Day 2: Bethlehem
When I think of the Missionaries of the Poor, I can’t help but think of their intensely devout, and joyful prayer. Throughout the trip they revealed the effectiveness of prayer and why it’s a necessity to their work. Prayer is potent. I discovered this first hand on day 2. At 5:45 in the morning, we were stirred from our sleep by the high-pitched ringing of small church bells. After untangling myself from the obnoxious mosquito netting, I rolled out of my bunk and began to dress myself for Morning Prayer. While praying, it was tempting to innocently doze off in the muggy chapel, but the brothers kept us alert with their Caribbean renditions of the liturgy. The brothers put on a beautiful Morning Prayer, Mass, and Holy Hour with nothing but a beat up guitar, a rickety keyboard, and a set of bongos (my personal favorite). The 2 hours of prayer were exhausting, but I could sense the energy and love of Christ brewing within my soul. He was strengthening me for the service to come, and I’d need all the strength I could muster for my first assignment.
Our seminarian trip leader divided us into our service groups. My first assignment was Bethlehem; the children’s center. Bethlehem sounded friendly enough. It was a children’s home and the name of Jesus’ birthplace. How bad could it be? A truck pulled into the compound and blared its horn. It was time. We anxiously piled into the back of a gated truck bed. Our transportation seemed more suitable for livestock than it did human beings. Regardless, we were able to see the city and enjoy the fresh breeze. Besides, what teenage guy doesn’t enjoy riding in the back of an open truck? We stopped at each center to let out a load of volunteers. The metal doors to the centers would briefly open and we’d rush a group of 5 volunteers into the compound before bolting the door shut behind them. It was an intimidating ordeal, like some sort of military operation. Finally, the truck driver pulled up to the last center. “Bethlehem!” he shouted. I made the sign of the cross and entered through the rusty gates with my group.
Upon walking into the Bethlehem children’s center, the very first thing I noticed was the smell. The place reeked. It had a bitter stench which reminded me of a petting zoo. Secondly, I could hear wailing and high-pitched shrills resonating throughout the whole center. The blood curdling screeches made my heart sink. Throughout the overwhelming chaos; however, I could sense an inner warmth coming from within my chest and spreading throughout my whole body. God was leading me into this center and I knew he was protecting me. Thank God for the morning prayers. A kind-faced brother from Africa welcomed us and ushered us into a room. He sat us down and gazed into our eyes with a heart-warming look. My fear and anxiety from the frightful arrival began to melt away. The peaceful brother began to speak, “There’s a difference between pretty and beautiful.” He motioned toward the door, “Pretty does not live here. You will not find it.” He turned back to us, “But beauty, true beauty thrives here.” He went on to explain how it was the job of the Missionaries of the Poor to live as Christ for the children at the Bethlehem center. “We are Christ to the children, but we also encounter Christ in the children. This is where our happiness comes from.” After hearing this wisdom, I was ready to see Christ.
Within minutes of walking into the boys’ room, I was handed a diaper and directed to a bed where a naked, deformed teenager was sitting. They had just rinsed them off in the showers and he was shivering from the cold. I had never put on a diaper before… and he was naked, but I could feel Christ within me reaching out to help this struggling boy. I did my best putting on the diaper and then clothed him with a tattered shirt and old swim trunks. I continued this procedure for the next 30 minutes, clothing disfigured children anywhere from 8 to 26 years old. Their arms were like toothpicks, frozen in a bent shape which made dressing them a challenge. While helping one boy, I noticed his eyes glance up to my old favorite fishing hat I wearing. He strained to reach the camouflage ball-cap with his twisted fingers. Noticing his effort, I took off the hat and placed it on the boys head. His face sprung to life! His big brown eyes opened wide and an enormous smile spread across his face. He peered into my eyes and began to clap his little hands wildly. He reached up, grasped the hat off his head, and pulled it in close to his chest. He moved jaws in a speaking motion, but no words came out. Yet, I could understand him clearly. The boy’s external display of joy mirrored my internal gratification for seeing his delight. I stepped back and thanked God for letting me see pure joy in this child. The warm feeling in my heart flooded through my entire body. It felt like God was giving me a big warm hug. After serving all the children, we were allowed to play with them. Each reaction was the same as the boy with the hat. No matter how disabled they were, no matter how much they drooled, and no matter how much they flailed, each child’s face lit up with joy! I felt like a parent watching their newborn son playing for the first time. The warmth from my heart rose to my eyes and I had to blink away the joyful tears. The brother was right. True beauty lives here.
After a couple hours we left the center. As I walked out, I could no longer detect the harsh smells from before. I now realized the loud screams were really just boisterous laughter coming from the children. When I first entered the center, I thought I was descending into the pits of Hell. Yet after witnessing the innocent joy in the children and experiencing God’s encompassing love, I now realized I had just received a very real taste of Heaven. I left my hat behind.
Father, thank you for filling my heart with love. Help me to empty myself entirely, so you may fill me completely. Grant me the grace to courageously seek you out and the faith to trust in wherever you will lead me. Thank you for bringing me joy Lord, so I may share it with others. Amen.