I haven't accomplished many of the things that most people have.
I have climbed a lot of mountains, including Mount Kilimanjaro.
I am a father, grandfather, husband.
I work for one of the best organizations in the world-Compassion International and I have the privilege to travel all over the world witnessing people's lives being meaningfully impacted.
It was the subtlest of movements, the slightest shift of her eyes to the floor. A downcast movement of her heart. No one saw it, no one knew it was happening.
No one but me, and her, and God.
She watched her new friend hug her dad, and she listened as her friend let out a sweet laugh. A laugh that said she was comfortable in his arms. A laugh that a million other girls had laughed with a million other dads.
I watched the sweet embrace of a young girl and her father. The gentle banter of two hearts that loved one another, that cared deeply for one another.
And as that precious moment unfolded like it has for countless other girls and their dads, my gaze was drawn to the other girl. And my heart broke a little.
I wanted to believe it was just my imagination, that I hadn’t really seen her heart take another blow. It wasn’t a punch to the gut like she usually encountered. This was more like a little jab. A little poke to remind her that she didn’t have what so many other girls had. What so many other girls took for granted.
And what she so desperately wanted.
I knew she wanted the love of her father because she had all but told me so. We had spent many days together, walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Our conversations were light-hearted for the most part. Occasionally they went deeper. Especially when she would get me to tell a story and then say with all earnestness – “Tell me everything!”
And so I would tell her another story and I would do my best to tell her everything. It isn’t often that I meet people who really want to hear everything in a story. And so we came to know one another through stories. Some funny, some sad, some enlightening.
That is how I came to know the girl I nicknamed “Cool Girl”. Outwardly she was obviously a girl of good taste and a poise that defied her age. Inwardly is where the real cool came through. Her coolness was marked by a self-confidence and a sureness that is rarely seen in people twice her age. And of course anyone that wanted to hear me tell a story was cool in my book.
That is how I recognized the sails of her spirit having the wind taken out of them as we stood waiting for our flight. Because I had come to care for her.
And is so often the case with me, I began to question God. Are you trying to tell me something? Am I to say something? If I feel a twinge of pain in my heart, what must her heart feel like? What would you have me to do?
And the answer was twofold. First, pray. Second, write. As I prayed, the question came – could she have the courage to hope for something that eluded her, her entire young life? Did she know what I had come to know? For there was a time in my young life when I hoped for a love that had escaped me. To hear my father say the words, “I love you son”. Words that eluded me my entire life. Words that wouldn’t come from his lips in simple response to my telling him that I loved him. Words that didn’t come on his death-bed. Words that I will never hear.
Until I heard them. I remember the day well. A day when I heard my Father in heaven say that he loved me, that I was a delight to him. Can you imagine? A delight? Those were his exact words. I was a delight to the maker of heaven and earth. And that changed everything.
And so I will write in the hopes that she will read these words or perhaps another girl who needs to hear these words will read them. That they will know they have a father that delights in them. A father that has dreams for them.
And I will pray that she won’t talk herself out of believing that His love for her is real. And enough. And healing.
“Cool Girl” meeting her sponsored child, obviously another very cool girl.
What every cool girl needs on her birthday, jewelry made by God.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Luke 18:16
I have put off writing about the little girl in the red dress for too long. Not sure why, maybe because she touched a nerve that is still raw, deep down inside of me. A place that I never go to. A place that I need to go to. She also touched my heart in a way that I never expected.
I travel often to places around the world and see things that most people never see. I experience things most people don’t even know exist. I’m not bragging, I’m simply stating a fact. Most people never get past the “escaped llamas” or the stupid “what color is the dress?” fanatisicm of social media. What I’m trying to say, is that I have moved off the beaten path many times. My job forces me into difficult and dark places. I have to condition my heart to not “feel” everything, to not turn into a pile of mush at every situation. I am asked to lead others into these places. I am tasked to keep them safe. I am forced to be strong for them.
So strength will rule the day in most situations. While others are moved to tears and grown men are sobbing like little girls, I don’t get the luxury of showing my emotions. There are even times when I have questioned God about the condition of my heart. I know to guard it. I know it is from the heart that everything flows from. But I still have to ask – “is my heart ok?”. “Have I grown so calloused and so guarded that I can no longer feel sympathy or empathy?”.
And then a little girl in a red dress will show up on the scene. She’s not the first. And I am certain that she will not be the last. Sometimes it’s not a little girl at all. Sometimes it’s a little boy or a young man. Sometimes it’s a grown man or woman. But those are stories for another time.
I noticed her immediately as I stepped off the bus. For some reason I was the first one through the lines of children gathered to greet us. The children had formed a gauntlet for us to walk through. They all had on their finest clothes and their warmest smiles. The little girl in the bright red dress stood out as she stood between the children. She knelt in front of me and handed me a bouquet of roses and caught me off guard. I didn’t want a child to bow to me. I don’t want anyone to bow before me. This is courtesy that is reserved for kings, not for men like me. I was immediately honored and humbled in the same instant.
