She was 11 years old and selling flowers in the night market the first night we met. Frankly, I must confess that I failed her. She approached my table tentatively extending purple flowers laced together with grace and patience and I looked away. I held my breath and I didn’t hand over thirty cents to lift her burden by one single strand of flowers. When she turned to leave I watched her go across the street to the man who was her handler. In that moment it became clear, danger for these children working on the streets was imminent. I had justified my neglect by reasoning that any money I had given this beautiful child would have gone straight to the man exploiting her but even with “reason” on my side, my heart would not yield. There was no justifying my lack of compassion, my failure to act. I went home and wept. In repentance, I sought some simple way to walk the line of meeting these children where they were at without further fueling their exploitation. What followed was an odyssey that is still unfolding.
The following week I came prepared. When I saw some of the same children and gathered them together. I looked them in the eye and asked their names. I bought every single strand of flowers that they were required to sell, fulfilling their quota for the night, and then gave them each a cheeseburger from McDonalds. It seems so small doesn’t it? I was not equipped to house them, to parent them, to rescue them…but I could at the very least acknowledge them. I could give them a hug that was safe and fill their tummies with something warm. It became a ritual. A tiny thanksgiving feast. Every Friday night my husband and I would return to the same corner, to the same waiting children. Greeted by shy smiles and tentative giggles we became friends.
Then about 18 months ago the time came that I had to return to the States for an undetermined amount of time. The last Friday night we met I cried tears that they did not understand and I walked away, not knowing if or when I would ever see them again.
Three weeks ago, I was asked to go with a policeman and a social worker to remove a 13 year old and her newborn baby from their situation. The village house stood above scattered trash on stilts. Wooden slats carelessly made a rickety ladder into the two room home. I entered slowly, my eyes adjusting to the dim light. A woman stoked her cooking fire and smoke filled the space. In her young life, the woman-child waiting inside had known fear and she had known hunger. On that day however her fear of the unknown was far greater. Despite pain, abuse and exploitation she was afraid to leave all that was familiar and go with the government workers.
Her younger brother followed me into the room and an excited conversation began between the two of them; their hill tribe language flowing like a stream splashing over sharp rocks. Recognition dawned as the girl and her brother looked at me intently.
“You look familiar. We know you.” The statement was simple. With that declaration the pieces of a grand and elaborate puzzle started falling into place.
“We sold flowers in the night market.” She said with a small twinkle in her eye. Cheeseburgers and smiles, hugs and flowers, love given and received. Bridges were built by acts of kindness too small to drown out the darkness. Even still trust was born.
“It is okay. I am not afraid to go now.” She spoke quietly with a regal confidence. Bravely she rose to her feet and 8 days post c-section, shuffled slowly…very slowly to the door and out into the light.
She has been in our home for three weeks now and she and her daughter are beginning to find their stride. She could hold a grudge against me for my paltry offerings in the past but instead she stands close and waits for a hug. She extends grace to me in ways that bring me to my knees. As for my small part in this drama? I will thank God for 2nd chances. I will love her. I will walk beside her. I will keep calling her a princess until she believes it. I will speak life and hope over her and maybe tomorrow we will go for cheeseburgers.