Sometimes you pray and miracles don’t happen. Legs don’t straighten. A little boy still can’t walk.
On a daily basis, our family sees poverty. Kids wandering the streets, jumping on the back of our van, playing with empty pizza boxes and pieces of garbage as they meander through life. Alone.
Sometimes I cry at night, wondering, God, why am I so blessed when so many are hungry? What can we do?
And then a new group of children comes to our gate, peeks through our window, and we open our heart to them. “Mom, there’s a boy at our gate who speaks really good English!” Josiah excitedly reported. “Can he play?” Soon our yard was filled with a crew of five smiles, tattered clothes, and laughter as they bounced for the first time on our trampoline.
Thirteen-year-old Gabriel told me he looks after his 4 younger siblings while Mom is at work. “My dad died when Mom was pregnant with the baby,” he explains. Once when baby Ethel cried, I picked her up to find she was wet. “Gabriel, do you have a change for her?” He shook his head. “Would you like to run home to change her and come back?”
As he quickly tied the soaked baby on his back and headed home, tears flooded my eyes. What kind of childhood is this? A 13-year-old who has never been to school? Who cooks for them? How does he manage?
The next day Gabriel lead the way down our dusty road to his one-room brick house. Then he introduced the two younger siblings I had not met the day before. Three-year-old Arnold and six-year-old Joshua perched on the top step, deep brown eyes exploring mine. As my eyes ran down his legs, my breath caught. “What happened?” I ask. Joshua’s chest is swollen, but his limbs are too thin, too short, and his feet are curved. Pain is deep in his eyes and there is no smile. Then chubby-cheeked Arnold gets down on all fours and Joshua leans on him as a support, and together they hobble and crawl toward the trees to play. They affectionately plow into one another, Arnold’s laughter contagious.
I see Jesus. There he is, serving, humble, bringing joy to the weak. He is there, in Arnold. My heart pounds, bewildered to see this joy and suffering intertwined.
As I send them home the following day, I carry heavy, urine-soaked Joshua half-way. Then Gabriel ties Ethel on his back, Esperanza (9) carries Arnold, and Joshua painstakingly hops and grabs the brick ledge for support. I cry, “God, they are outnumbered! Even Joshua needs to be carried!” These 12 and nine-year-old parents need to be kids.
I return another day to meet Mabel, their widowed mother. Her smile beams, and I wonder how she does it. I listen to her story. Joshua was born with his legs crossed. A generous doctor has paid for all necessary surgeries until he is 18, but she has no way to get to the doctor. “Who will watch my kids? If I take a day off work, my madame will only pay me for one day instead of the whole month.” She is underpaid, like most maids I find in Ng’ombe. Who will advocate for her?
We pray together, and I squeeze her tightly, tears spilling. “God loves you,” I manage to whisper, “and he’s not going to leave you.”
At meal time my kids pray for Joshua’s legs. The next day Joshua and Arnold join their siblings at our gate. “Joshua can walk!!” my girls shout. “God answered our prayers!” Joshua hobbles upright without Arnold’s support. “Could he do that before?” I quickly ask.
Ok, so there was no miracle. And we can’t fix it. In our flesh we just want to fix it, to take the pain away, to see the smile. But not today.
So we live in that tension. And we give the gift of presence. We visit a few times a week. Daniel takes Mabel and Joshua to the doctor. I watch her kids so she can manage. As soon as we mention visiting Mabel’s family, Pastor Banda is on board. He and Rita meet her the next day, then our Missional Community Group visits her on Saturday. As I heard Davies ask for an offering to give to this widow, there is a lump in my throat. “No, they don’t have to,” I insist. These families are so poor. But they sing, they give, and we bring nshima, sugar, salt and charcoal to Mabel. The poor have so much to teach me. About faith. About where all this “stuff” I have really comes from. About trusting God to provide for tomorrow.
So we keep praying for Joshua’s legs. There is no miracle yet. But maybe there is another miracle God is working, and that is to knit our hearts together. To love deeply, to enter each other’s pain. Our director Allan Grieg just shared this, so I share it with you:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.’ – HenriNouwen. excerpt from “Gracias”