“A rose could never lie, about the love it brings.
And I could never promise to be any of those things.
If I was not so weak.
If I was not so cold.
If I was not so scared of being broken,
I would be…”
Lyrics from Jars of Clay – Frail
I didn’t meet Roberto in the usual way. I didn’t pick up his child packet at an event or see his picture on line. It wasn’t in the comfort of my home. It really wasn’t comfortable at all. There was nothing comfortable about how I came to know this little boy.
I had recently traveled to El Salvador for my job, which if you don’t know by now; is to take sponsors all over the world to meet their sponsored children. El Salvador was on my schedule four times in the year I met Roberto. At the time I was a little curious at the number of trips scheduled for this beautiful country tucked away in the heart of Central America. Looking back, I see the reason perfectly.
It was on my second trip to El Salvador when I met him. Not really met him, introduced to him would be more accurate. El Salvador had come to be a destination that I loved to visit, for no other reason than the people.
I had come to love the people that I worked with on every trip. From Fernando’s smile and warm heart, and how we laughed so easily together about nearly everything; to Gaby and Karla, the twins that loved to keep me guessing about which one I was talking to. And I have to mention Juan, the clown at heart; that loves the children so beautifully. And Steve and Pam and Fabio and Rocio… The staff here had become my family away from home, loved ones, sisters and brothers, friends…
As with most friends, there comes that time when you are familiar with each other, when teasing one another is as natural as breathing. And this trip was no different. The questions were deliberate and my responses were too. They asked me, “if El Salvador is your favorite country then why don’t you sponsor a child here?”
Good question. Why didn’t I sponsor a child in El Salvador? After all, I came here, more than any other country we worked in. And I may have been guilty of saying that El Salvador was my favorite. I get asked that question on every trip. At the risk of telling on myself, my response is the same when confronted with that question. My favorite country is always where I am currently. It’s not a copout! I really do try and stay in the present, and wherever I am at the moment is usually my favorite place to be.
So the question was asked, the gauntlet was dropped and I began to seriously consider if another child was going to be sponsored in my household. My wife had told me on multiple occasions that if I ever met a child that I wanted to sponsor on a trip, to go ahead; I didn’t need her permission. That could become a very expensive proposition! I meet kids on every trip that I would love to sponsor. And I have only traveled to half of the countries that Compassion works in!
So the seed was planted. The thought began to form. I leaned into lots of kids on that trip. Most of them had sponsors already. Occasionally I would meet one that I knew needed a sponsor and they would get scooped up into someone else’s loving arms. So I left El Salvador unscathed, no child had stolen my heart (well some did, they just didn’t need me to sponsor them) and just thought there would be another time to sponsor a child in El Salvador.
You may be asking, what about Roberto? Didn’t he steal your heart? Wasn’t he the point of this story? Yes he did steal my heart and yes he is the point. Only I didn’t realize it yet.
One of the days that we were in El Salvador, we visited the Compassion offices. It was here that the sponsors get a closer look at how all of the programs work, how everything fits together. And on this particular trip, the Country Director, Guillermo; showed a video that he was very proud of. It was a video clip of a little boy at one of the projects. Guillermo gave us the backstory, how this little boy was on his way for treatment at the local clinic. How he had lashed out at the tutor that was escorting him to town, angry and gruff and probably very afraid at that moment. He took his anger and fear and confusion to the next level by biting the very hand that was trying to feed him. The tutor was bleeding badly and I’m sure she was a little angry and afraid and confused at this point too.
She drove this little boy back to the church they had just left a few short moments before. I tried to picture the scene in my mind, put myself in her shoes. So glad that her reaction was not like mine might have been. I might have scared this little boy with an angry glare or harsh words. Having your finger bit to the point of drawing blood does not sound like something I would handle well.
But she did.
She took him to the office of the church and asked for some help. She may have still been angry, I don’t know. I’m certain that she was in pain. The pain that she was feeling at this very moment had less to do with her finger and so much more to do with her heart. I’m fairly certain of that, because this is where the video picks up.
It’s grainy and it’s gritty. It’s just raw footage of a little boy in tears. It’s the type of tears that I remembered shedding when I was his age. They were tears of anger mostly. The crying of a little boy that knew he was in trouble and that was upset that he had to endure the face of authority again.
And then the tears changed. This little boy was shifting in his seat and something was shifting in his heart. A question came his way – “Do you think God could come into your heart and change you?” “Do you think this is possible?”
“I do think God can come and change hearts” was his reply.
“I just don’t think he is able to change mine”.
“Do you believe that God can transform lives?”
“Yes, but maybe not mine.”
