More than 20 years ago, Suzy McCall ’79 made a leap of faith and left Charleston. The missionary has since landed firmly on two feet, bettering the lives of countless Hondurans.
by Jason Ryan
Photography by Gately Williams
Wool may be soft and thick, but it makes for miserable armor. A little lamb lost in the Honduran country-side learned this the hard way one day last fall when cruel boys pelted her with stones. Bloodied and bruised, the brown lamb paced frantically up and down a wire fence surrounding a farmhouse, eager to enter the compound and escape harm. If not for the intervention of the cook in the home, the boys may have killed the creature, which had eventually fallen outside the fence. The cook screamed at the boys, who scattered, and the lamb was brought inside to safety.
Despite its injuries, this was a providential place for the lamb to have wandered. The farmhouse was already a place of salvation, home to six adopted children, some of whom were once treated just as poorly as the lamb. These Honduran children, two of whom are now young adults, were all rescued by Suzy McCall ’79, an American missionary who has lived for more than 20 years in Honduras’ capital, Tegucigalpa. There, in the face of overwhelming poverty, violence, corruption and societal indifference, she has sought to help those in the greatest of need. To some Hondurans she has given food, to others shelter, to others medical care. And yet, as critical as each of these things can be to survival, there are other gifts that McCall shares which have ultimately proven more valuable: the gifts of love, hope and spiritual guidance.
Many Hondurans’ lives have been shaped by tragedy, but perhaps it’s better to choose a stronger word to describe the impact of misfortune on their existence: verbs such as sidetracked, stifled, stymied or squelched. Tragedy occurs across the world, to good and bad people alike, but it occurs more often in Honduras. The Central American country’s 8.3 million people suffer from one of the worst poverty rates in the Western hemisphere, and Honduras’ homicide rate is by far the highest on Earth, due to gang activity and drug trafficking. Each day’s newspapers carry gruesome images of collapsed corpses on the ground, blood pooled around the victims’ heads or chests. According to the United Nations, in 2011 Honduras had a homicide rate of 91.6 victims for every 100,000 people. For comparison, in 2010 in the United States, there were 4.2 homicides for every 100,000 people.
In Tegucigalpa, the subject of murder comes up frequently in day-to-day conversation. Nearly everyone seems to know of someone who has been killed, whether a neighbor, relative, politician or local thug. Beyond violence and poverty, Hondurans suffer other pervasive hardships, including sexual abuse, dysfunctional schools, unemployment and nonviolent crime.
These conditions, in turn, cause depression and disillusionment among Hondurans, which is why love and hope can be such welcome emotions. It is critical for Hondurans to believe things can get better, and it can seem like a genuine miracle when they actually do.
McCall will not admit to making miracles happen. She is quick to credit God and others when her accomplishments are discussed, even minimizing her role in one of her most impressive achievements in life, the creation of the Latin American Missionary and Bible Institute. The LAMB Institute is a Christian ministry providing community services to the residents of one of Tegucigalpa’s poorest neighborhoods, Flor del Campo. McCall founded the organization in 1999 with the straightforward goal of training missionaries. In its first year, the LAMB Institute trained six missionary students and used $13,000 to buy a building. Since then, the LAMB Institute has evolved to become a critical resource for the neighborhood, operating a school, a gang prevention program, a microcredit program and adult literacy education. The LAMB Institute, which now employs 66 Hondurans and has an annual budget of about $800,000, also has operations outside of Flor del Campo, including a rural orphanage for more than 60 children and a safehouse for girls who have been sexually abused.
Since the founding of the LAMB Institute more than 13 years ago, the organization’s growth has both exhilarated and exhausted McCall. She admits there were low moments, when the challenges seemed exceedingly daunting for a foreign woman trying to serve a whole community in need while also rearing half a dozen adopted children on her own. Many times people told her she was not the best fit for the work required, whether supervising the construction of buildings, raising money or negotiating with Honduran officials. McCall didn’t disagree, but she also didn’t see any alternative, save throwing her hands up and ignoring the problems. With her faith guiding her, she persevered. Others followed, trusting that goodwill and hard work would be rewarded.
“There’s always the detractors, but there are also the helpers,” says McCall. “If you start doing something, then people will come along and help. Almost everything that has happened with LAMB was not planned.”
