Casa Trip Day 5: A dream is a wish your heart makes

Posted on January 20, 2011

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After getting to work a little earlier than usual today, I finished organizing my portion of the storage area pretty early (around 10:00am) and proceeded to help others with a few odds and ends to fill out the morning. The storage area was lookin’ pretty dang good if I do say so myself. Like I said earlier in the week, I wish I would have taken “before and after” photos.

Around 11:00am or so, everyone from my church met with Gil for about 20 minutes. He expressed his thanks for all we had done by tearfully recalling how grateful the apostle Paul was when he would receive gifts from churches all over Europe. “This work is humbling,” Gil said, seeming to be almost embarrassed that all he could do in return for our work was simply say thank you. He was incredibly grateful to all of us for the needs that we filled for his kids, the property, and him personally during the week. After he shared his heart with us, Traci put the icing on the cake and gave him a donation that was collected in a special offering a couple of weeks ago at our church: nearly $6000 towards Casa’s foundation for the kid’s education. Gil beamed with joy, and told us to be sure to thank everyone back in Arvada and assure them that the money would be put to great use.

Today (New Year’s Eve), the kids got to open their Christmas presents from Operation Christmas Child. (If you’re not familiar with this program, click this link and consider helping them achieve their mission next Christmas. It’s a great program.) We got to watch the Casa kids open their gifts, eat their candy and smile like crazy. One of the 3-year-old boys would lick his lollipop and then invite other kids to lick it too. Of course, they did. It was a beautiful thing to watch these kids who have nothing openly share their candy with any kid or Americano that would take it. Too cute. I’m trying to remember the last time I shared something I was enjoying with that much enthusiasm.

Here’s some “Christmas morning” pictures.

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Anahi had continued to become increasingly attached to me throughout the day. A new church group (mostly college kids) from Fort Collins had arrived late last night, and in the morning at breakfast it became clear that many of them seemed to have well-established relationships with the older boys that I had been hanging out with from their past mission trips. When I saw that, I wanted to give them the space they needed/wanted to reconnect with the boys (many of the college kids also spoke pretty good Spanish), so I let them do their thing and I started to spend more time with Anahi and some of the girls (while still checking in with the boys from time to time).

I don’t know if she got it for Christmas or if she brought it from her dorm, but Anahi had this really small toy phone with her. I picked it up and pretended to talk to her on it, and what resulted was a little game that she really liked. In our phone game, I would say, “Hola Anahi! Como estas?” And she would say either “Bien” or “mal.” If she said “mal,” I would tickle her like crazy, and if she said “Bien,” I would kiss her on the cheek. She LOVED this game. She must have put the toy phone up to my ear 50 times in 15 minutes. At first the “mals” outweighed the “biens” because she was enjoying getting tickled, but it didn’t take long for there to be 3 “biens” for every “mal.” She just wanted some love, and I was happy to share.

I wish I could communicate to you how precious this child is. How precious they all are really, but John has always said that when it comes time to say good-bye at Casa (especially the first time you go), there’s always that one kid who for whatever reason has become especially attached to you during the week, and you to them. Boy, was he right. Mine was Anahi, and saying good-bye to her, quite frankly, was gonna suck. It was only lunchtime and I was already dreading it. But little did I know I was about to dread it even more than I could have ever imagined.

Towards the end of lunch, I got up from my table to get a drink (or maybe some more food, I don’t remember which). When I came back to the table, some kind of important conversation seemed to be buzzing between the kids. The girl next to Anahi and I was talking to the older girls around us and to Josie, the one person in our church group who is pretty much fluent in Spanish. They kept pointing at me and talking ninety miles an hour while Josie listened intently. And when Josie translated for me what all of the discussion was about as I sat there next to Anahi, I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Anahi says that she wishes that you were her dad,” Josie said.

Now I know that kids in these situations say these things sometimes. When I taught in Texas, I had a small handful of kids tell me the same thing. But like any good, politically correct teacher, I knew that society demanded a certain amount of space between me and my students (especially as a male elementary music teacher), so I never let my heart get too wrapped up in those kinds of comments from kids (besides, “Music teacher adopts one of his students from foster care” had a creepy ring to it). But here at Casa, politically correctness has no place. Christ-like love is the rule. And when you spend even a few short days trying to love people that way as best you can, it’s amazing how quickly you become emotionally attached to them. When I looked down at Anahi after Josie translated what she had said, she was looking right back up into my eyes, her perfect smile beaming, almost as if she was waiting for me to tell her whether or not I was willing to make her wish come true. I promise you: in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to sell everything I had, quit my job and do whatever it took to dedicate my life to raising her and her two siblings, consequences be damned. Not really knowing what to say or do, I did the only thing that made sense in the moment: I swallowed her up with the biggest hug I could possibly give her, kissed her, and told her that I loved her. But in my heart and mind, you better believe the wheels were turning. Could I be her dad? Should I be her dad?  I felt like I could be. I felt like I should be. I felt like I wanted to be.

