Four years ago, our missions team took a day trip to Amealco, a small town in the state of Querétaro. We drove in sweaty, crowded vans, to a place up in the mountains. The air was thin and stifling hot. There was no breeze. Everything looked as though it hadn’t seen water in years. Every bit of vegetation was brown and scrubby. The mountains in my dreams are lush and majestic. But these mountains? They were dried out and forgotten, with little sign of life. As we drove up the mountain, I saw some brown houses scattered alongside the road. They were small, shabby and did not have any electricity. Where in the world were we headed?
A sign emblazoned with the words “Casa Otomi” told us that we had reached our destination. Before us stood a building made of dirt blocks and a tin roof. We were met by a smiling man, who introduced himself as Pastor Lalo. As Pastor Lalo began telling us the story of the Otomi House, I could feel my stomach churning. The sun was getting hotter, and I could feel it burning my skin.
He explained that Otomi House is a community center that serves the indigenous people of Mexico. The community center is built on high ground, over looking a deep canyon.
On either side of the canyon, there is a community. These two communities opposed each other. No one interacted or would have anything to do with the other community. They speculated that in the past, there was an argument, and grudges were held until there was a divide that no one could explain. Two broken communities separated by a canyon. But a community center built on neutral ground.
This is what hope looks like.
At least that’s what we were told.
What we saw instead? A dirt floor. A lack of plumbing. Filth. Stench. Poverty. Brokenness. Darkness. Unspeakable sadness. We found ourselves deep in the middle of something we never anticipated. As we stood in the community center, a line of children filed by us and shook our hands. They did not smile. They did not laugh. They did not look us in the eye. We spent the whole day with these children, and despite our valiant efforts, we made little progress. We could not undo the hurt that they had experienced.
A child by nature is full of joy. These children were not. They were sapped of any delight or hopefulness. They did not play. They did not giggle. They were children who had been broken by abuse, poverty, incest, alcoholism and countless other things that a no child should ever endure. My heart was not ready to be snapped in half. My spirit could not handle it. I was also rather sick, so I split my time between overflowing toilets and the hot van. The only response I could muster was to sit and cry. All day.
That was easily the worst day of my life. That was the day that I saw overwhelming brokenness, and very little hope for change. How do you change deep rooted destructive patterns of an entire community? That question plagued me the rest of the trip and when I returned to Canada. I had difficulties talking about that day. To put that in to words to do it justice is difficult.
Fast forward four years. Another trip to Mexico. Another visit scheduled to Otomi House. I cried when I found out we were going back. I prayed that my heart would be prepared this time. I prayed that the team would be prepared for what we were about to encounter.
The drive up the mountain was long and I think my heart pounded the whole time. When we arrived, we found that the place looked about the same.
A few more structures on the playground, but for the most part, the same.
Again, my heart was not prepared for what it was about to encounter.
We filed to the front of the room and were introduced to the 40 or so children. I looked at the floor. When it came my turn to introduce myself, I looked up and I saw a child smiling. And then another, and another. These kids were looking at us and smiling. It was all at once that I realized, with relief and joy and excitement that I was in a very different place than I was four years ago. Those children sang for us. They shook our hands. They giggled. They put on a play. They recited scripture from memory. They were excited to meet us.
We sat at the back of the room for the rest of the kids’ presentation, and I shook the whole time. What had happened here? This is not the same. As my brain tried to sort out my disbelief, a girl and her little sister came in the back and looked for a spot to sit. My heart stopped. This girl was filthy. Her shoes were barely intact. Her clothes didn’t fit and were stained. The skin over her entire body was cracked and looked like a desert. Her hands and feet were bleeding. My stomach lurched, and I began to look for an exit. God, I can’t do this. I thought it was different this time. For a brief moment, that place looked no different than it did four years ago. This isn’t fair. I need to leave. Please don’t do this to my heart again.
Later, we were given bags of candy and a carnival station to run. The kids moved from station to station and we showered them with candy and praises, even if they missed the target. I had my camera on hand and through candy, pictures, giggles and some games, I forgot about the place from four years ago. Things were indeed different. There was laughter and joy. There were children being children again.
The little girl with the cracked skin and worn out shoes came to my station. I took a deep breath, fought back tears and made a giant fuss over her. I cheered her on. I gave her candy. I took her picture. My heart barely stayed in one piece. I showed her the picture and told her it was beautiful. She broke out into a huge smile.
I have never seen a more beautiful, authentic and healing smile ever in my life. The heartache that I felt at that same place four years ago was completely wiped away with just that smile.
One little girl with worn out shoes and bleeding hands restored my heart.
God is working in that place. It is undeniable. There is no other possible explanation for the changes that have taken place other than the healing power of God, and the people he has placed there. There is literally no other explanation.
The two communities that were once opposed? They are reunited. They interact. They are starting to marry people from the other communities. The kids play together. There are 400 people attending Christian churches in the area. The incidence of alcoholism in children, teens and adults has reduced drastically. Cases of incest and abuse have also gone down. The adults that used to only drop off their children and leave, are now staying around to hear the gospel. Children are being fed and clothed and educated. God is restoring lives. He is bringing His people to Him.
As I explained my encounter with the little girl to my team later that night, I cried. I’m not talking a few tears streaming down my face, I’m talking gut wrenching, painful, give me a minute because I can’t talk right now, sobs. This little girl had shown me the opposite of what I expected to find at that place. She showed me Jesus. She showed me incredible beauty in the midst of brokenness. She changed my heart and I don’t even know her name.
As a team, we discussed using some of the funds we raised to go towards medical expenses so that this little girl could get treatment for her skin. Some of you donated money to our team to make this possible. That money allowed us to help her, which in turn showed us something that we would have never expected. Thank you for being a part of this restoration. You are now part of the story of a little girl with cracked skin who lives in the mountains in Mexico. Crazy, isn’t it? Thank you for your part in this.
Since we still don’t know her name, one of our team members suggested we call her “Bonita”, which means beautiful in Spanish.
This little girl, and that moment, so perfectly and simply captured what God sees in the lives of His people. What we call filthy and broken and hopeless, He calls beautiful.