How can I begin to describe a day like yesterday? A day surrounded by a city made up of dirt-packed roads, garbage everywhere, children with visible signs of malnutrition and physical impairments that had never received medical care, people of all ages living in tin shanties with dirt floors, leaking roofs, no windows, no beds, no furniture and no sign of food to be eaten, many of them living 6-8 people in these dark one-room shacks, elderly people sitting inside dark homes or outside in the hot sun with nobody to look after them, small children carrying buckets of water weighing more than themselves from our water trucks to their “homes,” countless children with no clothes at all, children playing in sewage-infested waters and walking barefoot over filth and garbage, small babies left crying and alone in darkness while their mothers were out getting water for their families, no bathrooms or running water, no hope for the future.
And yet, children running from all directions to greet us, children with huge smiles on their dirty faces begging for hugs, wanting to be held, tugging us from all sides, naked children finding joy in sitting under the water trucks drinking the water dribbling down the back of the truck or trying to catch it in small buckets, children wanting to tell us their names, ask us our names, play games with us, babies that were happily willing to be scooped up in our arms and stay for endless periods of time, children climbing into the newly-fetched buckets of water with delighted grins on their faces as they splash in the cold water, children joyfully following us through the garbage-filled streets, alleys and beaches gladly posing for pictures as we examined their lives and their homes, children who found happiness in a street, city, country that has so little to offer and so little hope for the future.
And amongst it all, there was a presence of God…
It can’t be described. I couldn’t bear to be there, yet I couldn’t bear to leave—all in the same breath. Words can never do justice to the experience. Not even pictures can explain it. Yet I share a few with you.
We were asked yesterday to choose one word to describe our day. The first word that came to my mind was grit, probably because I was so dirty when asked to think of a word! I had grit on my hands from turning cartwheels with the kids, grit between my fingers from holding naked children, grit on my shorts from holding children who ran through garbage and sewage with no shoes, grit on my face from dirt blowing from unpaved roads, grit in my nose from breathing smells that come from no access to sewage systems. Not to mention the grit that it takes the people of Cite Soleil to survive from day to day. It’s one thing to imagine what it would be like to live without water, but quite another thing to carry 50 pound buckets of water through narrow alleyways to shanties to lift that burden from a skinny child, pregnant woman, or elderly woman, and then turn around and do it all again and again.
But then another word came to my mind as I was reflecting on the Gospel of John 15: “This is my one commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…. You did not choose me but I chose you.” This is the first time in my 42 years on earth that I have felt like I could quite literally be the hands of Christ in this world. “For I was thirsty and you gave me water to drink.” It was so simple and pure and good and true. So I changed my word of the day to HANDS. God used my hands to give water to the thirsty. How incredible is that? God used my hands to hold babies needing love. God used my hands to play with children looking for validation. God used my hands to lift heavy buckets onto women’s heads so they could cook, drink, bathe and feed their families. God used my hands to hold a water hose and fill buckets. God used my hands to move buckets into place and out of the way. God used my hands to show his love.
It’s easy to smile in Cite Soleil because all the children are smiling at you. In fact, I couldn’t stop smiling for the first half of the day. And then we walked back to the furthest recesses of the slums. Back to where the sewage and muck stagnates. Back where people perch on outhouse structures over the ocean to go to the bathroom and where other children swim nearby because they have nowhere else to swim. Back where people have to struggle more than their neighbors just to carry a bucket of clean water. Where sharp corroded sheet metal and rusty nails poke out around every corner. Back where pigs root, and chickens squawk, and the barefoot kids wince because the ground is so treacherous with sharp shells and garbage. And I couldn’t smile anymore. My face wouldn’t move. But all the kids around me were still smiling. As Fr. Reiser said, I can’t walk away from misery and do nothing.