The little girl in the red dress took my hand and escorted me into the church. So with a beautiful bouquet of flowers in one hand and a beautiful girl in a red dress in the other, we walked together. And I knew that she had captured everyone’s attention. All eyes were on the tall “mzungu” (white man) and the precious girl in the red dress. She was and is a captivating child.
I leaned down and asked her what her name was and she replied in the sweetest voice, “it is Mariam”. This is not a name I would forget. The little girl in the red dress is Mariam. The rest of our team often commented over the next ten days about the “little girl in the red dress” but I knew her as Mariam.
Mariam stayed with me throughout the day. When I was asked to speak a few words to the members of the church she was at my side. When I set the microphone down she would pick it up and say a few words of her own. When I took a seat she climbed into my lap. She climbed into my arms at every opportunity. My arms would tire and I would set her down. She would let me rest and climb back into them again. This went on all through the day. I would hold her and I would grow tired and set her down.
The one place that she climbed into that I will never grow weary of holding her is in my heart. We stood outside at one point in the afternoon and there she was again, in my arms, hugging my neck.
Our host Lillian, asked her “do you like this guy?”.
She said “of course I do.”
“Why do you like this guy?”
“Because he is a good man!”
“Are you sure?”
And Mariam replied with certainty, “Of course I am sure!”
And my heart melted. The melting started when she spoke the words “because he is a good man”. A good man? Who is good? No one is good, but only God! But for a moment I felt good. And my arms didn’t grow tired. I never wanted to let this precious little girl in the red dress down. I didn’t want to let go of this captivating child that had captured my heart. I was there to bring hope and encouragement to her, not the other way around.
This is Mariam and this is her story. This is the little girl that I had been storing up my tears for. And a dear friend of mine reminded me recently that Mariam and a million other kids just like her probably don’t have anyone shedding tears over their lives. In my friend’s words, “it makes me feel like all this crying is somehow a divine entrusting instead of an emotional breakdown”. And then she asked, “does that make sense?”
Nothing has made more sense to me in my entire life.
I had been told on this trip that the reason we are to write has nothing to do with us, we are to be good stewards of the stories that are told to us. We owe it to those that have no voice to make their stories known, to tell the stories that are entrusted to us. To make them known and to make them remembered. I agree with my friend to a point… I pray that the stories I tell will capture the dignity and the beauty of every Mariam in the world. To make sure they are never forgotten. To make sure they are prayed for. To make sure they are loved. To make sure that tears are being shed over their lives. Yes, I believe all of this.
But I also believe that I write for myself. I write to tell their stories and to make them known. But I also write to guard my heart, to keep it tender and to help me to make sense of my own tears. I write so I will never forget Mariam, the girl in the red dress.
“Light of the world, You step down into darkness. Opened my eyes let me see. Beauty that made this heart adore you hope of a life spent with you. And here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you’re my God”. David Crowder
I was asked recently to write a blog about sponsors going to visit their child. The request was a simple one; create a to do list of what to do before you visit the child you sponsor. Something like “10 Things To Do Before You Visit the Child You Sponsor”. Another option was “Ideas for Fundraising for a Sponsor Trip”. Nothing wrong with those ideas. People need practicality. We all need lists and ideas to help us get to where we need to be. And try as I might, I could not muster up the creative juices to start.
I have been on multiple tours with Compassion over the past 12 years. I could certainly help to prepare you for international travel and the rigors of living in a foreign environment. I could warn you about not drinking the water or how you may experience “culture shock”. I could list things to pack and even tell you some things to leave at home. I answer questions for sponsors nearly every day of the week. But my soul just wouldn’t get excited about writing out a list or offering tips on how you could raise funds to visit your child. In fact, I’m terrible at fund-raising. Not my favorite thing to do, so maybe someone else will take that one on.
No, I can think of so many other reasons to visit your little girl or boy. I see it on every trip I take. I see the tears, I hear the joy and I sense the change.
I will try and provide you with a list of things to do before you visit your child, but it will have nothing to do with getting your immunizations or securing your malaria pills. I won’t be listing the travel items that are so important to your comfort and wellbeing. No tips about contacting your bank before you leave home or making sure you have the proper electrical adapter.
No, the thing I would tell you to do, first and foremost…
Is to fall on your knees. Fall on your face.
You may be asking what does this have to do with visiting my child? The short answer, everything.
You may be thinking that your visit to your sponsored child will be an enormous blessing to him or her. And you would be right. But those blessings work both ways. I’ve seen it time after time. Sponsors tell me on every trip, and I mean every trip, how they didn’t expect to have their lives impacted in such a powerful way. They assumed that they were coming to bless a child, provide them some encouragement, give them a suitcase full of gifts. Leave the child and his family with rich experiences.
What they aren’t prepared for is the riches that they will be carrying home.
So why should you fall on your knees and fall on your face?
To be prepared. Prepared to have your heart broken, to have it cracked wide open. You need to be prepared for your life to change. Many of the things that are important to you today will mean very little upon your return. You need to have your heart ready to be wrecked.
So here are some things to do to prepare to visit your sponsored child:
Pray. Pray without ceasing. Pray for your child and their family. Pray for the staff at the student centers. Pray for the other members in your group. Pray for yourself. Pray that your heart will be expanded to receive all that God has in store for you.
