Her day started like any other day had started in the past thirty years or so. It was time to start her chores, gather some firewood for cooking, head down to the local well and bring a few buckets of cold water to the house.
And it was time to get ready for her long walk to the Compassion Student Center that had been her real home for all of these years…
Naomi lives in the Highlands of Otavalo, a mountain community in Ecuador. A remote area of lush farmland, with small patches of crops scattered on every hillside, resembling a magnificent quilt of every shade of green. She lives with her older siblings and her nieces and nephews. She has children of her own now, a boy and a girl. The family is close, they always have been. I suspect they always will be.
Today as Naomi prepared to walk the three miles to the Student Center, there was a slight spring in her step, a little excitement. She had made this walk nearly every day for over thirty years now. She remembered feeling this way a few times before on her way to the church that was her second home.
Today was like any other day in the past thirty years, yet something was different. There was an “anticipation” in her spirit, something she couldn’t explain. It was as if she knew that something special was waiting for her. It could just be because she knew there were special guests coming today. So she hurried her steps just a bit and she tried to think of a time when she felt this same way before. She let memories flood back in as she walked the dirt road that overlooked the green valleys and the fields of potatoes and barley…
She remembered how her little brother would come home and tell her about all of the wonderful things they experienced at the Student Center. How the older women taught them about Jesus and how they loved all of the kids. How there were fried plantains and sweets some days, and always rice and beans and every now and then a piece of chicken or a hunk of beef. And games that seemed to last all day, but best of all, once every so often they would load up onto buses and go to the big city far away.
In those early days, the children at the project would travel to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Her brother would come home and tell her of the wonderful things he saw and experienced. She could not imagine such a place. As hard as she tried, she could not picture in her mind the tall buildings and the cathedrals, the cars and buses and the bustling people. She longed to see these things for herself. Her greatest desire in the world now was to become a sponsored child.
The desire was so strong that she would walk with her brother every day that the Student Center was open. Even though she was not officially registered, Naomi became a fixture there. The tutors would invite her to come in and join the other children. She would receive a snack or a hot meal on most days. She would have the opportunity to be with her little brother and play with other children from the community.
But the reason that Naomi really came, was to hear about Jesus. She wanted to know more about this man that loved the world so much. She wanted to know more about God and how these teachers could love her the way they did. It was the one place in her entire world where she experienced true love.
She knew her parents and siblings loved her, but her parents were seldom home. They worked the fields and the greenhouses from dawn until dusk to provide for the family.
Things were very different at the Student Center. There were adults here throughout the day, teaching and caring for the children. She was not required to clean and cook and care for her younger siblings. She was simply allowed to be a little girl. She also didn’t feel peculiar around the other children. No one ridiculed her because she couldn’t run or walk very fast. No one seemed to notice her limp here. They just accepted her.
As the weeks turned into months and the months turned into years, Naomi began to wish for only one thing, that she could join the program at the Compassion Student Center. She began to pray to Jesus that she could really belong there. That she could be registered and that she could have a sponsor.
Her little brother belonged to the project but they did not have room for her.
And now her little sister was a part of the program and still there was not room for her.
She often wondered to herself why she could not belong. She assumed it was because she was not physically well enough. So she tried harder to fit in and to keep up with the other kids. She ignored the searing pain in her legs in order to fit in. She knew that she could do all the things that the other kids could do. And if she could ignore the pain long enough maybe they would let her be a part of this wonderful place, maybe she could have a sponsor of her very own.
The tutors at the Compassion Project loved Naomi. They made her a “special guest” of the church. If the project could not accept her as a sponsored child because of rules and restrictions and lack of quotas, then the church would allow her to come as often as she desired. They saw something special in Naomi, how hard she worked and how much she loved being there. They also saw that she had a limp and that she was covering up the pain in her legs.
Naomi’s wish to see the big city was finally being realized. She was filled with excitement to see for the first time the things her brother had tried to describe to her so long ago. She was amazed at the sounds, and the sight of so many people. She was thrilled to ride in a truck for the first time.
She was also filled with a sense of dread. Naomi was being taken to Quito to see a doctor. She was diagnosed with a bone disease. Her legs would never be as strong as they needed to be. She would never be able to keep up with the other children. Treatment was necessary, therapy sessions were needed. But medical care was not in the cards for this little girl from a rural mountain community. How could her family afford this?
The disease in her bones continued to attack her until she was no longer able to go to school. Naomi dropped out of secondary school, any thoughts of getting an education; to learn simple arithmetic, or to read and write had now become a distant dream.
The one dream that she still clung to was to become a Compassion child and to have a sponsor one day. And the reality that she held on to, was knowing this –“that as long as one child could eat, the others could eat as well.” And so she continued to visit the project as often as possible. She continued to make the long walk on legs with brittle bones. This was all she had now. The project had become her second home, school was not an option.
So Naomi came every chance she had and soon she was learning mathematics at the project. She was learning simple math and she was learning how to read and to write. And she came week after week, always praying to really belong and to have a sponsor of her own.
And then that day arrived. She became registered at the center and not long after that happy day she received a sponsor. A wonderful couple from the United Kingdom named Roger and Helen. Not just any sponsors, but sponsors that wrote to her every month. Sponsors that encouraged her and asked her about the weather. Naomi had no concept of Spring or Fall, her only experience being rain and cold or warm and sunny. She only knew two seasons, the rainy one and the dry one.
