“Umeshiba?” I ask little George, in Swahili. (“Are you full?”)
He looks up at me lazily. He is mentally disabled, and he cannot feed himself. His bib has some food on it, but not too much. Some of the children I fed smiled. Others stare blankly. But after each feeding session, the bowl is demolished, the spoon licked clean.
“Umeshiba?” I ask again, tickling his protruding bellies.
Sometimes that’s the best question you can ask a child in Kenya.
Earlier we went to Mother Theresa’s Home in Huruma (a slum in Nairobi). My director told us to “look for Jesus” in the people we interact with. I saw Jesus in the eyes of Marine and Christine and Moses and little Georgiana. I saw Jesus in the workers and the Sister nuns who devote their lives to this ministry of taking care of the “least of these.” I saw Jesus in Hailey, who made the children balloon hats; and Kelsey, who cuddled the smallest child, who could barely sit up in her crib. I saw Jesus in Jennifer, who began dancing and singing, doing her best to cheer up even the most non-responsive child sitting drowsily in her chair. I saw Jesus in their tiny fingers and smiles and in each kiss on the head. My director said that the human spirit transcends the cerebral cortex, and I couldn’t have put in a better way. Even the simplest reaction communicates that there is someone there, a human spirit, inside. These kids, although limited in many ways, still can experience love, compassion and provision, even if they do not respond in the cosignatory way we expect.
I don’t mean to sound romantic about it. After all, they are orphans. They are helpless. Some have literally been thrown away in trash sacks, are found by police, and handed over to the Sisters. These are what the Bible calls the “least of these.” But it’s not God’s fault. We must realize that we humans do this to one another. As Mother Theresa said, “God does not create poverty. It was created by you and I because we don’t share.”
And just a personal note, orphanages are close to my heart, because I was abandoned as a newborn. I lived in an orphanage, tied to a high chair, until my adoptive family welcomed me into their new family and into a new life. I don’t pretend to understand what these kids have gone through, but I see the redemptive element to their story.
Even though there is brokenness and sorrow in their stories, there is sacrificial light that shines brighter. From my perspective, these children see the best of humanity. They have been shown great injustice in this world. But they also have been shown great mercy and grace by the individuals who take care of them, the individuals who do “small things with great love for God.”
Behind the walls of Mother Theresa, they experience a good quality of life, one that their senses can enjoy. They enjoy tickles. They enjoy their names being called. They love bubbles. They have simple books and learning materials. The children at the Mother Theresa’s home in Haruma are able to achieve their fullest potential, which is more than many of the children running around the slum of Haruma can ask for.
This work of feeding disabled children, laundering piles of sheets, providing 24-hr medical treatment for mentally disabled children and women is not glamorous work, but it is beautiful work. The love they experience isn’t fuzzy. Most are tied to chairs so they can’t hurt themselves. Some have to be force fed so they have enough nutrition in their little bodies. The workers don’t have the time to be constantly swatting the flies away from their tiny eyes and mouths. The love isn’t fuzzy, but it’s raw, and it’s real, and that’s what makes it beautiful to me.
Lessons that I’ve learned at Mother Theresa’s? Do a thankless job, out of love, not for affirmation. Devote time and energy consistently, and commit to those that you vow to help. I’m not sure yet in which capacity that I will help the “least of these,” but I long to find my “Calcutta”–the place of ministry that is dear to my heart and that I am passionate about; a place that even if it’s hard, it feels like it’s home–like Mother Theresa did long ago. The Mother Theresa children’s home is a little piece of heaven among all the chaos of the slum suffering; it extends compassion to those who are hurting. Maybe this sounds romantic. It’s better– it’s rubbing dirty fingers and kissing tiny heads and rubbing swollen bellies.
(The Mother Theresa quotes are taken from a book called Finding Calcutta by Mary Poplin.)