Teen angst. Elderly parents. Couple communication.
This summer Rhonda Myers learned that families in El Salvador deal with those and other issues families in Missouri face. And like Missouri families, they want some help.
Myers and Concord Baptist Association pioneered a first for Baptists in Missouri and
the continuing partnership with El Salvador. The Jefferson City-based family counselor provided group and individual counseling and family ministry workshops during an August mission trip to the Central American country.
The association, which is in the second year of a three-year partnership with La Paz/San Vicente region, determines each trip's projects based on input from national leaders. During a 2008 trip, director of missions Calvin Brown ministered to several families. Conversations with pastors of the four churches in the region and other leaders led to a vision for El Salvadoran families.
"We had never gone to El Salvador to do a family project...to minister to whole families as a group," Mauricio Vargas, the association's multicultural specialist and El Salvador native, explained. "In the beginning, the dream was to have a father/son event...but even the young ladies wanted to be involved."
Once the El Salvadoran leaders confirmed the need for a family outreach of some type, Brown and Vargas began considering Missouri resources. "They immediately started talking to me about the possibilities, not only for the families themselves, but also with the deacon ministry," Myers said.
At first, Myers didn't consider participating in a trip to El Salvador. She simply intended to just offer to help plan the ministry. But as she and associational leaders prayed, she felt God's leading, and financial resources to participate in this year's mission project materialized.
On the field, Myers and her team first met with deacons and deaconesses of Eben Ezer Baptist Church, ministry host, to hear their vision. "They saw parenting and discipline issues in their families. They saw a lot of couples struggling with communication...with being a 'sandwich' generation -- dealing with elderly parents and children at home.... They struggle with the same things we struggle with," Myers explained.
Her team offered three workshops to strengthen church families to live in such a way that they would set the example for families in their neighborhoods. In "10 Ways to Strengthen Your Family," Myers provided family building activities, such as wives using voice commands to lead their blindfolded husbands through an obstacle course.
The workshop, "Five Love Languages," was designed to teach families how to understand and affirm each member. "They learned a lot about themselves and their own families," Myers explained. "They also learned how to use [the concepts] with others outside their family. They were very much more open in the discussions than Americans tend to be," she said.
"How to Have a Family Fun Night" encouraged families to set aside time from the world's distractions. She pointed out that everyday life has too many activities and that people often work too much. "We helped families commit to setting aside one night a week to interact," she said.
She taught games family members could play in their own homes, utilizing items they already have on hand. The group got a little wild with water-balloon volleyball --- using bed sheets to toss water-filled balloons back and forth between two groups. "At one point we had 40 people playing. Then they started adding things to the game, and at one point had four balloons going at the same time," she laughed.
Participants particularly enjoyed creating soapbox derby cars from parts the team brought. Family groups built and raced the cars. "We had 4-year-olds and 80-year-olds working together," Myers said.
Vargas noted that people in the area had never seen a track or the cars built. "It was a neat project for each family," he said. And they didn't settle for simply painting the cars, but tricked them out with elaborate, cool designs.
Digital technology and a small printer allowed the Missouri team to provide a portrait for each participant family. Between conferences, Myers met with families and couples "privately, at least as private as we could be" under a tree, away from group activities.
Although excited about the ministry, she admitted concern over language and confidentiality issues. God solved both problems. "The Lord took care of it by providing two interpreters who are studying to be counselors, and they were from another area of the country," she explained.
In fact, Myers added, the ministry provided sort of a mini-internship for the interpreters. She modeled appropriate responses to difficult issues and was able to answer their questions about dealing with clients. Occasionally, God even seemed to cross the language barrier supernaturally, she added.
"There were times when I felt that I knew what they were saying. God just opened my heart," she said. "It was an amazing thing.... It was like language was no barrier because they were issues similar to what families face here [in America]."
She cited one family Brown had ministered to during the 2008 trip. The family includes both mothers, the husband and wife and three teens, sharing a five-room house. Both grandmothers have Alzheimer's disease, but no medications or resources are available to assist them. "The couple just needed to talk...to vent. We weren't there to provide all the answers," Myers said.
The family counselor noted that discouragement over job loss and unemployment brought many people to seek help. "There's where your faith has to be part of it. We talked about hope and what can get you through the day," she said.
Myers believes the project opened the door to more counseling ministry. "At first I wasn't sure if culturally counseling would be accepted," she said. But she currently is ministering to one couple by e-mail. And she said, the interpreters have reported that they have been overwhelmed by continued response.
"I would like to see other teams offer the same ministry, especially to train deacons Divorce is just as prevalent in El Salvador as it is here. Church members are involved in affairs and pornography," she said. "I'd like to see more on discipline and continued help with communication for couples. Those are the two issues that I'm hearing that they [church leaders] would like to follow up on."
Brown and Vargas met with pastors in the region briefly during the mission trip and continue to plan with them by e-mail. The pair says that likely the association will schedule two trips in 2010. They hope counseling will again be among the ministries included.
Vicki Brown is associate editor at Word&Way.