November 2 marked ten months since God dropped street ministry in my lap on January 2, by visiting a certain bridge with the street mother of a child we had here. I had no idea that getting to know that bunch of kids, adolescents, and adults at that bridge would change my life and open the door to a whole new world.
But something had always been stirring in my heart for the street population, apart from taking in the children sent to us at Casa de Amor. The other night I came across an old journal, and on 8-8-08 I wrote “I still wish I had more reasons to go to the street, but that period last year was apparently just a phase.” And then: “I can’t be grateful enough though for having that opportunity.” Now I’m blessed to go every single day and be welcomed with open arms!
As I look back on the ten months, I quickly came up with ten points of what the kids and street life has taught me.
Don’t judge by the outside. It’s still ingrained in me more than I want to admit, but I am learning to look past the rough, unkempt, dirty exterior and meet the person on the inside. Each man, woman, and child I’ve met on the street has his/her own special sparkle if you just look for it. I love telling them they were created by God and are special, no matter what others may say!
Story #1: one morning I was running errands when I was called by a young friend and told that “S” had sliced his leg open (police were trying to take away his baby) and could I come help. When I got to the ER and saw him lying there in dirty clothes, with this horrific gash in his calf, I had a brief moment of thinking “Why me?! What am I doing here, picking up this guy?” I had seen him around but didn’t really know him. I so repented later for my terrible thoughts as I drove him and his friends back. What a sense of humor!! He had us rolling in the floor laughing. Don’t judge by the outside.
Story #2: at the bridge we have a guy in a wheelchair that is quite honestly nothing pleasant to look at by human eyes. Years and years of street life, addictions, and illnesses have taken their toll. However, “M” still has a sparkle in his eye and we rotate through jokes. For example, he would pretend to get very mad at me if I didn’t shake his hand and properly greet him each and every time I come (which is always multiple times a day), but when I’d shake his hand he’d recoil saying “so cold!!” so I’d go through an elaborate procedure to warm up my hand before shaking his.
And maybe I’m strange, but I can’t tell you what joy I get to recognize and be recognized by name by the “down and out” all over this city!
First Aid! And first aid and first aid and first AID! Day and night, there are medical urgencies and emergencies. I could write a book on some of the experiences I’ve had in 10 months time! In fact, tending to the knife cut of one at the bridge was one of two reasons I came back for a second visit (the other being the newborn baby) and the reason I first went under the bridge (with my partner Elena and a hastily assembled first aid kit that has stayed packed full ever since). I’ve gotten abundant practice in taking out stitches, giving shots, and tending to wounds, stabbings, lacerations, and burns.
Police mistreatment. I’ve taken this on as a special area of mine on the street, so could write a book on it. But in a nutshell… I champion for just treatment and basic respect. The police believe that they can do whatever they want to the street people because no one protests it. And no one does, unless I am there or am told immediately after by the kids. Every single day at some point I speak to police. I have studied law codes and talked with several lawyers and the police chief throughout the year, learning what rights the kids have and how to deal with out-of-control police who beat up them up and lock them up, many times without reason or proof of any wrong. Currently I’m also working constantly with a lawyer friend from church and so appreciate his support!
The kids think I am not afraid of police, but try being under a bridge at night or at the top of a cactus covered hill when 20 police show up in anti-riot gear, ready to tear gas and beat up everyone in sight, and see how YOU feel! I feel like Daniel in the Lions’ Den and pray for angels to watch over us!! Then I swallow the lump in my throat and deal with the situation at hand, which often involves showing my ID to the police and explaining what I do and why, then answering questions they have about the kids’ lives and habits. The abuse was so bad the month of September at my bridge that I and one of the most responsible guys presented a two page letter to the chief police and “Defensor del Pueblo” detailing the mistreatment, and there have been only two incidents since then! Although it often means missed sleep, and the police nearly make me cry sometimes by misunderstanding my work and (their favorite lately) threatening the kids (“If you are going to tell your blonde friend about this…”) or even saying they will get me thrown in jail, I have loved tackling such a needed area on the street.
Our conception in Casa de Amor before this year was that multiple people, churches, organizations, and institutions reach out to the street population in Cochabamba. Why would I get involved if I have my baby homes and the street kids have dozens of organizations on their side? WELL……as I started to go to the bridge more and more and more in January and February, and got to know the kids, and all of a sudden it was going every single day to change bandages, help with paperwork, be their guaranty as they try to move up in life, accompany them talk to family members, etc., etc., it started to dawn on me: I was the only one out there! Another group came one morning a week, but with their own agenda which didn’t always match up to the needs of the kids. Then they stopped coming. Then a dear friend from Norway arrived back and occasionally visits, but she is very involved with another group in the north of the city and so has delegated the bridge to me. I have been shocked at how many “desk” street workers there are, without a good grasp on how street life is every day and every night. Whereas my Casa de Amor responsibility is a desk job, and I love it, I also absolutely LOVE being out “on the field” in the thick of things as I serve the street population.
No matter how “bad” our family is, we only have one. So many times I’ve nearly written off return to or involvement with family as bad for a certain child or couple, but I consistently see that the few who manage to leave street life do it because they have a family who cares. It may be full of drunks or robbers or messy splits or “steps”, but the family is the family, for good or for worse. Same as with the children directly in my charge at Hogar de Amor, my priority with the kids is family reconciliation.
