I'm not sure how to start explaining the orphanage. We took an old ferry across the river and disembarked into a dirtier, poorer world than even the one I usually experience in my city. I walked up the hill and around the bend surrounded by ducks, chickens, roosters, and dilapidated buildings. As we passed through the gate, I could see a brightly colored large play-set and was relieved to think the children were better cared for than I expected. We tried to see the infants and toddlers first, but were told they were sleeping. So we left the first building and my idea about the children receiving good care vanished.
We walked around back of the first building to the second. This other building was painted red and yellow, except for half of the top floor. It was painted white and metal bars enclosed all of the windows and balcony. From it, three or four older children flung their arms about wildly as they shouted unintelligible welcomes. All of these children suffered from Downs or cerebral palsy, among other ailments. These were the "other" children, tucked away from sight and contact. We passed through the metal gate which barred them into five rooms. Their ages ranged from infancy to about fourteen. One infant had severe brain damage and had recently started having seizures. His eyes rolled back and forth as he remained unresponsive when held. All of the children just wanted to be held and touched, even the shy older boys eventually warmed up. All of the children had dry snot crusted to their faces. A two year old boy from this part of the orphanage died last month. His short life was spent tied to a toilet-chair because there were not enough workers or diapers to meet his needs. Others are spending the entirety of their developmental years in this same predicament, including the little boy with seizures.
Two rays of sunlight shine in this section of the orphanage. The first is a fourteen year old girl with severe cerebral palsy who knows the Son. Someone once shared with her and she believes. Now it is her mission to love every child she lives with. I am often prone to exaggeration, but I have never met someone like her. She has a difficult time speaking herself, but she works to translate for the other children, putting their grunts and groans into words. She has started to learn sign language so she can translate for the deaf girl. Her hands struggle to move as she wills, but she desires to serve her friend and trains them to speak a language none of the workers know, even with their motor skills fully intact. She is the mother for the five rooms of children and the Son is with her. His hand is upon her life and He uses her to make the warmth of His heart felt amongst the cold darkness within the metal bars.
The second light is a young woman from the city who has come to serve these children with education. Special needs education is unheard of in this country, but she felt a burden for this kind of work and found a pioneering couple in the city who could train her. The children love her and she loves them. She given up money, comfort, and the approval of others in order to engage these children's minds. Her love for the Lord radiates through her as she holds the children, listening to their stories, giving the attention for which they starve.
After we sat with these children, we ate lunch and then went to work cleaning a room full of physical therapy equipment. A large room full of good and useful things to aid the children sits unused since there are so few people to help the children, and of those, most do not understand how to help the children train their muscles with the equipment. The windows were left open in the room and a layer of soot from the city's pollution coated the play mats, exercise tables, cribs, etc. We swept and then mopped three times before the floors started to look clean. The orphanage has a wealth of equipment, but a poverty of people and so the room is left mostly untouched.
The day was almost finished, but first we returned to the infants and toddlers who reside in the nicer, first building. These children at least have the possibility of adoption being deemed more acceptable and less handicapped. I expected to find happy and content children who do not feel immediate need. I was mistaken. We set foot inside their rooms and were immediately surrounded by about fifteen toddlers who were all desperate to be touched, starved for attention. Some of them were soon wound up with energy. People! People who will throw us in the air, tickle us, and play games! Others were quiet and content to simply lie in our laps being touched and held.
Even though most of these children are not severely handicapped, I realized they are not all well. One precious little boy was sitting in a pile of blankets in a box. I laughed and commented on how cute he was and then someone told me he probably cannot walk and this is a way for him to get out of his crib when there is no one to care for him. The only infant in the room is sound asleep. He has a heart problem and therefore no one will adopt him - only perfect babies find a home. I found one little girl who seemed about two years old and looked forlorn. She let me pick her up easily, but would not look me in the face when I did so. I tried to make her laugh, pet her hair, hugged her, but she was despondent. Holding her, I sat down with the others among the rows of cribs and held her for a long time, stroking her hair, her hand. I believed she was content to sit with me and she even snuggled a little closer to me, but I never witnessed emotion in her face.
Maybe these are the "acceptable" children, but they are suffering from their own brokenness. They too are neglected and there are barriers beyond the physical which prevent them from receiving a home. Most of the children are girls, perfect and beautiful, but simply not the gender of their parents choosing. One little girl is particularly lovely and the woman who brought us to the orphanage lamented that her paperwork has not been released. Usually paperwork in order is all that such a lovely girl would need to find a home, but somehow it never seems to come together. And the older she gets, the harder it will be.