Answering the Call
It was 1990 when McCall herself gave up on planning and gave in entirely to God. After graduating from the College in 1979, she worked for 10 years in Charleston, first as a high school English teacher, then as the director of Christian education at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. In between these jobs she went on a short mission trip to Costa Rica. The experience thrilled her, so she went again a few years later while working for the church. When the mission trip ended, she was sad to leave. Costa Rica, she thought, had begun to feel like home.
Upon returning to South Carolina, McCall could not help but dwell on an unfulfilled vow she had made more than a decade earlier during her senior year of college. McCall, who was active in a Bible study with other students and a member of the College’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, had driven with friends to Orlando to attend a Jesus festival during their spring break. A Jesus festival, she explains, is “like Woodstock, but with Christian singers.”
Among the crowd of camping Christians were a few daring people who told tales of smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. Similarly, Christian author and pastor Tony Campolo spoke about the absence of Christianity in other areas of the world, and how missionaries were the surest bet for spreading Jesus’ love far and wide. When Campolo finished speaking, he asked if anyone’s heart had been moved while he was speaking, and if so, would they please come to the altar and pledge to become a missionary. McCall marched right on up. Her heart had been on fire.
Those flames had to endure a time of testing, however, as the doors did not open immediately for McCall to go to the mission field. Although she was frustrated at the time, she now thinks it was intended by God as part of her preparation for what lay ahead.
Finally, at age 32, upon returning home from her second trip to Costa Rica, she could deny her heart no longer. McCall sensed the Holy Spirit saying, “What are you waiting for? You made a pact with God, and it’s time to be obedient.”
Obey she did. McCall put in her notice at the church and left to begin a new life in Central America.
A Land of Paradox
To begin to understand the life and mission of Suzy McCall, one should see her world. She lives 20 or so minutes outside of Tegucigalpa, and her regular commute takes her up and down a single highway, either to the LAMB Institute’s orphanage to the south, or to the LAMB Institute school and other operations within the capital to the north. The landscape surrounding this highway is at once both beautiful and ugly. Tall, green hills roll in every direction, though many are scarred, having been blasted for gravel, soil and stone. Trees with fantastic flowers of yellow, red, orange and purple dot the highway, as does a most unusual assemblage of merchandise. There are cows, geese, oranges and apples, couches and tires for sale – each ware’s availability implied by its conspicuous roadside presence. Young boys stand in the middle of the road, dodging slow-moving traffic while they hawk bunches of plantains.
There is a crippled dog hobbling along the road’s shoulder, and, a mile further, a crippled man struggling to get uphill. Junkyards and truckyards line the highway, as well as dumpsters that double as homes for some families. It is difficult for foreign eyes to discern much treasure among all the trash, yet for the Hondurans who survive here, it’s easy to discover valuables. For them, even the most marginal item can be a godsend.
Squatters’ shacks hug the edge of the asphalt, and at night sleeping heads lie just feet away from the rush of roaring trucks, raspy motorcycles and sputtering cars. This occupied land, a zone of a few feet adjoining the highway, is worth too little for the landowners to bother clearing the shacks and squatters away. Some shacks are the size of an outhouse and appear just about as sanitary. Others are the size of toolsheds, though not nearly as sturdy. The very poor build these shelters out of scraps of wood, paper and corrugated metal, as well as concrete blocks and segments of chain-link fence – whatever can be found.
Nicer homes in Honduras use many of these same materials, though there is a sense of uniformity in their use. They are painted in bright colors and have windows, too – yet they are masked by iron bars, which are necessary to deter thieves. Because of burglary concerns, many homes in Honduras have high walls topped by spools of razor wire, some of which is electrified. As for McCall’s home, which is reached via a very rutted and bumpy road just off the highway, the former owner cemented over the opening of the fireplace because intruders had come down the chimney. Despite this safety measure, he was still later murdered in his own kitchen.
Nowadays, the home bursts with life. Besides McCall and her adopted children, there are six dogs, a new litter of puppies, a canary and the newest McCall, Lily the brown lamb, who likes to bleat since her health has been restored. All, save the canary, are free to gallivant across the yard, circle the fruit trees and enjoy the tremendous views of lush hills. There’s a lake a mile or so away at the foot of those hills, though the girls have been reluctant to visit since seeing a boa constrictor.
