(I wrote this article about our second Guatemala trip for 121’s missions newsletter, I thought I would share it here as well.)
As I rode back from Antigua to Guatemala City by myself last year, I had many thoughts bouncing around in my head (mostly because there’s so much empty space up there). As previously documented, many of those thoughts revolved around Joselin, the girl at the orphanage who had so captivated me. But, there was also the “roller coaster” question — “Hey, that was awesome, can we do it again? Huh, huh, can we, can we, can we?”
As with the roller coaster, the answer was eventually “Yes,” and Easter morning this year found us in Guatemala City, in an intimate worship service with just our team, in preparation for a week with the girls at the orphanage. Easter afternoon, we drove to the orphanage and spent a couple of hours with the girls there. I love Easter sunrise services as much as the next guy who isn’t fully awake until 10am, but if I’ve had a better Easter, I certainly can’t recall it.
In many ways, this was a completely different trip than my first one. Then, I was more of an observer than anything; this time, our group leader allowed me the privilege of sharing the Gospel with the girls (yes, our leader is crazy, see picture). Then, the trip was marked by the Unknown; this time, it was not only known, it was looked forward to with great anticipation. Then, the trip (for me, at least) was dominated by one girl; this time, there were dozens who smiled and hugged and laughed and hugged and cried their way into my heart. In the interest of space, however, this is the story of just two of them.
It would be impossible for me to talk about Guatemala without talking about Joselin. For every word I’ve written or spoken about her, I’ve thought ten more. Our daughter and son-in-law wondered (seriously, I think) if Sharon and I would find a way to bring her back with us this time. There was only one problem — we didn’t even know if she was still there. Carly Simon once sang, “We can never know about the days to come, but we think about them anyway.” Exactly.
On the drive to Antigua on Easter Sunday, Sharon and I learned from Berta, our lead interpreter, that Joselin was indeed still there. Our steps were therefore a little lighter as we entered the orphanage that afternoon. I was better prepared this time for the chaos that is the welcome, and greeted most of the girls in the “first wave.” As I scanned the crowd, it became apparent Joselin wasn’t in the courtyard yet, so I made my way over to my “safe place,” and began meeting a few of the new (to us) girls. Suddenly, I heard a loud, “Beence!!” And then the world started spinning. Literally.
I have looked into the eyes of the most beautiful woman I know and said, “I do.”
I have heard a judge make my daughter officially my daughter — “You are now Ashley Rice”.
I have said “Her mother and I do” as I handed that same daughter’s hand to her about-to-be husband.
And after eight months apart, I have hugged Joselin as tight as I could and twirled her around a couple of times for good measure.
I have known true joy.
(Amazingly, that wasn’t even the greatest joy of the week – we had fourteen girls give their lives to Jesus while we were there, and there’s no greater joy than seeing the lost become found.)
The rest of the week was something of a blur — teaching the same thing four times in a row every day will do that to you. Most of the days we were there, we had a half-hour or so at the end of our time to just hang out with the girls. During those times, I got to watch Joselin jump rope and laugh and just be a fifteen-year-old girl. (I actually got to jump rope with her a couple of times, which fortunately none of you will ever see now that I’ve destroyed every known copy of the video.)
The coolest thing that happened was that on our last day, one of the workers (who didn’t speak English) told one of the other workers there, Mary (who did speak English), to tell me something. Mary passed on that Joselin was on the list for Buckner’s transition home, just waiting for a space to open up. (The transition home holds ten girls, so it’s a much nicer environment for them, i.e. more personalized teaching, more private space, etc. It’s a real privilege for the girls that are chosen to move there.)
The cool thing wasn’t learning that Joselin was going — she had told us that on Tuesday (with great excitement). The cool thing was that someone saw she was important enough to me that I would want to know that. If a disinterested third party could see that, then I have good reason to believe that Joselin could see it, too. And that is extremely important to me — that she know what I wrote in the Spanish-English Bible we left her to be true: God loves her, Sharon and I love her, she is important, and she is special. Whether we see her again or not (and God’s going to have to send a talking donkey to prevent it), if she can know those four things, she will be well on her way to leaving her past behind her, and moving toward the future God has for her.
But there was also a very different girl there this time. Bernardita was sharp — sharp in appearance, sharp in intelligence, sharp in street savvy. She was also trouble. You didn’t have to know Spanish to know this girl had an attitude – she wore it on her carefully ironed sleeve. Her smile didn’t make you melt when you saw it, it said, “I’m smarter than you and tougher than you and don’t you forget it, because I won’t.” (I’ve changed Bernardita’s name because … well, I’m not sure why, but I felt the Lord wanted me to. I chose an alias that means “bold as a bear,” because that says it all.)
Bernardita was in our second group of each day. The first couple of days, she more than once made fun of one or more of the other girls as they were talking. Again, you didn’t have to know Spanish to tell what she was doing — her face communicated everything pretty clearly. Luz, the Puerto Rican firebrand on our team who brooked no nonsense from the girls, got onto her a couple of times. Bernardita was unfazed. We asked about her and found out she had already tried to start a gang among some of the girls. That did not come as a shock.
As we moved towards Thursday, the day we asked the girls to respond to the gospel presentation, I began to pray more and more for the girls, specifically that they would hear the Holy Spirit speak very clearly to them (in Spanish). As I got to Bernardita, my instinctive reaction was to pray for her not to be there – I didn’t want her disrupting the time in a way that would prevent the other girls from hearing from God.
That only lasted a couple of seconds, as the Lord gently (OK, not so gently) pointed out what I already knew — Bernardita needed to hear more than perhaps anyone there. He also reminded me that, though sometimes people come through hard circumstances with the demeanor of a Joselin, it’s much more common for them to react as Bernardita had — with anger. In other words, perhaps I could identify with Bernardita, as my own tendencies are not always towards appreciating the challenges life occasionally throws at me. Properly chastened, I prayed that Bernardita would be “seized by the power of a great affection,” in the words of Brennan Manning, and that if she was not, she would at least not be an obstacle to the other girls. Bernardita was not there on Thursday. Not just in our group, but in any group. She stayed in the dorm, watching from a distance. “I’m smarter than you, I’m tougher than you, and I don’t have to listen to anything you say if I don’t want to.” I didn’t see her Friday, either, until it was time to leave.
As I was making one last pass around the yard before we left, Bernardita appeared from out of the shadows of the dorm. She came up to me and gave me a hug. Not a casual, “yeah, great, you’re leaving” hug, a “don’t let go” hug. As I held her, it took me a few seconds to figure out this was a God-given moment, then I told her she was very important, and that I loved her. (I was not a little shocked to find the latter to be true.) She held on to me, and let me hold onto her, for perhaps 45 seconds. (That may not sound like a long time, but try hugging someone today – after 5 seconds they’ll be done.) After we left, I found out that she did the same thing to Sharon.
What was Bernardita looking for in those ninety seconds? She had shown no inclination the rest of the week towards needing anything from us (of the 75,000 pictures we took, she’s only in two I can find, and neither of them were at her request). I can guess, but I confess I don’t really know, and I suspect she doesn’t know herself. I do know this — I love Joselin, and would bring her home and give her a new name in a heartbeat. But it’s Bernardita that’s going to keep me up nights.
I said last year that everyone has a Joselin out there. As true as that is (and I believe it is), for every Joselin, I suspect there might be several Bernardita’s. They’re mad, they’re bad, they’re trouble with a capital T. And they need a hug.
Who’s keeping you up nights?