We left the orphanage and on the boat ride back across the river, I started talking about the day to my friend who took us. She has seen many horrible things within the orphanages in our city. Most of the orphanages are closed and secretive to foreigners, only putting the best foot forward when they do open up. But she has stumbled across things which can only be summed up as the implementation of survival of the fittest amongst the very weakest in society. She explains that maybe the worst of the atrocities are fading away, but the philosophy remains strong. Why would you provide good care for a child with cerebral palsy if she will never carry her own weight in society? Resources are limited, so limit those who will require use of the resources.
Forgive us, Father. Forgive us for our arrogance when we deny you and plan society on our own. Forgive us for treading on those in whom you delight. Forgive us our pride for assuming the weak are helpless, for forgetting that you are calling them to yourself as much as any of us. Forgive us, forgive us, forgive us.
We've all got a freak flag. Mine is sometimes getting choked up by science. Yes it's true. Without a doubt, it's because I grew up in a physicist's household, but I don't understand why more people don't feel incredible awe at what we have discovered in the surrounding world. I especially can't understand those who have a relationship with the Creator of all and disregard or even disdain modern science. I just finished watching an hour long documentary that my dad gave me by the Discovery Institute on The Privileged Planet and while I don't think I could repeat back half of the ideas and scientific terminology discussed, I came away from the film with a heart of deep praise. The heavens declare his glory! All we see is fine tuned to reflect His wonder and point to something beyond us and I wish so badly that believers took more interest in the sciences. Modern science is not our enemy, but rather one of the greatest and most complex paths we can pursue to better understand the infinite beauty of the Creator. And so this is my freak flag - something I can't really claim to understand, but captivates my imagination.
By no means am I a cultural expert, especially concerning the culture in which I currently live. But I do try to notice things and observe what exists around me. I struggle with this observation, though, because so often it turns to judgment and furthermore, I haven't decided for myself when it is or is not ok to judge a culture. Allowance for cultural variety and regard for higher morals or ideals do not easily compliment each other and I tend to fall off one side of the horse or the other. For now, my goal is simply to question. I can't come to conclusions and I can't pretend to understand the way people live around me, but I can pay attention and ask questions.
Since moving here, I have started to think about the ways in which people observe death and question whether we can gain insight into the spiritual health of a people through their customs for the passing away of life. It started last fall when I came across a funeral and wrote the following:
Death is a loud and noisy thing when it does not offer hope for eternity. When we do not acknowledge what is truly taking place – that a soul has left this world for the next, either to enjoy an eternity of satisfactory fulfillment and peace or to face eternal and excruciating separation from God – all of the ritual we produce is nothing more than empty, meaningless, destructive, sinister noise. All of the memories, all of grief, all of the talk are nothing more than smoke to cover the eyes of the living, satiating the screams inside them with clattering numbness.
Yesterday, I witnessed my first funeral in East Asia. The empty gaudiness of is made my soul sick. From what I’ve seen, funerals here are no time for meditation or reflection on life and its meaning. They are a time of loud and showy distraction from reality. In this society of disbelief in any higher deity, or for that matter, in any higher meaning, moral, or reality, death has been reduced to a crowded tent in the middle of the street, filled with neon lights, karaoke singers, and bored looking passers-by. Women put on make-up at a table and attempt to look grieved. Family shuffle through the music selection, picking songs that seem appropriate for the memory of the departed.
Christ said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” In this context, in this society, I take those words to mean, blessed are those capable of mourning. Humanity lives brokenness and thus to be fully human, we must know how to mourn it. If we don’t acknowledge our brokenness on any other given day of our lives, death, at least, is a time for our nature to slap us in the face. How wrong not to mourn when such a beating takes place! How can you declare with Paul, “Where, O Death, is your sting?” if you cannot feel death’s knife piercing your heart?
When a people are religious it at least enables them to realize what takes place in death; they are more fully human in their acknowledgment of the eternal and desire to touch the holy. The East Asians need something that is going to make them aware of their own human nature. A prick that will teach them to mourn this existence and to yearn for release from death’s sting. They need something that will force them to turn off the noise machines, to forgo the glittering lights, to leave behind the show, and to bleed with reality for once. To scream in the night for rescue as the noise of distraction is left behind and the heavy silence of eternity settles in their hearts. For no noise we frail humans create can drown out the roar of an eternity without God. But what is more, that awful roar of hell cannot overcome the glorious and surrounding chorus of Jesus Christ’s triumph. The crack of death’s back on Christ’s empty tomb is a deafening sound that echoes throughout time and space, even to the back alleys of my little neighborhood.
