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Learning Love in All the Hard Places

January 11, 2018

 The emotional hazards of the dump I lived in the Philippines were an even greater test for me than the physical ones. From the first day, God made it clear to me that my job was not to preach at the Filipinos, but to keep my mouth shut and learn to love - from them! This was a huge blow to my missionary pride and zeal, but it soon became obvious what I thought I knew about love was mostly theory. I could quote the chapters and verses about love, but when it came to opening my heart to diseased, starving and dying people, my theories evaporated like a morning mist. And as always, the Lord was right - many of these "heathen," illiterate squatters knew a boatload more about love than I did. To this day I have never met such generous, hospitable, gracious, loving people. They would share their last meal with us foreigners and strangers, without regard for themselves. Their kindness was especially remarkable to me given the pervasive, continuous reality of their losses on every front.


After I had worked at the dump for about six months, an epidemic of measles swept through and killed about half of the children in the area where I was serving. We were burying them as fast as we could, while attending to others in the hope of saving a few. It was so bad that we actually heard of another village that resorted to burying sick children alive in mass graves to stem the epidemic. I lost so many of my new friends, and I had no time to process the grief. The pain in my heart was suffocating, but being unable to escape this nightmare, I began to lock up and isolate myself emotionally. Eventually, I stopped pursuing relationships with the kids to cope with the fact that they were probably going to die, I grew terribly numb as my heart shut down. 


One day I saw a child lying in the trash, left by his family to die. He was bone-thin with starvation, and his head was deformed by hydrocephaly (water on the brain). This was one ugly kid. I knew we could not afford to treat him, and I had no intention of letting another sick child get close to my heart. But every day when I passed him on my rounds, I gave him some food and water. I was amazed each time to find him still alive. However, my heart was so numb that even though I passed him every day, I somehow could not allow myself to feel any love for him. I was that far gone.


Then one night, I had a dream about this boy. He was healed, whole, happy and absolutely beautiful. But for all eternity, he had no memory of anyone loving him on earth. I woke up sobbing, realizing that I was forfeiting an opportunity to impact this boy with God's love and create eternal memories for him. It was as if I had been shaken alive in the night. I immediately jumped up, hoping the boy was still breathing. Moving quickly, I knew I had to find my way back to the corner of the dump, dodging smoldering trash and potholes, before it was too late. To my relief, he was still alive. My heart raced with excitement for the first time in months, with this new renewed sense of hope. As I took Rodrigo into my arms, I could feel the doors of my heart being pushed wide open again. 


With some sticks for support and towels for padding, I propped Rodrigo up in a knapsack and started carrying him with me on my medical rounds. He was so malnourished that he hardly weighed anything. Before long, I was able to enroll him in YWAM's day-care program for kids on the dump, where he began to receive proper care - food, bathing and immunizations. (The program was able to expand, generally by one or two kids at a time, as more sponsors came on board to support that work.) Soon after, an amazing thing happened... God healed him! The fluid began to drain off his brain without any surgical procedure. In the meantime, we also found his family, who gladly received him back now that there was hope for his survival. 


Rodrigo not only survived; he thrived. He quickly gained weight, grew hair and teeth, and soon learned to crawl and walk. He chattered, laughed up a storm and would often sing. There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing a starving child come to life like that, something I have been privileged to see on many occasions since. I have seen totally emaciated, skeletal children on the threshold of death, fighting of the energy to breathe each breath, staring at me but too weak to cry. But if you simply put a nasal gastric tube in and start feeding them, after about a week they will turn a corner and start growing rapidly that you can practically see them sprouting before your very eyes. They can gain up to 10 percent of their body weight each week. They begin to make eye contact, become interactive and learn to play and talk. The joy that comes from saving lives like that - and saving souls - is what keeps you there, even when you are surrounded by death. 


Rodrigo taught me that we cannot pick and choose whom we will love and whom we will pass by. We must embrace all those that the Lord brings us, just as He embraces us in our ugliness, disease, poverty and brokenness. If we are to learn to love as He does, we must be able to look beyond everything that has marred the person in front of us and see Jesus Himself. As Mother Teresa said of the poor she cared for in Calcutta, "Each one of them is Jesus in a distressing disguise." Seeing Jesus in Rodrigo, a son created in God's own image, was a supernatural gift that healed and empowered me to be openhearted to others. 


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