Saturday, February 21, 2015

Last Sunday

"So please, don't spare your mercy
I need your love at every turn
I feel it when my heart beats
Every time my heart beats"
 - Heartbeats, by JOHNNYSWIM

Several rows ahead of me, towards the front of the church, a baby boy with Down's Syndrome was held high near his father's shoulder. His bright eyes, slanted in that signature way, took in the sea of faces around him. He clapped his hands to the music. He has no idea if people see him as 'different'. With any hope, he will always know when people see him as loved.

A few seats down from me, a boy I had met minutes earlier was weeping. If I didn't know that Jonathan was nearly 15, I would have pegged him for 11. He's small and seems so young, especially standing next to his cousin Daniel, age 17, one of the Casa Gabriel boys. All of those boys break my heart a little in thinking of things they've lived through, Daniel and Jonathan maybe most of all. Daniel's mom died several years ago, his father is in a nursing home, and he has two brothers who are dead and two in jail. It's just him, his little sister, and his two older sisters and their families who all live in poverty.
Jonathan's mother is an abusive drunk; he begged his aunt, Daniel's sister Margo, to take him in. Though Margo has four children of her own and a husband who also drinks and becomes violent, she couldn't refuse. But last week the violence once again became too much. This time, thankfully, instead of trying to end her life, she fled to Casa Gabriel, the only place she knew to go. She and the children are at a shelter while the Casa Adalia team child-proofs the home to take them in. Daniel and Jonathan went to visit Daniel's other sisters, before coming back to Casa G.

With all of this, Jonathan sat in church, weeping, because his older brother is in a coma from a gunshot wound. Alcohol, abuse, and violence seem so often linked with severe poverty. A spiral of demons rising from hopelessness.

When the church service was finished I looked through the crowd until my eyes landed on that little Downs Syndrome toddler, fast asleep in his father's arms. Ahead of me, Jonathan was being jostled good-naturedly by the other Casa G boys, who had quickly taken him under their wings like brothers. Back at the house, I pulled out a bag I had stashed in a closet, and beckoned for the boys to meet me upstairs before we all sat down for lunch. I explained that because yesterday was Valentine's Day, I had made a card and had candy for each of them. My plan was to give them each their gift, tell them, "Te amo, mi hermano", and give them a hug. I knew that they might think it was silly, or feel awkward. They didn't. They hugged me back, tight and long. Some of them wiped away mock tears, and we all laughed at the possible cheesiness while holding to a sweet moment.

I think that hopelessness, and seeming different, are feelings and not states of being. I can only pray for that to be so. I read an article yesterday about a mother who aborted her child because she found out he/she had Downs Syndrome. She gave so many justifications, but all I could think of was that that baby is another child who was never given a chance. There are already so many of those. Jonathan has been beaten and told he's worthless, but now I believe he gets another chance, a real one.
The baby in church, Jonathan, all the boys at Casa G and the rest of their families: they’re all so incredibly worth it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

For The Love Of Food

"Let's face it, a nice creamy chocolate cake does a lot for a lot of people; it does for me."
 - Audrey Hepburn

"Food is our common ground, a universal experience."
 - James Beard

I open the freezer and take stock of the contents before selecting some about a fourth of a  frozen chicken. This isn't the nicely cut and packaged chicken or beef you find at a grocery store: this is meat bought from a tiny butcher's shop or even a local street vendor, cut up, purchased fresh, and placed in plastic bags which probably aren't exactly freezer-proof.

Next, I take stock of my vegetable options. Onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and avocado are on a shelf above the counter. So many things that I grew up refrigerating are always left out in the open here in South America. This goes for eggs, most fruits, and some types of butter too.

I'm at Casa Adalia, as I am every other weekend, being the respite house-mom for girls rescued from human trafficking. It's always interesting to plan meals here. First of all, I don't buy the food, I just have to go with what is available. Second, lunch is the biggest meal of the day here, usually served with soup and fresh juice along with the meat, vegetables, and rice. Always rice. I consider making an Ecuadorian-style salad: cucumber, tomato and onion, chopped and mixed with a little lime, salt, and olive oil as the dressing. This time though I reach for a bag of green beans. I snap the ends off one by one before dropping them in a pot of water. Into another pot, I measure out a cup of rice and two cups of water. I turn on the gas, strike a match, and light the stove, the burners blazing to life. I was intimidated the first time I had to light the stove. I felt as though I were stepping back in time. Yet seeing the blue flames bursting to life, towards my quickly-removed hand, is another thing I've become used to. Now I can light a stove, make rice, and come up with an acceptable Ecuadorian meal like a pro.

I peel and slice three sweet plantains and fry them, as a little extra treat. In a large saucepan I toss the thawed chicken plus onion and tomato. The oven has been broken ever since I started staying weekends here, and since Ecuadorians mostly just use the stove-top anyway, I've learned to make a variety of meals that way too. 

I begin to peel several arbol de tomates. I blend them, strain out the seeds, and mix in water and sugar to taste. They are very strong if eaten plain, but are great as juice. Just like lemons before being made into lemonade. 

At the moment there's just one girl at the house, T, and her eight-month-old baby. T has a beautifully earnest way of saying grace, and she does so now, as we sit at the table, food steaming before us and the baby contentedly sitting on T's lap and reaching for anything she can. 

There are days like this, when it is quiet and peaceful. There have been other days with drama and conflict and tears. I wonder, for a moment, how things would be different if this house were in the States. How we might eat pre-prepared meals instead of coming up with how to use some odd pieces of chicken, and use a dishwasher instead of hand-washing everything. The green beans would be frozen, probably. None of that is bad or better, just different. There might be more programs available, more options for therapy and such. But this is what we have. This is where I am: learning to cook meals on gas stove tops and how to bargain on the streets for fresh produce. Those are the things I didn't think about learning. I was prepared for Spanish, and new ways of greeting people, and helping to deal with issues of trauma and hurt, and sharing about the redemption of Christ. Yet with all of that, I've found that food is just as important. It's been important to learn Ecuadorian recipes and traditions. It's also been important to share my own traditions, such as Mexican food and apple pie. The boys I work with especially love both those things, as long as the food isn't too spicy. I once dared them to eat a jalapeno with me. One boy did, ending up with streaming eyes, fanning his mouth and gulping down milk. However as long as I make dessert, all is forgiven. 

When I finish eating, I tell T that I can hold the baby so she can finish. She passes her over to me, because we haven't bought a high chair for the house yet. One thing at a time. For now, the most important things are grace said sincerely, talking about future dreams, listening, and other conversations and prayers. Mostly over hearty meals, prepared by hand.