Pray that you would be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as He leads.
Pray that you will be ready for the tears that will surely come. Pray that you will let them come, unashamedly and without restraint.
Pray that your smile will send a message to your child of what the face of the Lord must look like.
Pray that the message your child hears is not only “Here I Am” but here I am and I bear His image. I bring Him to you and you bring Him to me.
It’s a short to do list but it’s long on meaning. I hope I see you on one of my trips. And if I do, I hope I get to hear you tell me how you prayed and you still weren’t quite ready for how your heart has changed. I hope I get to see your tears.
I promise I will bring plenty of tissue and a soft shoulder to cry on.
I am at the end of my trip today as I write this and have much to reflect on, so I will highlight what I can remember as the memories come to me. It’s been a long day already so I will do my best. I can start by saying it has been a week of tears. They started early on this trip, and kept coming. They were still coming during lunch today with some of the sponsors. The stories flowed out of me all week and they kept flowing today.
Some of the stories were new ones, many were old ones. This trip provided many more.
Where to start? I will begin with the story that a mother told me just a few days ago. She wanted me to know about the sacrifice that her two daughters had paid for several years.
When these girls were young teenagers of fourteen they returned from a concert with child packets in hand. These were twin sisters that had just heard about an amazing organization called Compassion International that helped rescue children from poverty around the world in the name of Jesus. They each wanted to sponsor a child and make a difference in the children’s lives. They didn’t consider that they were just children themselves.
There mother was happy that the girls wanted to do something for someone else but she knew that the exuberance they displayed couldn’t last very long and she was very hesitant to give them permission to embark on such a journey. She knew that these children would be counting on this commitment and this wasn’t something to take lightly. And she certainly wasn’t sure about any organization that she had never even heard about.
One at a time the girls would parry every thrust of common sense and every good and valid argument that the mom could reason with. “Girls, this is not something that you do for one month because someone gave an emotional appeal and after you lose your passion you just forget about”. “We understand and we won’t just quit”, they promised. “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow it, I can barely make ends meet now. We simply cannot afford such a commitment”.
“We know mom, we’ve talked about it and we have it all figured out”.
“I’m serious girls, I cannot take on another payment for anything”
“We promise that we will make the payment every month, we will use any money that we make from house sitting, and dog walking, and birthday and Christmas money”
The mom finally ran out of arguments and eventually was worn down by the twins enthusiasm and firm promises. I think that secretly she was hoping that the girls would succeed, even though she never told me that. What she told me was that she really expected the excitement to wane and that she would be left having to pay the monthly commitment or making the call to cancel the sponsorships. Much like the parents that are convinced by their children to take on the responsibilities of a puppy or kitten with promises of cleaning and care and attention. We all know how most of those stories end with puppies being dropped off at the animal shelter, or tired moms and dads that wind up taking care of the animals that have long since lost the attention of the children.
But these are not ordinary girls that I am talking about today. These are girls that have somehow learned that others in the world have so much less than they do, even though these girls did not come from a home of any special privilege. These were girls that had been abandoned long ago by a father that had more important things to do than raise them. Perhaps it wasn’t his fault and I am certain that he would have a story to tell us about how he had become the way he is. Perhaps he would even admit that he is a broken man with a broken heart, living in a broken world. So let us not be too harsh on him.
And so the first month passed and the excitement did not wane and the girls were true to their promises. And mom thought to herself, one month does not a commitment make.
The girls saved every nickel that came their way and they labored diligently on whatever task presented itself. And the second month passed and still they were true to their promises.
Dogs were walked and houses were sat and money was saved and every month they were true to their promises.
Winter came to their neighborhood and now they saw the opportunity to shovel snow from their neighbors walkways, and money was tucked away. The months passed into a year and the girls held true to their promises.
By now mom was pleasantly surprised and was even willing to send in a check with the promise that they would repay her by the end of the month. And again they were true to her and they were true to the children they sponsored.
The months turned into two years and the girls not only remained true to their sponsored children but on this day they returned from another event with two more packets that represented two more children that would require monthly support. Mom attempted to reason with them that this would change things, this was going to double their commitment and she knew how hard they had worked the past two years just to support two, let alone four now.
She applied all of the usual logic again but she was turned back by their enthusiasm and of course their two year track record of keeping their word.
So now there were four children from different parts of the world that two teenage girls would support every month with their diligence and their hard work. And work they did, being older now they took on part time jobs waiting on tables and a host of other odd jobs.
Our loving mom was certainly proud of her two energetic and enthusiastic girls because she knew how hard they worked to make sure they were meeting this commitment. Maybe it was the fact that they were twins and could encourage one another if one grew weary. Perhaps it was because mama had instilled in them a work ethic that most young people never receive, her motto was always and still is to them “make good use of your time”. By the way, I saw this displayed in mother and daughter for an entire week. There were hats to be knit while riding on the bus from place to place, and people to be served at every turn.
And because our loving mom knew how dedicated and devoted these two young ladies were, she began to look even deeper into this organization that could inspire teenage girls to such levels of sacrifice. The deeper she looked and the more she discovered about Compassion International the more convinced she became that no organization could be this good. It was impossible that so much could be done, that lives were really being impacted and that people were really being rescued at all.
