I posted this on my personal WordPress blog for our supporters, but the more I think about it, the more I see God's hand in the difficult process and wanted to put it up here too.
Last month, on April 15th, we made the hard decision to return home during this time of uncertainty. One-week prior we dedicated a week for prayer and fasting on what to do in regards with ministry as well as if we should stay in Peru or come home. God didn’t speak any big and clear words, but He did us this ever-increasing trust that whatever would happen, He would have our back. From that week we created four main checkpoints for reasons to return: 1) health would become a serious concern for any family member, 2) we begin to feel unsafe in Peru, 3) the quarantine continues to keep going on and on, and 4) the borders close. Well, three days following our contentment in whatever the near future would hold, Sophie told me that the borders were completely closing and repatriation would end on April 22nd. I will say that already after that date, a tentative flight has been scheduled, but even talks about a complete closing of borders raised alarm. This required us to think a little more hypothetically and timely in regards to our first three points, which brings us back to Wednesday, our decision day.
Info about Peru’s COVID status at the time of the decision: there were 25,000 cases in all of Peru and 700 deaths. It is tough to know how accurate that is, as the correlation of test kits given to the rise in cases is pretty linear. We left on day 36 of quarantine and it was extended until May 10th(56 days) then and now it's up to June 30th (over 100 days). The quarantine was very strict as only one person per household could leave at a time. All shopping had to be done before 1:00pm and nobody at all outside after 6:00pm. One until six were mainly for those working essential jobs. Sunday is complete lockdown. This was enforced by the patrolling military, local police, and included the entertaining helicopter checks in the evenings. Masks have been required to be worn anytime outside for a long time. Breaking of the rules puts you in jail: there have been Positively, there have been grants given to families by the government as well as baskets of food. Via social media neighbors are delivering food to one another. Companies seem to be understanding with postponing payments. People have yet to be freak out on any massive scale and Peruvians are tough when it comes to dealing with hardship. We do have trust in Peru!...but all-in-all, the direction of the country is uncertain like every country in every aspect of society.
Okay so the Wednesday beforehand until Wednesday, April 22nd was filled with a lot of activity. We saw the Lord’s hand help us in many cool ways and want to share the week with you!
Sophie’s and my heart and minds more and more pointed to returning. This wasn’t out of fear of Covid19 for our own personal health and safety, but for all the ramifications that go along with it. However, this was a large decision and we knew counsel should be sought beyond immediate team members and family. Their points were all wise and Biblical, but also contained bias. So therefore, we asked our knowledgeable and experienced Peruvian neighbor, a trusted leader within ReachGlobal, my amazing home pastor and his wife, and some awesome fellow missionaries living in Peru. It was really cool to see how many of their points overlapped and helped us reorder our thoughts. Seeking counsel is always helpful!
Here are some of the points summarized and mixed together: If our heart is going to be in the USA throughout this time, how can we thrive or carry out ministry or even daily activities here in Peru? Who knows, during these next few months with restrictions being less in the USA than Peru, there will be awesome opportunities to help people there. We felt really bad about leaving our team and the people, but us going now by no means at all completely ends the Peru chapter in our lives. Family really is important and that desire to be together is a good desire. And lastly, moving from where we were located to the US Embassy seven hours away would be a very difficult trip to make in the midst of a military total shutdown, so if God wanted us out of Peru, He would open those checkpoints.
From there we told our team. I mentioned to Sophie during one of our last rooftop talks that I was very excited about the decision, but the actual “making” of the decision in regards to leaving a place we grew to love was super hard.
The next two days, Thursday and Friday, were absolute rollercoasters. The time restraint of the “last” flight being on Tuesday can be given the most credit to the stress. On Thursday morning Sophie began packing up all of our stuff while I went with Carlos to the police station and town hall. We needed a letter for permission to travel. Both of those places knew nothing. We then picked up Sophie along with our other leader, Meredith, and went to the neighboring and larger town of La Merced’s military station, which was closed. Their police station also was of no help with administering the permission to travel. Meanwhile, the US Embassy hadn’t responded to emails for more than 24 hours and their phone lines only redirected calls to unknowing agents thousands of miles away in the US. We returned to our almost completely packed up apartment very bummed and exhausted. As a last ditch effort I sent one more email to the US Embassy before taking a nap.
I wake up a few hours later already mentally prepared to continue to quarantine. Truthfully, the quarantine was tough but we were enjoying the time together and the extended time to read, spend time with Jesus, and keep in contact with people back at home. BUT, we finally received a reply from the embassy. They weren’t providing transportation to Lima, but they recommended we call one of three men that have transportation jobs and do professional work. (And WOW, did they do that!) I hesitantly called the first number, a man named Michael, and the help we received was incredible. He was a Peruvian man that spoke perfectly fluent English who working with transport for the Swedish embassy. Later we found out he is also a Christian and has dedicated his mission to helping everyone as much as possible in this difficult time. Continue to pray for Michael, he has a lot on his plate in Peru and never slows down helping others.
Anyway, this was Thursday evening and since the last flights were Monday/Tuesday, we needed a driver to come Friday to take us back on Saturday. (He could’ve came Saturday to go back Monday as Sunday nobody could travel, but with the uncertainty of landslides in the mountains from rain, having a day of buffer was nice.) Michael acknowledged this and therefore had a few hours to find a driver. His best driver with the best car was available: Luis. He kept encouraging us to get the forms to transport between provinces (states) of Peru. This would be supplied by the US Embassy…. whom were responding to emails every several hours.
Meanwhile our parents were talking to local congressmen and women back at home. As I was reading one email reply from Sophie’s, my parents called with almost identical news: they were encouraging us to purchase the expensive repatriation flights before the travel. This process made perfect sense once in Lima: one would buy the tickets and then receive a form with the tickets allowing travel to the US Embassy, where the flight check-in would occur. However in our case, interprovincial travel was much, much more difficult, and with unexpected weather or a grumpy police officer not guaranteed to happen. But we went for it and got the tickets late Thursday night to at least speed up the process and get better in touch with the US Embassy. We go to bed.
Friday morning we are aware that our driver needs to leave by noon to make the 7-hour drive from Lima to San Ramon. In Peru circulation could only occur between 5:00am and 6:00pm. Essentially at this point we had the two requirements to receive the special pass for repatriation travel given by the US Embassy under permission from the Peruvian government. This was for both our driver’s trip and our return trip with him. Yet, the US Embassy was delaying in their email replies. Luis was packed and ready. Michael was doing and continued to do a phenomenal job organizing the communication. Finally at 11:30 am we received the paperwork to travel and immediately sent it off to Luis so he could leave Lima! Just in time! In this time I received a call from a US Embassy officer. He assured me that while police corruption or weather could stop it, the letters have done a good job helping US citizens and residents get passed checkpoints within Peru. We were hopeful but our constant prayers continued!
We packed up the rest of our lives, cleaned, and donated plants, food, and extras to our awesome neighbors. We had a nice Peru dinner of grilled cheese with ham alongside hot chocolate and coffee. The time was very bittersweet. Our driver Luis showed up a bit after the 6:00pm deadline, bleached down his car, put all clothes in a bag, showered, and we shared a meal together before a nice team call and an early bedtime.
Saturday was our big travel day to Lima: from 3,000 feet up to 16,000 and back down to sea level over the course of seven hours. We saw jungle, snow, mountains, and desert. Second to the hassle of receiving all the paperwork, getting past the checkpoints was the most nerve-racking point. We heard of doctors wanting to help in Lima not get through as well as mandatory quarantines between cities or provinces along the way. We also knew one unlucky encounter with a storm or the police could send us back home. Alongside our prayers was our families’. Among those was a passage my dad “mistakenly” opened up to, which is found below.
Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. –Acts 12:6-10
Well, we left at six in the morning and the first checkpoint of eight was two minutes into the trip. A young officer receives our passports and embassy letters with confusion. He brings them to the “chief”. This guy approaches our car yelling and is completely full of ego. Our driver encourages us to act like we don’t know any Spanish so he could take care of all interaction. This first interaction didn’t go well at all. The embassy letter/permission form had a special government number to call but the chief wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to see “forms” that we don’t even know exist and tells us to leave. Parked to the side we make several phone calls and finally bring my phone up to him with the embassy number ringing. Once again, all we see in the mirrors is this chief yelling and acting tough. It eventually hits our experienced driver that this guy from square one wouldn’t let us through unless we did one special thing…hand over cash. This “chief” asks for a measly $15 and our driver apologetically agrees. We left annoyed and nervous if each of those next 7 would be the same.
Turns out that we were only stopped twice more. Five let us pass freely and we enjoyed the absolute gorgeous ride out of Peru. We loved talking with Luis in both Spanish and English, taking in the views, and reminiscing internally on all that we experienced. What a mixture of excitement, adrenaline, sadness, and feelings words don’t pick out.
We arrived to a hotel across from the US Embassy to see Michael there, waiting for us. What a mixture of a professionalism, kindness, and willingness to help. He said that when we had called him, when we were stopped by the police at the first checkpoint, all he could do was get on his knees and pray. God heard his and all of your prayers!
The rest of Saturday and Sunday Sophie and I enjoyed the hotel along with its required room service, warm shower and air-conditioned room.
Monday we took steps across the street to check in for our flight on the front yard of the US Embassy. Us and 100 others were then led by escort in a bus to the Peruvian Air Force where US Marines and Peruvian National Police did security in a hangar. What a surreal day. Being in between two loved countries with two loved people in the midst of Covid and the abnormal measures needed to be taken just for travel was hard to take in. Time flew by even though we just sat all day and sooner than later we were flying out of Lima, over the Gulf of Mexico, watching the gorgeous sunset, and landing in Miami.
The Wednesday flight to Chicago was much less expensive so we stayed in Miami all of Tuesday. Too bad the beaches weren’t open, but even just our 1 mile loop around the business park where our hotel was couldn’t have been better! On Wednesday we had smooth travels through empty airport with lots of hand sanitizer and masks on to give our parents big hugs in Chicago. The crazy week was over. God brought us home. Family time now.
The entire time Sophie and I were so aware that no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t have done it. If Michael didn’t pick up the phone dedicated to give 100%, if Luis wasn’t available, if a policeman said no, or if weather was too bad, we wouldn’t have gotten home. This kept reminding us about our relationship with Jesus. No matter how hard we try on our own, we can’t earn our righteousness. Rather, we trust in Christ and all that He has done, and that He is always eagerly there waiting for us to be in relationship with Him.
A brief update: If COVID slows down and is handled well by both Peru and the USA, the option to return to be with the Yanesha around August remains open. For now, this is as unclear as all of our lives are right now. What is certain is that we are with loved ones and going to enjoy one day at a time!