We’re back from a wonderful week of mission ministry just outside the city. The folks at Open Heavens Guatemala blessed us with an invitation to work as translators in their medical clinic. It was a great time.
I learned quite a bit during the week. For instance, what would you think is the most important
A- Building homes
B- Medical clinic
C- Skills training for moms
According to the kids of San Juan, it’s football, hands down! Here’s another question: What is the most effective communication tool at our disposal?
B- Pamphlets with pictures
D- Smiles and hugs
Although music was close, smiles and hugs are the most effective communication tool we have.
Now some of my more practical or scientific friends may argue with me about these answers; but I base them on experience and reactions. We gave out important medicines. The doctors and nurses delivered wonderful therapies and treatments. There is a family who is probably not going to stop smiling for years in their new home. The Open Heavens group is mostly about education and dozens of kids they sponsor showed up at events during the week. Hundreds of pairs of shoes and other gifts were distributed, too.
But when Mike pulled out that bright yellow American football, the kids went crazy. When we taught the kids how to throw it with a beautiful spiral, they were downright giddy. When I said some of them should come to the USA to be football stars, their eyes danced with the notion. (Come to think of it, I hope none of them showed up at the airport this morning.)
For sure, it was fun for the kids to throw a ball around with us. Guatemalan kids are just like American kids in that. But this was more than just playing around; it was about making them feel important enough to spend time with. It was more than teaching them how to throw better; it was about believing they could and letting them show us.
Unfortunately, not a lot of children in Guatemala get enough of that opportunity. Everywhere I go, I see kids alone. Parents work long and hard hours to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. Mom may be cooking somewhere, because that is an all-day event for many. Dad may be working in the fields, gathering wood to carry home, driving a cab or selling wares on the streets. Or he just may not be part of the child’s life.
The result is that we see a lot of self-raised kids. If they are lucky, they are in school. If they are really lucky, their mom is in the house, even if she is busy cooking and cleaning. The really fortunate kids have parents who ask about their day and insist that homework gets done.
Other children will have to rely on their own initiative. They may be fitting schoolwork in between caring for siblings or household chores; or they may not bother. Their parents may come home late, tired and hungry. Interactions are limited to deciding what to eat and what they need to do tomorrow. Dad quickly collapses into bed to be ready for another early start in the morning. Mom tries to wash the babies before they go to sleep, but she keeps dozing off. There is not enough time to worry about how school is going.
When Yesenia and I get a chance to interact with children here, we always ask about their school. We harp on the importance of education as an escape from poorer neighborhoods and the viciousness of poverty. If they are not in school, we ask why not. If there is an easy fix- like needing shoes or school supplies- we can help with that. Sometimes, it is much more complicated.
Missing parents, sick parents, homelessness, physical or cognitive problems with the child…all of these contribute to the education issues of the city. But one thing I notice with each and every kid… a common denominator that gives me more hope than anything… is that almost every single child will talk to us about it.
It is not because we have some kind of dynamic presence that draws children to us. It is not because they like hearing my funny accent. I believe it is simply because they sense that we care.
An adult that cares is a powerful, powerful force in the life of a child. Even a one-time interaction can make a difference, if they come away with the notion that someone cares about them. This is why throwing a football around and laughing and playing with the kids can be the most important tool in our missionary arsenal.
This is not just a Guatemala issue or even a mission issue. When I read about thousands of North American and European teens leaving home to join radical Islamic groups, or how gang membership is on the rise again or consider that another teenager committed suicide while you were reading this blog… it becomes apparent how universal the matter is. Kids everywhere need to know someone cares.
We should slow down and show that we care to all kids; including our own, their friends, kids we don’t know and even kids in other countries. We should show it any way we can: by sharing smiles, hugs, or words; paying for a school sponsorship, or just taking a moment to laugh and play. We know that all children are important treasures from God. If only we could remember to tell them that from time to time. It can make quite a difference.
By the way, if you happen to be coming to Guatemala, could you bring another football? I’ll be here icing up my arm.