El Salvador, sometimes known as the “Ireland of Central America.” Also known for being so overrun with violent gangs you cannot go out showing tattoos, body piercings or wearing the numbers 13, 18 or the letter S.
The things I saw today will be seared in my memory for the rest of my life. It happened in a home in San Martin, El Salvador.
To get there, we drove through a narrow dirt alley, parking at the end of two long, tin walls. The entrance to the home was a door-sized opening in the tin a few yards down.
We stepped over the threshold into a dark room. It wasn’t the humidity or the heat that was oppressive, so much as the overwhelming intensity of the situation. Everything in me screamed DESPAIR.
As we entered, immediately to the right were two 55 gallon drums filled with water. All around them were small piles of clothes soaking in small tubs of water on the dirt floor.
A small cookstove stood against the back wall, the top piled with mismatched dented pots. A few plastic dished balanced precariously next to the pots.
A table with a dirty vinyl tablecloth with a faint Spiderman print, worn almost beyond recognition, stood in the center of the room, a few plastic chairs scattered around it. Pieces of the chairs were broken or missing. A small stained mattress stood up along one wall.
As our eyes acclimated to the dark, we saw a small child in a rocking chair. His emaciated arms and legs stood in stark contrast to his distended belly, swollen large from malnutrition. He looked at us with hollow eyes. He was tiny, roughly the size of our three-year-old.
His mom, Ana Luz, quietly introduced him – Kennedy – and said today was his ninth birthday.
And with that, extreme poverty came and slapped me hard in the face.
She told us, through her tears, that he was born missing part of his brain, which explained his erratic arm movements. Upon learning of his condition when we was born, his father disappeared, running away from the burden of caring for a severely disabled boy, and abandoning his four boys and their mother.
As she spoke, the tiny child started whimpering and making animal-like sounds in the chair. She gave him a bottle of milk, which he drank desperately, emptying it in less than a minute.
As a starving child does.
Shortly after, a young boy came through the door. He was dressed in a white button down shirt, partially untucked, dark blue dress pants, and black shoes, obviously a school uniform.
A slim boy, he carried himself as though he carried a heavy burden and had a look on his face far older than his 12 years.
Ana Luz introduced her fourth son, Diego, with obvious pride. She explained that he attends the Compassion project when he’s able to. (On the days when she can find work he has to stay home to care for his brother.) He plays on the soccer team and the thing he most enjoys at the project is reading the Bible.
Within a few minutes of being home, as his mother talked, Diego began to cry. And then his crying turned into quiet sobbing.
As he cried, I started to cry.
I cried because there was nothing I could do. Nothing.
I cried from the utter helplessness I felt.
I cried from anger at a world so broken that it had put him in this horrific situation.
I cried from the enormous injustice of the moment.
I cried because I couldn’t take his burden, even just a small part of it, even just for a minute.
Why should such a small, not-yet-grown boy be asked to carry a burden so heavy it would crush most grown men?
A 12-year-old boy. Responsible for caring for his severely handicapped brother. Responsible for calming him when we is crying from hunger and there is nothing to eat. Living in literal darkness, surrounded by filth and oppression.
My heart was completely and utterly broken in those moments.
And five days later, I sit here wondering what in the world to do with all of this.
I feel the immense weight of the things I saw and heard and a burden of responsibility to do something because of it. I cannot go back. I cannot erase my memories or un-see what I saw.
The scene with Ana Luz and Kennedy and Diego replays over and over again in my mind.
So what do I do? What do I do? If I don’t change in some significant way, what is the point of an experience like that? What is God’s purpose in showing me something I can do nothing to change?
All I have is a bunch of questions without answers.
Also, one other thing. I don’t think I’m supposed to despise my own country, but it’s really, really hard to come home and not be repulsed at the affluence and ignorance of people in the US.
I mean, seriously. It’s embarrassing.
When we landed in Miami and I opened Facebook, my feed was filled – literally every post – with almost everyone I know getting all bent out of shape about some video from a dumb-ass the media has decided speaks for every Christian about a Starbucks design decision.
All the while a few hundred miles south a little 12 year old boy struggles to take care of his starving family.
So how about a little perspective, America?