Missionary Diary: Playing the waiting game in Uruguay

Joy Oliveira Woolmer and her husband Pedro are new missionaries with Church Missionary Society (CMS). They moved to Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay in South America, 18 months ago with their two children. Here they serve alongside the local staff and students of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) movement in Uruguay.  

It’s Tuesday afternoon. We’ve just had lunch, and I’m enjoying some “me time” in a sunny spot in our 9th-floor apartment. Mark, our firstborn, is at school and Zoe, our active 20-month-old, is having her nap. I’ve unhooked our telecom, turned off our doorbell, and am praying that the construction workers in and around our building might just take the next hour or two off. Living in the middle of the city, peace and quiet are hard to come by.

I try to sort out the noise in my mind. Yesterday was a big day. The four of us left home shortly after 10 am to get to our long-awaited ID card appointment. We were told our foreign birth certificates would be enough for this appointment, but that didn’t feel right. It felt too easy. Getting our ID cards was the last step of 18 months of bureaucracy that has involved numerous appointments (mostly by email because of the pandemic), each requiring more documents or the same documents again, with months of waiting between them. It felt strange not to attend this appointment more prepared.

Sure enough, when we arrived, we realised we needed more. But two hours and a couple of false starts later, Pedro and Mark had their cards processed and could leave for school. Another two hours (and a one-hour system crash) after that, I had Zoe’s card in my hand (hallelujah!). We’ll be back again soon to sort out my application but hopefully, it won’t be another four-hour appointment. 

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Leaders of Uruguay's Christian university movement gather in person for the first time this year

Leaders of Uruguay’s Christian university movement gather in person for the first time this year.

All of this waiting, and for what? Not just waiting yesterday for our ID cards, but waiting for the last 18 months for our two-year visa to be approved. Waiting for the Covid situation to improve so we can work out what normal life and ministry is like here in our new home. Waiting for vaccines to be made available for foreigners so we can leave our apartment better protected from the virus. Waiting for our language skills to develop so we can understand locals better and be understood by them too. Waiting for relationships to grow when we can’t see anyone in person.

And then the waiting that comes part and parcel with being unfamiliar with Spanish and ignorant of what normal looks like. Waiting at the supermarket info desk to exchange something I had mistakenly bought because I couldn’t read the label. Waiting on hold to speak to someone from the State-owned power company, so someone can explain why we keep getting hit with outrageous electricity bills, month after month – when I thought we’d changed to a better plan. Waiting in line at the hospital (for a fasting blood test) only to be told once I’d reached the head of the queue that I was in the wrong queue. The last 18 months have felt like one long, continuous wait. So much waiting, and for what?

On the walk to school after our drawn-out ID card appointment, Mark asked Pedro if we could “never do that ever again”. And fair enough, two hours is a long time for a six-year-old to wait, especially when he would rather be at school with his friends. (Pandemic conditions also meant we were all masked up, careful to socially distance ourselves from everyone else, and couldn’t use food to keep the kids occupied!) Was this all worth it?

But, in God’s timing, Mark’s question came just as they were walking up to Eduardo, a homeless street friend we see on the way to school each day. Just last week, we had given Eduardo a copy of Mark’s gospel. He had asked if we could find him a backpack, and so we popped in Mark’s gospel along with a short personal note. Mark had the idea of writing him another note yesterday, reminding him to read it. He had this in his pocket, ready to give to Eduardo on the way to school. And so we had our answer. We could try and never do that ever again. That, along with all the other things that involve lots of waiting. But then we probably wouldn’t be in Uruguay, and we wouldn’t have met Eduardo. 

Or the many others God has placed in our path. There are the students of the Comunidad Bíblica Universitaria (the Christian university movement in Uruguay) we came to serve alongside, the families from Mark’s school, the Christians at our local church, the porter Jorge and cleaning lady Sandra who work in our building, Omani and Esperanza at our local weekly fresh food market, Jorge and Andrea who sleep outside the supermarket down the road, Aneeshya who we met at the ID office and is keen to stay in touch. The list goes on.

Joy and Zoe (front) get to know Aneeshya better over coffee (their first dine-in experience this year!)

Joy and Zoe (front) get to know Aneeshya better over coffee (their first dine-in experience this year!)

Sometimes the waiting feels pointless and cruel. We often lose our cool and take it out on each other. We feel like useless, unproductive and unprofitable servants. But in the last week, we have also been encouraged. Mark’s classmate Emmanuel has invited us over for a visit. The women’s group at our church has asked if I would give the Bible reflection at our next meeting. Zoe and I had a really lovely chat with Jorge and Andrea, and we’ve started talking to them about Jesus. Pedro had a particularly encouraging time in Psalm 3 with his Easy English Bible study group last night. I’ve pencilled in my first in-person one-to-one Bible catch up of the year in my diary. They’re only baby steps, but even so, they’ve helped us as we wait.

Waiting is hard. Waiting well is harder! But thanks be to God whose patience means salvation. And so as we wait, we pray for those for whom He waits, that they might be ready when Jesus returns.