Her motherly instincts kicked in and she was now determined to protect her girls and prove to them that all of this effort was only putting money into the pockets of yet another “good cause” that really only helped the people working at Compassion and not helping those they said they were helping.
So our loving and protective mother does a most surprising thing (at least to me), and signs up for a sponsor trip. She was out to show her girls first hand how none of this could be true, and boards a plane to Tanzania. One of her girls sponsored a boy from there and she knew if she went there directly she could come home with first hand knowledge of how none of these things actually happened. How could a little more than a dollar a day provide a child with clothing and meals, medical attention, education, and most importantly, hope? And all of this would be provided in a loving environment that required nothing of the child but to attend. And the way they were providing hope was by preaching the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It all sounded too good to be true and she would have to see for herself. Of course she did not expect to see any of it. She expected to experience a sham.
What she did experience was the farthest thing from a sham. Every where she poked her head and everywhere she thought she would spot a fake, she found the reality of a changed life. She found children that loved and laughed and were immensely happy to see her. She found students that were full of the life of God and were filled with the hope of a brighter future. She found young men and women that had attended these programs as children and were now fulfilled and responsible adults. Adults that were changing their communities. Communities that were affecting their cities. Leaders that would some day affect entire nations. She experienced what her girls had always known in their hearts. She experienced true love.
So now she returned home with plans that had backfired and she knew without a doubt that she would have to bring her Katie to meet the young man that she was helping to transform. So she returned to the African continent to the country of Tanzania and to the little student center in the little church in the little village somewhere in the remote regions of the countryside.
And there Katie saw why she had shoveled snow and washed dishes and walked dogs and waited on tables. She saw a young boy that was growing up surrounded by people that loved him. She realized that every letter she had sent him was precious to him in a way that she might never understand. She saw that she had given of herself and had given him the precious gift of hope. The hope that he could end the cycle of poverty that he had known, and his mother had known, and his grandmother had known. He could break the hold that poverty had on his family for generations. And Katie returned with her own life changed.
But the story doesn’t end with Katie. It is only half of the story. For now the mama knew that what she had done for one she must do for the other. They both had sacrificed equally. Now it was time to let Tyler see what all of her effort and all of her letters and all of her encouragement had produced.
And that is how I came to know the story.
Tyler and I connected immediately. God has had a way of doing that with me over the years. And this trip to the beautiful island of Hispaniola, to the wonderful country of the Dominican Republic would be no exception. For this is where I heard the story of two young girls that knew in their hearts that what they had heard at a Christian concert so many years ago was true and right. They knew it was the right thing to do, they knew it was possible.
Tyler came to the Dominican Republic only knowing partially what to expect. She was hopeful but she was not certain that her experience would be the same as the one her sister had. Mom and daughter could only hope that Tyler’s experience would be as rich. This was not Africa and this was a different group of people and there was an inexperienced leader.
And this young boy was now a man. He was grown up. He wasn’t even part of the program any longer for he had departed more than a year before. But our loving and determined mother was hopeful that Tyler could still meet him. She knew the long hours that Tyler had given for him, the extra work, the sacrifice. When other girls Tyler’s age were off doing what young girls do, Tyler was working odd jobs and trying to keep her grades up. Instead of posting pictures of her latest haircut on Facebook, Tyler was writing words of encouragement to a young boy on an island faraway in the Caribbean. As a matter of fact, Tyler is now in her late twenties and she still does not have a Facebook account.
There was a good chance that Tyler would never get to meet this young man. He was an adult now and he had moved on. Would anyone even know where he was? Would he have prior engagements that could not be broken? And perhaps he did have other very important things to do on this day. He may have had to ask for a day off from a job that already did not pay enough to make ends meet. He may have become like so many other young men on this Caribbean island and had turned to drugs to ease the pain of poverty.
But on this day he did show up. I believe that nothing could have prevented him from meeting this beautiful person that had chosen to love him. Loved him without ever knowing him. Loved him because she loved a God that loved this young man. Loved him because she could do nothing else.
And so they met for the first time and hugged one another, and they cried more than once on this day. And they expressed that deep and abiding love that only people that have toiled together can express.
And on this day a mother’s heart was broken and healed all at once. She may never say those words but I saw it happen right in front of my own eyes. I saw the tears of a mother that has poured her whole life into two beautiful girls that have grown into two beautiful women, and could do nothing else but quietly cry at the back of the bus, as her daughters stories were told to men and women that could do nothing else but shed their own tears. As she had poured her life out for these two, they had poured out their lives as well.
And for that one moment all of her effort and all of the efforts of her girls was worth it, and I know that she would not trade that moment for the world.
“And I need a song to sing to you, that I’ve yet to find.”
“I need you, to be here now, to hear me now”
David Crowder Band – lyrics to “I Need Words”
Have you ever had one of those days when you felt like God was trying to get your attention?
I had a day like that recently. The message was loud and clear, and it came from a variety of sources.