The farmhouse is a far cry from the family’s former digs in the inner-city neighborhood of Flor del Campo, located just up the street from the LAMB Institute. Life is hard and dangerous in Flor del Campo, even though many of its residents strive to find happiness and steer clear of trouble. Just like on the highway, one can spy both the beautiful and ugly in the Tegucigalpa barrio. Adorable schoolgirls in uniforms walk up its dirt roads after class is dismissed, while, around the corner, a drunk is sprawled across the street at midday, hardly able to crawl out of the way of an approaching car. A handsome, vintage 1950s coupe sits atop a hill, its glossy black paint and chrome reflecting the sunshine, while a Pepsi delivery truck rolls by with an armed guard sitting in back among the crates of beverages, his weapon much more easily seen than the few cases of drinks he protects. Armed guards are nearly everywhere in Tegucigalpa. These men carry large shotguns and stand in parking garages, at the gated entrance to subdivisions and even at gas pumps. They are nearly as common as the razor wire.
An Oasis in the Desert
It’s easy to focus on the negative in Honduras, to despair over the frequent killings and inequality. Indeed, to ignore it is to deny reality. A bit of cynicism can even infect McCall, a woman of considerable patience and endurance. Driving along the dirt roads of Flor del Campo, she sneers at a new shopping mall on the outskirts of the neighborhood and the luxury brands it boasts.
“We have enough malls, banks and hotels to serve people,” she says. “It’s almost like a tourist attraction for the people who live around here.”
Other things get McCall down, too, such as the shadowy network of child traffickers that operate in Central America. She seethes at society’s inability to stop such injustice. For its part, the LAMB Institute operates a safehouse for young women who have been abused or trafficked for sex, and employs counselors who help them recover from the trauma they have endured. The counselors homeschool the young women and teach them vocational skills and Christian values. They take them on trips to the movies, or to the coast, where some of the girls cry upon seeing the ocean for the first time. Above all, the counselors try to help the abused young women restart their emotional development, which can stop or regress at the time of abuse, and to find peace despite the crimes committed against them, such as having to exchange sex for rewards as paltry as a bag of potato chips or a soft drink.
“After the abuse they feel dirty, guilty, unworthy,” says the director of the safe house, who will not be named in the interest of the girls’ safety. “We talk about forgiveness all the time. It’s difficult.”
The director has seen her share of sadness in life, having previously worked with children born with HIV. The stories of abuse the young women share with her can be excruciating to hear. The damage caused by this abuse is not easily cured, and the director is a constant witness to the girls’ emotional turmoil, displayed in mood swings, tantrums and childlike behavior. When the sadness becomes overwhelming, she relies on faith to persevere.
McCall and other leaders at the LAMB Institute believe that a Christian faith is critical for one’s well-being, especially for those who have suffered much. McCall, who is an Anglican minister, leads services each Sunday in a church atop a hill within the orphanage grounds. Children perform music and interact with McCall and each other, sometimes acting out scenes from the Gospel. McCall encourages the children to focus on what God believes about them, not what others might say or believe about them.
For some children, this can make all the difference, especially for those who have been mistreated because of a disability. Among the children at the LAMB Institute orphanage is a boy who suffers from epilepsy, a paraplegic with dwarfism and a blind female toddler. There are many others with comparatively mild disorders, too, not all of which can be treated because of the orphanage’s financial constraints. Oftentimes in Honduras, a disabled child inspires animosity, not compassion, among those responsible for his or her care. When the blind baby girl was given to the orphanage, one relative remarked, “I don’t know why they didn’t let this little dog die.”
Other children may be physically well but suffer from severe emotional trauma. Esly Martinez, for example, came to the orphanage as a pregnant teenager, the baby inside her sired by an abusive stepfather. Such a violation made Martinez bitter. She did not initially adjust well to life at the orphanage.
“I rejected all the other children,” she says. “For a while I kept it all inside, but then everything exploded.”
Her anger was in part directed at God, someone whom she wanted nothing to do with. It was also, briefly, directed at her daughter, whom she wanted to reject upon her birth. This rage lifted, though, one weekend during a religious retreat organized by the orphanage. Suddenly, she says, God allowed her to “see things from a different perspective.”
Now Martinez works at the LAMB Institute school in Flor del Campo, where her young daughter also attends daycare. They are a happy family, and Martinez dreams that her daughter “can study and have a healthy upbringing. That she’s always on God’s path.”
McCall says Martinez’ embrace of Christianity after an initial period of resistance is typical behavior for the many people she tries to help. Those who have suffered abuse in Honduras harbor enormous amounts of mistrust and anger – feelings that are unlikely to dissipate overnight, no matter how quickly and drastically conditions in their lives might improve. McCall, who is fond of symbols and reading into the meaning of events, and who is also aware there is potential folly in such action, mentions Lily the lamb when discussing one’s openness to God. Lily, she notes, was running up and down the fence, but afraid to come in the yard. People similarly pace up and down the fence to the kingdom of God, says McCall, peeking in, but afraid to enter.
“We don’t have enough trust to come in,” she says. “The creature outside the gates must grow weary before accepting love and help. Only then can God do His work.
“Once you admit you’re weak and need help,’ continues McCall. “God can build on that weakness.”
These days, McCall works as the spiritual director of the LAMB Institute, having shed the administrative duties she held as executive director. Instead of hiring and firing, she can focus on organizing retreats and maintaining the spiritual component of the LAMB Institute. She also has time to write, and recently published an e-book, Tania de la Cantera, about a fictional, but representative, unwanted Honduran child.
This transition has been a welcome one after about a decade at the helm dealing with problems that often lacked any satisfactory solution.
“One of my biggest challenges has been fatigue,” says McCall. “I wondered if I was going to be able to keep going. It was kind of a lonely business.”
Even before founding the LAMB Institute in 2000, McCall stayed busy in Honduras. One remarkable event she witnessed was the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch, which caused massive flooding and landslides in Central America, killing more than 11,000 people. In Honduras, whole villages and neighborhoods were swept away by the hurricane. Among McCall’s good deeds during that crisis were the delivery of medical aid and the construction of a rural community of 50 houses for homeless Hondurans. Today that community, Colonia Carolina, also has a school, water tower and church, the last of which was built by the LAMB Institute.
One of McCall’s children, Mary (now 22 years old), witnessed her adoptive mother perform relief work following Hurricane Mitch. The impression was a lasting one for the then–8-year-old: “I understood what my mom’s calling was – to help people. Even in hard moments, like when Mitch came through, she was there for them. She gave her time, all her physical energy and all her love. What she did for them was a lot.”
Mary came to live with McCall in 1994, when Mary was 3 years old. McCall had gone with other aid workers and missionaries to replace the roof of Mary’s father’s house. Once the roof was removed, however, the walls, made of cartons and mud, collapsed. An entire new house had to be built, and during its construction McCall became fond of Mary, whom she was charged with caring for while the men made repairs.
A week after the home was finished and the missionaries had gone, McCall could not stop thinking about Mary and the neglect she was suffering. She returned to visit Mary’s father, who had more or less left Mary to be cared for by his own parents.
“I think I’ll just take Mary back with me,” Suzy told him.
“OK,” he replied.
Later, Mary’s brother Noah came to live with McCall, too. She raised them from toddlers to adulthood – though, thanks to government red tape, their adoptions only became official a few years ago, when Mary and Noah were 21 and 20 years old, respectively.
Before Mary and Noah, there was Sarah, as well as Miguel, McCall’s first (unofficial) adopted child. Miguel was living on the streets as a young boy, scavenging for food, when McCall took him in. He did not know how to use a toilet or shower. Today he is grown with his own family, living in a small home over the hill from a landfill. He works selling hot dogs outside a gas station.
The list goes on. Living now with McCall and Mary are Lety, a 17-year-old who hopes to study art in the United States after high school; three energetic girls, Sallie, Elsa and Lucy; and Sammy, a baby boy whom Mary adopted, making McCall a grandmother. Sammy was found under a bed, crying and covered in afterbirth and ants, after his biological mother gave birth and abandoned him. Fortunately, a neighbor heard Sammy’s cries and rescued him.
The effect McCall has had on these children’s lives is profound. Sarah, McCall’s daughter who now lives in the old McCall home in Flor del Campo, recalls going to live with McCall and seeing how her adoptive mother loved and doted on her children. It was nothing short of remarkable, Sarah says, to see a stranger caring for people she had no obligation toward.
“My life got completely better. I had a very unstable childhood. I went to Suzy’s house and saw she really loved her children and hugged them and kissed them and they weren’t even her own,” says Sarah, who credits McCall with teaching her the value of honesty and the importance of being responsible with money. “I felt valued when I lived with her.”
Mary makes a similar observation, praising her mother for displaying unlimited love: “She’s taught us, no matter where people come from, whether you’re rich or you’re poor, high social class or not, we’re all the same, we’re all equal before God’s eyes. We all need love. No one’s born bad or mean. People get lost along the way. Our ministry teaches us to bring them back to God’s love.”
