There are many tiny flowers poking up through the parched cracks in deserts all around the world.
I meet one while in a rural village in the tiny, overlooked country of Swaziland, Africa.
She has a small frame with delicate features and a big smile. Her hair, like all of the other children, is swirls of coarse curls trimmed to her head. My guess is she is about five years old.
We are leaving to visit the many rock and stick huts that hunch along dirt trails in this area, called Matsetsa. She is standing next to several other children who are coaxing water out of the ground via a pump. She reaches for my hand as almost an afterthought. As we start out, I ask the pastor, “Can I keep her?”
A native Swazi, the pastor doesn’t sense my jest and tells me it will be too far for her to walk. So I say goodbye and tell her I will find her later.
I do, playing with other children near a swing set made of stripped trees and pieces of rope, the kind that would be ripe for law suit potential in America. As it is, each wild sway has me a little breathless on behalf do the children, who breeze by each other pumping their stick-thin legs energetically. I sit down on the ground near it, the grass pickling my legs through my skirt, and she gravitates to my lap.
We don’t speak the same language, but I am learning that in countries like this, where love is the only ready currency, it doesn’t matter. Children just want to be held, and love needs no translation.
That afternoon we sit by the soccer field as other children kick a ball across the expansive field. The bloated sun sinks into the ragged horizon and the winter air cools. She leans over my shoulder to watch me sort through my camera’s photos, as I look for ones to delete to make space on a disc packed with faces and smiles. Another child notices too and climbs in my lap. Then another. Then another, till my lap is full of little black heads tucked in a circle. They watched a video of children singing, then sing their own songs between chest-deep coughs and sneezes that shake their little bodies. Their colds don’t slow them down. They cycle through the ABCs. Ba Ba Black sheep. A song about a black mambo that creeps up while the singer is doing laundry, complete with mimes of them washing imaginary clothes between their wrists.
That night at a church service I find her again, in a puffy blue jacket, its hood circling her face in perfect symmetry. She sits on my lap as our team member, a pastor, speaks to a warm and gregarious crowd. I marvel at how still and quietly she sits for the hour. A team member leans toward and me and explains softly, “She’s asleep.” I peek around her hood and see her eye lashes laying on her cheeks. I feel the quiet draw of her breath and the warmth seeming through her jacket.
An unexplainable tenderness wells in my heart for this child, who I only met that day.
The next morning, as I paint her nails pink, I ask the pastor’s wife about her. Her name is Mela. She is one of 13 children in a household run by a single mother. Her father left awhile ago.
My farewell comes as I hold her in my lap awhile she eats a porridge of rice and meal the pastor’s wife has spooned out of a large metal pot. Meala scoops each bite into her mouth with pink-tipped fingers. I wonder if it will be her only meal that day. I wonder if I will ever see her again. I wonder if she will be OK.
But, like those many tiny flowers, I believe she will flourish in the desert against all odds too.
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.
The babies are toddling over each other on the tarp laid out under a make-shift roof in this tent camp. Feet and arms and heads bump together, but they are oblivious. None of them wear diapers. I imagine in a place that there are no stores, no money, no changing tables and no electricity, diapers aren’t a huge concern.
The missionary is playing the guitar and singing. Her 16-year-old son sets up a puppet show beside her. The children sing along. They know all the words. One cuddles into the crook under my arm. She lays her head in my lap and drifts off to sleep.
Life must be tiring here.
The roads are dried up river beds from the quick wash of rain that comes in the evenings. Blue tarps are stretched over sticks into tents tucked in undeveloped plots of land. Half-built buildings are more common than those that are finished. A woman walks along the side walk, a bucket on her head while she eats with both hands. Under red and white umbrellas, they sell bags of water and trinkets and food.
At every turn is hardship. The people here have to fight to survive. And yet they do. Coursing through the rubble that still lies in the streets of this broke-down city is a resiliency that keeps them fighting.
Once again, I realize how much I have.
The puppet show is over. We have sung and prayed. The girl under my left arm reaches up to touch my pony tail, testing the hair that is so different from hers between her fingers. I squeeze her and we stand up.
A mother chatters in Creole. She scoots the children close to me, gathering them from all around her into my fold. A photo? I mime, handing her my camera. Her dramatic features furrow in confusion.
Later the missionary explains that the women like to have white people touch their children, believing it brings some kind of blessing. I hope they will someday understand blessing only comes from Him. I pray for these families the earthquake gathered together in tents between brick walls.
I will never know what they have gone through or what they have lost. I know my perspective comes through the sterile and safe filter of an American. I don’t have a solution that will pave their roads or educate their children. I just have love.
The thrum of bass rattles from one bamboo shack in this slum outside of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Somehow the sound seems to clash with its humble container.
Inside, a little girl is sweeping the floor, shoving a pop can and pieces of plastic into a hole in the wood flooring. We sit on a couch and she tells us her story, her hands folded in her lap.
She is the second oldest of five, she says. Their mom left them and appears infrequently to visit. Their dad works all day.
She looks younger than 8 years old, with thin arms and legs and a delicate face. She seems older than 8 years old, poised with her hands folded in her lap as she talks.
She asks us to pray for her mother to return home and to come to church for the first time. We bow our heads and hold her hands.
Later she appears at the church with her little sister, where we are doing construction. I twirl her over remnant of finished floor we are helping to lay. She tugs at the handle of the bucket of sand I am hauling, helping me lift it. I doctor oozing spider bites on her legs. We laugh and tease and play without understanding each other’s words.
Suddenly, she is a kid.
“Un pina. Un chocolate…” she says handing me bricks stacked on a truck. “What other flavor would you like?” At least that’s what I assume she is asking.
“Hmmm…strawberry!” I reply.
Every day she finds me. Every day she stays close.
