an eye – becomes the vicious judge of their world, the destroyer of happiness and the cause of all the world’s ills.  The jump between these two emotive universes can happen several times in the same day.  It is as if the child is a being who is able to live in parallel universes and able to jump between the two at will.  Or, perhaps, they really are two different children who keep swapping places with each other between their good/bad universes.  The problem for the parent is never knowing what child they will wake up to in the morning or which one they are addressing at the dinner table.

Ancient Mayan Architecture, Chichen Itza, July 2003

Ancient Mayan Architecture, Chichen Itza, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

If all this sounds ridiculously twisted, imagine how God must feel toward his human creatures. We tend to treat him in much the same manner as hormonal teenagers.  When life is going well, God is good!  When life is going bad, God is distant, deaf and demanding our blood.  When it appears he answers our prayers the way we want them answered, then God is to be praised.  However, when it appears he has declined to hear our prayers or gives what appears to be a resounding “No!” to them, then he is to be neglected and ignored.

One of the outcomes of my disobedience toward God is not only how I view my self but also how I view God. It affects my perspective of him.  Sin twists my perspective of God to where he no longer is “Our heavenly Father” but my condemning judge.  My perspective changes from one that sees God as for me to God as opposed to me.  He becomes, instead of the giver of life, the destroyer of life.  My twisted perspective then affects how I look at worship, church, the Bible, Christian leaders and fellow Christians.  How I believe God sees me becomes tainted.

This twisted perspective happens on a larger group or national level too. When the economy is robust and our jobs are good, then God has definitely blessed America.  However, when a disaster strikes or the economy tanks and we lose our jobs, then God is accused of not really being loving, caring and all-powerful.  After all, thinking like hormonal teenagers, if God really loved us, cared and was all-powerful, then he would always side with us; he would always say “Yes!” to our requests; and life would have no disappointments or pain.

The duty of the mature adult parent is to be the emotionally stable one when surrounded by the unsteady tides of teenage angst. It does not serve any purpose when the one who is supposed to be the adult acts just as emotionally immature as the teenager.  Of course, for an exhausted and frustrated human parent, this is not always the way it works out.  Even we have our limits and the worst comes out of us.

Fortunately, God does not have such human limits. He is the perfect parent who loves and acts with consistency.  He is the heavenly Father who does not change his perspective towards us no matter how much ours might change towards him.  When we are unfaithful, he remains faithful.  Even when we are in the position of a prodigal child, he remains the loving father waiting and hoping for his child to return to his/her senses and return home.  His perspective of us remains true even when ours gets twisted by our rebellious, deceiving hearts.  He sees us clearly with eyes of love while we view his character and nature dimly through suspicious eyes.

The hope that every parent of a teenager has is that one day they will mature and “grow out of” their emotionally unstable ways. I wonder if our heavenly Father does not wish the same thing for us who call our selves his children.  I often chide my children with saying, “I can’t wait until you grow up and get old enough so I can get smart again.”  For, in almost every case, the child in later life will look back over the years and say to him/her self, “You know, my parents sure knew what they were talking about.”  This is every parent’s reward and justification.

Until that time, it will remain the duty of every parent of a teenager to be the unmovable rock in the changing tide. This stability will be seen as unreasonable, demanding and unjustified.  However, it is exactly what is needed at this time in a teenager’s life.  It is also exactly what we need from our heavenly Father:  stability in an ocean of changing values.  So, let us caution our selves when our vision of God becomes twisted by the fortunes or misfortunes of life.  Let us untwist our perspective into the right one:  God does not change; we do.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Mayan Temple at Chichen Itza, July 2003

Mayan Temple at Chichen Itza, July 2003 © Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Mayan Architecture, Chichen Itza, Mexico, 2003

Mayan Architecture, Chichen Itza, Mexico, 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the challenges of the Christian faith is steadfastly and securely standing upon “Christ, the solid rock.”  These words harken back to a familiar 19th century Church hymn.  The hymn, “My Hope is Built” or “Solid Rock,” is as familiar a hymn about God’s grace as John Newton‘s “Amazing Grace.”  It carries in its tune the hope of every Christian as well as the recognition of the trials every Christian faces.

The author of the hymn’s words is not a readily recognizable name.  Reverend Edward Mote (1797 – 1874) was a Baptist minister in Horsham, Sussex, England from 1852 – 1873.  He was not raised in a Christian home.  He spent he early life running the streets and largely neglected as his parents ran a pub in London.  In fact, his upbringing was so devoid of religious education or spiritual instruction that he claims no knowledge of God until he heard the Word of God for the first time and was baptized at age 18.  After that, he was apprenticed as a cabinet maker and did well at that for 37 years, until he was called into ministry.

