I took this picture last year when we visited the village of Santa Maria in the Opalaca Mountains of Honduras. It was my favorite picture from that trip. I’ve been on many trips and all of them are great but this one was probably the most fun of all of them. We had a large and lively group. Many stories were told, many jokes were cracked, and many friendships were created and strengthened. Our job was to build the roof trusses for a new church building in the village. This was a big deal because the people of Santa Maria had been notoriously resistant to Jesus over the twenty or so years that Mercy International (the local mission with whom we partner) had been working in the mountains.
For me the highlight of last year’s trip came on the last afternoon that we spent in the village. We had built seven trusses and there were two left. As you can imagine, we don’t have a full-blown woodworking shop in this small village with no electricity so the work was slow. The boards were hand cut from trees not far from the village and literally dripping with sap since the trees from which they were cut were still standing just days before. They were rough and splintery, unfathomably heavy, and they varied greatly in width and thickness. We were running out of lumber and nails, requiring us to be creative in order to get the last few built without compromising the integrity of them. This of course slowed our progress to a crawl.
The sun was brutal that afternoon and the team was exhausted. It’s an arduous and exhausting process just to get to the village and difficult to get good rest once we get there - lying on concrete floors in the humidity and mosquitoes makes for a fitful night’s sleep at best – leaving us in a constant state of semi-exhaustion. The smells of bug spray and sunscreen intermingled in the heavy and motionless air as we pressed on. And then the rains came.
Santa Maria is in a rain forest so drizzles and gentle rains are rare there. Within seconds we were soaked to the skin as the generator that ran our circular saw hummed on, oblivious to the deluge. We gathered under a makeshift shelter consisting of a tarp draped over one of the adobe walls and plotted our next move. After a brief discussion we decided we were not leaving until the trusses were done. A couple of us fearlessly walked out from under the tarp and into the downpour. Then we noticed Juan, one of the local leaders helping with this construction project, was right behind us! This inspired us as the cool rain refreshed us. We transformed from a group of walking dead to a well-oiled and highly efficient machine. In no time we had the last two trusses built and a great story to share. High fives and hugs went all around and we no longer noticed, much less cared, how wet we all were.
So when I got home last year I started sifting through my photos like I always do. Of course there were no pictures from working in the rain since no one wanted their camera ruined but the images were still vivid in my mind. As I reflected on the time, smiling, I came across this photo. I was instantly drawn in, completely forgetting the good times shared working in the monsoon. I confess that I don’t even remember taking the picture (I took literally hundreds) but as soon as I looked into her eyes I was captivated. While she certainly is beautiful, there was something more in this shot that pulled at me. I noticed a gravity in her expression, something weighed heavily on her small shoulders. As I flipped through countless other photos of kids grinning and laughing, she showed up in a few more. I noticed that she never quite smiled. I found myself regretting that I had been so caught up in my thing, in our things. I mourned over the missed opportunity to hear her story.
Fast forward to last week. As luck would have it we ended up in the same village (there are several other villages that Mercy International works with). We got in before the sun went down and it appeared the whole village came out to great us. I was – as I always am there – drawn to the kids and it didn’t take long before my camera was out, snapping pics and showing them on the screen as they giggled. I started to recognize some of them from last year so I got out my phone and pulled up photos from the previous year. This quickly turned into a game of me asking “Quien es el – quien es ella?” Who is he – who is she? Many of those kids from last year’s pics were in the ever-growing circle of children who were pressing in all around, eager to see themselves and name their friends and family members in the photos. That’s when I first saw her. She had not changed at all, still having the same aloof and indifferent look that defined her stoic beauty. I was happy to see she was not wearing the same clothes (many of the kids were) but otherwise it was as if time stood still. I again wondered what the story was.
We quickly got to work the next day. Our assignment was to work on the finishing details of the church. We were installing windows and doors, staining benches, and digging out trenches for retaining wall foundations. We had the perfect team for the work and got much done. The church had come a long way since last year and we were in good spirits and felt so honored to be a part of it. Later we learned of a ten-year-old girl who’s mom had died in childbirth and who’s dad she had never met. She was under the care of her grandparents although lately those roles had been starting to reverse. No one knows how old they were since birthdays are often not recorded in the village but it was obvious that their physical and mental faculties were in rapid decline. We had two in our group who are in the healthcare field so they went and visited with the family, tending to their needs as best they could while sharing stories and prayers. I was so happy for them to have the chance to utilize their skills while getting some great fellowship time with the locals.
Then, on our last day in Santa Maria, it was late afternoon and our work was finished. We waited in the nearly finished church building for the service to start. It was then that I was introduced to the girl who never knew her mom or dad. Who, at the age of ten, was the caretaker of her aging “abuelos” - grandparents. And she was none other than the one in this photo. Her name is Maria and she does indeed have the weight of the world on her shoulders. I sat down by her and as soon as I did the skies opened up with a trademark deluge, pounding the metal roof of the church and creating a deafening roar that required we wait until it was over to start the service. I pulled out my phone and started showing her pictures. As the room grew dark – the sun was going down and we had only a few flashlights - I took dozens of pics of her and her two friends, doing everything I could to make them laugh. I was able to get a few legit smiles from Maria and before long I found her sitting on my lap. Her face was peaceful and content as she ran her fingers along my arm hair – all the kids are fascinated by that.
The next morning I walked out of the building where we were staying and there she was, all smiles in the morning sun. I sat down by her and hugged her. I said to her: “es el tiempo de salir, soy triste” - it’s time to leave, I am sad. She instantly grew cold and turned her back to me. She started rubbing her eyes and my wishful thinking was trying to tell me that a gnat got in her face but I knew. She never let me see a tear but I knew. After a few more awkward and mostly silent minutes I snapped one more photo of her. She did her best to force a sonrisa – smile – at my request but the gravity was back. She lingered for a while, her brow furrowed and her face otherwise expressionless, and then she was gone.
Every time I come back I wrestle with guilt and this time is no different. It just doesn’t seem fair that I get to walk onto that plane while Maria is still there, tending to her grandparents as best she can. And I hate that I take with me more than I could leave behind. So now I do the only thing that I can from 2,000 miles away. I hit my knees and pray. I pray for hope for Maria. I pray thanks for having met her. And I pray to see her again someday. Silver and gold she does not have, but what she had she freely gave me. And I can do nothing but receive it. I cannot pay her back. Which I guess is good because if I could pay her back then it wouldn’t be a gift. Thank you Maria. Te amo.