And then the pastor of this little church in a little rural community in a little country in Central America, prayed a great big prayer. She first read to him from a letter that she wrote when she was his age and had accepted Jesus.
And that moment came for Roberto. The moment when he walked into the arms of Jesus and stepped into eternity. The moment he said “I do” to Jesus’ proposal. And then to say that he wanted to say something to the tutor he had bit, to give her a heartfelt apology. And then to witness their embrace and the forgiveness and joy on the tutor’s face. Well needless to say, tears filled my eyes as I watched this transformation.
I left El Salvador at the end of the week, the tears having dried up long before and my heart returning to normal – whatever normal is. I wasn’t home more than a few days when I received a message in my in box with a link to a video. “I heard the El Salvador staff giving you a hard time about not sponsoring a child in El Salvador. You do know that Roberto is available to be sponsored?”
That was all it took. I did not know that Roberto needed a sponsor, it was never mentioned. I made a phone call to see if I could get linked to this little boy that had stolen my heart briefly in El Salvador.
Bad news! He is allocated to Canada and is out to an event. He may already be sponsored.
I could have stopped there. Someone was actively seeking a sponsor for him. Isn’t that enough? No, it’s not enough! Somehow I knew that this little boy and I were supposed to be linked, so I marched down the hall and asked for a favor. “Could you see if we could get this little boy back from our Canadian partners?”
Ten minutes later, I walked into Roberto’s story.
I was scheduled to return to El Salvador the following month to join a church team. Here was an opportunity to meet Roberto face to face, an opportunity that was orchestrated by God a long time ago.
A few weeks went by and we received a message that Roberto’s mom had passed away from cancer of the uterus. This was devastating news! Here was a little boy that was fighting for his own life, struggling to stay alive as he battled Type I diabetes. Having to give himself insulin injections every day, when he could even get them. Here was a boy that had been asked to be the man of the house because his father wouldn’t be.
An alcoholic father that was gone most of the time, and now a mother that was gone forever. A young boy that needed help but had no one. No one but the tutors at the project and now a stranger a thousand miles away.
What was I going to say to this little boy? What could I possibly bring that might ease the hurt, relieve the pain?
And so I prayed. I prayed long and hard to my Father. “What can I say, what can I do?” “How do I show Roberto that he is loved?” “How do I express your love to this little boy that has so recently said yes to your promises?” “What must he be thinking? I say yes to Almighty God and I lose the only person that ever loved me.”
My answer came from God a few days before I was to meet Roberto. I was in Guatemala on another sponsor tour. Roberto was weighing heavily on my heart the entire trip. My heart was not prepared to meet a little boy for the first time that was carrying so much grief, so much weight on his tiny frame.
I found God and his answer in a tiny hut. It was on a hillside of a farming community in the mountains of Guatemala. It was a gorgeous day, bright and sunny; the walk to the house was a mile or so away. The surroundings were pleasant, serene. Tall pine trees lined the path and the scent of evergreen was everywhere. We stopped several times to take in the scenery. Vistas of green farmland were in view as far as we could see. The people here were poor and had very little material wealth, but they lived in an area that told me that God had not forgotten them.
There were six of us on this home visit, eight with our translator and accompanying staff. The home was small but very neat. We commented to the mother on how clean everything was and how her pride in the home was so obvious. There were three boys and a girl. No father was evident in the home. He had been ordered to stay away by local authorities because of his abusive nature.
We made small talk for a few minutes, asking her about her chores and how the children enjoyed the project. Someone handed one of the younger boys a Gatorade, and I will never forget how he made sure that all of his siblings got a drink. I couldn’t help but think how different that might have played out in so many homes in the US.
I remember that I had switched groups for this visit. This was the first time I had done a home visit with this group of people. The switch wasn’t intentional or done with any thought. It was just a change that happened at the last moment. I also remember being slightly disengaged, almost uninterested in what was going on around me. I didn’t like feeling this way so I leaned in to the conversation. I took a mental note of how the younger brother shared his drink with baby sister and baby brother. How he offered some to his older brother and then shrugged his shoulders when big brother said no thanks.
That’s when I noticed the older brother. I wish I could tell you his name, it is escaping me at the moment. I think it was Reynaldo or something like that. I am ashamed that I forgot his name but no one else seems to recall it now either. And perhaps Reynaldo’s name is not what is important for this story. Reynaldo’s story is important to this story.
After a fair amount of questions and answers, our attention turned to Reynaldo and Mark, one of the members of our group. Mark spoke fluent Spanish and asked Reynaldo a question. None of us understood what was being said but we realized that something powerful was happening. Mark listened to Reynaldo’s answer and could not speak. Through tears, and choking on every word, Mark tried to tell us what he had asked Reynaldo. After a few attempts we finally understood the question – “I asked him what he wanted to do with his life when he gets older.”
