La Palma: A Passionate Community and a New Year we will never forget.

Concrete Church and school building with grass betweenLa Palma is a small settlement about 40 minutes north of Puerto Jimenez. Another public bus got us there – we are like old hands now!  We were met at the bus stop outside the Panaderia and taken to the church where we were welcomed by “El Pastor” and a host of other members of the community. Our accommodation was so much better than we had expected – well, we hadn’t really known what to expect as communication on the phone had been so difficult! In fact, we had been all ready to camp for a week and cook on our trangias. In the end we had the use of a kitchen with pots, pans, plates etc and the girls slept in the school room albeit on a concrete floor, but it was relatively cool.  Howie and I, on the other hand, had to sleep in our tents! The hard baked grass was just as hard as the concrete and we had no shade so the heat was almost unbearable!

Inside the Sunday School building, bedrolls on the floor with mosquito nets hung from ropesNobody in the community really spoke any English so it was great for me to practise my Spanish but that also meant that it took away some of the ownership from the girls. However, they tried hard and certainly improved their Spanish as the week went on. We were a little surprised at first when we had a meeting with “El Pastor” (he remained “El Pastor” as we never found out his real name – everyone in the community calls him “Pastor” even his family!) and the ladies who were the organisers of the community. They asked us what we wanted to do! We said that we were here to do whatever they wanted. They were very keen to take us places, meet the rest of the community, join in with community events and share their culture. It didn’t seem to leave a lot of room for working! We stressed that we felt our first priority was to complete the work they wanted us to do but we were also very happy to join in with community events.

two girls preparing food in a kitchen.It was ridiculously hot in La Palma – it doesn’t have the protection of the jungle around it like Puerto Jimenez and it is dead flat so the sun burns down and there is little in the way of shade.  At 4pm in the afternoon it was starting to cool down but it was still over 30C.  The pattern of the days was set – rise early, start work at 7am, work until midday and then rest until 4pm before doing another couple of hours. Except that New Year’s Day was a public holiday so it was suggested we didn’t work at all, and Sunday was a day of rest so definitely no work!  In the event we did work New Year’s Day because we were awake and had nothing else to do! It was definitely too hot to stay in the tents and the girls were hungry so they emerged at 6am despite being up late the night before.  Work started at 7am the sun was too hot to work in by 9am so we left the walls that were in full sun and went back to them later!

girls painting a buildingNew Year’s Eve – our first day of work.  Our aim was to paint the Sunday School Classroom outside and inside. It was a concrete building with metal bars on the upper half and metal sliding doors.  We had anti-corrosive paint for the metal parts, sealant for the walls and then coloured paint to go over the top.  The plan was to do two coats of sealant and anti-corrosive paint and then two coats of colour. It was a big building so it was no mean feat.  We also had four picnic tables to assemble and paint.  However, there were 13 of us.  The girls had decided to have two people each day on kitchen duty who would focus on planning and cooking meals and then clearing up afterwards.  They also needed to go shopping for extra supplies.  So eleven people working for 7 hours a day = 77 man (or girl) hours per day times by 4 and that is a lot of time.  It didn’t take long for the first coat to be done – about three hours!  Dio girls are fast and efficient workers!  And they did a good job too.  Fortunately, the paint was water based so it was relatively easy to paint with and easy to clean the brushes too after each session.

girls lying underneath tables painting the underside of themGirls cleaning paintbrushes at a stone outside sink that drains directly onto the grass.We had been invited to the New Year’s Eve festivities in the church.  It was to be a sharing of gifts and “El Pastor” asked us if we would like to share something with the community.  Of course we would!  Kick off at 7pm – seemed a little early but we were cleaned up and ready by the appointed time.  All day there had been music blaring out of the boom boxes in the church and a host of teenagers had been in and out of the church practising something!  We hoped that our chapel songs, waiata and the national anthem, would be okay!

The Pastor reading from the bi bile in church and girl to the right reading the same chapter  in EnglishNew Year’s Eve in La Palma is an evening we will not forget in a long time!  I don’t think I have seen such passion to such an extent before.  “El Pastor” is a showman, but he is clearly well-loved and respected in the community.  The congregation responded enthusiastically to his cries of “Who welcomes The Lord into their hearts?”, “Say yes if you welcome the Lord!”.  He spoke directly to individuals, making everyone feel special.  It reminded me of the American evangelists we used to see on the TV back in the 80s.  After that warm up, there were prayers and a bible reading.  He had asked if one of our girls would like to read and Charlotte was keen.  She did really well reading from her very small pocket bible in English as he read the equivalent in Spanish especially since he had chosen a reading that had some quite complicated names of biblical places!

Flower display in the church, banana leaves and flower and other red flowersThen he picked up his electric guitar and the singing commenced.  The happiest, clappiest songs you have ever heard.  Everyone danced, clapped and sang along with gusto.  The whole church was alive to “Halleluias”, you just couldn’t help but get pulled along with the joy and celebration.  It has been widely suggested that singing and especially singing in a group leads to the release of serotonin and dopamine which are associated with pleasure and satisfaction.   The joy that we witnessed in that little church in La Palma was surely evidence of that.  The singing and the praying and the dancing went on.  One after another members of the congregation came up to pray or to read.  The ladies of the community sang, the men sang, the young people sang.  They also performed some interpretive dance – enacting the temptations the devil puts in the way of us to keep us from God but how God’s love is strong enough to withstand and keep us strong.  All very powerful stuff!  One of the things the girls reflected on later was that nobody seemed embarrassed about their faith as they might be in New Zealand.  All were happy to express their beliefs and celebrate with each other.  Then  it was our turn.  We had prepared 8 songs, we had no accompaniment, just 12 females singing so for a few minutes the noise level came right down.   We felt very nervous but once we started singing we were fine.  We started with the National Anthem for which everyone stood then we sang a few of the girls’ favourite songs from chapel at school.  There was some recognition when we started Amazing Grace and on the more upbeat songs they clapped along with us.  It was but a small offering in the five hours we were in the church that evening but it was well-received and we felt that we had done our bit.

White single storey church with grass in front and a large tree to the leftDespite the passion we did start to flag – we had been up since 5am and there were more than a few of us fighting to keep our eyes open!  At 11pm, El Pastor started counting down – prayer by prayer!  He started on a prayer of thanks that went on for 25 minutes and included pretty much everything he could possibly think of to give thanks for including practically all parts of his body!  Members of the community were invited again to come up and pray.  Finally in the last five minutes family groups came together and held hands, we stood together as a family that we had become over the last 3 weeks and more thanks were given for families and the events of 2014 and a blessing for 2015.  At midnight fireworks rang out all around and everyone embraced.  We were warmly included in the hugs and best wishes.

group photo in the church at 12.05am 2015