We’re bumping our way to Portoviejo, Ecuador, watching the lush hills morph into cinder block garages and tiny kiosks with la Coca Cola stamped above. No sooner do we hit 50 mph, then we’re thrown forward, my water bottle scurrying down the aisle. We lurch our way through countryside, then crawl through the heart of a city.
We pass an expansive cemetery, all these boxes stacked one on another, most of them full but some waiting empty for their new tenants. Like a grim game of Connect Four, I think. An elderly man walks with a cane down a dimly lit corridor of graves, shuffling a crooked foot forward, head bent low.
Where is he going? Is he visiting his wife? Does he have a space next to her? Oh, friend, what is your story?
Stop the bus. There’s someone who’s hurting.
we continue. Past banana trees. A country club. Street vendors carrying large
skewers of whole chickens. Two naked children in an Intex pool. A dog, every
rib showing, dodges the oncoming moto.
Stop the bus. There’s a dog who’s hurting.
I watch the world cycle past my eyes. I think of the worth of a life. The human experience in all its variations, realities and forms. All the souls, joyful and sad. The moments stacked up one on another until, Connect Four, it’s over and you’ve checked in.
Stop the bus. The world is hurting.
In a world that shouts injustice, I only whisper my in-acceptance in return. We all whisper. The work is too great, we are too few, and each time I walk down that jet-way to visit another country, I am humbled again by how small I am and how great the need.
Stop the bus. There’s no point in even trying.
So the bus stops.
He’s sitting across the way, under a tin roof with rusted beams, watching silently as they tell us about the Damion house, how people all over Ecuador come here who have leprosy, this excruciating disease slowly eating soft tissue, joints, and nerves. Other tenants around him have only clubs where hands should be. Like a gnawed-up dog bone. One man has both legs amputated. I want to ask them all about their lives but the way this gray-haired man keeps smiling at me, I need to know… What’s your story, sir? Can I hear your heart? Will you hear mine?
am 92 years old. I was a farmer far away. Cows and rice. But many people move
there and land get small. Then I get sick,” he says. “I’ve been here for 31
I ask about his family. He says his wife has died. His children live too far away. And his grandchildren who live close… he nods and I see momentary sadness sneak across his face. As if embarrassed, he smiles, “This.” He opens his arms to all the others in the room. “This is my family now. They are my brothers. And when I’m done, I have another family waiting for me.”
He points skyward, then continues. “I won’t be sad for a moment down here. I won’t be sad for death. I will be happy no matter what.”
He’s smiling, all peace and white teeth.
He’s smiling and I’m just barely holding it together because I’m thinking how the lepers were forced to sit outside the city gates and yell “unclean, unclean” to anyone who came near. Until Jesus came down that dusty path to Jerusalem and offered them his hand. Oh, to live this way always, touching the hurting, touching the lonely, touching… because it’s in the reaching for others that we find ourselves. It’s in the reaching, coming to the end of ourselves, that we find the beginning of God.
I am not Jesus. I can’t offer healing. I think I have nothing to offer. So I grip his gnarled hands within my own and look into his eyes and I smile through welling tears. It’s unlikely I will see him again this side of heaven.
Climbing on the bus again, I discover a piece of my heart has been left behind. I also discover that it’s okay. I hear it then, this gentle reminder:
Just listen. Listen to their hearts. This is all you can do. All you can do is offer all of yourself to everyone. It’ll be okay. Smile with them. Laugh. Cry. It’ll hurt to feel the hurt of others. Your heart won’t completely heal. It’ll break time and again. And you’ll leave trails of broken bits across this beautiful world full of beautiful people and it’ll be okay… yes, in the end it’ll be okay because I have promised you this much, that truly “I am here to make you whole; mind, body, and soul.” (Thessalonians 5:23) Trust me. Listen to my people. Listen to your people. Just… listen.
I am broken and I am whole. I am hurting and I am healing. I am here completely with pieces of me scattered throughout the world. Show me where I can serve, Lord.
Stop the bus. The world is hurting.
(Photo used with permission.)