I am back from a week in Mexico with an amazing team of people. To say that it changed me would be selling it far short, and I don’t want to do that. We have been home for three days and I have not yet even begun to process what I saw and heard. (Some of that may have to do with the small voices vying for my attention, and the fact that I cannot stop hugging the girls to whom they belong.)
The faces of the people we met, the sights, the sounds, and even the smells that swirled around us all week are never far from my mind. They become the most vivid when it’s quiet, which has probably slowed down my usual processing time because… it’s almost never quiet here. But tonight I find myself alone in the house with my favorite dog, my babies ensconced safely at The Farm a few miles away, and suddenly it is all tumbling through my head.
I’m typically pretty good at putting things into perspective. I try to always leave a situation better than I found it. I have a driving need to fix things and make a difference. And as I get older, I’m learning to see where I really CAN make a difference, and go there, as opposed to jumping on my donkey (he’s imaginary) and tilting at windmills.
But this week. This trip. This mission. You guys, I just can’t.
I came away with more questions than answers. Big questions. Faith challenging questions. With possible life altering answers. Mostly, though, I just keep pondering. And allowing myself to re-visit things in small doses, because that is all I can handle right now. And praying for direction. And feeling so, so small in the face of the overwhelming needs I witnessed.
Because I thought my life as a single mama was hard. And then I met a mama with six kids (four running up and down a steep hill covered with glass and trash, including the toddler; and two still in utero) whose husband had gone on a trip and decided not to come back. She lived in a shack with no door. Her beautiful little girl, not much older than Clara, sat and played nearby as we built them a home. A 12 x 18 shed, really, but with a solid roof and a door with a knob that locked. And all I could do is imagine how much safer little Ruby will be behind a door that locks at night.
We spent a day at a dump. An actual garbage dump where people live. Ponder that for a moment. They spend their lives surrounded by a stench my most carefully chosen words cannot describe, digging through what other people have thrown away, in order to feed their children. Or to get high so they can forget that they spend their days in a garbage dump. After we handed out sandwiches, chips and drinks to them, we visited the tent city where many of the people live. We heard about their lives. We visited their homes, if you can even call them that. Everywhere we went, we were followed by sad, starving dogs with mange and fleas, some with visible wounds. And I really was holding it together, mostly, until we met the mom with seven children who lived in the middle of this… place. Two of her kids were outside the tent when we stopped to talk. One of them was a little girl somewhere between my girls’ ages. Her face was dirty. Her clothes were tattered. Her eyes were huge. And she didn’t have a smile.
It is one thing to see adults living in poverty — trapped in a cycle that won’t let them go. It is heart wrenching to watch people wandering around literally high, or on their way to getting there, surrounded by refuse. It is entirely another to see children in the midst of that squalor. To know that drug use is widespread, that prostitution and so, so much worse is happening within the confines of the dump. And to see kids there. Because after we walked away, that little girl’s face faded and in her place I saw another face. This face.
Because she was born early and with limbs missing, Clara ended up in a Bulgarian orphanage, and then eventually here in the heart of small town America. Had her birth mother decided to raise her, she would have grown up in a Roma encampment that looked disturbingly like that tent city. It would have been Clara wandering around dirty and covered with lice. Hungry much of the time. Seeing and experiencing God knows what as she and her family barely eked out an existence from day to day.
I viewed the rest of that tent city through the tears I was blinking away. Because that beautiful girl who calls me “Mommy” could have been living in almost exactly that kind of place. And as much as I can’t imagine that, I could imagine exactly that. Clara going to sleep in a tent at night with predators prowling outside. Clara itching and aching and hungry. Clara afraid. Clara without her smile.
My girls are my heart. I go to great lengths to keep them safe and protected. To feed them not just food that will fill their tummies, but that will nourish their bodies and build them for a lifetime. And I’m ever mindful and grateful that I have the means to do that. But my girls aren’t more important or special to God than that little girl in the garbage dump. Or than Ruby. Or than any of the dozens of kids we saw in the orphanages we visited on Tuesday and Friday.
And I cannot understand it. I cannot wrap my head around why Clara and Annelise were plucked from their orphanages and put into a safe place with a family who loves them, while other children are left behind.