Over and over, like a dripping faucet at times, blunt encouragement at others. Today, the voices were soft but strong; strong because they came from trusted sources. And what I heard them say was… write. Simply write. At times it was a gentle reminder or a question; “when will you be writing again?” At times it was bolder; “You are a writer, you need to write! You have all the material in the world!” And then there was the constant ache within myself, that quiet voice that said; “You have a story to tell.”
And so I pray that you will indulge me as I do my best to tell this story…
It was my second trip to Ecuador in two months. I asked myself more than once, what the purpose was, for me to be on this trip. I knew the basic reasons; I was there in the event of an emergency, I was there as a liaison between the Ecuador staff and the American guests. I was there to promote Compassion International. But there had to be a bigger reason to send me all this way a second time in less than two months.
I found my reason in the face of a little boy named Bryan.
Bryan was one of the overlooked. And I think I noticed him partly because for the first time in a very long time, I was overlooked. As a leader, I had grown accustomed to doing most of the speaking, making most of the decisions. This trip was different. The decisions were being made by the senior Pastor. Pastor Donnie was the one that was being asked to speak. It was him that the team looked to for direction. It was him that the churches wanted to hear from. And that is exactly as it should have been. This was his church, members from his congregation; it was natural for them to look to him for direction. He is their shepherd and I was an outsider to this flock. Don’t get me wrong! What I am trying to explain is a very natural scenario. This is what I expected.
What I didn’t expect, is that sting of feeling overlooked, of feeling unnecessary. I made myself useful in many ways behind the scenes, but I could not shake that sense of not being needed. And that may be exactly what God wanted me to feel.
I connected with Bryan immediately, it was as if I was drawn to him, and he was drawn to me. I leaned down to say hello to him and ask him his name. It was quickly apparent that he could not speak. He had no voice, only a quiet grunt issued forth. A tutor from the Student Center told me that his name was Bryan and that he could not talk but he could understand me. How could we communicate if he could not talk and I couldn’t speak his language? How would he understand?
Bryan couldn’t understand a word I said, and I didn’t say much; but he did understand my smile, my embrace. He understood kindness.
We spent that first day with a handful of children and parents from the area. This first visit was to expose the American guests to Compassion’s Child Survival Program. Moms and babies were there to greet us and show us everything they were learning at the center. Their pride was evident, their enthusiasm was infectious. We loved on the moms, and we loved on the babies, and I loved on little Bryan. It wasn’t much, just a hug now and then and a smile when he would run near me.
The group split up and we visited the homes of some of the moms from the project. We were gone for about an hour and returned to the center for lunch. When we returned, Bryan was there to greet me. I wished I could tell you that he had a smile on his face, but Bryan’s face was disfigured and he couldn’t smile; his expression never changed, frozen into a twisted mass of nerveless muscle. Nonetheless, he was enthusiastic in his greeting. He would dart in to wherever I was sitting, grab a hug and dart away again; maybe to tell the other children in his own way that he had a new friend.
It was during lunch that I think Bryan knew that I accepted him just the way he was. He climbed into my lap as I was finishing my meal and enjoying a cold soda. I took a sip and handed the bottle to Bryan. He took a sip and handed the bottle back to me. This was a moment of decision, and some of you reading this may be shuddering to think what came next. I took the next sip and Bryan seemed satisfied with that.
It may not have been his first taste of cola, but I am fairly certain that it was the first time he had shared a cola from the same bottle with a stranger. I couldn’t see it on his face, but Bryan seemed delighted from that point on. He handed the bottle to me once more to make sure that I had had enough. I took one last sip and Bryan dashed away with the bottle of cold soda in hand. I think he wanted everyone else to see that he had something for the first time that no one else had.
The afternoon passed quickly with presentations from the project staff and conversations with the Pastor. We left late in the afternoon, hot and tired, ready to get back to the hotel. I thought of Bryan some more that evening, hoping I had shown him the heart of Jesus; wondering if I had done enough.
The next day we returned to the same project; physically refreshed and spiritually expectant. I was ready for another day of playing with the kids, interacting with the parents, encouraging the staff. I barely had stepped off the bus when I noticed flailing arms bundled in a red shirt running towards me. It was Bryan. He ran past all the other members of our team and came straight to me. I scooped him up and gave him a hug. The rest of the team declared Bryan as “Bobby’s buddy” the rest of the trip.
And Bryan was my buddy for the rest of the day. He never let me out of his sight and I kept an eye on him too. There were many more children at the Student Center today. This was a regular day for them to attend. They were excited, anticipating this visit for many weeks. We were once again greeted with toy horns, the kind people blow annoyingly at birthday parties or New Year’s Eve festivities. Today the sound was far from annoying; it was music to my ears.
So much excitement from the children and staff that you would have thought it was New Year’s Eve! Kids running and shouting, looking forward to what their guests may have brought with them all the way from America. Bubbles and balloons and stickers made their way out of backpacks and canvas bags. Wooden cars and trucks lovingly carved by a church member were quickly snatched up. Team members were swarmed by eager hands, grabbing for candies and plastic toys.
And I saw Bryan from the corner of my eye, trying to make his way with outstretched hands; reaching for the gifts that the others seemed so excited to receive. He wasn’t as big or as strong as some of the other kids and by the time he made it to the giver, the presents were gone.
