- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

BURLINGTON, N.C. (AP) - The story of how Jorge and Karen Silva met and fell in love is the stuff of old Hollywood romance.

Their life since - building medical clinics and running missions in Third World regions - would make a pretty good movie, too.

Karen Weeks Silva was just 19 in 1990 when she boarded a crowded medical missions ship in Wilmington. She knew early in life she wanted to minister to people around the world, even before she graduated from Cummings High School in 1988. She assumed that would be through nursing. That’s how she came to be with Mercy Ships on that trip up the East Coast and across the Atlantic.

Across a crowded room, her eyes landed on a handsome young man that first day aboard the ship. She watched him briefly, until - embarrassed - she realized he was staring at her, too. She turned away.

“I thought she was cute,” Jorge said as the couple exchanged knowing glances.

Jorge and Karen met in person several days later. They became closer as the ship made its 12-day voyage to Europe. Soon, they were in love.

Jorge was 26, a sailor by trade from Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico, who’d become involved with Mercy Ships medical missions after a devastating earthquake in 1985. He expected to volunteer with the mission for a few months. Those months turned to years as he felt God calling him to give and do more.

He laughs about it now but knows it must have been difficult for Karen’s family to accept when she called from Europe some time later with her intention to marry a Mexican man they’d never met. What’s more, he had only recently broken away from communism.

They wed in 1991 and embarked on a life of service together.

Jorge, now 50, and Karen, now 44, founded Proyecto Libertad - which translates to “Freedom Project” - in Cartagena and Bocachica, Colombia, in 1997. Bocachica is a small island off Cartagena.

When the couple arrived there, the villagers didn’t have electricity, water or sewer service, or access to medical care.

“When I became a Christian, I wanted to do something, not just go to church,” Jorge said. “I’m very passionate about the poor people living in the jungle. . Simple medicines that cost about $5 can save people’s lives. The problem is, Who’s going to take it to them? That’s what I want to do.”

Teams of churches through Youth With a Mission have helped build more than 200 latrines in Bocachica. No one had a latrine when the couple arrived. Only a handful of the 12,000 people there now don’t have access to a bathroom.

They’ve also built and opened a medical clinic on the island. Their hope is to have it fully supplied by next year. Doctors and nurses volunteer services there.

Jorge hopes they will be able to open a maternity ward there, saving lives and sparing pregnant mothers the harrowing 12-hour boat ride into Cartagena to the nearest hospital.

“My goal is to make it the best clinic, better even than in the city, so that the poor people there get the highest quality clinic,” Jorge said.

Jorge Silva is one of America’s newest citizens. On Aug. 29 - after 23 years of marriage to Karen, a U.S. citizen - Jorge earned his citizenship and took his oath of allegiance to America. Becoming a naturalized citizen is a painstaking process, even if you are married to a U.S. citizen.

He’d been trying to become a citizen since early in their marriage. The problem was the U.S. residency requirement. Because they were missionaries, they were never on American soil long enough to qualify. A few years ago, Karen discovered a clause in the naturalization laws that applied to diplomats and missionaries.

Jorge read and studied history and civics. He had to pass a background check, complicated by his early years as a communist, but he was able to assure the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that he’d renounced his past.

“There’s a very strong filter of who gets to become a citizen. I think that’s good,” Jorge said. “The most important thing is to always be very honest.”

The morning of Jorge’s naturalization, Karen was recovering from surgery in the hospital. Their friends and pastor attended the ceremony with him.

“There’s a pride that comes to you. . In my heritage, I’m Mexican. But now I am an American,” Jorge said. “The ceremony makes you feel very welcome. It makes you feel like you’re special.”

He’s looking forward to voting in his first U.S. election this fall.

Their journey hasn’t been without obstacles.

Shipments have gone awry, snagged by customs officials at the Colombian border. Donations are sometimes hard to come by. There’s still the goal of expanding their work to other parts of South and Central America.

Karen is currently fighting breast cancer. This is her third bout with cancer. She survived Hodgkin’s disease as a child. There was a relapse at 21. Doctors say her prognosis is good.

The Silvas are on sabbatical through the end of this year. Jorge will travel back to South America and Mexico while Karen completes her treatment. She will return to their work in Bocachica as soon as possible.

They are thankful for their friends and family in Burlington, for the current support and for their financial support of their missions over the years.

“We’ve seen the miracles. And, yes, there have been obstacles,” Jorge says, thinking. “But you have a big God. You will jump those things.”


Information from: Times-News, https://www.thetimesnews.com

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