On Friday, our last day in Mexico, we spent the morning at a poor orphanage that was doing all it could to house and feed the children in its care. The property was old and crumbling. The children ate their meals in a building without doors, at rickety tables. But they had meals. They had a high wall keeping them in and less savory elements out. They had clean clothes. And beautiful hair styles. And people taking care of them.
And it struck me how much safer and better off they were there than those children I had seen in the garbage dump. How much better off they were in that poor orphanage than they would have been on the streets with parents who were too poor or too addicted to take care of them.
But I still couldn’t get past their sad eyes. I was a random woman who showed up for a few hours one day, but at several points I found myself with little girls inching ever closer to me, in hopes of some affection. As I sat there with my arms around them, I thought of my girls. I thought of how, even though I’m not the most fun or patient mom in the world, I am a mom with arms that hug. And I felt my heart crack a little, not for the first time in the week.
I didn’t cry in that orphanage, even though the weight of all I had seen was pressing in, hard. I smiled. I laughed. I hugged. And I saw. I saw with the eyes of a mom whose children used to be orphans. I saw with my heart. And I made myself a promise. I promised to come home to my now obviously extravagant life and to not forget what I saw.
And after that, I got back into our team van and settled into my seat, tears burning behind my eyes, down into my throat, and very thankful that I happened to be sitting next to someone who knows me and has an uncanny ability to sense when I need a hug.
So now I’m home. My messy little house suddenly looks and feels like a palace. My job feels like the gift that it is. My full cupboards and refrigerator seem like an extravagance I don’t deserve. And there are fissures in my heart that weren’t there two weeks ago. Before I saw.
I am changed. I pray that I am changed for the better. I am grateful for what I have, but even more than that, I am mindful that while I enjoy it, others lack. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, but I pray that feeling doesn’t go away. I hope that those faces, and voices, and especially those eyes are never far from my mind. I want to — I will — find ways to continue to make a difference.
Because, but for the grace of God, I could be that mama on a hill in a shack. And certainly, but for the grace of God, Clara could be that little girl living in the midst of filth and desperation. And but for the grace of God, both of my girls could still have those sad eyes that are a result of not having a family. I know those eyes so well. They are the eyes Annelise had before she had a mama and a sister.
I don’t know where to go from here, honestly. I don’t have answers to my questions. I am fully and painfully aware that God doesn’t love me more than He loves that mama on the hill, or that mama in the garbage dump. I know for a fact that He doesn’t place more value on Clara and AE than He does on little Ruby, or the girl in the garbage dump, or Jimena, or Paloma, or Daniel, or Miguel or Cecilia in their orphanage.
I do know that God doesn’t open our eyes for no reason. I am grateful that God doesn’t allow our hearts to be broken without also giving us a chance to redeem the things that did the breaking. I don’t know what part God will allow me — or the rest of our missions team — to play in making the lives of those orphans better. But I do know that He didn’t take me out of my comfortable life for a week just because He thought I needed a little break from my kids.
And so I continue to ponder. And I ask you to pray. Pray for those kids. Most of them will never know the love of a family. Most of them will never belong the way Clara and Annelise have been allowed to belong. The way your kids were born to belong. The way you and I have always belonged, and taken for granted.
Pray that God will give all of us the opportunity to take what we saw this past week and use it to change thing for the better. To make a difference. To shine His light into some very, very dark places. And please, take a moment to thank God that you have what and who you do. I know that I am holding my girls and that man I love a lot closer these days.
We have so much. Let’s use it wisely, and let’s find ways to share it with people who have so little. (Yep, that was me totally foreshadowing some future projects in which you can participate. Because otherwise, whats the point?)
And you guys? Please start seeing people. Look at them through eyes that aren’t haughty or judgmental. See them the way God sees them. Look for ways you can make a difference in their lives. Be the change you want to see in the world. And if you’re reading this and you’ve never met an orphan, never walked through a garbage dump, or never been blessed enough to pound a few nails into the wall of a house that will keep a little girl and her family safe at night, consider embarking on your own life-altering adventure. Check out Spectrum Ministries and partner with them in all the amazing work they do.