More tears, more choked words…”He said that all he wants to do is to catch the train that will take him to the United States.”
And through choked whispers, Mark said “he just wants to come to the United States so he can provide for his mom and sister and brothers.”
We were all in tears now, all of us fully leaning in to this “little man” of thirteen years, desperately trying to understand a desire like this. All of us knowing full well, the dangers of hitching a ride on “The Beast”. The last hope of so many young people, the train that would carry them across Central America and into Mexico, and finally with any luck to the United States. To bring them to a land that held so much promise, a land that would provide for every need. But deep down, we knew that promise was so fleeting. We knew that thousands of men and women, boys and girls had been cheated by this promise. We knew that thousands of lives were lost to the train simply known as “The Beast”. Lives were literally and figuratively crushed by the train called “The Beast”; and the enemy of our souls called “The Beast”.
And my heart broke for Reynaldo. It broke because it wasn’t fair that a thirteen year old boy had to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. It broke because he should be playing soccer or teasing pretty girls at school, not trying to figure out how he could get on a train and leave his family forever.
And I leaned in to Reynaldo and I leaned in to God, and I heard that still small voice once again. And words came out of my mouth, and I so longed to be able to speak them directly to him. So I looked him in the eye and told him how proud I was of him, hoping that nothing would get lost in the translation. I told him that if I was his father I could not be prouder of him.
Through tears I told him that he was good young man.
Through tears I told him that God was very proud of him and loved him very much.
And through tears I hugged him long and hard.
And it was through tears that we took the long walk back that day. I pray for that little boy at times, that he never left his family and hitched a ride on “The Beast”. I pray that his family is intact and that dad would change and that Reynaldo will grow up to see the plans that God has for him. And on that long walk back that day I realized that God and Reynaldo had given me a gift.
My heart was stretched again that sunny afternoon in a tin shack on the hillside of a little mountain community in Guatemala. I realized that my heart might have a response for a little thirteen year old boy that was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders too. Only this little boy was not named Reynaldo, his name is Roberto.
A few days went by before I met Roberto. I left Guatemala City and flew directly to San Salvador to meet the next group. I was emotionally spent, physically tired and mentally exhausted. I had to muster what I could for another little boy that needed me. I wasn’t sure what he needed from me, I just knew that he needed me.
I will never forget meeting Roberto the first time, he was so frail and so fragile. I was afraid to hug him too tightly because he seemed like he would break. His eyes looked so sad, so old. His smile was as weak as his body was.
I was looking at the face of a child that had seen so much devastation, a heart that had been broken over and over again. We had a few bites of pizza and had some small talk. I met his caregiver, Miguel, a staff worker from Roberto’s project. I thanked Miguel for taking care of Roberto. I wanted to give Miguel a sack of money to help with all of the needs.
I watched silently as Roberto placed a syringe on his slender little arm, and gave himself an injection of insulin.
I told Roberto how sorry I was that he lost his mother.
His reply still torments me, “These things are a part of life, there is nothing that can be done”, he said in a whisper.
And then he said something that I will always cherish, “I knew when I first saw you, that I would love you.” And I hugged him tight and I held him for as long as I thought a little thirteen year old boy could bear it.
I spent the entire next day with Roberto, swimming and laughing and helping him the best way I knew how; to feel like a kid. He made me smile as I watched him play. There was something so natural and pure about watching a boy play. Maybe for the first time in his young life. I couldn’t get him to come out of the pool. We were both shriveled and pruny and a little sunburned. I didn’t mind a bit. Seeing Roberto laugh and play made me feel like a kid again. And for just a moment I no longer saw him as frail and vulnerable, a condition that could cause him to be exploited and broken. He was still frail for sure, but now I saw that he could be nurtured and cherished.
Oh, before I forget, I need to brag a little on Roberto. Guillermo, the Country Director in El Salvador shared another story with me about him. The office staff had “adopted” Roberto and had taken up a collection to buy him birthday gifts. Some of the folks in the office heard about it after the gifts had been purchased, and insisted that they be allowed to give something. So a small amount of cash became part of Roberto’s birthday present.
The first thing Roberto wanted to know was how much was the tithe on this gift. He wanted to give back to God. And now Roberto is giving to me. I can’t thank him enough for stretching my heart and loving me the way he does.
His little body may be frail, but his heart is the farthest thing from it!
“If I was not so scared of being broken, growing old. I would be… frail.”
If you would like to see the video that was the catalyst for this story click on this link: