Sometimes, one photo can define a trip.
And for me, this one does.
"He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand." (Psalm 40:2)
She came walking up the path Friday morning in the white heels of a princess, slippers that belong on tiled floors and not mud-soaked mountain paths. I'm not sure I knew what miry meant until that morning. After a first-of-the-rainy-season-downpour, the roads were soup--slimy, swampy, mire. My seasoned mission trip flip-flops weren't cutting it. The mud kept sucking them off of my feet, squelching up between my toes, leaving me precariously close to busting my tail with every step.
Maria's heels weren't cutting it either.
At the market that morning, something prompted Jonathan and me to look at a rack of sensible black school shoes. In general, we aren't the best at being sensible when it comes to our girls, In our minds, they are princesses. High heels and poofy dresses trump flats and jeans every time. A couple of hundred lempiras later, though, we had a pair of school shoes in a black plastic sack.
Now, seeing our princess in her spangled dress and frilly white socks standing in a quagmire, reality hit. A princess certainly isn't measured by what she has on.
My husband scooped her up in his arms, and as he cuddled her close, I slipped off her white heels and replaced them with the black flats. The white shoes went in the bag for another time. After one last kiss and cuddle, Jonathan set Maria down. We took her hands and set off down the road to her home.
To set the record straight, Maria Bernarda is NOT our sponsored child. She is simply a girl who is a member of Iglesia Bautista Monte de Sion in Villa Verde, Honduras. More truthfully, she is a girl who has had a profound impact on our hearts and lives.
Last year, during our first visit to Villa Verde, Maria had been a defining character. She was a breaking point--and knowing her and her story has forever changed how I will think about doing ministry. You can read more about that story here: http://3littlelarks.blogspot.com/2013/08/hope-in-plastic-sack.html
When we left Maria last year, I honestly had no idea how her story would play out. I know I loved her, and always would. I know I hoped to see her again. I sent her a few photos of our time together and a few little cards through our sponsored girls at the Compassion center. When we returned to Honduras in December, we sent a Christmas stocking stuffed with goodies.
Preparing for this visit, I didn't know if she would still be the same shy, shamed little girl. As a matter of fact, I wasn't sure I would see her at all--but the memories of my few moments with her burned in my mind. I prepared a backpack of gifts for Maria and hoped for an opportunity, just a few moments, to deliver them and remind her of how beautiful and precious she is. A doll, some dresses, the white high heels...
As we drove up to Monte de Sion that first morning, my mind whirled. The church was empty and quiet. The yard was littered with the old roof that had been torn off to make way for the new one our team was providing. There wasn't a kid in sight. All we had for the week was a lot of love and great expectations.
But there were some kids...down by the soccer field, on a bench under a tree. I didn't think of it until later, but I guess they were waiting for us. None of them came up to the church. I guess they watched our team going in and out of the church like a stirred anthill as we deposited bags of ministry supplies and introduced the team to church staff. Around ten, we piled in the Land Rovers to take a tour of the Villa Verde Bilingual School, just 1 kilometer up the road.
We took a turn by the soccer field.
And it was Maria.
I recognized her by the wide white headband I had sent to her through a friend.
I cried out.
But we couldn't stop.
When we returned, she was still there. This time, when the truck passed, she got off the bench. I saw her walking up the hill, uncertain.
There was no uncertainty once Jonathan and I fell all over ourselves getting out of the truck. I started running, and all of a sudden, she was in my arms.
If I ever had any doubts about the effect our little moments of love from last year had on this little life, they were erased in this moment.
She remembered me. And she was waiting on me.
My sponsored girls didn't come till much later. They are sure of our love, satisfied that they are ours. But Maria came and waited--and watched--and hoped. Maybe she wanted to see what it all meant too.
And though we couldn't speak much, the way she held onto me with both hands and wouldn't let go said it all.
We were together almost every moment for the rest of the week. She was so hungry for affection, and we were so ready to give it. We took walks. We read stories. We played games, colored pictures, and held hands. Best of all, we just held each other. By the end of the week, Maria was confident enough to let go sometimes. She began to talk to and play with the other children, something we had never seen before from her. But always when we were apart, I could look up and see her eyes searching for mine in the crowd.
Maria's life is a soul-sucking quagmire of despair. Poverty seeks to suck her down and swallow up all the beauty in her life. We can't be there for Maria when she has to endure her stepfather's wrath. We can't be there when she goes home again to a locked house and a cold stove, no idea where her family is. We can't be there to meet her eyes when she is scared or lonely or uncertain.
Yet in a way, we will be. She will put on her princess shoes sometimes, and she will remember that somewhere, she has a family that adores her, treasures, and prays for her.
She is not just a licey child dressed in rags, living in a dark hut, eating beans for three meals a day if she's lucky. She is a princess. God knows her name. We know her name. We love her fiercely because God the Father loves her fiercely.
And He is setting her feet on a rock. A rock of truth--that she matters. That she has value. That she is loved. We didn't leave a child cowering in shame this time. We left a little girl who felt beautiful, and every photo shows it.
There are lots of little children like Maria in Villa Verde. We spent our week loving. That's all. I never climbed on a roof. I never drilled or painted or hammered or carried. The roof was a need, but the need for love was greater, and the only qualification I needed to meet that need is to have been loved myself by the Savior.
He saw my need when I was nothing. He lifts me out of the mire and sets my feet on the rock of His mercy and truth. He tells me that I am valuable and beautiful.
He has called me to continue His work...and not just me. He is calling you.