The air was warm and humid, so saturated with the scent of rich spices you could almost taste it. I had found myself on the streets of Mumbai, India, at the impressionable age of 16 and from that moment my life was set on a trajectory that has led me to where I am today, living and serving in Guatemala City.
I would like to share snippets of how that happened with you now, bear in mind 16-year-old Azaria did not know what I know now and she certainly would not have understood or expressed things in the same way. I would like to think I have matured, at least a little, since then.
Please get ready with a nice cuppa (cup of tea) for a slightly longer read, I will try to keep each part of the story brief while still including all the main details.
During my final year of secondary school at Bradford Christian School (BCS) I applied and was selected to go on a mission’s trip to India. The trip was to visit an Indian led ministry that worked directly with children from the slums, streets and red-light district. We went to serve and help, but mostly build relationships, learn and hear from them about what life and ministry was like.
Other than a trip to Romania when I was 14 this was my first exposure to cross cultural mission in a context of extreme poverty and the impact was life changing.
I have been blessed to visit and serve in numerous other contexts and cultures since. Still now I can say that I have never seen the kind of poverty I witnessed in the slums of Mumbai and, if anything has ever come close, it has never been on that scale. Years on I still struggle to articulate everything clearly and it is hard to describe some scenes. Scenes that are so clearly etched in my memory but are hard to express to others. Some things cannot be unseen or forgotten; I don’t write that to necessarily express a wish to forget nor do the memories impact me negatively, at least not now. Instead, they remind me, challenge me, motivate me.
I remember the children’s home in Paud, a village on the outskirts of Pune, home to around 60 children all coming from challenging contexts and difficult family situations. Many of them children of women working in the red-light district, unknown fathers and at risk of abuse and child prostitution. The home had three main buildings, one for small children and then one each for older boys and girls. Each with ‘house parents’ who took on the roles of mother and father to these vulnerable children. It was beautiful to see how well they had managed to create family and home for each one of the children there. As a team we were able to construct a new playground for them to use and enjoy. It was no easy feat digging deep holes, mixing concrete and painting play equipment under the heat of the Indian sun. (My views on this particular type of mission have changed somewhat since this trip, but that understanding, and learning can be shared another time). However, more than worth it to help bless those beautiful children. We were able to get involved with various other fun activities and daily life too. Mealtimes were great fun, as we sat crossed legged on the floor and learned how to eat curry and rice with no cutlery, only one hand.
After a week or so at the children’s home we went to Mumbai to see the projects in the slums.
Nothing could have prepared me for what we experienced in our brief time there. The slums themselves a vast, unending maze of rooms made from wooden planks, bricks, concrete blocks and corrugated iron sheets. Sewage running through the narrow passages, the stench and sight leaving a lasting impact. We visited a few of the ministry’s day care centres where volunteers ran groups for children and youth after school. I still remember those little children, in their surprisingly smart uniforms, with their sweet smiles and wide-eyed stares. As they sang songs, said their prayers, did their homework and played I recall wondering how it was possible to find this kind of joy in such a place. Yet there we were witnessing joy, love and hope.
The night we drove through some of the streets in the red-light district is one I will never forget. Honestly, I think I almost felt myself mature that night, my sheltered and innocent eyes were opened to a reality I could hardly believe existed and at 16 I suddenly understood more and less of this world and humanity all in the same instance.
I can still see the rows upon rows of rooms, a single bed inside and a rag of cloth acting as a curtain hanging in the doorway. Lines of women stood in front of them, I wish I could tell you I didn’t see children there among them. I had to look away but before I could I saw a heavy-set middle-aged man, dressed in dirty white vest and loose-fitting trousers leaving one of the rooms, adjusting himself; tucking in his vest and zipping his trousers as he left. This memory still turns my stomach. That evening there was little to say to one another as we returned to our rooms to sleep.
Over the next few days continuing to see the projects in the slums we could all agree that if only we had known before going to the children’s home, we would have played with those precious children a little longer, hugged them a little tighter, loved them a little harder.
The impact was powerful and as I’ve mentioned before, for me, life changing.