The Trust Factor. I’m a trusting person by nature, so this one comes easy to me and often surprises people who hear details of my work with the kids. I know that all of them have or do rob for a living, some of them being very good at it, but my philosophy is that to the degree that I trust them with my things, they are trustworthy with me. In fact anyone who even hints at robbing me or gives the appearance of not being trustworthy with something of mine is severely chastised by the others. My trust includes loaning them my cell phone for calls (particularly to family members), letting them use my camera, leaving them alone in my car even though there are valuables there…right up to teaching them to drive my car!
Alcohol abuse is almost as bad on the street as drug abuse. It’s really awful. I’ve always seen alcoholism as a major plague in Bolivia, with the consequences all too apparent in the lives of our children at Casa de Amor, but I hadn’t realized how many children, even as young as 12 and 14, are becoming regular drinkers on the street. I hate with a vengeance what the glue (and glue addiction) does to their minds, bodies, and relationships, but I can put up with someone being high any day over someone being drunk. Before moving to Bolivia I think I had seen exactly one drunk person in my life, and that was in Russia. Now I can tell almost immediately if someone calling me or talking to me is drunk, an education I never asked to have! And the drunk calls at any hour of the night, often by family members of the kids? Ugh, not a favorite!
Violence. On the one hand, it’s worse than I thought. While the average citizen here is anywhere from extremely cautious to terrified in encounters with street people, I quickly learned that they are much more violent with each other than anyone else. They settle their issues with knives, rocks, and fists, particularly when drunk (see lesson 7), which is why I stay so busy with first aid (see lesson 2)! I’ve learned that while a late night drunken fight can land someone in the hospital, by morning they are still friends. I’ve learned that a hurled rock can do an awful lot of harm. I’ve learned to ask for discounts in the hospital for bringing in such a flow of patients! But on the other hand, there are more “internal regulations” than I had imagined. In a way their communities are more controlled than I thought, with clear cut leaders and rules. If someone is too problematic, they are kicked out and not provided the “protection” of the community which is often like one large family.
Expect the unexpected. Every. Single. Day. They surprise me. I’m not surprised when they do something wrong or dirty because that’s what everyone expects of them. But every single day (and night) they teach me something amazing and I learn from them. As one example, this winter (May—August in Bolivia) was the best yet for me. Before I resented not having indoor (or car) heating, but I just couldn't complain when THEY never complain. Sure I was out all hours of the day and night being with them, but at least I had a house and warm bed to go home to eventually. Another example is when someone does something wrong or hurts someone’s feelings, and I watch the kids work so hard at reconciliation. Sometimes they are examples to me! Another way they convict me is how kind and accepting they can be to the weakest, most down-and-out member of their group, often someone that society has completely turned her back on. Sometimes they fight over who is going to buy me my dinner, or something to drink. And then there’s the whole trust thing (lesson #7). More than once it's happened that money is showing out of my back pocket and someone I barely know goes hey, your money is showing, rather than so easily snatching it. I could go on and on…
On a more lighthearted note to finish, did you know that you can earn a whole lot by begging or just washing windows at intersections?? It’s rather amazing, actually. In a few hours of work, one can easily earn 40 or 50 Bolivianos, equivalent to $7, which is more than most Bolivians make all day. I joke all the time I’m going to start washing with them! Some of the cute younger kids who beg on a busy street on a weekend night can get up to three times that amount. The problem is they occasionally lose all they’ve earned to corrupt police who claim it was stolen, so often they save it back with me.
Many people assume that I win the trust and acceptance of the kids by buying them food or clothes, but the truth is I rarely do that—just on special occasions, or when someone cannot work for some reason. They CAN make money without stealing, so I do not want to reward laziness even with a loan.
I have learned so much else, such as…
...the reality of how most people live in Bolivia (in one room, for example)
...how to get around many far flung zones of the city I had only heard of before this year
...street slang (I just THOUGHT I knew Spanish before...!)
...how to ignore constant itchy flea bites
...that I can operate on much less sleep than I ever thought possible
...celebrating birthdays creates wonderful memories and strong friendships
...the locals think I'm either crazy or a saint for going to the worst areas of town "alone" and for reaching out to the criminals and drug addicts of the city (but I'm not!)
...that watching soccer is so much fun when you know everyone playing, same for going to the pro games with die hard Wilstermann fans!
...that my stomach is finally up to speed to the bugs here and I can eat anything from anywhere without getting sick
...the importance of educating authorities on the situation of the kids
…and that there is always room for one more in my car, dubbed the “auto fantastico” on the street! On an average night, up to 15 pack into my Toyota Raum, a mini "mini van".
The lessons go on and on! I am so, so privileged to have the double blessing of running Casa de Amor and also being mother, doctor, pastor, social worker, lawyer, and just best friend of over 100 on the street. And several off the street, starting a new life.
I appreciate your prayers for strength, finances, and loads of grace and patience as I work in the darkest parts of society every day and every night.
"And the King will answer and say to them, Assuredly, I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me." Matthew 25:40
"He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the LORD." Jeremiah 22:16
If you would like to know more, such as my goals and vision working with these people I've grown to love so much, I'd be happy to tell you in between all the hecticness that is our life here! Just write me.
Adios, Shana and Hillary - Thanks to Carla Booher for the blog! :) Wednesday night we had a "going away" party for two of our volunteers. Shana is from Texas and has been touring...
2 years ago