Let us pray that it is heard from our lips every time we open our mouths.
"16th of June, nine 0 five, door bell rings
Man at the door says if I want to stay alive a bit longer
There's a few things I need you to know. Three
Coming from a long line of traveling sales people on my mother's side
I wasn't gonna buy just anyone's cockatoo
So why would I invite a complete stranger into my home
These days are better than that
These days are better than that
Every day I die again, and again I'm reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street
With arms out
Got a love you can't defeat
Neither down or out
There's nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
16th of June, Chinese stocks are going up
And I'm coming down with some new Asian virus
Ju Ju man, Ju Ju man
Doc says you're fine, or dying
Nine 0 nine, St John Divine, on the line, my pulse is fine
But I'm running down the road like loose electricity
While the band in my head plays a striptease
The roar that lies on the other side of silence
The forest fire that is fear so deny it
Walk out into the street
Sing your heart out
The people we meet
Will not be drowned out
There's nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
We are people borne of sound
The songs are in our eyes
Gonna wear them like a crown
Walk out, into the sunburst street
Sing your heart out, sing my heart out
I've found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it's all that I found
And I can breathe
- Breathe, by U2 (Thank you for this song, Bono!)
Recently, I was traveling with my friend Sarah in Hong Kong. We were walking through Central on our way to ride the Peak Tram and we came across swaths of Filipino women sitting on pieces of newspaper in bus terminals, parks, and church steps. There were literally hundreds of them everywhere and we could not figure out what they were doing, especially since they were calmer, politer, and better dressed than prostitutes or the homeless tend to be and they seemed to have a strong sense of community amongst themselves as they read, played cards, or styled their hair. We researched it once we returned home and this is what we found. Yet another amazing situation of Asian distress which breaks my heart. After reading this, Hong Kong's sheen started to wear off a little and I realized that while Hong Kong's wealth may far exceed my city or other cities in this part of the world, it might not be too different from the rest concerning its inability to care for the weakest in society. Immigration is rough for all involved, but hardship doesn't have to be a done deal.
To learn more read:
"Sunday in a Hong Kong Park"
"Women of Faith - Hong Kong's Filipino Domestic Helpers"
I went to buy some apples from my regular fruit stand this afternoon and starting thinking about the physical difficulties I am facing here in Asia. My fruit seller has lazy eyes and decaying ears and I buy his fruit not because it is the best, but rather because the man stirs up compassion within me. I don't know what causes it or if it's really as bad as I think, but the edges of his ears are often black and wilting.
My heart often breaks as I think about the physical conditions of those living around me, but today I realized I am not too different from them. The harsh environment of this city created by both natural factors and the falleness of man is taking a toll on all of us whether it is my lungs, the fruit sellers ears, the grandma with no teeth bent over double, or the student with gray hairs. The lives of this city's citizens mirror the buildings surrounding them as they crumble under acid rain even as they are built.
My body often hurts here, but today's trip to the fruit stand was the beginning of peace and maybe even pride in the pain. I am starting to say, "It's ok" and bow my head because how can I expect to be different from the people I live with? They are in pain, too. Afterall, their ears decay. If the people I live with suffer, why shouldn't I? Of course I long for healing and am seeking medical assistance, but my soul is realizing that suffering alongside the residents of this crumbling city increases my love and pity for them.
Two months ago, I was convicted to pursue further indigenization and maybe this is it. I don't want to presume anything, but just maybe this is how my Father wants me to identify with this corner of the world.
My body is weak. Never before have I struggled to have energy and perseverance, but now the promise of my young years is proving to be a trick. Remind me that I do not have any rights, except the right to be your daughter. Nothing is owed me, yet you choose to love me tenderly. Let me know of your compassion even when breathing brings anxiety, and let me rest in the joy of a soul at peace in you eternally.
I can't watch this short film without getting choked up, and maybe even crying. Since high school, I have wrestled with how to hold the beauty of this world and life in one hand and the destruction and despair we all witness in the other. I still don't have any great answers, but I am learning to keep an eye out for those who do. This movie strikes especially close to home because the longer I live in Asia, the more I become convinced that understanding the Creator's larger story of redemption is the only way to accept the majesty and horribleness of existence without succumbing to one or the other and furthermore, that once we understand the story, we are propelled into playing out the story, being given roles and purposes in the advancement of redemption.