It was 1998, our first Mission trip to Nicaragua and we made time to let our volunteers spend a couple hours in a local market where they could perhaps bring home a small souvenir that would remind them of their life changing experience.
We were in small groups, in the midst of a steaming hot, dark and crowded market. Sr. Steph and I (we were much younger and more spry) had the responsibility of supervising one of the small groups of students/adults. We were making our way through this market, which for most of us, was our very first experience of how items are sold in street markets in poor countries.
Staying together as a group, was key and essential. And so, off we went. We turned a corner and paused to stop and look at some lovely pottery and native wood art. The tiny dingy booth had at least 3 generations of women, all trying to survive and hoping to “make a sale”.
As our eyes grew accustomed to the shadows, Sr. Steph spotted a tiny baby girl tucked away into a small hole in the wall of the booth. We could see her face, which was absolutely beautiful. And as only Sr. Steph could do, she started cooing and talking to this baby (a couple months old at best), when the mother of the baby came up to her and started gesturing quite vociferously. With her voice raising, she took the baby out of the hole and she held her baby.
Because we knew absolutely no Spanish, our group thought she was scolding Sister for speaking to her child. I quickly went and got a translator and asked the translator to explain to the woman that we meant no harm and we were just admiring her baby. The translator listened for a moment and then told us that the woman wasn’t upset, she was asking, urging, begging Sister Stephanie to take the baby with her back to the United States. Then, she put the child in Steph’s arms. Steph melted and fought back the tears.
Immediately, the students in our group started saying, “HOW COULD SHE? How could she just give up her beautiful child? How could she just give her away? The “how could she questions” were tinted by annoyance, disgust and even a bit of anger. And while this is unfolding, I also hear Sr. Steph telling the translator to explain that there was no way we could bring her child back.
I moved the group of students away from the interaction of Steph, the mother, grandmother, and two other women and translator and I asked the students to stop… just stop and think for a moment.
I asked them to try to see life from the perspective of the young mother. Perhaps, just perhaps she was making the greatest sacrifice for her beloved child. Perhaps she, like the mother in the story of Solomon in the Hebrew Scriptures, was willing to give up her child rather than let her die. Perhaps, in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch where 22,000 people lost their lives, where poverty and despair competed to suck the life out of these people, this woman was grasping to give her child a life of hope, of opportunity and of privilege. (Yes, we are quite privileged even though many among us think we deserve so much more…).
HOW COULD SHE? How could she dream of a future for her child? How could she let go of her own flesh and blood, how could she offer this tiny angel to a person she didn’t know? And even when Steph explained she was a nun, the woman became even more insistent that Steph take her child to an orphanage in the US.
So many complicated issues and so many assumptions….this woman assumed we must have scores of orphanages in the US in 1998 – much like the country of Nicaragua still does to this day. She assumed it would be easy to just bring a child who is malnourished and living in the filth of that market to the US. The students assumed this woman was doing something horrible by trying to give away her child. And I assumed the students should have understood….but then, why would they?
Well, when all was said and done, we left the booth, we left the child, we left a woman who had seen a glimpse of hope in us. Our small group spent most of the rest of our two hours discussing this experience. And Sr. Steph walked away with a heavy heart, surely as sad as the mother was. And she and I talked about “how we can’t fix the whole world”, we can’t even fix this one situation….so we both decided we’d continue our lives trying to work together to improve the lives of those in need, while changing the hearts of those we bring with us. We do our best to plant seeds of hope, to serve with hope and to share hope with those most in need.
So, HOW COULD SHE? The mother did what she needed to do for her child in that moment. And Steph did what she “had” to do because we just couldn’t bring that child with us. Two women, conflicted, both wanting life and hope for that child. Sometimes, there just aren’t happy endings. And I cannot tell you how many times over the past 20 years, Steph and I have wondered what happened to that baby. Neither of us remember the name of the baby, but we sure do remember the ache it left in our hearts. We could have despaired in that moment, decided to just give up trying to share hope with those in need, become cynical or even pick up the attitude of entitlement. We didn’t.
Is there a lesson for all of us in this experience? Perhaps…..aren’t we all called to what we can, where we can, when we can, for whomever? Aren’t we all called to live in HOPE? And aren’t we all called to “fix the world” in whatever little way we can?
Dorothy Day, the great activist who lived her life for the poor here in the US, once said, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do”.
Indeed…thank you for helping us to do the work of hope!
And as you go about your days ahead, be a bearer of HOPE… live and be hope!