Reflecting on her own life, Mary predicts she would have been living as a child beggar, “another lost case,” should McCall not have adopted her. The same goes for the dozens of children who have been accepted by the orphanage and school, she says, or who have been helped by the LAMB Institute in other ways.
“There would be a lot of children in the street if it weren’t for Suzy,” says Mary. “Her decision to stay here and serve God was a big one and an important one for a lot of lives.”
Tipping the Scales
McCall’s friends and supporters aren’t surprised by what she has accomplished in Honduras. Her classmates and peers at the College remember her as a loyal friend and proud Christian who wasn’t afraid to blaze new trails. Classmate Marie “Scooter” DeLorme Barnette ’78, a senior instructor in the College’s Department of Health and Human Performance, says McCall is “one of the best people walking on the planet.
“Her faith,” says Barnette, “was always at the forefront.”
Former Cougars women’s basketball coach Nancy Wilson, whom McCall worked for as a sports information officer while a student and interacted with through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, remembers that McCall would always encourage her friends’ faith and rally people around God.
“Suzy’s dedication and commitment was always strong,” says Wilson. “You always knew where Suzy stood and who was number one with her.”
In the past few years, the LAMB Institute has hosted many mission groups, some of which have been populated by members of the CofC community. Mikayla Carr ’12 visited the LAMB Institute with a mission group from St. Andrews Church in Mt. Pleasant in December 2011, transporting medical supplies and musical instruments, and helping build a soccer field at the orphanage.
Carr was shocked at the level of poverty in Honduras, and amazed at how appreciative and sweet the children were when receiving gifts and attention. She marvels at the scope of work undertaken by McCall and the LAMB Institute, and how much McCall has done for those who need help: “I love Suzy and think she’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. She’s determined, she’s thick-skinned – you have to be to be a single woman living in Honduras.”
Kind words like this steady McCall, who has made a habit in life of fighting uphill battles. During one tough stretch during the LAMB Institute’s growth, when the burdens of work and raising young children seemed unceasing, she was bolstered by the words of a friend, Rowland Carlson, who with his wife helped build the LAMB Institute’s school. Leaving for the airport in Tegucigalpa, Carlson stopped, put his hand on McCall’s shoulder and told her, “You’re just the right person for this job.”
McCall’s heart melted.
“That was a very personal and intimate thing to say to me,” says McCall. “It encouraged me to say, ‘OK, I’m going to hang in there.’”
So she soldiered on, raising her family, building a school and orphanage and strengthening the LAMB Institute, which serves the most needy of Hondurans. In short, McCall did God’s work, and she has never stopped, even when life took unpleasant turns.
The day before Lily the lamb arrived at McCall’s house, one of her longtime dogs, Princesa, killed a newborn puppy. Suzy feared Princesa might attack her grandson Sammy, too, and consulted a veterinarian. Princesa had to be euthanized.
The next day, Lily was rescued. Mary, perhaps inheriting her mother’s appreciation for symbolism, thought the lamb’s arrival was no accident.
“It was a sign. After death comes life,” says Mary. “There are so many lambs out there, lost. There’s all the violence in this country, and neglect, and abuse. Maybe our purpose is to heal others who are lost and hurt and hungry.”
It’s a sentiment Mary’s mother agrees with wholeheartedly. No matter the amount of injustice in the world, McCall believes the scales can be tipped through love and hope.
“There’s something we can do if we’re willing to do it,” says McCall. “I don’t think I’ve done anything significant on my own, but I stayed. If I hadn’t been here, we couldn’t have done it together.”
Yet sadness always looms. In Honduras, even symbols of hope have a shelf life, as evinced by Lily the lamb’s passing just a few months after her arrival to the farmhouse. It’s a fact of life in Honduras that victories are often partial and disappointment profuse. Such reality makes McCall’s resilience all the more remarkable. There is something stoic in her acknowledgment of challenges and something shrewd in her recognition of progress, no matter how erratic it may be. She has learned it does not come easy.
Nonetheless, there is reason for joy. As McCall writes from her home in Honduras, where the shrieks of her excited young children make for a mirthful soundtrack to her life, “We are so blessed to be His children, and I would rather be here, doing what I’m doing, than any place else on Earth. I’m not always comfortable or even happy, but I have a deep sense of belonging and a peace with God.”