Roger and Helen sent her postcards of the places they had traveled. She began to understand the seasons and snow and what beaches were. And those postcards and letters caused her to dream, to imagine other places. To think beyond her remote mountain community and to realize there was a great big world out there for her to discover.
Roger even visited Quito on business and she felt the world get just a little smaller for her. Her sponsor was in Ecuador, he was in Quito and she could imagine where he was. He could imagine where she was. She longed to see him but was content in the knowledge that they had been to the same place.
Nine years the letters and postcards came to her, one letter every month. Naomi kept every letter, for every letter told her to keep joy in her heart, to be happy. Every letter told her how she could do more, be more. And she believed this beautiful couple from another place, a place so far away from her that it might as well have been in another universe. Only this universe held two dear people that loved her very much. And Naomi kept believing in herself, she kept learning whatever she could from the tutors.
Then one day she received the news that Helen had passed away. It was devastating news to Naomi. Fortunately, Roger continued to write to her. Like clockwork, the letters continued to come, month after month. Still asking her about the weather and had she ever been to the beach. Still telling her to be happy and to have joy in her life. And Naomi loved her sponsor more than ever, she longed to meet him one day, to hug his neck.
Finally Roger’s last letter made it to her. A photo was attached of Roger sitting in a wheelchair, this once vibrant world traveler bound to a chair in a hospital room. He had to tell Naomi goodbye, this would be the last time he would be able to write. He was very sick and could no longer sponsor her.
Naomi was seventeen years old when that letter arrived. Roger ended that letter the same way he had ended so many of the ones before it – “please be happy Naomi, please always have joy in your heart.”
I don’t know what happened in the hearts of the sponsors that day when they heard this story. Some cried, some may have hurt a little, some may not have noticed Naomi at all. I can only tell you what happened in my heart that day.
We asked Naomi if she ever got to meet Roger. That meeting never happened. Someone asked her if she could have met Roger what she would have said. “I would not be able to say anything at first. I would cry before I could say anything.”
An audible sigh filled the room at that point and I saw tissues dabbing eyes throughout the group.
Naomi continued – “I would tell him that I am happy. That I have joy in my heart.”
“And then I would thank him and tell him that I have kept all of his pictures in a special place.”
“I would tell him that I kept all of his words to me in a special place too, in my heart.”
More tears. More tissues.
Naomi is now a woman of 37 with a family of her own. She completed the Compassion program 18 years ago. She has never left the place that she called home. The only reason we met her was because she came upstairs to the classroom where we were having lunch so she could say hello to the sponsors that had come from so far away.
We invited her to sit down and enjoy the wonderful meal we were having. She seemed so pleased when we told her how good the food was. It was her hands that had so lovingly prepared the meal for us. It was her hands that had given back to the little church that loved her so long ago. She had been preparing meals for the children at this center for the past 18 years. Giving back to the people that had given so much to her.
The past thirty years she has been a part of this church, as a child with so many needs and so many unfulfilled dreams. And now as an adult, giving and loving and serving.
Naomi finished High School two years ago. This is where the story should end. This is where it ended for everyone else that day. A round of cheers went up from the group to celebrate her achievement and sponsors got up to give her words of encouragement, and hugs and kisses. And then everyone began to leave the room for the next thing on our agenda.
But I didn’t leave just then, I couldn’t leave just then. The storyteller in me needed more. I had some questions for Naomi, needed a few more details. As everyone else kept moving, I had to stay behind to find the meaning in the story.
I grabbed Nico, one of our translators and asked if he could translate for me. I told Naomi that her story was powerful and asked her if I could have permission to write it. She said yes. I then asked about Roger and whether he had passed away. She said he had.
What happened next was simply from God.
I crouched down beside Naomi and asked Nico to tell her that I felt like I was supposed to give her a hug. Would she be ok with that? She said she would. As I hugged her, strong emotion welled up from some deep place in my soul. I recognized that emotion. It is something that doesn’t happen often but when it does I’m absolutely certain of its origin.
I told Nico to tell Naomi that God wanted to give her a hug. And we embraced for a few moments. And then I heard God say that this hug was from Roger and from Him.
I asked Nico to tell her that this hug was from Roger too and I was barely able to get the words out. Nico spoke the words to her as he held back tears of his own.
The embrace was strong, the tears streamed to my neck and the sobbing came from deep within. Her tears mingled with mine. Or maybe her tears mingled with Rogers. I’m certain they mingled with Gods.
I don’t even know how many seconds or how many minutes went by as we simply hugged each other and cried. The embrace was vigorous and firm.
When I had the courage to finally let go of her she said something to me in Spanish that I will never forget. Nico translated as well as he could as he choked on the words.
Her words pierced my heart and I don’t think I will ever be the same – “I have waited for that hug for a long time. I have never received a hug such as this my entire life.” “Today my prayers were answered.”
At that moment, I knew that both of us had slipped right into the arms of Christ.
These few short moments in a week-long trip completely undid me. And I stand grateful that I could be the vessel that heard God say; to give someone unknown to me, a simple hug that changed both of us forever.