If you missed Part 1 of this story, you’re going to want to check out last week’s post. Otherwise, you might feel a bit like the guy who shows up late to the picnic and samples the French Onion dip after it’s been sitting in the sun all day.
Trust me. You don’t want to be that guy.
For those of you who have actually returned for Part 2, thanks in advance. I hope you don’t leave feeling like the French Onion dip guy. But I’m not going to make any promises.
Last week, I shared how my missionary hopes had been extinguished by unrealistic expectations, and then rekindled again when I met Josue, a blind eight-year-old boy from Canton Los Angeles, a tiny village tucked away in the seldom-seen landscape between the jungle and endless sugar cane fields.
When I left my first music class at Josue’s church, I had visions of teaching him how to play the piano. My mind was crazy with the possibilities. Maybe he could give a recital at the end of the year? Maybe even travel to other churches to perform to show what the disabled can do?
Though I was supposed to serve 25 different communities in the country, I had “accidentally” planned some extra sessions in Canton Los Angeles. This convenient scheduling snafu put me in Josue’s church once every three weeks or so, versus once every quarter in the other locations. Josue was front-and-center on my first trip back, and I was able to give him a little special attention. The pastor’s son even agreed to work with him when I wasn’t around.
A few weeks later, it was time to return to Canton Los Angeles. After a 90 minute ride in the back of a pickup, I arrived at the church to find Pastor Pedro unlocking the door. Remarkably, I was on time, which made me twenty minutes early according to the Guatemala clock. I made small talk with Pedro, immediately asking how Josue was doing.
* Me and Pastor Pedro. Such a wonderful dude.
He told me that Josue had recently traveled to Guatemala City to see a doctor. He had been having headaches, so they performed a procedure to relieve pressure. He was now at home recovering.
“But we can go see him after class,” he said.
So after class, I asked everyone if they would like to visit Josue. It was unanimous. They all wanted to go. So we piled eleven people into someone’s ’88 Toyota 4Runner and drove to the entrance of the jungle path that led to Josue’s house. We parked and walked under cover of thick foliage and calling birds. It was like being inserted into the pages of a National Geographic magazine, only this one was filled with scratch-and-sniff stickers.
After ten minutes meandering on the trail, we came upon a small square hut. A floral bed sheet hung in the entrance, serving as the door. I ducked my head to avoid tattooing my forehead on the crossbeam.
Inside the hut was dark, but my eyes soon adjusted. All eleven of us were standing in a 15′ x 15′ room, constructed of plywood nailed to four corner posts. The roof was made of sheets of corrugated fiberglass. The dirt floor was cool and smooth. The room was like a crowded elevator, with a cabinet against the wall, and a rough wooden table with four plastic lawn chairs.
Josue was the only one home. He was laying on one of three beds in the room. His head was wrapped in a dish towel that served as a bandage. Not knowing what else to do, I announced my entrance and took my guitar out of its case. When I sat on the bed next to Josue, I noticed that the mattress was just wooden planks covered by thick blankets. It must have been like sleeping on a picnic table. Not exactly a “get well soon” kind of environment. I felt a momentary rush of frustration. Though I was now accustomed to the “decor” of poverty, it was still hard to imagine raising a child like Josue, or any child for that matter, without having access to health care, steady work, clean water, or even food.
I touched the boy’s arm. “We missed you in class today, Josue.”
He smiled in return.
Immediately, kids started requesting songs, like some sort of missionary “stump the band” competition. We sang four or five tunes when Pedro interrupted.
“Josue, would you like to say anything to the group?”
Josue labored to an upright position and recited a Bible verse. Half of the participants mumbled “Amen” when he was finished.
Pedro interjected again. “And anything you would like to say to brother Scott?”
He paused. Then turned in my direction,
“I just want to know when he’s coming back.”
Feeling like I had swallowed a golf ball, I managed to mutter that I would be back in a couple of weeks. At this, Josue smiled and lay back down. Pastor Pedro took this as our cue to leave.
“We’ll let you rest now.” He turned toward the door. “Come on everyone. Let’s go.”
It was a special visit. When I got back to our casita that evening, I highlighted a date on the calendar two weeks later, looking forward to my return.
Fast-forward fourteen days. I was back in Canton Los Angeles, hopping out of the back of a pickup truck in front of Pastor Pedro’s church. He was waiting for me inside, along with a dozen women and children.
I greeted everyone, enjoying the buzz in the room. People were excited to sing together again. I chatted with Pedro while unpacking my guitar.
“So, how is Josue?” I asked, grinning.
Pedro’s face bore a twinge of sadness.