It’s our last day of work and we are getting on the bus. She and her siblings run with screams to a woman approaching the church. “She’s their mom,” someone tells me.
We see them all at church on Sunday. The young mom stands tucked among her five children for a photo.
I tug the girl to the side, my arms around her checkered green dress, and through a translator, ask her if she remembers our prayer. She nods. “Do you know that God loves you that much, that he hears you. He knows who you are. He answered this prayer.”
Suddenly, I have to say goodbye. She follows me to the door of the bus, holding my hand. She speaks, but I don’t understand. “She asked if she can come home with you,” a translator says.
My heart breaks.
I feel the overwhelming weight of knowing what I am leaving her to and the helplessness of knowing there’s nothing I can do but pray.
I have thought about her every day since I got back. I pray for God to mend the broken pieces of her family. I pray that God sets locks on her door to protect her as she raises her siblings alone. I pray God keeps her child-like innocence in tact. I pray she grows up healthy and happy, knowing Him.
I pray I will see you again, Diana.
To anyone else, it is just a list of names and figures. Meaningless and arbitrary. Uninteresting.
To me, it is my lifeline.
Twice a month it comes in an email. I print it out and sort through, entering numbers into little boxes in spreadsheets and punching the buttons of calculators.
My income isn’t one round figure that perpetually appears in the columns of a pay stub. It’s not a number that computers spit out after sorting through electronic time cards. It is the sum of dozens of gifts. It is an amount I personally sift my fingers through. It is a number that ebbs and flows each month, adding a breathless aspect to discovering what it will be this time. Somehow, that changes everything.
You don’t take it for granted. You don’t view it as something you earned and expect. Every time I look at that list, I am a little surprised there are still names on it. A little relieved. And completely baffled that anyone would agree to give me money. Every month.
There are some whose names I can’t read without them growing blurry through tears. Those who I know really can’t afford it but give anyway. Those who don’t believe in what I believe, but believe in me. Those who are so faithful each month.
All have given up something to be on this list. Maybe a dinner out. Maybe a tank of gas. Maybe a portion of their retirement. But something. And they’re doing it so I can do what I’m doing, which blows my small human mind.
I am grateful for every name and every number, regardless of which end of the scale it sits.
I spoke with someone recently about the phenomenon of giving up your paying job and asking individuals to pay your income instead. I struggled before saying, “It doesn’t make any sense.” Then I changed the subject because sometimes I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t completely understand it. I don’t know how to sort through the complexity of emotions I feel when reading that list in a few short sentences.
I do know this: God reads that list over my shoulder. In fact, He wrote it. It’s not really for me, that they give. That makes it easier to accept.
And I know to Him, that list is not meaningless or arbitrary or uninteresting. He treasures it as much as I do.
I hope you are having a fun time out on that island in the ocean that you are on near Florida. I can’t wait to hear all your stories about what life is like there where the natives speak in clicks.
Things have been real great here! We have a new neighbor, Spike, who is very friendly and likes to come over a lot to play “hide and seek” with these people he calls “coppers.” It’s a fun game. Spike has a cousin named Amber, who, poor girl, needed a place to stay because her old house exploded. I knew you wouldn’t mind, so I let her sleep in your bed. Don’t worry, she has kept it sparkling clean. And her only pets are these things she called “bed bugs,” which don’t have fur, so you shouldn’t be allergic. Cute little buggers!
Anyway, otherwise, things have been quiet at the office. Well, that’s because Allison and Sam went star gazing in the Himalaya and Steve decided to do a year-long world tour with Peggy. Alycia has been home with Tom, who kept getting his claws stuck in the curtains. NBD. I have been holding down the fort. I started this new initiative called Free Mission Trip Fridays where I give out free trips every Friday. It’s been a real hit!
Well, I will see you when I pick you up from the airport on Sunday.
P.S. Don’t worry. I know you come in on Saturday.
For awhile, I held on with white knuckles, trying to keep it all together.
Every Friday, I would lay my hands open, and give it back to God.
Then Monday, I would pick it up again.
It’s not our usual trip.
Three teams from our own church going into remote Fijian villages that it takes three days to travel to. A complex budget that looks like a calculus equation. A layered leadership hierarchy that somehow I found myself at the top of — in two different roles at the same time that are difficult to explain.
But that’s not why I was so determined to keep it from falling apart.
A year and a half ago, my role in missions was nothing but a seed God planted in my mind. I watered it and cared for it and it sprouted into my first trip ever.
Now the people who I helped lead are leading others. It’s blossomed from that seed into a vine that has grown beyond our ability to prune it. And I stand back in awe at all the people who came together to make it happen.
We fought for so many of our team members to stick with it. Our original number dropped, then stabilized then threatened to drop again. We argued and coached and coaxed. We worked nights and weekends. We tossed out texts and emails like candy. We crunched numbers as if we liked math. After all that, I still look back at my role and see the flaws in my leadership, like cracks running through cement.
Tomorrow, they leave without me. As of 11 a.m., I will have outgrown my usefulness. They will take the journey with other capable, and most likely, better, leaders.
It’s funny, after I calculated and recalculated the fundraising numbers. After I twisted them and looked at them in different lights. After we finally came up with the answer we were waiting for, I didn’t feel excitement or relief. It was like I was too tired to care about what undoubtedly was a miracle.
Instead, I set down my pen and moved onto the next task.
People ask me why I am still doing it. This side of missions isn’t my calling anymore. I now work on the other side in a broader context. I tend to blame others for roping me back in, but the truth is, I couldn’t let it go with no one else to step in. I cared too much. I wanted this team to see the change that I saw on my first trip — in me and in others.
Maybe we bit off more than we could chew. Maybe us plus them doesn’t equal the program we were striving for. But when we factor God into the equation, it balances.