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The Adventures of an English teacher in the Colegio Colombo Hebreo of Bogota!
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The present scare of coronavirus has created much confusion, a shaking up of our daily lives, with a good bit of fear and uncertainty to spread around. All this caused me to remember an article I wrote back in 2001 after I experienced two bombs in Israel and two towers in New York. So I decided it would be good to share the article with all of you. Remember, it was written back in 2001.

After seeing the impossible, surreal images of a fireball explosion and the twin towers collapsing the other week, I had to ask myself this question…Where is the safest place to be?!

I have spent more than 26 years teaching English in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, South America.   Colombia is a country torn by drug-related killings and struggles, and yet not once have I been within earshot of the many bombs exploded by the Cali or Medellín drug cartels.  I just always happened to be somewhere else sufficiently distant.  That didn’t necessarily mean that I was safe; one can always have a false sense of security. 

Colombia is far and away the number one nation in the world in terms of kidnappings, with some 4000 victims on its roster.  Rebel groups set up roadblocks at will on country highways and look for a “miraculous catch” of wealthy “fish” who may help finance their cause.  Many middle and upper class Colombian families have been fleeing the country for safer climes in the U.S. or Central America.  So what am I doing in Colombia?  The State Department warns US citizens not to venture into this South American country. 

This past summer I spent three weeks in Israel where many of my former students now live.  I had been invited to two weddings.  On August 9th, just before 2:00 in the afternoon, I was visiting with the Israeli husband of a Colombian friend in their clothing shop around the corner from King George Street in downtown Jerusalem.  Suddenly we heard an explosion.  “Jaffa Street!” someone yelled, and throngs began running down the block.  The Sbarro pizzeria had just been blown up, and with it 15 precious lives both young and old, both secular and religious.  One newspaper compared the location of the attack in downtown Jerusalem to a bomb exploding on a corner of Times Square in New York City. 

Hearing the explosion and the continual sirens, watching the crowds, seeing slightly wounded individuals weep from the shock, others consoling them…all of this impacted me enough to get a palpable understanding of what Israelis have been going through for the past year.   Daily life requires one to be fully alert walking down the street, eyes peeled for some strange figure carrying a bulky package on his body.  Maybe one would get on your bus.  What would you do?  Young mothers think twice before taking their kids to McDonalds.  During my weeks in Israel, I learned to be specific in my morning prayer: “Help me be in the right place at the right time today.”   The State Department also began its warning to US citizens:  Do not venture to the land of Israel!

Then I came to the safety of the land of the State Department, the United States, to visit my friends and church in New York City.  I had originally planned to travel back south on the 10th of September, but then chose to stay on a few days.  Who could have imagined what we saw live on the morning of 9/11.   And now we ask each other:

Is there a “safest” place to live in the world?

I asked that question to a group of 5th and 6th graders at my parents' church in upstate New York.

I told them about Colombia, I told them about my experience in Jerusalem and then I asked them, “Where is the safest place in the world to live?”   One 10 year-old girl blurted out: “Heaven!”  Yes!, I said, "You are right.  But in the meantime?  How about Hawaii?"  One young fellow said there might be sharks!   True.  

So I told them the story about a Dutch family in Holland that hid Jews during the Nazi invasion.  On the night the Nazis were bombing Amsterdam and nearby Haarlem where the ten Boom family lived, Corrie couldn’t sleep because of the roar of the planes overhead.  She made her way down to the kitchen to have tea with her sister, Betsy. 

After an hour of good conversation, Corrie groped her way back upstairs through the blackout darkness to her room, and as she placed her hand on her pillow, she was cut by a piece of bomb shrapnel that had flown through her window and into her pillow during the minutes she had been downstairs.   In shock, she hurried back down to tell her sister, “What if…?!”    Betsy just put her finger to her lips and interrupted, “Don’t say it!  There are no ifs in God’s world.  The only safe place is the center of God’s will.  Let us pray that we are always there.”

They did pray.  They joined the underground and turned their home into a safehouse for the Jews who were fleeing from Amsterdam into the countryside.  I won’t tell you the end of the story (you might want to read it yourself), but I will tell you that even in the depth of suffering in terrible world events, Corrie elected to risk her life to do what was right, and she lived to tell the story.  Her book, The Hiding Place, (Bantam, Random House) has been made into a movie.

My conclusion with the Sunday School kids was: The safest place in the world is in the center of God's will. Where He wants you to be. God’s will for me, for you, whether in Israel, Colombia, or even in New York!  

So why am I in Colombia?  I told someone recently that the worse things get, the more work there is to do.  I’ve taught ethics at the American school.  With my friends, we work with high-risk youth, kids with one or no available parents who have turned to the streets and drugs for refuge.  We work with the survivors of one of Colombia’s worst volcano tragedies.  No one is saying that Colombia isn’t dangerous, but it’s where I believe God wants me at this time.  I have peace about it.  I feel safe and comfortable, even though the State Department might disagree. 

In Colombia, many families will keep their home Bible open to Psalm 91. I don’t know if it is superstition, or if they actually read it.  But you may want to read it.  I have taken to heart the words:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust….If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the Lord, who is my refuge—then no harm will befall you.”  (Psalm 91: 1, 9, 10 NIV).  

How does one “dwell” in the shelter of the Most High?  In the book of Proverbs we read: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” (Proverbs 18:10 NIV)   While most of us want to have the courage and boldness to stand up to situations in our own strength, sometimes we realize we are weak and need outside help.  There is a way in which you can “run” to God and make Him your dwelling place, your refuge in times of trouble when frightening world events unfold all about you. 

When I was about 8 years of age, I remember praying one night and KNOWING that Jesus was there, that he heard me and that I could trust him and have his friendship.  He became a refuge and strength for me throughout my youth.   He gave me peace then, and He gives me peace now, whether I am in New York, Colombia, or Israel.  I know that my future is in his hands.

Make sure that you have a vital relationship with the God who can give you inner peace, security and refuge no matter what happens around you.  Ask Him to fill your life, mind and inner being with His presence, His forgiveness, and therefore His peace.  The name of the Lord will cut through all anxieties, fears, worries and barriers that have kept you stressed out until now. 

This is the time when you can discover for yourself the safest place in the world!