Chris Thomas knew Honduras was an impoverished, crime-stricken country when he first ventured there nine years ago.
Many children grow up being battered. Girls end up pregnant while boys have trouble finding respectable work.
"Most of the work has to do with working for the drug cartels," Thomas said.
In the midst of a country full of corruption, the Gainesville man never imagined he would find a relationship with God at an orphanage that houses more than 500 children.
"The minute you walk into the orphanage, you feel the Holy Spirit," he said. "I didn’t know what it was the first time I went."
About 50 to 60 miles outside of Honduras’ capital, is Guaimaca, the location of Orphanage Emmanuel, founded in 1989. Since then,churches in Gainesville, such as Gainesville First United Methodist Church and Redwine United Methodist Church, constantly travel there to share the joy and love they have for the children and God.
"It is a place of feeling, a little piece of heaven on earth," said Thomas, who is a member of GFUMC. "It’s a place where I see God’s work in action more than any other place in the world."
Riches within poverty
Flying into the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, Thomas saw big buildings, like any other big city. But he also saw houses on top of houses and shacks on top of shacks.
"You were just struck by how poor things were," Thomas said.
Thomas recalls his first time pulling up to the residence.
"We got to the orphanage and the minute we got off the bus, you hear children yelling out names of the people getting off the bus," he said. "And it had been a year since these people had been there. That really struck me that they would remember someone from last year (who) had only been there for a few days."
Some of the returning visitors hadn’t been there for three or four years and the children still remembered their names.
"I was struck by how open and loving the children were,"
With the children speaking Spanish and Thomas speaking English, Thomas said all the children wanted was love and hugs.
"The language of the hug is universal," he said.
GFUMC members normally travel in January to the orphanage, which is during the time the children have no school.
"Every child (who) is there has been abused physically, emotionally or sexually," said the Rev. Kathy Lamon, pastor of congregational care at GFUMC .
Lamon, who has visited the orphanage once a week in January for the past seven years, said it is a remarkable place.
"It’s unlike any mission work I’ve ever done in my life." she said.
Used to building houses and doing hard labor during mission trips, Lamon said these mission trips are simply to build a relationship with a child and show them love.
"You see real joy in the lives of these children and what they want is for someone to hold them, hold their hand, give them a hug," she said. "They want that human interaction and adult interaction of somebody that is like a mother or father, big sister or big brother."
Acts of kindness
Lamon recalls her first visit to the children’s home where she got the opportunity to take two little girls into the nearby town.
"We took children with us so that we could buy them a pair of shoes or an outfit; something that was theirs," she said.
Heading back to the orphanage, Lamon stopped by a grocery store, allowing the girls to pick out whatever they wanted for themselves.
"One little girl bought a box of saltine crackers," Lamon said. "I expected her to go and buy a big cookie or a bag of chips or soda, and all she wanted was the crackers."
Lamon explained the little girl wanted to take something back to share with the other children. Each house at the shelter holds about 30 children.
"I live in a country where we have anything we want and here is a child who has nothing," Lamon said, "and she wanted to share what little she had with the other little girls in her cabin where she lived."
Lamon said she was touched by this selfless act of kindness.
"Most of us go down thinking we are going to do one thing, we are going to do something fabulous for these children," the Gainesville minister said. "In fact, these children, they remind us of God."
A little disciple
With a staff of 20 to 25 adults at the Honduran orphanage, older children are responsible for helping with the younger ones.
"What was important the day before you left is no longer important," Thomas said. "These children show you that material things really don’t mean anything."
Thomas recalls a girl named Maria Jose, who embodied that sentiment during a trip into Guaimaca.
"Most of the girls want to go get earrings and clothes and things like that," he said. "All Maria Jose wanted to do was go into town and buy cookies and cakes and stuff and she wanted to take them back to her friends at the orphanage."
Due to rising dangers, such as gangs, drugs and murder, this trip to town would more than likely be Maria’s only trip.
Heading back to the orphanage, walking down hot dirt roads filled with dust, Thomas noticed Maria was no longer with him.
"I began to panic," he said. "How am I going to go back and say I lost one of the kids."
Turning around, Thomas noticed she was about 50 yards behind him and talking to an old, skinny, toothless beggar woman.
"Obviously (Maria) saw the woman and I walked by because we don’t see those people in this country," he said. "We walk right by them.
"But this little girl who had never been to town and was probably never going to come again was giving all her stuff, all this food, to this beggar woman."
Having preachers preach to Thomas all his life, he said none of them had made the impact Maria made.
Maria wasn’t the only girl to impact Thomas.
"Three years ago, Violeta Barahona came home with us," Thomas said. "She finished high school and now attends the University of North Georgia."
Her desire to complete her high school education and go on to college is an ideal other Honduran children strive to achieve.
"Over the years, I’ve seen the children grow up. I’ve seen many of them leave and it’s not always a good thing when they leave," Thomas said. "There is very little hope in this country because Honduras is a very, very tough place to live."
But with Barahona changing Thomas’ life along with the other children at the orphanage, he continues to journey back to Honduras.
"This is what the gospel of Jesus Christ was all about: giving," he said. "You see that in action daily there."