I found one of the team members who was frantically trying to stay afloat on this sea of kids, and asked if he had anything else to give away. He was more than happy to offload some of his precious cargo. He handed me a package of balloons, the big ones that are attached to a large rubber band and become a punching ball. Off I went to give them away and immediately was swarmed by children and parents. They weren’t even sure what I was giving away but they knew that they wanted one.
The balloons were gone as fast I could blow them up, tie them off and demonstrate how to use them. Bryan tried valiantly to make his way to me, to tug on my shirt so I would see him. He didn’t know that I had never taken my eye off of him. The last balloon was being fought over, parents trying to get my attention, the word aqui, aqui (here, here) being shouted from every direction. You already know where the last balloon went, it was saved for Bryan.
Bryan ran off with his prize, in sheer delight; at least that is how I imagined him running off. And I felt grateful that I could provide him with this simple pleasure.
A few minutes passed by and I felt a tug on my shirt, it was Bryan again; pointing to a large boy that had taken his balloon. I took Bryan over to the boy and in broken Spanish and clumsy hand gestures; I made him give the balloon back. Now before you start thinking about wanting to give the bully a smack; you need to know that he was Bryan’s older brother. And older brother was looking out for him.
A new round of enthusiasm captured my attention as kids began to shriek with delight, popping bubbles and swarming one of the team members. Round after round of bubbles went into the air with children jumping and swinging their arms to pop them. As I was taking some pictures of these gusts of mirth and glee; I felt a familiar tug on my shirt. There he was again. He couldn’t scream in pleasure like the other kids and he had no other way to get my attention. But he did understand the joy that was being experienced. He did not know that with every tug on my sleeve, was an even bigger tug on my heart!
I reached down to Bryan and lifted him higher than any of the other kids. He towered over them now! His little hands and arms began to swing at every bubble that came his way. I was so busy laughing with all of the children that I didn’t see one of those hands swiping at the bubbles; until I felt a smack right across my face! The bubbles stopped for a moment as the bubble blower and I laughed hysterically. Bryan was laughing too, I know he was; we just couldn’t hear it. I felt it though.
Our day with the children came to a close; we said our goodbyes and gave final hugs. I held Bryan in my arms a few more times, did my best to tell him that I loved him. The words were barely recognizable but I like to think that Bryan understood.
I have thought of Bryan many times since that trip, thought of him on the plane ride home. As I was saying a prayer silently at my seat, a song came over my headset…the melody so sweet and the words so pure…”I need words as wide as sky.”
And I thought about Bryan and how I wanted real words for the boy who can’t say them…heartbreaking…beautiful…soul crushing words. I just wanted to give him words. Bryan was not the loudest, the funniest, the tallest or the strongest boy. But he deserves to be remembered, to be seen, to have dignity brought to him. And as much as I like to think that I was there for Bryan, to make things right for him for a little while, to let him lean on me and put his arm around my neck…I was the one that was profoundly given to on this journey. Every time he ran to me, every time he tugged on my shirt, every sip of my cola…reminded me that I had walked on sacred ground once again. And I saw Bryan as a little flower on this holy, parched piece of dirt. And I saw that God had broken my heart and spilled extravagant love on that ground and on those children, and on Bryan. I pray that those flowers will grow, that ground will stay watered, and the words will endure…
“For, all people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 1Peter 1:24
“A life without love, is it worth living?”…
“And if a heart can’t share what it was meant to”…
“And if the burdens we bear are never sent to”…
“Our one True Love.”
“Then the love that we share isn’t worthy of giving… at all.”
From a series of poems rescued from little scraps of paper tucked away deep in the heart…
“So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
From the Book of Ruth
I was challenged recently to tell a story, a story that I watched unfold in
Africa, a fewmonths ago. It’s a bit complicated. It’s a bit touchy. These stories always are, when it’s a story of the heart.
I’m not sure I know how to tell any other kind of story. After all, if the story doesn’t penetrate a place in our heart; is it really worth telling? The problem I face is; do I have the ability to tell this story the way it deserves to be told?
You can be the judge of that, I suppose.
Before I get too far, there is something you must know. This story is about someone in particular and it’s about no one in particular. It’s a story that I have seen play out many times. It’s a story of so many hearts, so many lives that are just asking to be noticed, begging to be noticed. I’ve seen it in countless faces, in many places around the world.
I saw it once in the deformed eyes of a little girl in Bali, Indonesia. It took me a while to see it. I had to be taken back for a second look because I was too insensitive the first time to notice.
She was sitting alone, distant from the other children. I saw her from the corner of my eye, quiet and reserved, painfully shy. A group of beautiful girls had gathered around me, smiling coyly at me, attracted to my kindness; I think. Perhaps they were drawn to my teasing nature, the funny faces that I made; the perfectly timed winks.
She may have been drawn to those smiles too; she was just too used to being alone. She was not one of the popular girls, not one of the girls invited to join in the laughter and the secret language of young girls. So she sat at a distance and pretended that this tall stranger from a distant land didn’t matter to her. She pretended that it didn’t bother her to be left out, to be ignored.