It was somewhere in the slums of India, sewage underfoot, surrounded by indescribable poverty that my heart broke and God made it clear that I would love and serve His people in similar contexts for the rest of my life.
When I returned from India it took time to process what I had seen and experienced, I remember looking around my bedroom, a wardrobe full of clothes and all my beautiful things and thinking how blessed I truly was. It was hard to accept and reconcile it all in my heart and mind.
Through God’s grace I was able to work through my many different emotions and begin to comprehend better what I had seen.
The next step was finishing school, so I went to 6th Form and studied Art, Philosophy and Ethics, Biology and Chemistry. A selection made based on a thought process to become a Marine Biologist or an Artist, before I had felt God’s pull on my heart strings to live a very different way. Well, all I can say is that I did not excel in the sciences and poured my energy into Philosophy and Ethics and Art. My focus was very much set on how I could go and serve in overseas ministry and mission. So, when I finished my A Level’s I had no plans to go to university and no clue what to do next. Honestly, I don’t know how any 18-year-old is supposed to know, but some do and hats off to them.
I was given the opportunity to do a gap year in my church and serve in youth work and other areas.
I was already one of the youth workers and was thrilled to get to take a year out before having to make any big decisions. Anyone who knows me well will know that decision making is one of my least favourite things. Thankfully God is always faithful and I’ve always been more than happy to let Him take the lead. It was after this gap year when I was jobless and still unsure of what to do next that I took a short internship position in a Charity called Christians Against Poverty (CAP). I was sent with a small team down south to a Christian event to help host the CAP stand, one of the stands close to ours was for a charity called Amigos Worldwide. A fantastic charity supporting young people in Uganda through innovative conservation, ‘farming God’s way,’ life skills, training and discipleship. I was hooked. I didn’t know how or when but I knew I was going to be heading to Uganda to see this charity in action and see what God was doing there.
I started to dream with a close friend of mine, Fiona, of travelling the world, mixing tourism with visiting ministries. We shared a lot of passions and both had a desire for adventure. Adventure was exactly what we got even if it was in unexpected ways and only some of it shared.
Our dreaming started to take some shape as I was able to plan a visit to Amigos Worldwide in Uganda and we began planning a trip together to visit the ministry in India and a ministry in Rwanda and DRC that Fiona had an affiliation with. For various reasons our big plans to travel the world after visiting these ministries became a beautiful reality for Fiona but God had something different, but equally beautiful, planned for me.
My time in Uganda was filled with awe and wonder that only The Creator could provide. Waking up to the sound of rhythmic African drums combined with all manner of nature’s sounds was like living in a beautiful dream. The lush green of Ugandan hillsides and time spent with some of the most humble and hospitable people I have ever met was a delight. Seeing the incredible work of Amigos Worldwide was inspiring, it still inspires me today. As an extra special gift, I was able to go on safari and was blown away by God’s beauty in creation yet again. I had never felt so blessed.
I was only back in the UK a short while before Fiona and I headed out to India for 8 weeks, returning to the place where it had all begun. Spending two months there was a huge blessing allowing us to really get involved in the day-to-day life at the children’s home and build deeper relationships with everyone there. It was also great to spend longer in Mumbai and gain further understanding of culture and life for people there. India will always hold a special place in my heart, it’s a place of colour and life. With unimaginable extremes between the materially poorest and wealthiest, never have I been able to be in a vast slum one minute and a shopping centre with all the biggest brands the next. A contrast my brain struggled with then and still does today in Guatemala, just not as intensely. Perhaps that is because India was my first exposure, or for my youth, but also it could be the sheer scale of contrast. I feel like I live between those two worlds here in Guatemala, everyday my work takes me to materially poor contexts and to be with people who live in that type of poverty and then my home life takes me away from it again, to a safer, more ‘comfortable’ part of the city. Those two months in India stretched Fiona and I, tested and strengthened our friendship and helped us both lean closer into God, His provision and love.
Once back from India we had a few weeks before our trip to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As a midwife Fiona had an interest in and relationship with an amazing ministry called ‘Comfort Rwanda’ working to build and equip a maternity clinic in DRC as an extension of their ministries in Rwanda. We spent three wonderful weeks there, the first 5 days in DRC and the rest of our time in Rwanda. Despite some personal challenges, the loss of my baggage and some unforeseen health issues, it was an amazing time. We were able to share with rural communities many of which were still rebuilding after the genocide in 1994. Comfort Rwanda was passionately working in reconciliation, and it was extremely eye opening and educational to visit the museums and harrowing to walk around the genocide sites. Hearing stories from survivors and perpetrators had a huge impact as we spent time with a people who will not forget! If you would like to read ‘Rwanda and her people,’ a poem I wrote after visiting a genocide site one day please follow the attached link. Our time in this beautiful pocket of the world was challenging, raw and formational. We were also able to enjoy a very colourful and joyous wedding and activities with groups of children and young adults at churches and schools. We visited pineapple planting projects, hospitals, tailoring groups, at one point in DRC we were even ‘kidnapped’ and taken to a dinner we were unaware of (a story for another time). In addition, Fiona and I were blessed to visit her sponsor child through Compassion, a very special day indeed.
It really was a packed few weeks, even just driving around was awe inspiring, Rwanda really is a country of a thousand hills and lakes, simply breath-taking.
At some point along the way, whilst planning all these amazing trips, God had placed it on my mind to study. I say my mind intentionally because it took some time for it to also be on my heart. In truth it wasn’t until I was three months or so into my degree that the shift happened in my heart too.
I remember clearly telling God I would only apply to one college and if I got in I would go. I visited and applied to study at ST John’s college Nottingham. Mostly because by that point my sister and her family had been in Nottingham for some time and now my parents and younger brother lived there too. I had stayed in Keighley when my parents moved. Also the course for Independent Students offered at St John’s allowed for me to tailor make part of the course to focus on overseas ministry. Like I said I applied and well, I got in and that was that.
So, on returning from Rwanda I started preparing to go to college and Fiona prepared for a year long trip of a lifetime. We parted ways, forever closer because of the time and experiences shared and have been able to share many special moments together since.
My time at St John’s was a key step in my journey for so many reasons not least the personal formation and quality friendships made and developed. It was during my time at St John’s that I was first introduced to Church Mission Society (CMS) and the idea that I could do the work I felt called to and be supported in all the necessary ways too. It became abundantly obvious to me when I left college that God had a clear plan and purpose all along. Even the preaching module that I was not keen on at the time was put to good use when I started visiting link churches and sharing in front of congregations. I could see that not only had God placed a call on my life all those years ago in India, but He had been preparing me for the life and work the whole time too, and most likely even before.
As I just mentioned it was during my time at college that I heard about CMS, through a lecturer who was serving as a Mission Partner with his family in Brazil. And well, they actually contacted me. By this point I had met my fair share of Bishops through my time at a college training Deacons and Priests for serving in the Church of England. However, it was still a bit of a surprise to get a phone call from Bishop Henry Scriven asking me if I was interested in meeting and talking more about CMS and serving in mission overseas. Thus my journey with CMS began, and after an initial meeting and conversation I began the interview and selection process. I have many fond memories from this process but one of the biggest take aways and most impacting parts was having my calling not only confirmed but also affirmed by others. I remember an overwhelming feeling of being heard and understood, in a way I don’t think I had previously experienced. It was exhilarating and liberating. There were other people just like me, I wasn’t just existing in a dream world in my own head. Once selected, the full, dedicated and capable force of the team that makes up CMS’s headquarters bounded into action. I started to learn about all the elements that go into being a CMS Mission Partner. From that moment to present day I have felt supported and blessed to be part of such a beautiful, mission focused community and family.
The next step in my journey to Guatemala began while I was still on my selection journey; yet it was not confirmed that this would be the destination of my placement until December 2016.
One of the reasons that I can say wholeheartedly it was God who chose this location for me is because I honestly hadn’t even heard of Guatemala until after I had started conversations with CMS. Now I have been living here for almost five years.
Let me back track a little to when I did first hear about Guatemala. I remember I had been praying, seeking God’s guidance on where I should go and live and serve and several counties had been suggested and talked about, some were ruled out and others were still being discussed. I received a copy of ‘The Call,’ CMS’s newspaper and read about a couple, Mark and Rosalie Balfour, who were going to go and live in Guatemala as the first Mission Partners in Central America. Reading about the plans they had and the partner foundation/organisation really captured my attention and my heart. However, sending a single female to an ‘unknown’ and potentially dangerous location was not recommended.
Honestly, I think from that moment somewhere in my heart I already knew, but a lot still happened to get me here.
I went on my selection weekend and one of the other people attending, Steve Poulson, told me all about Honduras and the work he was hoping to go and be involved in there. In one of those amazing God-incidences he was telling me more about the same foundation I had read about in ‘The Call.’
I was intrigued. Steve told me more about Honduras and Guatemala and I knew that I had to find out more for myself.
Not long after my selection I got another phone call from Bishop Henry, this time he was asking me if I would be interested in going to Paraguay to help teach English in a school there for a few months and at the same time learn some Spanish and start to experience some Latin American culture. I was certainly interested, but the date to go was only a few weeks away and I didn’t have long to decide or raise the funds. Bishop Henry was also keen for me to spend a week in Peru as a visit to a potential long term location and meet some Mission Partners there. I was keen too, but Guatemala was still on my mind and heart and so I shared that with him. It felt like the next thing I knew we had found flights for me to go to Paraguay, Peru, Guatemala and back to the UK again. The only thing left was the money, or lack of at that point. However, God in His goodness, provision and in an act of confirmation made sure the money was all there for me to set off of this new adventure with Him.
I could share a hundred stories from my first Latin American adventure, that was another life changing time for me, but I will try and restrain myself to just a few key moments and highlights.
I remember arriving in Paraguay, it was late and I was exhausted from a very long journey. It felt like I had been travelling for days. I was collected from the airport by the head and deputy head from the school where I would be helping to teach English and they took me to my little apartment, home for the next three months. The first thing I did was shower off the airplane and travel grossness. However, as I was leaving the bathroom I slipped and fell on the wet tiles. I simply sat there on the floor crying and wondering what I had done, questioning why I was there. I had made the decision to come to a completely unknown place, alone in a very short space of time and I think that the reality of it hit me as I hit the floor. To be kind to my dramatic self I was tired, alone, in a strange place and probably hungry too. Remembering I was only 24 at the time too. Anyway, I slept, and everything felt much better in the morning. I have to say teaching is not one of my main gifts and I am not sure I would choose to ever teach again, but overall, the teaching went well. It didn’t take long for me to make friends among the other teachers and start to have a little community out in Paraguay. My visit was primarily to help teach English, to start to learn Spanish and to engage with Latin American culture and all in all that is what I did. However, I will hold my hands up and admit as far as learning Spanish went, I did not do too well. I was starting from zero and I did not get the opportunity to be emerged in the language as the school was in English and I chose to socialise in English too. I found people liked to practice their English and I was so afraid to speak Spanish. A fear that stayed with me well into my time living in Guatemala, but that’s a story for another time.
On the whole my Paraguayan adventure was amazing and I have fond memories of the places and people. There was one day that will forever stay in my mind. On the surface it was an ‘ordinary’ day; my new kind of ‘ordinary,’ for that season at least. I was going about my usual routine when, at some point, my mind started to ask those profound life questions, maybe I was missing home. I started to question whether I could do this, live overseas, long term. Not in Paraguay but in whatever country became my long term location. I started to massively doubt my ability to learn Spanish, knowing that was going to be pretty important. I was just having one of those days, where I wasn’t sure about any of it, doubting my very core self and calling. Maybe I had got it wrong. After all, I had seen God’s provision in numerous ways in the past, especially financially and so far my CMS funding account was at zero. I remember chatting with one of my new friends in the teachers’ lounge and getting a little emotional. She was really encouraging and supportive which helped me to start to calm down. I sat at my computer and opened my emails. There, at the top of my inbox, was an email from someone on the finance team at CMS. I had received my first donation and I had to read it several times to make sure I was counting the zeros right. Someone had donated £10,000. I started crying all over again, tears of joy, gratitude, and all kinds of emotions. God has done it again, showed me in His perfect timing that He had a plan and He was providing every step of the way. This affirming moment is one of the ones that I still recall when I have doubts, and it always helps ground me back in God’s perfect plan and purpose. Knowing that it really isn’t about me but Him. That person did not gift £10,000 just because they like me and think I’m a nice person but because God placed it one their hearts to give and they were choosing to be obedient. I was reminded then and still am today that I too have to be obedient to the call God has placed on my life and all that comes with it. All glory to God, He always shows up. Another ‘ordinary’ day made extraordinary by God.
It was also in beautiful Paraguay where I saw a hummingbird for the first time, which you can read more about in ‘Why Hummingbirds.’
I imagine your cup of tea has either all gone now or is cold because you have been reading this and been so gripped that you have forgotten about it. That might be me being too confident in my writing skills. Well, let’s leave Paraguay now and head to Peru, the end of this part of the story is close now.
After almost three months in Paraguay I packed up and headed to Lima, Peru. My time in Peru was short but sweet, with a lot squeezed into my one week stay. I met with many faithful Mission Partners and heard about and saw the ministries they were involved in. It was a very meaningful and special time, and truly helped me on my discernment journey. I could see that there were a lot of great things happening there and I would even have a ready made community to step into, or at least other Mission Partners close by to offer support and help. However, as Paul Tester, a CMS Mission Partner, noted as we shared ceviche together, while Peru could have captured me on it’s cuisine alone, it simply was not the place for me. I hadn’t been to Guatemala yet but my heart was already here.
So, we have reached the final stop on my 2016 Latin American tour. I remember freaking out as I was leaving the airport as I suddenly realised that I had no phone number to contact if the person who I had been emailing didn’t show up to collect me. I found myself standing among the crowd of people being greeted by loved ones and welcomed home or starting their Guatemalan tourist adventure. Slowly the crowd dispersed as people left and there I was still standing waiting. I was looking around frantically, hoping someone would claim me. I remembered the time my sister got separated from us at a theme park and my dad having to collect her from the ‘lost and found’ point. I felt like my sister, like a child lost and needing to be found.
Eventually, after what felt like far too long, someone approached me and asked me in fairly good but broken English if I was Azaria. Thank You Jesus. I was found, my new friend seemed most shocked that his tiny, and I do mean miniscule, sign with my name on had not gotten my attention.
It was definitely an interesting start to my week in Guatemala.
There was not one defining moment that made it clear to me that this was the place. Over the course of the week I was able to see the work the ministry was doing in relation to street connected children and youth. I felt welcomed and safe despite the slightly rough (I’m being generous) accommodation and visiting some challenging locations. I simply knew that there was a place for me here. I remember one evening sitting in the run-down kitchen of the then visitors house, now Centro Opp, playing cards with a group of the youth and their leader Johnny, my friend from the airport. I recall there were some pretty nasty forfeits to the game if you lost involving eating spoons full of whatever gross mixture they could come up with from the random and limited kitchen supplies. The state of the house didn’t matter, and the gross forfeits were unimportant, there was laughter and connection, friendships were being made. I still have many of those friendship and they are a lot deeper today.
When I returned from Guatemala my heart was sure; I knew deep within me that Guatemala was the place where I was meant to go and live. I remember talking with Bishop Henry and him saying to me something along the lines of, ‘well if you have been and seen and still think it is Guatemala then it must be God.’ That was it, decision made. I was going to move to Guatemala. Less than a year later, I did just that. Obviously, a lot happened in between which I plan to share another time,
but in July 2017, I found myself stepping out of that familiar airport in Guatemala City with two huge suitcases ready to start the biggest adventure to date. Although, this time, I was greeted by a whole bunch of people including Mark and Rosalie and some of the youth with a much bigger and clearer sign. I felt instantly welcomed and at peace, reassuring me that I was not completely crazy for doing this.