I’m in the front row seat of a 15-passenger van, the kind every third-world country seems to have available for rent. The driver is easing the vehicle over the ruts and dips in the narrow roads of this Ecuador slum. I look down at my wrists and fingers, wrapped in strands of colored beads set in arbitrary patterns — the kind made by little fingers.
Each strand seems to represent one of the stories that I have collected in this forgotten place.
There is the girl whose father physically abuses her and her mother, and now has been accused of sexually harassing a teen-aged neighbor. I think of her sobs as she recounts the most recent late-night fight in their shack on stilts. Even as she cries, she defends him, insisting the neighbor’s claims are lies. The greatest tragedy is that she, at age 12, has had a front row seat to all of this.
Then there are the two sisters who stick to my side like glue. They are living with their mom, who last time I was here had abandoned them. There is answered prayer in that. But after ducking to her father’s house in between a soccer tournament and a service, the eldest sister cries in my arms as she tells what she encountered at home. A drunk grandmother. And angry father. The two fighting.
My heart is heavy with the weight of their stories. These children have seen things adults should never see. They have responsibilities beyond their years. They seem alone.
There is nothing in my own power I can to do change the trajectories of their lives in three weeks. I’ve known that truth for awhile now. I take solace that prayer changes things.
I leave each of these girls with a photo of us, a Bible verse written on the back, and words of hope. My prayer is that in the midst of chaos, they will remember not just my face, but the message that God is for them. That he knows their stories too.