I wanted so desperately to draw her in. She would have nothing to do with any coaxing on my part. She would ignore the group of girls that were having so much fun with this amusing foreigner; this man that made silly faces and made the girls shriek in delight when he bent over to kiss them on the cheeks.
That is when I noticed her, really saw her for the first time. I hadn’t seen it before, a deformity; a growth around one of her eyes that made her appearance a little scary. The disfigurement had caused her to be shunned, to be set aside and this caused her not to smile. Laughter was a very foreign language to her and her face looked angry, bitter. Maybe this was why the other girls never invited her in, she looked upset and mean. Why would these happy girls invite someone to play with them that seemed so…so unhappy?
Time was running out on our visit and people were gathering their backpacks and heading to the bus. I gave a last round of winks, and hugs, and kisses to the little gathering of cuteness that had decided to call me their own for the day. I glanced towards the girl with the deformity but she didn’t look up. I left and didn’t give it another thought.
That is until later in the day. We had reached the end of another busy, hectic, activity-filled day; time to head back to the hotel for some rest and dinner. That’s when I heard the conversation with our trip leader and the in-country host.
“We don’t have time to make another stop. I’m sorry. Everyone is tired.”
“Please, it won’t take long, just a few minutes. I promise.”
“We really need to get back. It’s already been such a long day.”
“I know this is not on our schedule today, but the kids will be so excited if you show up.” “They have been practicing for weeks and I think the sponsors will love to see their presentation.”
Reluctantly, we agreed to stop at the auditorium where we were told that several projects had come together for an annual time of worship. I will admit that part of me had secretly hoped the leader wouldn’t have caved; I was exhausted. If it had not been for the persistence of our host I would have missed out at a glimpse of my own soul.
I had been asking God earlier in the day if there was something wrong with my heart. It was day five or day six of a ten day trip. I had witnessed some of the most horrendous living conditions that I had ever seen. And I was not moved. I was not shaken. I had not shed a tear the entire week. I was slightly alarmed at the callousness of my heart. Had I grown insensitive to the conditions? Was this becoming a job to me, something I did for a living and nothing else? These were the questions that I was taking to Jesus that day.
So we entered the auditorium packed with enthusiastic children, and banners, and music. We listened to the children make a joyful noise to the Lord and we watched them as they danced with delight before Him. We made our appearance, said a few quick words of encouragement and were headed out the door. I saw the group of girls I had met earlier in the day. They actually saw me first and got my attention. I walked over and gave them something else to shriek about, a few winks and silly smiles. I leaned over and kissed them again.
And I walked away, ready to get back on the bus and be on our way. I was ready for a shower and dinner. As I strolled through a walkway that led to the parking lot, I was stopped in my tracks. Literally and figuratively, stopped in my tracks!I stood in the walkway for a few seconds and asked God what it was? What was He trying to say to me? What did He need me to do? I heard a still small voice simply say “You are not done.”
I turned around and looked at the girls I had left behind a moment ago. They were still smiling and giggling. What was not done?
And then I saw her; the girl with the deformity, the girl without a smile. She was sitting directly in front of the girls that I had just said goodbye to. And she was sitting alone.
I walked back to the very spot I had been only a few moments before. The girls saw me coming and they waved happily to me as I approached. But I wasn’t coming for them. I walked up to the little girl without a smile and I leaned down, took her face in my hands and looked her right in the eyes. I hugged her tight andI kissed her gently on the cheek.
I walked away as quickly as I had walked to her. I’m not completely certain, but I think I glimpsed the tiniest of smiles shine through that face. I’m sure I saw a glimmer of her beauty. And her look told me everything…her look said “thank you for seeing me.”
And I heard something else just then…I heard the voice of God say, “Thank you for seeing her.”
I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure now, who needed that moment more; me or the little girl. All I know is at that point, the only thing I could manage is to quietly walk to the back of the bus and weep.
We need to flash forward a few years to the present, to the back of another bus, on a dusty road on another continent. This time the girl was American, the country was Uganda. She will remain unnamed because I’m not sure she would want the world to see her just now.
There was nothing particularly unusual or remarkable about this girl, at least not at this point. If I had to describe her to you the way I first saw her, I would ask you to imagine a librarian in her early thirties. Picture a girl with her hair tied in a knot at the top of her head, wearing a colorful scarf to cover most of her hair. She’s wearing glasses and very little makeup, if any. She has a good complexion and a nice smile. She’s obviously seen an orthodontist at some point in her life. She is tall, but not overly so. She is not a petite girl, but not a large girl either.
We sat next to each other on the back of the bus, along with several others and shared stories. Most of the stories were mine. Everyone at the back of the bus wanted to hear more about my experiences, my travels, my adventures. I tried not to dominate the conversation and asked the others to share about their lives.
The stories went on for hours. I’m not even sure what day of the trip or what hour it was when I noticed her, really saw her. I can only describe it as a veil being lifted. It could have been the stories that drew me in. I knew right away that there were things we held in common, mutual interests. Of course there was our relationship with Jesus. So many stories about Jesus and what He meant to our lives. It could be that a veil was lifted from around her heart, for it was here that I began to see her…
We were several days in to our trip and we were spending the day at a Compassion project in a remote area somewhere in western Uganda. We had left Kampala and we were traveling to Fort Portal, and this was one of the stops on our itinerary. I had several child packets in my backpack and realized that some of them were for children from this very student center. I found one of our hosts and asked if they could locate either of the girls from my packets.
They managed to contact them and within a few hours, both girls had arrived. I immediately introduced myself to them and explained what I needed. I was hopeful that we could find a sponsor for both of them. My intention was to simply take a photo with the girls as they held their packets. I would take the photos home and see if I could generate interest for these girls to get a sponsor.
Both of the girls seemed a bit nervous and unsure of what was happening. They certainly had to be confused by all the commotion being created by this large group of mzungu’s (white people).
I saw the bewilderment in both girls but my attention was drawn to the taller of the two. I’m not sure what I saw at that moment, only that she had captured my attention. Maybe it was the sadness I saw in her eyes. A sense of hopelessness, a quiet despair. I only remember feeling a sorrow for her, deep down. I remember thinking, “I should sponsor this teenage girl, I could make a difference this very minute”. But God had other plans.
As all of this was taking place, there were others in the group that had no idea what was happening just a few steps away. It wasn’t insensitivity or a disregard on their part, they were just preoccupied with whatever conversations were happening around them.
But the unmindful and the unobservant, suddenly became aware; understanding coming to them in a flash. Another moment or two and the opportunity would have vanished for them.
That was the moment the girl on the back of the bus, the one with the inconspicuous profile, and the self-effacing exterior; moved to the front. She understood what was happening. She appreciated the gravity of the situation. She could not hesitate for one moresecond, a life was hanging in the balance. She moved closer to me and quietly said, “I want to sponsor Deborah.”
I knew at that moment that God was up to something in the lives of these two girls. First for the girl from the back of the bus, the one who had learned to keep herself in the background; and secondly for the teenage girl from Uganda, another girl that had learned the same lessons, taught to be reserved and reticent. There were timid smiles from the Ugandan girl and humility expressed from the church worker from Texas. There wasn’t a lot of time to get to know one another. A few hugs and a few words of encouragement, some promises that letters would be written and prayers would be spoken. It was time to leave, we were on a schedule. And they said their farewells, the young girl from Texas wishing she had more time, wondering if she had really heard from God; and the teenager from Africa, wondering what it meant to have a sponsor, wondering if she could believe that someone would be praying for her, writing to her.
The one thing that Deborah began to ponder, from this very moment; was being noticed. “Why have you shown such kindness to me?”, must have been the question on her heart. She may have asked the very question that Ruth asked the redeemer Boaz – “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
Several days passed and we were quickly approaching the end of our trip. The culmination of our journey was almost here, the day the sponsors were waiting for, the reason they had come at all; the day to visit their sponsored children. And on this special day, our country hosts managed a very special surprise for Deborah and the young woman from the back of the bus. Arrangements had been made for Deborah to join us for the entire day. This may have been the first time that Deborah had ever left her village, it may have been her first time to see Kampala, her first time to ride in a bus. I’m not certain of any of that; what I am certain of, it was the first time in her life that she had been seen. It was the first time that she had really been noticed.
I know this because of the transformation that I witnessed from the reserved, shy girl to the one that stood before me now. I know this because of the way that Deborah smiled at me every time our eyes made contact. I know this because of the way she hugged me on that day. It was a look and it was a hug that said thank you for seeing me, thank you for pulling me out of the rubbish and brushing me off. Thank you for seeing something in me that no one had ever seen before.
And my heart was full from the smiles of a teenage girl from a small village in Africa, a girl that was dressed in love that day.
But there is still more to this story. We cannot forget the girl from the back of the bus,for she too, was dressed in love; her heart being stretched in unimaginable ways. Her heart was given to a teenage girl that day, of that there is no doubt, but something else was happening in the center of her being.
I only know this because I was told a story many weeks after this trip had ended. I think it is best told by her…
“It’s a story that took place on a bus somewhere in Uganda. It took place during hours and hours of driving through the countryside…
And on this particular day, so many things were happening on the inside of a then thirty year old girl…many things she was trying to process and reconcile and make sense of.
She was silent on this day because there weren’t words to really say what her heart was feeling.
And then, the bus had to stop for gas and the kind man with the tender eyes said to her, “I know why you’re still single…” and the girl’s heart dropped…
She had heard statements like these before – she was too this or not enough that, she needed to work on this, would never find a man if she didn’t do that…
So she braced herself for what he would say, but she wasn’t prepared for the words that came next…
“You’re too beautiful…”
And she could not tell the kind man with the tender eyes what those words meant to her on that day because she had never heard anything like them before. And at that moment she knew it was God’s way of acknowledging her and loving her as she rode the dusty roads of Uganda. And she traveled many more miles on that bus that day, and even more miles were journeyed in her heart, talking to Him. I know she will go the distance with Him.
The young woman from west Texas was seen, and the teenager from the heart of Uganda was seen, and the little girl without a smile and a damaged eye was seen.
As a matter of fact, so was I.
And all of us will ask – “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me?”
“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 wayfor 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: