HESSTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — As mission workers DeeDee and Mark Landes and their three children came home from Colombia to self-quarantine in Kansas during the coronavirus pandemic, they unwrapped a gift that was far too big to fit into a suitcase.
This gift was the forging of stronger family bonds and newly gained cultural perspectives while serving in La Mesa at the Mennonite private school, Colegio Americano Menno, the couple said. The pandemic that sent them home two months early in mid-March was extremely difficult because there was no time for goodbyes or a proper ending to their term.
They were primed for their Kansas quarantine in La Mesa, where they spent most of their days living, learning and serving together as a family. This taught them to rely upon one another in new ways. Even though forging this togetherness had its challenges, they are hoping they can retain the joys of growing closer when the stay-at-home restrictions lighten.
"The quarantine … gave us time to process our sudden return without other distractions," DeeDee Landes said. "It gave us complete freedom from immediately re-engaging with our community — something that we weren't emotionally ready for at the outset, but have become more comfortable with over time. Even though our bodies were back in Kansas, our hearts remained in Colombia."
Planting seeds, growing seedlings
The stronger family bond, Mark Landes said, is an offshoot of the couple's primary goal: planting the seeds of global awareness in their preteen children. Those seeds grew into hardy seedlings in an assignment that fit their family well, he said.
The couple served as classroom aides and instructors at the school attended by their children, Kason, 11; Taylor, 9; and Kellen, 6. The couple both helped with the younger grades the first semester. The second semester, Mark continued with younger children, while DeeDee filled a long-term substitute role teaching physics, geometry and computers in the upper grades. Both helped with English education.
Linda Shelly, Mission Network director for Latin America, spoke with school principal Rebeca Muñoz who said that having families serve at the school has great value. Muñoz noted how much teachers and students benefited from hearing English spoken by people for whom it's their first language.
The Landes family also participated in congregational life with Iglesia Cristiana Menonita, situated next to the school, where they made new friends and engaged with music and drama in the Spanish worship services. Mark Landes also joined the church's ministry in the rural village of La Vega where he taught English in a low-income public school.
"I am not sure what impact those nine months will have on our children in the future … but we believe it will change the trajectory of their lives in meaningful ways," Mark Landes said. "We chose to do this before our kids entered high school, when they would likely be less open to leaving friends and activities behind.
"Our hope is that this experience will heighten their interest level with global engagement, strengthen their ongoing faith development, and challenge them to understand the world beyond our local context."
If the children's enthusiasm for the experience is any indication, the nine months in La Mesa certainly impacted them in positive ways.
"I really enjoyed how warm and nice the people were — especially our pastor, Rodrigo Preciado," Kason Landes said. Taylor Landes added, "I also loved speaking Spanish, making new friends and all the wonderful, fresh juices." Kellen Landes said he really loved the bread, "because it had caramel in it."
Serving together, learning together
One of the most impactful learning experiences occurred when the family served in Riohacha, a community on the northeastern border of Colombia. They worked with a ministry that houses and feeds elderly people and more recently welcomes refugees from Venezuela. Mennonite Central Committee has assisted this ministry over the last several years.
"After our volunteering each day, we came back to our apartment to debrief," DeeDee Landes said. "We felt guilty about sitting in air-conditioning while the people living in the home have so little of anything. … The people we encountered at the home are amazing. While they have little material wealth, their strong faith and daily reliance on God's provision left a lasting impression."
"When it came time to leave the refugees, all our kids were really sad, because they had made such good friends and their hearts were warmed to the difficult situation facing the refugees," Mark Landes added. "Kason wanted his friends to come back to La Mesa with us. And yet it was good for him to see that the people at the shelter actually felt blessed to be where they were."
The couple said that coming home early has been challenging; however, they also feel privileged to be able to do this in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. "We have much love for Colombia and its people and cannot wait to return," Mark Landes said. "Our story in Colombia does not end here."