I’d like to share an experience that Sr. Steph and I had on our first mission trip almost 24 years ago. We were at the open market in downtown Managua. It was dark, dank and dreary. Yet, it was also very stimulating and scary at the same time. It was wall to wall people crowded into small spaces, Nicaraguan poor children begging for food, drink, and a dollar around every turn. This Mission trip was shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch so, there was even more desperation and far less light in the cubbies where people were clamoring to sell us anything.
Into this chaos came a large number of Mission of Hope travelers in small groups. Sr. Steph, a couple students and I turned a corner into the maze of cubbies and Steph spotted an infant in a hole in the back wall of the cubbie. The shadows and dim light made it hard to know at first whether the baby was alive or not. Steph, inspired by her intense love of children, quickly moved to that corner and began cooing and talking to the baby girl. (in English of course)!
The mother of the infant girl rapidly made her way over to Steph and began speaking to Steph in Spanish. She was emphatic and insistent with her words and we both thought that Steph had upset the mother by speaking to the baby. At that moment, we turned to our translator and Steph asked the translator to apologize for her if she offended the mother by speaking to her child.
Our translator looked at us with a shocked look on her face and explained that the mother wasn’t upset. Rather, she was pleading with Steph to take her baby girl with her and bring her back to the United States where she could have a life.
I can count easily the numbers of times I’ve seen Sr. Steph cry in public, but both she and the mother were crying as Steph informed her that she couldn’t bring the child back. “We were only there for a short time, the US would require paperwork and she was a Religious Sister.” The mother then placed the little girl in Steph’s arms and told her she could name her whatever she wished. At this moment, more tears flowed, the little infant cuddled up against Steph almost as if that tiny infant knew what was transpiring , and it seemed like the world just stopped turning.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably just a few minutes, I now had to stop crying and explain again to the mother that we could not bring her child with us. More pleas occurred, now with the grandmother chiming in with her daughter, imploring Steph to “just take the baby”. Eventually both Steph and I gave the family the money we intended to spend at the market and asked the mother to buy food for the baby.
As we walked away, the teenagers in our group, grew indignant and expressed how angry they were that the mother would just give her child away to a stranger. HOW DARE SHE! Because we adults were a bit overwhelmed by the experience, I asked the students to wait till we got back to our evening circle and we could talk about it and pray about it. Begrudgingly they complied. The trip home was quite silent.
The mood was solemn around our evening circle that night and I allowed the students to share what happened. After they again expressed how upset they were with the mother, I told them the story of the mother in the Hebrew Scriptures who was willing to “let go of her child to someone who was not the mother” rather than have her child cut in two to solve the argument and be fair! I certainly didn’t have the wisdom of Solomon but did try to explain that in extreme circumstances, mothers who truly love their children, sometimes think the greater act of love is to let go or give the child up. The ensuing conversation was probably the first time some of these students (and adults) realized that many heart wrenching decisions are not as black and white as we think, and there’s a lot of gray.
HOW DARE SHE?!
How dare she want life for her child.
How dare she put Sr. Steph on the spot.
How dare she not consider how that child might feel years later.
How dare she?!
And how dare we not grasp the desperate choices people who are poor have to make in extremely poor countries like Nicaragua.
How dare we not take time to learn and understand the systemic and cultural challenges that confront those on the margins daily.
How dare we gasp when a mother in war torn Ukraine hand off her children to someone able to travel to Poland, or to an orphanage/refugee home where her children could be cared for.
How dare we?!
Back home after this first Mission trip, and just when we thought we understood a bit better, Sr. Steph shared the story with her students back at her school. Oddly enough, the younger the child who heard the story, the more likely they were to simply ask, “Where is the little baby now…did you bring her home”?
Over the past 23+ years, Steph periodically has dreamed about that child, hoping and praying she grew to be a healthy and happy woman.
And over the years, I’ve often watched the news, still shocked at the choices our world of injustice and war, forces mothers to make. Even after all these years, when I listen to knowledgeable and sincere adults simplify the realities and choices of mothers living on the margins, I can’t help but think… HOW DARE THEY ?!
May we live in HOPE today and every day…and may we dare to share hope with those we encounter!