“Brother Scott, Josue’s condition has gotten worse – much worse. He won’t be coming to class this day. His tumor has grown considerably,” He spoke the words without hesitation.
“…and his doctors say that he will be lucky to live through the week.”
I felt like I had just taken a bowling ball to the gut, yet Pedro shared the tragedy with the same tone of voice as a waiter informing me that the kitchen was fresh out of the blue plate special. I have since learned that this direct manner of communicating heartbreaking information is common among those who have endured great suffering. When you’ve witnessed genocide, volcanic eruptions and gang violence, death is just another topic of conversation.
I was numb. I had been filled with hope at the prospect of teaching this little boy. Now that hope was gone. He was my purpose for being here, right?! I silently cursed God with a mix of selfishness and righteous indignation.
But I still had a job to do.
So we held the music class as planned, learning new songs and enjoying the old ones. People sang loudly with hopeful voices. At the end of our session, I exhaled heavily and asked,
“Before I leave, who would like to go visit Josue?”
Every hand went up.
Mine did not.
I don’t do bad news.
And this was not part of the plan.
But my friends led me down that same well-worn path to the small wooden hut that held the promise of my mission year. We walked in silence, with the occasional humming of a hymn gracing the air, an echo from our class.
When we reached the house, I ducked through the doorway once again. This time, Josue’s mother, aunts, and siblings were there. We packed the room, yet Josue didn’t move an inch. His eyes were closed. He was breathing heavily through a small tube that a local village doctor had inserted into his throat. The nearest big hospital was two hours away. But it wouldn’t make a difference now. Perhaps four years ago when the tumor was first discovered, but not now.
Seated next to the boy, I placed my hand on his leg and just looked at him. I had no idea what to say. I was deeply moved yet immobilized. There was a good 20 seconds of silence in the space, as if people were waiting to see what the gringo would do. I wanted to sprinkle pixie dust and fix it all.
But I had no pixie dust.
And I had no medical training.
I’m just a guy with a guitar and good intentions.
I finally told him how much we missed him in class. I think he sensed that we were all at his side, but Pedro told us the boy couldn’t see, couldn’t hear and couldn’t speak. I pulled out my guitar and asked the people in the room what song they would like to hear.
They said that it’s my choice.
So, I started to sing every Spanish song I could remember. Twice. Everyone sang along. We sang about being lifted up on the wings of eagles. We sang about being wrapped in the arms of angels. We sang about love and Heaven and Hallelujah-filled-joy. I could hear about half of the room crying over my shoulder. I held back tears and kept on singing with everyone else.
I would like to say that Josue joined in the singing, or that his foot started tapping, or even that when he heard our soothing voices his breathing became more relaxed. But, this isn’t that kind of story. No jokes or happy endings. All I can say is that I sat in a room with 17 other people as we sang to a little boy who was fighting to stay in a world that gave him no reason to do so.
Soon after we started, the gringo with the guitar was out of songs. Nothing left.
Pastor Pedro, always one to challenge me, cut through the silence.
“Brother Scott, is there anything you would like to say to Josue’s mother?”
There is a lot I wanted to say. I wanted to scream to the Heavens that we need to find a way to make affordable health care available to everyone. Decry the deplorable living conditions that plague villages like this one. Shout in anger at the injustice of hunger. Beg God to bring an end suffering.
But I didn’t.
Because all that means nothing in moments like this where grand ideas for saving the world aren’t worth a hill of frijoles. No matter what we might do to “help” the situation in Guatemala and elsewhere, it wouldn’t change the fact that Josue wouldn’t be around to hug his mom by the end of the week.
So I looked her in the eye and said,
“God is here.”
“I’ll never forget your son.”
And Josue’s mother did something that no other Mayan woman has done for me before or since.
She approached me.
Looked in my eyes.
And embraced me.
And with her mouth by my ear, she whispered,
“Dios le bendiga.”
“God bless you.”
Josue died two days later. There was no Hollywood ending. No life-saving surprise. No superhero intervention. But there was a miracle.
The miracle was not a flash of light that would make the boy whole again, or a shower of money to buy his family a suitable home. It wasn’t even the promise of a better future.
No, the miracle was us. All of us.
The truth is, we are all Accidental Missionaries. We stumble upon situations on a daily basis that bring us face-to-face with a lonely, broken, hurting, needy world, and we feel grossly unequipped.
Maybe it’s a family member.
A grieving mother.
Or a stranger.
Whatever the case, in those moments we are to be the hearts, hands and healing words of God. Made in His image to do His work. When things happen around us that we can never comprehend, God doesn’t expect us to solve problems or find reasons. He only needs us to be there for each other – sharing in the joy, the pain, and the everyday. Stepping outside ourselves.
For His purpose.
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