Day Six in Guatemala.
The first job I ever had was working for the Salvation Army. They paid minimum wage to anyone that would stand outside of a Walmart or shopping mall, ring a bell, and collect donations. I was fourteen years old and I worked everyday of Thanksgiving break, as well as each Saturday leading up to Christmas. I enjoyed it, loved it even. I chose it.
The first jobs of children in Guatemala are quite different from my experience. (I imagine that is the case for many children throughout the world.) Guatemalan educators struggle to keep kids in school. The demand for extra hands in the fields or selling trinkets in the tourist towns engulfs the schools throughout Guatemala. I knew all of this. I had heard the testimonies, I’ve read the stories, I’ve been to Cairo and Cozumel and seen plenty of kids working. Intellectually, up in my brain I knew this already. But not in my heart, not yet. I had shielded my heart from knowing it, perhaps on accident, or subconsciously, but shielded nonetheless. One could call me blind, if they so desired.
We pulled up to the little school in Chuluc eager to give those kiddos their school supplies. Yesterday they weren’t in school, but today they would be! One after another we handed them bags filled with notebooks, writing utensils, folders, books, and glue. One after another they accepted the gifts with grace and joy, “muchas gracias.”
One child, a young boy, refused the supplies. His name is Mario. And Mario didn’t want to go to school.
A conversation began. He explained he didn’t enjoy school, he didn’t like studying, he didn’t want to be there. “Sounds like a kid to me,” I thought to myself. But the more we encouraged him, the more he retreated. I thought it was a simple case of a child not liking school. If I have ever been more wrong about anything in life, I cannot remember it, at least not at this moment.
Unexpectedly, shockingly, without warning tears welled up in his eyes. Redness and a sad glaze over took those young eyes. We all knew it then, this was so much more. He finally just let go, we had a translator that struggled to contain his emotions.
“If I go to school I can’t work in the fields. My family needs me, we need food. I can’t go to school. I can’t. I’m sorry.” Mario said with growing pain and sorrow.
Someone asked him how old he was. His reply, “trece.” Thirteen years old and fighting for the survival of his family. Thirteen years old and struggling between food, family, and school. It seems painfully and insultingly obvious to even point out he’s too young for this stuff.
My honest inclination was to back off. I confess it. I couldn’t bare to ask any more of little Mario. “Let’s leave the supplies here, he can come to school if he changes his mind,” I insisted. But I’m not from there, the principal, pastors, and villagers are. They live there and face those battles every single day. And they ignored my suggestion, they barely even acknowledged my voice. I had become an observer.
They, each of them, weighed in even harder. They insisted, pleaded, begged, and prayed for Mario to reconsider. They told their own stories, they told the stories of other, others that had risen above the cycle of poverty through education and were now taking care of their families. And I realized, for the first time, that I was blind. In that very moment my eyes were opened. Like good old Bartimaeus, Christ restored my sight. This wasn’t a time to retreat or yield. We were at war.
A battle against the endless cycle of poverty, oppression, and sickness was being waged. The fight against illiteracy and for the children was happening right in front of me. They went and found Mario’s father and spoke to him with the same sense of urgency. I thought this was about school, which it was, but it was about so much more. This was life and death. Because life without the abundance of grace promised in Christ, might as well be death. And the life that is forced upon a thirteen year old child that drops out of school to work the Guatemalan fields is a life nearer to slavery than employment. They, these fearless and tenderhearted pastors, educators, and leaders, refused to let Mario fall into a cycle that he could still escape. So they pushed on. They pushed on so fiercely that I felt under siege myself, both my emotions and heart were overwhelmed.
Would you let your child run away into a dark alley, alone and cold?
Would you stop trying to convince a young boy in rural Africa to avoid the life of a child soldier?
What if he cried, would you stop?
What if he begged, would you stop?
No, of course the answer is no. You, I, all of us would press on because we know the darkness ahead. We know the teeth of the world waiting to chew up innocence and spit out tragedy. Neither did they retreat. I’m glad they leaned forward when I yearned to fall back.
At its end, Mario’s father was in accord with him returning to school. And little Mario began to weep aloud, pure, holy, broken tears. The tears of a child bearing the weight of an impossible world he has born into. Mario fell into the nearest arms available, Pastor Samuel, and cried so hard I believe Christ himself collapsed to his knees and wept. Even now, I am glad I was not the nearest embrace. For if Mario had fallen upon me, I may have died, like Moses hiding his eyes from the Lord, I do not believe I could have survived a hug from God. And if there was ever a being made in the image of God, it is Mario.
I pray that God would keep my eyes open, and if I find myself blind, begging upon the street of life again, I pray that God would hear me when I cry out, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”