I have another “interview” very close to my heart to share with all of you today! My sweet (real life) friend, Joy, is currently in her second year of teaching middle school in La Paz, Bolivia. She teaches 6th 7th, and 8th grade math and 6th and 7th grade science at Highlands International School.
I met Joy the fall of my senior year of high school during my externship in a second grade. Joy completed her student teaching in the same class. We worked closely together and spent many afternoons together with our second graders. Over the year we developed a special friendship as we talked about everything from god scripted love stories to teaching to swing dancing. We still write letters and Skype when we can. She has been a faithful friend and it has been so exciting to share in her mission in La Paz. Here is a glimpse into her life in Bolivia…
1) What led you to pursue teaching overseas?
Good question! There are many factors that got me thinking about the possibility of teaching overseas, but I never really dreamed it would look like this.
When I decided God was calling me to be a teacher, I also decided that I wanted to travel so that I could bring real-world, first-hand knowledge of the world back to my students (who I assumed would be in the States!). After all, how much better would it be to have a teacher tell you about what he or she has seen and experienced versus what you have both read in a book? My desire to learn Spanish also increased when I started pursuing an education degree because for me the language is about connections with people. Speaking Spanish, I knew, could open many doors in building relationships with students and families from Latin American countries. If I ended up teaching in South Florida, I thought of all the people I could build more direct relationships with the hope of sharing the love of Christ with them.
One additional factor, and the one that most strongly planted the seeds that led me to Bolivia, was a short-term summer missions trip to the mountains of Honduras. I helped to coordinate and run the children’s program. While I was there, I saw the tiny elementary school building that children walked to each morning. Some children walked for hours to get to school. The 2 room school building was simple, the school had very few resources for students (even paper was hard to come by), and by 7th grade, most students didn’t go to school anymore because buying a uniform for secondary school was too expensive. It was there that I first considered the thought of living and teaching overseas, not just visiting.
2) Tell me how you ended up in Bolivia.
It was such a God story. I guess it all started the spring of my Junior year at Florida State University…
Somehow, I had learned about the Fulbright Scholarship program that worked to send recent graduates abroad to teach English and build connections around the world. I prayerfully applied for the scholarship, trusting that God would open and close doors as he saw best. At the same time, I also began the process to apply to Teach for America. I have always had a heart for the public schools of America. I never planned to work in a Christian school, and I have seen so many great needs “in my own backyard” that my intent was to invest there. But God had other plans.
The fall of my Senior year, I started student teaching at Gilchrist Elementary School in a lively second grade class. (It was there I met Samantha, in fact!) One day, on my way home from school, I noticed a sign for a thrift store my church had often mentioned. I decided to stop in so I made a U-turn, ducked into the gravel drive, and popped open my trunk to carry my donations inside. I talked to the woman at the counter for a few minutes, looked around the small shop, and that would have been that…except, I saw the children’s books. I started looking through the used books and found several that I was sure would make a great addition to my collection. While I was debating what books to buy, a woman who had been standing by the counter when I came in walked over to me.
“Do you have a lot of children?” she asked.
I laughed to myself as I told her no.
“Well you must be a teacher then.”
I explained to her that I was in the Elementary Education program at Florida State and that I had just started student teaching.
She introduced herself to me as “Mama Bear,” told me she was a former librarian, and added that I should really look at this organization called NICS so I could pray for Christian teachers around the world. I shrugged, gave her my email address, selected a few good picture books to add to my collection, and hit the road.
That evening, I looked at the email prayer list Mama Bear had sent. I also looked at the NICS website and learned that the organization was the Network of International Christian Schools.
“Cool!” I thought. “Their mission is just where my heart is in education. And look at where all of their schools are!”
And then I forgot about it. For the next 6 months.
By January, I began planning to apply for schools in South Florida…until…one night, I found myself on the NICS website again. Truthfully, I can’t tell you what made me think of it or what prompted me to go to the website in the first place. But there I was. I started looking through the different schools, particularly those in South America.
“Huh…” I thought. “The school in Bolivia has an opening in 4th grade…I wonder if this is somewhere God wants me to apply.” And so, on a whim, I sent an application to NICS with the prayer, “God, is this where you want me to go?”
Within days, NICS had requested a second application, this one more detailed and specific than the first, as well as a few references. I sent in the second application and references. Within two weeks, I had interviewed with the NICS home office and with my director, Scott Frost, and they had offered me a job teaching middle school. The irony is, the 4th grade position I originally applied for was never even open. It was an error. My parents were skeptical at first, but the more they learned about NICS, the more supportive they became in favor of me teaching with the organization. I prayed about it, made lists of pros and…well…I couldn’t think of any cons, just fears and sacrifices. And those, I knew, God could handle. And so I prayerfully and confidently told Scott Frost that I would move to La Paz, Bolivia. .
3) What do you appreciate most about the culture?
I love the experience of going to the market and buying fresh fruits and vegetables from individual sellers. I love that Bolivian culture is vibrant, and that parades wander up and down the streets with no apparent reason. I love the celebration of Carnaval, which involves city-wide water balloon and water gun fights…for a month! I love the artisan culture of La Paz and that so many people work with their hands. I love that Bolivia doesn’t have all of the modern conveniences of America. I love that it is less influenced by Western culture and still has such strong ties to its history and heritage. I love that most people don’t speak English. I love that life is slower here; it teaches me patience. And I love that relationships are more important than time here. My students are incredibly loyal to their friends and families.
4) Tell me about your church and worship in Bolivia.
This is yet another thing I love about Bolivia. I attend a small, Bolivian church that meets in our school cafeteria. There are a few missionary families that work with the church who speak English, and a few of my students go there with their families. The service is completely in Spanish, and we often sing worship songs for at least half an hour before the sermon begins. I love the emphasis on worship.
5) Are your students responsive to the Gospel? Have any of your students responded as you share and live out your faith?
Many of my students are already believers. It is incredible to walk with these students and to hear the things God is teaching them. I learn as I watch them live out their faith! On the other hand, many of our students come to school without a knowledge of the gospel, or at least without an accurate understanding of theology. There are some students who are open about their lack of belief. They are proud to claim atheism. There are other students who will tell you, “I’m not a Christian. I’m Catholic.” There are many students who ride the middle. Many of our students have questions. Although I have not had the privilege of seeing any of my students come to know the Lord, God has blessed me with many challenging and encouraging conversations. I hope to have many more this year. One challenge of working in a Christian school is that students hear the truth in many contexts and may become “used to it.” I hope and pray that the gospel doesn’t reach their heads without penetrating their hearts.
6) What has been the most rewarding part about teaching in Bolivia? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part of teaching in Bolivia is building relationships with my students. I absolutely LOVE teaching middle school. I am thankful that my classes are small enough that I can really know all of my students, and I have the opportunity to work with my students for multiple years.
The most challenging part about teaching in Bolivia is the workload. At a small school, there is a lot to do, and I often don’t feel like I have time to do it all well. There are challenging aspects related to a lack of resources, too, but it is the amount of stuff-to-do compared to time-to-do-it that makes work difficult.
7) What are some specific prayer requests you have for your country and mission of service?
Bolivia is a country that is very rooted in paganism. The traditional Andean religions still have a large hold on people here. In the mines, the miners make sacrifices to tios, demon idols that they believe to be protectors. Even in the city, Satanists make animal sacrifices. The government, in an attempt to preserve the culture and religion of the indigenous peoples requires all school personnel to be trained in Andean religion studies, and there is a move to put a witch doctor in every public school. There is also a witches market up in the heart of the city where you can buy ingredients for spells such as llama fetuses and herbs. Bolivian religion includes an element of ancestor worship, and there are celebrations for dead relatives who are said to revisit the living on given days.
Even among those who hold to Catholic beliefs, there is a great deal of ambiguity. There is a mixing of traditional beliefs with those of the Catholic faith, and as there is in the states, there is still a great need for evangelism in the churches here.
Please pray for the people of Bolivia to know the Lord.
Pray that God will send missionaries to La Paz and that he will raise up Bolivians to spread the gospel to their own people.
Pray for our students to develop faith founded on theology. Pray that they will take hold of the truth and to bring it to their friends, families, and co-workers. Pray that they will become bright lights in the darkness of Bolivia, and that the Lord will use them to bring the gospel to their own nation.
Pray for our teachers to have energy, health, and joy in the Lord. Pray for our students who already know the Lord to recognize the worthiness of following him and that God will teach them to pursue him over everything else.
It is such a gift to be able to share God’s work with all of you. What a privilege to be a jar of clay carrying his magnificent treasures. Though we are weak, he is strong. Praise his holy name.
Thanks for sharing, Joy! I hope this provided you with a glimpse into her mission in Bolivia. Joy and I are such kindred spirits and I have loved watching her story unfold.
Check out her blog here!