Thursday, June 06, 2013
As you walk down the concrete-cracked steps to The Hole many things pass through your mind, especially if it's your first time there. The houses are brimmed with rusted, tin roofs and the children are missing shoes. Stray dogs scurry from drain to drain hoping a good second-hand meal might make its way to them. Old men sit in groups, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking rum through missing teeth. Not exactly the place you'd go to find hope, or even a friendly handshake.
Every time I make my way to the bottom of those unending stairs I can almost feel the weight of this place burdened heavy on my back. Like, even if I came feeling light and free, I'd take on cargo just by walking this first stretch. Fortunately, like in every good drama or iconic story, there's a turn, a fork in the road that changes the seemingly dark, presumed ending.
At the first left-turn, the view changes. Kids that were previously sitting on the concrete bench in the alley, light up at their first glimpse of you. Running into your arms, giving you high fives, hugging you with a force beyond their own strength...it's magical. And I have to fight back tears almost every time, not understanding how they could love so much with receiving so little in their own worlds.
As you drag your posse of kids along with you, curious neighbors step out of their homes. The woman dressed scantily, lots of piercings and tattoos, lots of emotional scars. The man with half-opened eyes, perched at his doorstep, trying to sleep off the night before. The teenager with the severely baggy pants, wearing his mask of "street cred" covering up the scared little boy behind it. Each of them with their own hang-ups, still wishing they were a kid so they, too, could jump into someone's arms and feel loved again.
Just ahead you see the steps to the Cuerpo de Cristo church that was built next to a roaring river of trash, sewage and debris. Hardly visible is a man sitting there with a swarm of kids around him. As you move closer he raises his head and you see him clearly. Gentle eyes, warm smile, good heart. His name is Rafael.
A place like The Hole hardens people. Some may say it's a good way to protect yourself, to not let yourself feel. The horrible things that happen daily there would leave one in a coma if they allowed themselves to be vulnerable to it. But where so many others have gained hard lines on their faces from years of life leaving them, Rafael exudes grace. His face remains untainted by the remnants of despair all around him.
He's become a brother, a friend, a place of refuge for the kids who have no father figure to turn to. He hugs and twirls and bends down low if he has something important to say. He talks with worried mothers and lost teenagers and questioning toddlers...and to me, when I'm all fired up about another young girl in the community who's gotten pregnant.
I imagine that Rafael carries some of the same burdens the rest of the people in The Hole do but somehow he transforms it into a smile. Not a forced one, or a fake one, but a real, genuine smile that puts people at ease, kids and adults alike. His job is not an easy one, and some days he looks rugged with exhaustion, but he chooses joy. He chooses grace. He chooses kindness. He may not have chosen this path that he is on but there is one thing that is very clear to me...
...God chose him for it.