After the Christmas festivities wrapped up, our group headed to Anahuac with Gil’s wife Becky to do some food distribution to needy families. In years past, they have divided up the food into smaller amounts and given it out to larger numbers of people, but this time we decided to give larger amounts of food to four different families who were in great need. It was neat to be welcomed into their homes for a little while and to sit and listen to them talk to Becky. Everyone was extremely thankful for the food. We also took a bunk bed that John made to a family, and they were extremely grateful.

Later on at dinner, I ate with Anahi and some of the other girls again. Afterwards we played CandyLand and Chutes and Ladders with a handful of awesome boys, and we all had a blast. (Fun fact: if you know your colors in Spanish and not much else, you can successfully play CandyLand with a bunch of Spanish-speaking kids without too many glitches. And if you know your numbers, you can easily do Chutes and Ladders). The whole time, Anahi would not let me leave her side. At one point, I told her that I was going to go play a card game with Gil and some of the other adults who had wanted me to join them, and when I told her that, all she would say was “Yo tambien, yo tambien!” (“Me too, me too!) Notice she didn’t say, “No, don’t go!” or “Stay here!” She just wanted to go wherever I was going (so sweet). It ended up that the adults already had four players, so Anahi, the boys and I played another round of CandyLand. Even though I love playing cards- especially Hearts, which is what the adults were playing- I was actually relieved that I didn’t have to go over with the adults. The clock was ticking, and every moment Anahi and I had left was becoming more and more precious than the one before. I was in the heaven of the present, but was trying to come up with ways to avoid the inevitable hell of good-bye.

The original plan had been to have some fireworks outside to bring in the New Year, but the wind outside had continued to be so intense that we decided that it wouldn’t be very safe to play pyro with a bunch of kids around. When it was bedtime and the kids were about to leave the dining/game room, Gil told them that it was our last night (we had also been trying to “warn” the kids about this throughout the day so it didn’t catch them by surprise). The kids thanked us for coming and sang “We Love you with the love of the Lord” to us in Spanish. I’ve sung that song dozens of times and it can feel trite and annoying sometimes if you come at it with the wrong heart (as I often do), but the song never meant more to me than it did in that moment. As we said our good-byes and gave out of hugs and kisses to the kids on their way out the door, there wasn’t one of us that was ready to leave.

When it was time for me to give Anahi one last hug and kiss good-bye, it took all of my power to not cry on her shoulder. I just closed my eyes, held her tight, and I talked to her- stream-of-consciousness- in English. What I said was between her and me. I knew she couldn’t understand a word of it, but I hoped that somehow the love in my embrace was translating everything for her. When I finally let Anahi go, she gave me one last Smiling Neck Hug. And my wife got a picture of it.

Anahi and me sharing one last Smiling Neck Hug

As you can see, the collar of her jacket is covering part of her smile in the picture. This bummed me out big-time when I first saw it, but now I’m actually glad it is the way it is. Just like that handful of actors and actresses who are even more beautiful in real life than they are in magazines or on television, a picture of even the best example of the Anahi’s Smiling Neck Hug could never do the real thing justice. If I want to see that smile again, I have to come back to see her. And if I want to keep it, I have to keep her.  This is as it should be.

I cried off and on for the rest of the night. Not just for Anahi, but for how special the whole Casa experience had been, and for how much I had grown in just four days. We had come to Casa to fulfill a need, and indirectly had needs of our own filled as well. It’s funny how almost without fail when you commit to a service project, in the midst of your service you end up feeling like you were the one that was being served. Somehow, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I hate it when Christians try to convince other Christians to “give” solely on the grounds that they will receive (the height of selfishness in my opinion), but I have to believe that somewhere buried deep beneath the surface of our fallen, sinful nature is a way of living and treating others that not only fosters a sacred synergy between Giver and Receiver but gives us a small glimpse at what we could have had with each other on a daily basis were we still in The Garden. When we live and love others the way that Jesus calls us to, a holy exchange takes place between souls, and I’ve got to believe that this was part of God’s plan. Living in The Way? It’s supposed to feel good. It’s what we were designed for. It’s who we’re called to be. It’s how we were meant to experience each other. And after four short days experiencing it first-hand in Mexico, I cannot for the life of me figure out why I’ve spent so much time aspiring to so much less.

I am forever changed by what I experienced that week at Casa. Gil was in tears thanking us for all we did, but I feel as though I’m the one that’s in debt to him for all that I gained from my time there. Like David, I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. Like James, I now see that pure religion is looking after widows and orphans in their distress and keeping my mind from being polluted from the world. And like Jesus, I see that I must take up my cross. And follow.

Tomorrow: the Epilogue. Some closing thoughts about what I’ve learned and how I hope to make the transition from a so-called spiritual “high” to Spiritual Life.

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Posted in: Casa Trip, Faith, Life