Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Cast-Away

"Men," he said, "I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on--shipwreck, loss of cargo, and danger to our lives as well." (Acts 27:10 NLT)

I am fascinated by the story of Jose Salvador Alvarenga.

Mr. Alvarenga is the cast-away who came ashore on the tiny bit of land in the Marshall Islands called Ebon Atoll on January 30 after spending an estimated 13 months at sea.

Alverenga is originally from El Salvador but moved to Mexico about 15 years ago. He made his living fishing for sharks.

Sometime in November or December of 2012, Alverenga and a companion named Ezequiel (whose exact age at the time has been reported as between 15 and 18) left the fishing village of Costa Azul in a 24 foot fiberglass fishing boat. They were blown off course and shortly thereafter, the boat’s motor ceased to function.

They were adrift on the sea.

Search crews were set out to find them, but found no trace.

The world had no idea exactly what happened on that little boat until Alverenga made landfall on Ebon Atoll.  Many of the details were sketchy and contradictory at first.

Almost all of the reports in those first days when the news broke said that Alverenga had prayed to God day after day to be saved.

The media’s first reaction was skepticism. Many thought it impossible that anyone could survive that long on the open ocean. Alverenga said he ate turtles, birds, and small fish he caught with his hands. His companion, unable to stomach the only available food, died four months into the ordeal and Alverenga had to push his body overboard. He contemplated suicide for four days afterward, but he said God told him not to take his own life.

The skepticism was somewhat understandable on a superficial level because Alverenga did not appear thin and gaunt in the initial pictures. He also could not remember some details of his former life correctly.

Nonetheless, the boat bore clear markings of the fishing cooperative in Costa Azul and Mexican government records, although notoriously inaccurate, did show two people with similar names had gone missing in that boat at about the time Alverenga said.

Doctors examining him could not pinpoint how long he had been at sea, but it was clear he had some very negative health consequences as a result of his experience and that he had been on the ocean for a very long time.  Alverenga himself acknowledged in very early statements that some of what he said was muddled because he had gone so long without human contact.

“The sea, the sea,” he would say. “The sea and the boat.”

I can only imagine how difficult such an ordeal would have been. It is estimated Alverenga drifted some 6500 miles. Over the 13 months, that means the boat would have averaged less than seven-tenths of a mile per hour. Babies can crawl faster than that.

Alevrenga also said he saw dozens and dozens of boats during the ordeal. He would stand up and wave and shout. People on the boats would either wave back or just ignore him. But no one rescued him.

As more details came out, we learned that Alverenga had served in the El Salvadoran military, where he had learned survival skills.

We learned he avoided sun stroke and dehydration by hiding under a big blue cooler—presumably the same cooler the sharks he caught had been kept in.

We also learned he left his family in El Salvador those many years ago because he had been knifed in a drunken bar fight.

But in all of the media reports, even in those very first reports that made it clear that no one had survived that long at sea, the word “miracle” was never used.

What happened to Jose Salvador Alverenga is such a striking picture of how so many of us have lived our lives.

We have led lives far apart from how God tells us to live our lives. We have left our families and tried to start a new life, only to be blown off course. We have pushed overboard the dead bodies of those who could not stomach our lifestyle. We have found ourselves alone and adrift, hopeless, and seemingly without any forward progress in our lives. We have been reduced to doing what it takes to merely survive, unable to do any more than the bare minimum.

We have stood up in our boats and waved and shouted for help, but not had those signals recognized for what they really were.

Finally, alone and adrift with all hope gone, we have prayed to God to save us.  Day after endless day we have prayed, hiding under boxes to shield ourselves from the glare of the sun.

And then one day, we drifted ashore. We were fed and clothed, given a haircut and cleaned up. The joy on our faces at our rescue masked all the pain and hurt we had gone through, so much so some could not believe we had ever been in such a state.

Our wounds were dressed and slowly, slowly we began to heal.

We were saved at last and, even though society may refuse to acknowledge it as such, it is nothing short of a miracle.

God did save us. He did hear our prayers and He answered in love. Jesus died in our place. He is our only hope of salvation.

Last week, Jose Salvador Alverenga was reunited with his family in El Salvador—a country whose name means “The Savior.”

Today’s Praise

The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.      (2 Timothy 4:18 NIV


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