This weekend we took one of our famous visa renewal excursions to the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua. As far as traveling goes, it was relatively unremarkable. We took our own car across the border guided by a cute little man named Jorge who knew his stuff and made the crossing paper work a snap. (When you get to the Nicaraguan border, whether you are walking or driving, you literally begin to be hunted by the “official” border guides who will carry your luggage/ watch your car/ bring you the papers you need/take you to the right windows etc. for a “tip” of your choosing. Which one you give in to eventually is a matter of fate. This time, we got Jorge, who was a literal God-send.) It was so easy that while my poor husband stood in line one last time, I went shopping for hand-crafted leather sandals at the curb side market. (Look, they’re $5, provide for some man’s family and fit perfectly in the new style I’m developing: missionary boho chic. I couldn’t resist.)
After the hugely successful crossing, we headed to , a beach town San Juan del Sur on the Southern tip of Nicaragua. As is the case with most beach towns around the world, San Juan del Sur is a mix of locals living at or below the poverty level appropriate to the country, the hippie ex pats who sell jewelry on the streets and live who knows where, the investors who own the hotels and are all also building condos and selling home sites in two other towns, and the Europeans who apparently prove they have “made it” by buying elaborately constructed condos at ridiculously over-inflated prices in the most obscure locations they can find. I’m telling you, fly to any country in Latin or South America, Asia or Oceania, drive to the nearest coast, find the beach and this is what you will find.
We tend to stand out a bit among this crowd if you haven’t already guessed. We traipse our poor children from one end of town to the other looking for a place to stay that: 1. has room for all of us 2. is willing to subject itself to our brand of chaos, 3. costs just a little more than free. Then we find somewhere to eat.
On the afternoon we arrived, we sat down at a large beach front restaurant and took in the lapping waters of the Pacific, the long stretch of sand, the huge statue to the Divine Mercy perched atop a mountain overlooking the whole area, and the incredibly reasonable seafood prices. At least 25 people made their way to our table from the beach to sell us things – sunglasses, phone cases, hand-crafted pottery, jewelry. This is the case everywhere you go in Nicaragua. It’s one of the reasons I have fallen in love with the place. (It’s a weird missionary thing.)
Our missionary spending mindset goes something like this…cheap hotels, cheap food with the occasional splurge, cheap or free clothes and shoes…poor locals selling things you don’t need and which are likely to break before dessert…buy them. We had already bought two pairs of sunglasses and an iPhone car charger when the most precious little girl approached our table with a basket full of little creatures made out of sea shells. We gave each other the collective bleeding heart look that said we knew we were not sending this sweet one away empty-handed. We bought a turtle. We
encouraged forced my
father-in-law to buy a turtle. I asked her who made them, she said her mother.
I asked her how old she was, she said nine. And then my son gave her the
sunglasses we had just bought him because “they were kind of pink anyway”. They
were burgundy. Welcome to the family of bleeding hearts, son.
Later, as Greg and I were talking about the place and the atmosphere and how much we loved Nicaragua, I mentioned the little girl to him. He is by now used to the fact that everywhere we go I become fixated on some girl child and talk about her endlessly as if I had known her all her life. We agreed she was the most precious little thing and mentioned with some concern that we hoped someone was nearby watching her as she worked on that crowded beach.
That evening I sat in the hotel lobby with the plan to take advantage of working Wi-Fi and glut myself on free7Kindle books. I connected and found to my happy surprise Jen Hatmaker's book 7 at the top of my list. I had forgotten that Elizabeth had gifted it to me a couple of months ago to read along with her but I had never been anywhere with Wi Fi to download it. I started reading, and I did that book thing that bookish types do. I immediately become so immersed that I treated everyone around me as if they were interrupting an important conversation every time they distracted me.
I took it with me to the beach the next morning and read for four hours while my boys splashed and played and built sand forts and collected rocks and sand dollars. I will admit that I was so immersed that all of us are now walking around hissing loudly “DON”T TOUCH MY BACK” whenever anyone comes near us. If you are not familiar, Jen Hatmaker is a Christian author and speaker who, along with her husband, took up God’s challenge to simplify their own lives and become advocates and friends to the poor. In 7, she spends 7 months wheedling down some area of her life to 7 essential things and reflecting on its effect. For one month, she ate only 7 foods, another, wore only 7 clothing items. It is everything I love in a book – challenging, inspiring, spiritual, funny (Y'all the girl is funny). And she made me think about lots of big things there on that beach.
Of which the loudest was “what the heck am I doing here on this beach when there are poor just around the corner? Why am I not serving?” Eventually I remembered I was sitting on that beach because I live a life in service to the poor. I resisted the temptation to load up my little missionaries and their flip flops and tell them we had to leave immediately to buy rice and beans to deliver to yet unknown needy families in the area. I waved happily to them as I watched them jump waves with a couple of local boys they had befriended, carefully guarded their prized rocks (okay, I might have left them when I ran screaming from the incoming tide, Kindle high in the air and towels in hand), and read on.
