The other day, I made the mistake of telling María* that I only have three weeks left in Ecuador. It was 1:15 p.m., time for everyone at the orphanage to wash their hands and get ready for lunch. María immediately started crying at the news, which made me tear up as well. No further words needed to be spoken – we just wept together.
During my six month Camp Hope internship through the Wheaton Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program, I have come to see Jesus afresh in the relationships he has given me, such as María. If I’m honest, these relationships have caught me by surprise. I’ve grown to recognize in so many of the residents at Casa Hogar a level of humor, intelligence and empathy that I did not expect or notice at first because of focusing on their disability. As with most things at Casa Hogar, however, there is more than meets the eye. María is 31 years old, a beautiful soul with cerebral palsy and a moderate intellectual disability. She spends most of her day confined to a wheelchair, and her form of communication is through hand signals (thumbs up or down) and her radiant facial expressions.
In that bittersweet moment, I began to realize how dear to me these people have become. I was hit with the impending heartache that will come when I have to say goodbye to those who have become such precious, though unexpected, friends over these past six months.
People like María have shown me who the real Jesus is — the Jesus of the margins. They have welcomed me in, a stranger, and offered me relationships that I never deserved or expected. All that to say, María and I were a little late to lunch today.
María, along with her seventeen adopted brothers and sisters, live in the Casa Hogar orphanage at Camp Hope, the Christian NGO I intern with in Quito, Ecuador. Casa Hogar serves children and adults with severe disabilities, many of whom have suffered from parental substance abuse, malnutrition, and abandonment. Casa Hogar is a reprieve from these traumas, a place where hope is seen in the midst of the world’s dark realities.
These individuals are offered a refuge, a home and – perhaps most importantly – a new “family” composed of the long-term “tías.” These include the caretakers, therapists (occupational, physical and speech/language) and a slew of volunteers and interns (that’s me!). Over these past six months of my internship, I’ve been blessed to join these dedicated staff as they pour out their lives for those who desperately need their care.
Every day, the staff use their creativity, professional skills and love for these individuals to proclaim life, peace and restoration, even in the face of a child’s severe disability and the world’s attempts to diminish their worth, hope, and future.
Initially, I confess, I didn’t realize how brilliant María is due to how she presents physically. I’ve found that she can read books like nobody’s business and can comprehend everything you tell her. We quickly became friends, despite her nonverbal communication and my broken Spanish. We are kindred spirits. Our conversations often involve me talking in broken Spanish and asking yes or no questions, but they are nothing short of lively (and usually hilarious). She has an amazing sense of humor and a ridiculously contagious laugh.
It’s hard to put into words the blessing it is to develop a relationship with someone who interacts with the world in such a drastically different way. It is utterly opposed to the typical definition of friendship, where we gravitate towards those most similar to us (in terms of age, gender, race, class, etc.). María is a friend who cannot respond, give or communicate in the same ways as me. And yet, because our relationship is based solely on our shared humanity, the small moments we have shared and simply being in each other’s presence, there is an aspect of heaven to it.
There is one moment with my friend, María, that I will never forget. Even though she lives at a Christian orphanage, I’d never talked to her about her personal faith before. On one particularly sunny afternoon in mid-July, we were taking a stroll around the backyard of the orphanage, and I decided to start asking her what she believes about Jesus. I began with questions such as, “María, do you believe in God?” and “Do you know Jesus died for you?” Her thumbs shot up into the air with each inquiry. When I finally asked, “María, do you love Jesus?” she almost fell out of her wheelchair with the excited force of launching that thumb up.
On that summer day, I met Jesus afresh through witnessing María’s pure faith. I know that Christ is in María – there is no doubt about that. I also have no doubt that she may know Jesus more deeply than I ever could. God knows no limits. Perhaps, to him, the very reality of María’s disability may be the thing that locates him so close to her heart. Through María, the Jesus who is “near to the brokenhearted” (Ps. 34:18) and “lifts up the downtrodden” (Ps. 147:6) is starting to come into focus for me.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes, and you clothed me, I was sick, and you looked after me …. whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did do for me” (Mat. 25:35-40). These are some of Jesus’ words I am holding close to my heart as I see them come to life as never before. Jesus truly is among the least of these.
In the book “In the Company of the Poor,” which we read on the field as HNGR interns, Gustavo Gutiérrez writes, “A theology that is not nourished by walking Jesus’ own path loses its bearings.”
What paths did Jesus walk? He consistently spent his time among the sick, the dying, and the marginalized. He brought healing, hope, and freedom to a desperate and dying world. His very presence was what healed them. Ours is the God that walks beside us on the margins and liberates us from the chains of death that bind us. Surely the margins are still where we will find him today.
As I come to the close of my HNGR internship, I have been reflecting on the ways Jesus has shown himself to me in new ways. It has primarily been through the relationships formed in the unforeseen places – with those who Matthew 25 would call the “least of these.”
The world would have us believe that those on the margins should stay on the sidelines, that the voiceless should remain unheard. Jesus disagrees. I believe that listening to, moving towards, and building relationships with those on the outskirts is fundamental to our lives as Christians. Those who seemingly have nothing to offer me in return, may have a greater depth of spiritual riches than I could ever know. Perhaps it is by listening to the voices of the disabled, the marginalized, and the historically silenced that we will find the Jesus we have been missing.
*Name has been changed for the privacy of the residents at Camp Hope.
Mary Taylor Jackson is a senior applied health science major with a Spanish minor. She is originally from Asheville, NC.