It was during his years as a cabinet maker that the words of this song came to him in 1834.  He was on his way to way to work when he describes it this way in a letter to the Christian publication “The Gospel Herald”:

One morn­ing it came into my mind as I went to la­bour, to write an hymn on the ‘Gra­cious Ex­per­i­ence of a Christ­ian.’ As I went up Hol­born I had the chor­us,

‘On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.’

In the day I had four first vers­es com­plete, and wrote them off. On the Sab­bath fol­low­ing I met bro­ther King as I came out of Lisle Street Meet­ing…who in­formed me that his wife was ve­ry ill, and asked me to call and see her. I had an ear­ly tea, and called af­ter­wards. He said that it was his usu­al custom to sing a hymn, read a por­tion, and en­gage in pray­er, be­fore he went to meet­ing. He looked for his hymn-book but could find it no­where. I said, ‘I have some vers­es in my pock­et; if he liked, we would sing them.’ We did, and his wife en­joyed them so much, that af­ter ser­vice he asked me, as a fa­vour, to leave a co­py of them for his wife.

I went home, and by the fire­side com­posed the last two vers­es, wrote the whole off, and took them to sis­ter King…As these vers­es so met the dy­ing wo­man’s case, my at­ten­tion to them was the more ar­rest­ed, and I had a thou­sand print­ed for dis­tr­ibu­tion. I sent one to the Spir­it­u­al Mag­a­zine, with­out my ini­tials, which ap­peared some time af­ter this. Bro­ther Rees, of Crown Street, So­ho, brought out an edi­tion of hymns [1836], and this hymn was in it. Da­vid Den­ham in­tro­duced it [1837] with Rees’ name, and others af­ter…Your in­sert­ing this brief out­line may in fu­ture shield me from the charge of stealth, and be a vin­di­ca­tion of truth­ful­ness in my con­nect­ion with the Church of God.” (http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/m/y/myhopeis.htm)

Thankfully, the original title he gave it – “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope” – did not last as long as the enduring words did for our benefit.  The tune that most of us are familiar with was given to it by William B. Bradbury in 1863.  So, it would be interesting to know to what tune it was sang before that time.  In addition to the four stanzas we already sing, there are two more attributed to him:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
’Midst all the hell I feel within,
On His completed work I lean.

I trust His righteous character
His council, promise, and His power;
His honor and His name’s at stake,
To save me from the burning lake.

I have often wondered who gets to edit or redact the hymns that are handed down to us.  Many of the ancient hymns of the church have many more stanzas than what we know or acknowledge.  It is a curious piece of ecclesial musicology that eludes me.  I am sure one day I will research and sort it out to see if the decision were based upon practical musical qualities or theology.

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Summer 2003

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Summer 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

That aside, my spiritual journey embraces the personal and private struggles of this great hymn.  I am too acquainted and familiar with times when “darkness veils His lovely face.”  I have faced “the whelming flood.”  And I can too well relate to the words not included in our hymnals: “’Midst all the hell I feel within.

In other words, in all honesty I have more often than not stood on the “other ground” – “the sinking sand.” I have been to the edge of doubt and peered into unbelief or disbelief.  Whether due to circumstances resulting from my control or because of my lack of control, these painful experiences have led me too often to the place of spiritually shaky ground.  Like a violent earthquake, when the ground, which appeared so solid beneath you, begins to move, you question the reality and solidity of everything in your life.  It is a time, truly, when “when all around my soul gives way.”  These terrible undulations of the soul shake everything that is not secure.

Suddenly, my faith in my faith – or faith in my ability to believe – is no longer enough.  I need something more.  I need someone outside of my shaken reality to help me up off the floor.  I need something more secure than confidence in my own ability to maintain a faith system.  Otherwise, I remain on “the other ground” – a quick sand that sinks me deeper in my own shaken and insecure knowledge and experiences of reality.

This “someone outside my shaken reality” and this “something more secure” is what captured the heart of Edward Mote.  It is a faith I aspire to in my spiritual journey.  Mote points me to “His righteous character” and “His completed work.”  My spiritual journey is no longer about me and my ability to make it through this life with all its struggles and disappointments and failures.

There are no trophies that I will present to him that will make me worthy of his salvation or his heaven.  I will not stand before his throne with any confidence.  It is all about, and in the end will be all about, “His oath, His covenant, His blood.”  It is what the Heavenly Father did for me through Christ’s cross and resurrection.  It is his work, not mine.  This, finally, is the anchor for my soul and my faith.  Now, I just need the Lord’s help to stay off the “other ground.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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