And then she was back. The sweet little brown face gently pushing a seashell rooster toward me, the shy smile melting my heart. I knew I couldn’t justify buying another sea shell creature but I didn’t want to send her away. I wanted to buy her a Coke and something sweet and sticky to eat and tell her to sit down next to me and forget about working for the afternoon. I knew that probably wasn’t going to get high approval marks from whoever had sent her out here in the first place. So I told her I couldn’t buy anything today and to be careful.
And my heart has not stopped aching ever since. In its early aching, I wondered with a tinge of anger about who sent her out to the beach alone all weekend to work. I questioned why they didn’t realize it was dangerous. My mind started to question what the human trafficking statistics were in Nicaragua and if her mother knew about them. I was mad at whoever was putting this child in this danger so regularly.
And then I began to think about why she was there. And my heart hurt even more. It’s been hurting ever since. I cannot get this little girl out of my mind. She’s on that beach working every weekend because of us, because of me. Because my heart will bleed more readily looking into the beautiful face of that little girl and be inclined to buy her little shell animals than it will be looking into the face of her tired mother trying to support her children. Because I am not moved to action by her poverty or her efforts to avoid it, she sends her little girl to me – vulnerable, sweet and a good sell. I am sick about this.
I have begged the Lord to help me see how to remedy this in myself. I have begged him to break my heart wide open for the mothers trying to survive, feed their children, keep them healthy and happy and whole against all odds. And to give those mothers my full attention and support when I find them in front of me. To tell them that I value what they are doing, that they are valiant and noble and beautiful and that it makes me thankful to have the chance to look into their beautiful faces and be blessed by their presence and their work. I beg to be the person who loves and encourages and supports instead of looking away or acting bothered. I beg that I will never again contribute to the culture that encourages a mom to send her child out to work because it will bring them more food than if she went herself.
But my heart still breaks. That little girl follows me to my dreams at night and on my morning walks. I think of things I wish I would have told her. That she was very, very beautiful and had a sweet smile. That she was doing a really good job and her mom would be proud. That she would never ever be alone because there was a God who loved her and valued her above all things. That she could walk in joy and hope because she had been redeemed by the love of a merciful Savior. I wish I could have found way to explain to her without frightening to her how careful she needs to be. I wish I could run back there right now and have a re-do. But I can’t.
And I’m living with that reality and asking God what He wants me to do with it. Asking the Holy Spirit to prompt me to see the ways I am called to be part of the solution. Yesterday, I took a long look at the Trafficking in Persons Report. This reality is profoundly appalling and the statistics so overwhelming, that sometimes I find it mind-numbing. I shut down because if I really think it all through, I might break in half from the tragedy of it all. But yesterday, I was happily surprised to find that Nicaragua is not on the watch list, that their government has really stepped up efforts to protect their people and complied fully with all the international recommendations. But my heart sank when I read further and found out that the very beach where we were, San Juan del Sur, is highlighted as one of the highest danger zones for human trafficking in Nicaragua. Also, to my surprise, I found out that Costa Rica is still on the Tier 2 watch list. The country has increased its efforts in the area of human trafficking and moved up from the abysmal Tier 1 status it first received, but still lacks in awareness campaign efforts and has yet to prosecute a single suspected offender.
My recent reading has inspired to think beyond the “well I’m here, being a missionary, aren’t I” mindset and think of ways the Spirit might be calling me to action. And I think there are ways that, with a little help, we can make an effort on the awareness front here and in San Juan del Sur. I might need a bit of a hand on the technical side of what I’m thinking about. I’ll be back tomorrow to tell you more about it. Drop me a line or a comment if you might like to help be a part of the effort.
In our daily holy hours, part of the prayer we pray is “that I may never sit with arms folded but always seek to do more and better”. I know Jesus is breaking my heart for this little girl and her mother on a beach somewhere in Nicaragua for a reason. I’m sure if I pushed it out of my mind for a few days, it would be replaced by other things. But I don’t want it to. I’m begging the Savior to break my heart for His people the way His breaks for them. I’m begging to be an apostle of mercy. I will take that little girl to my prayers every day and speak over her the words I wish I had thought to say there on that beach. I will try to find someone in the area who might seek her out and find an adult who would keep watch over her on the weekends when she is working. I will pray that God sends me back to her, to her priest who is struggling to minister to more than 20 communities without proper chapels. I will pray to see her in the eyes and faces of every mother and child I meet here where I am and that I always find the courage to say those things to them that I wish I had said to her, to the little girl who I hope has forever changed me, opened my eyes anew to the plight of God’s children, made it real and painful and too awful to ignore.
Will you join me this week in praying every day for this sweet child? For all children in danger? For the mothers who are struggling to provide for them and feel forced to endanger them? For God’s people to seek them out, find them, love them in His name, do what they can to relieve the suffering of the poor? For all our hearts to break into action? And then, maybe, you will be able to join me in the little effort I am brewing up in my mind? Please will you come back and read more on that tomorrow? If you are praying with me, will you leave a note in the comments, so we can see the bouquet of prayers we are arranging together? Thank you for listening to the cry of my heart.