The orphanage is located somewhere off a dirt road in a neighborhood that, to my eyes, is really a mysterious maze of other dirt roads, along which sit ramshackle buildings, some vacated and some lived in, automobiles that both work and don’t work, (and I’ve learned you can never tell just by looking at the vehicle – some look downright decrepit and run fine) and ironically beautiful plants, flowers and trees growing everywhere.
Of course, there’s no rhyme or reason to the landscaping. Landscaping is probably too fancy a word for the overgrowth of vegetation that flourishes in this tropical climate.
But I am in love. My green thumb is itching as I finger a strange leaf from a tree with spiny bark. The leaf has seven sections, all dark green with a light green tie-dyed look, and a bright red stem.
Stuff either grows like crazy here, taking over, or it doesn’t. Thick, weeded pieces of ground sit next to bare patches of dirt.
We came to the orphanage last week. They don’t have many kids. The number fluctuates depending on the need, so right now there are about ten kids. Even so, ten is an overwhelming number to my mom sensibilities, and you can think me sentimental and silly when I say that I blinked back tears as I stared at them and thought how precious they are in God’s sight.
Derek, ever the extrovert, moved right up to the front of the group last week and asked a little girl her name in Spanish. Juliette, she replied shyly. He smiled into her eyes and gestured to Carson and said Carson, Juliette. Juliette, Carson. The little girls looked at each solemnly. He asked how old she was.
He gestured to Carson and said Once!
Juliette was wearing a tight, grubby t-shirt that stated Spoiled Girl in English.
So much in that visual.
And so spoil them we did. My fellow students and some of our leaders had brought nail polish and face paint, and so every little girl’s fingernails were painted and some of the YWAMers too, and then they moved on to hair. The little girls were taught how to braid, and I sat there and was at a loss for words, because I need to learn conversational Spanish pronto, and also because I have never been to an orphanage before.
And also, because I am a mom.
Parentless kids reaches me in the place that came alive when I saw my newborn children’s faces for the first time and realized how unworthy I was to mother them at the exact same moment that I realized what a lavish gift they were.
Derek and the kids are outside the walls of the orphanage, playing soccer with one of the little boys, Brian. A bunch of the other DTS students are out there too, and they come in sporadically to drink water and cool off.
We are all dripping sweat and grinning madly. I am watching the nails get painted and hair being braided, and suddenly, small brown hands are in my hair, braiding it and rebraiding it. The little girl steps back from my hair and I look over my shoulder, feeling the braid and say muy bonita!, smiling at her.
She grins shyly.
I wish I could ask her a thousand things. If she reads, and if so, what does she like to read. If she’s an animal lover, or likes to do art projects. If she’s ever been to the beach, and what her favorite candy is.
She skips off and I notice that she has nail polish in her hair as she climbs onto the trampoline and begins to jump, causing the rusty springs to creak loudly.
It is hard to justify certain things that I have spent my time and money and concern on in light of orphans with great need. If I examine my heart, I have not been wasteful intentionally, most of the time. But I have grown up in such affluence without even realizing it. I have been to Guatemala and seen the garbage dump cities. But I was only 16 when I saw them, and our hearts can grow selfish and small over time, in a cushy atmosphere of fenced-in backyards, a dozen pair of shoes, and flat screen TV’s. Air conditioning, flooring, glass on the windows, hot water, heck, clean water, these are just the beginning of privilege and comfort. I stare at the bare concrete walls of the orphanage, the couple of scrawny chickens pecking at the dirt, the rusty trampoline and faded, tight clothing of these beautiful children with brown skin and brown eyes, and my definitions of need and want are challenged at their cores.
It is difficult to make my own familiar demands of life – top quality coffee, brand name jeans, pleasing aesthetics, and a smart phone, in light of the blaring needs that these children innocently broadcast.
First of all, they need parents. But the lesser needs are pretty intense too. We need food, the orphanage director told one of my leaders when they asked earlier in the week. We took up an offering among our group that morning and at the end of the orphanage visit our leader, Abel, told the director we have some things for you, and several of the guys went out to the van and came back with huge bags of rice, beans, sugar, and some containers of oil. The director had tears in his eyes and he asked us to all gather round and we joined hands, YWAMers and orphans and staff, and prayed together.
Then Abel gave him some money too, and he smiled through his tears and wiped his eyes and shook his head.
Yosef, one of the other DTS students told them in so many words, in Spanish we feel like we need to tell you that God has not forgotten you. We have come to help you. We have come to tell you that you are not forgotten. Your hard work is paying off and we want to encourage you to keep showing God’s love even though you are tired.
Now we are here again this week and we are all sitting in a circle, students and leaders and the director and his wife, discussing plans. My children are playing with the orphanage children, kicking a soccer ball around, and all of the adults are sitting on white plastic chairs.
I noticed last week how well the weeds were growing in a certain sunlit part of the orphanage’s front yard, and asked Abel later that night if I could plant a vegetable garden for them. We are discussing that now, and the conversation flies around the circle, both in Spanish and English, and punctuated by laughter and random interruptions from the kids and the soccer ball. The director stops what he is saying when the soccer ball suddenly hits the back of his legs. He turns and kicks the ball back to the kids and then turns back to finish his sentence. It looks like we might be able to do something in the way of a garden by incorporating a new invention called The Food Machine, sometime in November. It’s a nifty concept that a missionary came up with, and enables a village or group of people to grow enough of a few types of food to feed all of them.
We also have plans to paint the entire orphanage – interior and exterior walls, plant a flower bed, bring them more food, and put on some children’s programs for them and invite all the kids in the neighborhood too. Derek might dress up like a clown. Abel mentioned me teaching some of the moms to knit.
We have been here 25 days.