Originally, because this was a “family trip,” including teenagers and a 10-year old, the leaders decided that the team would not visit the Sisters of Charity Hospital. However, one of the teenagers and the “Energizer bunny” of our team – Grace Evans – would not be denied the experience of seeing the work of the Sisters and experiencing God’s amazing love at work in the midst of suffering and death among the poorest of the world’s poor. So, a group of six, including two of the teenagers on our team, headed off in the morning to visit the hospital.
On the ride there, we struggled for answers to the question, “Why visit a this place?” Were we just “compassion tourists” or did we really believe that during a one-hour visit, God might make His presence felt? We talked about what we might see there from the perspective of a team member who had visited the hospital last year. We shared our fears and our hopes and then, with a prayer for God’s protection and a powerful sense of His presence in our every step, we entered the hospital.
Cameras are not permitted, which leaves us with words. But how can words describe the broken and the dying? What words can we use to convey the eyes, sunken, but longing for human interaction, from a young woman who has been laying on the same cot she shares with another for three years? How can we possibly describe the smell, masked by incense, as we walked from room after room of men, suffering from TB and HIV, who were nothing more than flesh on bones, like some picture from a Holocaust concentration camp? What words could we find to paint the picture of severely retarded children, playing on a concrete floor with practically no toys, wearing garbage bags under their pants, to keep them from soiling their clothes.
Yet this sounds so hopeless, proof that words are inadequate. So we shift gears and search for words to honor people like Ryan, the student from Lebanon, Barta, the student from Spain, and Esther, the student from Menlo Park, New Jersey, each of whom has given up a month or more of their summer to volunteer at the hospital, much less the Sisters who have dedicated their lives to these beautiful children of God. Later, we are greeted by two Europeans, our pilot and chief steward for our flight to Frankfurt tonight. Somehow, that encourages us.
We long for words to tell the stories – like the story of the 21-year old woman who had been sold to be a servant girl by her uncle when her parents died. We are tempted to see her uncle as some type of callous, greedy monster, until we are made to understand that his action might have been an act of compassion, ensuring the girl food and a place to stay dry and warm, while at the same time providing a little something for his family. After having been sold from one family (in the country) to another (in the city), this young woman was hit by a car on her way to the market one day. So, for the past three years, she has laid on this cot, her body mangled, twisted and paralyzed. Yet, as I sat and held her hands and a volunteer massaged her feet and legs with oil (to keep the circulation strong), I noticed the Amharic Bible, and the picture of Jesus taped to the wall, and the picture of the Virgin Mary. Through an interpreter, she explained how God gave her strength. She talked about hope. I wept while she looked sweetly into my eyes with a sense of confidence about her life that I lacked.
In room after room, we encounter story after story. In room after room, we encounter broken body after broken body. In room after room, we encounter God’s lovely, but forgotten children. And with tears in our eyes and heavy hearts, something clicks. There! Back in the dark corner of that room! Who is on that cot? Is it us?
As we confront the ways we are broken and impoverished, we start to see how little difference exists between these people and those six people who arrived on the bus to visit. We lean into the ways we are the same. We start to celebrate the joy of holding each other. We rest in the moments of praying with each other. We encourage each other by smiling right past our inability to communicate.
And there it is, right there, in those moments without any words at all, God’s powerful presence is felt. His Holy Spirit erases all of the distance, all of the differences, all of the human inadequacies and brokenness. God draws us to one another and we know His rule and reign are present. Words, it seems, are not necessary.
We gather in the hospital chapel for a time of quiet meditation and
prayer. We pray fervently. We cry. We leave the hospital and prepare to
head home. And without a single word, the six of us know that God has