Street Kids Learn They Are Never Alone

by Jeanette Windle

The orphanage where I held my weekly Bible club was one of several in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in which volunteers from Viva Network (an LAM associate ministry) played a role. I first noticed Maria sitting on a bench with a smaller child cuddled up on either side. This was typical of Maria, I discovered. She was an affectionate, helpful twelve-year-old—so helpful that the orphanage had allowed her to stay long past the normal time limit. I couldn’t have guessed the trauma that lay behind her cheerful smile.

 Maria came from a poor, single-parent home in the highland city of Cochabamba. Discipline was harsh, and Maria was not always obedient. When she was nine, she ran away, somehow ending up in our lowland city of Santa Cruz. As she scrounged for a living on the streets, she leafed through newspapers and listened to the radio, hoping her mother would care enough to broadcast a missing-child report. But none ever materialized. By the time Maria was picked up and admitted into the orphanage, she no longer cared to see her mother. Her goal was an education. The home administrators were scrambling for the funds.

Diego strolled into my class some weeks later, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Unlike most of the others, the 11-year-old knew the Bible stories, his hand shooting up eagerly at every question. Did he have a Christian background?

I never found out. At the next class Diego was gone. He had escaped over the fence, the other children told me. For days I searched for him, worried because the winter rains had set in, and street children were dying of pneumonia. Then one day I spotted him clambering over a wall. He was shivering with cold, smelly, his hair matted with filth. He was also high on the industrial glue he clutched in a plastic cup. I could find nothing in those glazed eyes and dejected slump of the eager little boy who had sat in my class. I found him a jacket, fed him, and sobered him up enough to coax him back to the orphanage.

Fighting for Food

Then there was five-year-old Moisés. Gap-toothed and covered with sores, he would race to hug me when I walked in. But he could not sit still, and if he wasn't first in the refreshment line, he would throw himself on the ground in a tantrum. Spoiled, I judged.

No. Little Moisés had been foraging for himself in the streets since he was two. Fighting for his food had been his first lesson. He just could not believe that if he waited patiently in that line, there would really be food left for him.

There were so many others: the preschooler with the imprint of an iron on her head where her stepmother had branded her, the older girl with abuse scars and angry fists. What message of hope was I supposed to offer them? I could not promise that the future would be better than their past. They might be moved to a state home—huge, impersonal barracks, so under-funded that children were frequently sent into the streets to beg for their own food. They might end up an unpaid slave in a household or sweatshop. If they were lucky, a relative might be found.

What they could not do was stay here where I could love and teach them. This orphanage was just a holding place for children fresh off the streets. I might have them for one week or three months. There was no time for a solid Bible curriculum. And who knew once they left my class when they might ever hear the gospel again? What could I leave with these children as they moved on to circumstances I did not even like to contemplate?

Then I began noticing the Bible songs they loved to sing. Their favorites weren't the typical “Jesus Loves Me” or action choruses. There were two they requested over and over: “I have a great, big, wonderful God” and a haunting melody from Joshua 1:9: “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

It was right there: the message that from then on I included in every lesson. Oh, we had Bible stories—the life of Christ, David and Goliath. They loved stories of lost children like themselves: Joseph, Daniel, the little servant girl snatched from her home by Naaman's army. But into every lesson I wove the following three elements. If they were taken away tomorrow, I wanted them to carry these truths with them.

1. You have a great, big, wonderful God. These children feel so small and helpless, adrift in an enormous, hostile world against which they have no defense. The adults in their lives have more often exploited and abused them than protected them. They needed desperately to know that they had on their side a wonderful, all-powerful God who was bigger and stronger than any person or anything that might try to hurt them.

2. Your God loves you very much.  Few of these children know what it is like to be loved, hugged, and cradled to sleep at night. Even fewer can look forward to encountering that love where they might be headed. Adoptions are rare once children are past the infant stage. The closest to a family many will experience are the older street kids who hook them on drugs and teach them to steal and work for them. That they are loved with a deep and everlasting love by the Creator of the universe is a truth they drink in eagerly and with astonishingly trusting acceptance.

3. Your God will be with you wherever you go. That “wherever” brings tears to my eyes because I have seen too many of the places these children end up, places to which I would not consign a dog or my worst enemy. Yet they can go—and I can let them go—with the assurance that they are not alone. They do not need to be afraid. The God who made and loves them will be with them wherever they go and whatever the future may hold.

So Whatever Became of
Maria, Diego, and Moisés?

Maria accepted Christ in my class. A few months later her story took an exciting turn. An aid project at the orphanage was featured in the news along with pictures of the children. Soon after, the orphanage received a hysterical call from Maria’s mother. For three years she had been searching for her daughter. But while Maria was checking newspapers and radio broadcasts in Santa Cruz, her mother had been badgering authorities and making radio pleas in Cochabamba. Their reunion cannot be described. Today Maria is home, going to school and witnessing to her mother.

Diego’s story doesn't have such a happy conclusion. Room was found for him in a Christian boys’ home, but he ran away again just a few days later. I and other volunteers saw him around Santa Cruz, high on drugs and unwilling to leave the freedom of the streets. Without a miracle of God, he is lost like so many other street children. He will likely be dead within years—of drugs, sickness, or a knife in the back.

As for Moisés—I had him for a few weeks and do not know where he ended up. But in whatever hard institutional bunk he may be sleeping tonight, I pray that he is holding close the precious reality that the all-powerful God of the universe, who cares for him more than any parent could, is there with him in the dark, loving and protecting him.

Supplied by Latin America
Mission News Service.

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