[Jesus said this as he told his disciples a parable:]
"I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me — you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40 MSG).
Maria stood in front of all of her classmates with another little girl — also named Maria — waiting for her Compassion sponsor to appear. That sponsor was me. We were really late. We had been given an address inside the city. It was wrong! Our destination was a Compassion church project about 15 miles outside the city of Fortaleza. So we arrived more than an hour late.
As we entered the church building, children in the school cheered wildly. Both Marias stood holding a sign with their name and their sponsor's name. I rushed in with our translator with a pink "Hello Kitty" backpack. Inside it were a few toys for this precious little four-year-old girl that my wife Donna and I sponsor. Maria did her best to look excited, but she was nervous. She had never met a foreigner. She lived in a world where men were not to be trusted. She was a little girl in front of a bunch of screaming kids meeting a man she didn't know for reasons she couldn't understand.
Maria wasn't alone in knowing what to do. How do you show love to a scared little girl who doesn't speak your language? Even as an experienced grandpa called Daddio, I also wasn't sure what to do. The translator helped as I gave Maria the backpack and shared a few, tender, grandfatherly words with her. We made our way out of the spotlight as quickly as we could. She opened the backpack and began to play with the presents inside it. We also played little hand and eye games to get acquainted.
Maria did her best to be excited and not nervous. Little by little, thanks in part to the soft voice of our translator and the presence of her older sister, Maria relaxed. Thankfully, Donna had suggested that I take a second "Hello Kitty" backpack to carry some of the toys I had brought with me. A quick dash back to the bus allowed me to grab the second backpack and bring Maria a baby doll. Donna always insists that we get little girls an appropriate baby doll to melt the ice. I gave the second backpack to Maria's sister and placed the baby doll in Maria's hands.
Magic! She cradled the baby doll. Then hugged it. All the tension drained away from her tiny body. She smiled fully for the first time. Little by little, Maria was warming up to the love I came to share with her.
I was blessed to travel with the "Nerd Herd"* of Compassion internet supporters and friends. We visited Compassion projects in and around Fortaleza and met a number of Brazilian staffers. This was my second Compassion "Nerd Herd" trip and the second of our four Compassion children to visit. Donna and I believe in the work that Compassion does. We want "our" precious Compassion children to have a chance at life, to have an opportunity to know Jesus' love, and to have a circle of believing friends. Maria is a perfect example of why each of these three is necessary.
After some fun time and lunch time at the church project, we piled into two cars and went to Maria's house. We had to dodge the goats and pigs running loose on the road just outside the small neighborhood "bar" that also doubles as Maria's home. We walked around an old and dilapidated pool table as some locals played trying to act oblivious to our arrival. Next door, an ominous neighbor glared at us as we entered the "bar" next door. We were only 20 kilometers from Fortaleza and modern Brazilian city life. This, however, was a different world — a very dangerous world for a couple of little girls, their eighteen-month-old brother, and their mother.
Maria's mom did her best to provide for her children. She ran a neighborhood bar and weekend café‚ for the folks who lived in an around their small village. Maria's mom was thankful for the church she and her girls attended on Sunday. The church had introduced them to Compassion and the nearby project and school the girls attended. The lay minister for the church confirmed that they attended. The little girls obviously knew him and felt safe with him.
Maria was at home in her mother's bar. She immediately relaxed. She and Emily explained to their mom what had happened at the school. They proudly displayed their backpacks and toys. I then gave this young mother a tool kit with items most of us take for granted — tools and fasteners she desperately needed. She was thrilled and excited. Food staples were also given to this little family.
Maria then took my hand and showed me the room she shared with her sister. As in many places in rural Brazil, the girls slept in large hammocks which could then be moved out of the way to give them room to play during the day. Maria's mom showed us her kitchen and the place she and the little brother slept.
By the end of our visit, Maria was comfortable with all the attention and all the people who had come to see her house. She beamed adorably as she borrowed a cowboy hat to wear for pictures. She hugged my neck and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before we had to say good-bye and held my hand all the way to the door.
As we drove away, I fought the strong foreboding in my heart. All I could think about was someone so precious, so small, and so vulnerable as Maria in such a dangerous world. I wanted to do so much more to ensure her safety and her future. Like all "our" Compassion kids, we want what Christian grandparents want for their grandchildren — good health, good values, a good education, a bright future, and a great first-hand knowledge of Jesus.
Thankfully we are not alone in trying to provide this for Maria and for Emily. We have the Compassion project team, the local minister, the nearby friend who gets the girls to the project, the promise of education and nutrition. Most of all, we have the commitment of people who love Jesus who are connected with Compassion. They are there to love and support these little girls and their mother as they face an uncertain future in a dangerous place.
Maria and her family are not alone. They will not be forgotten. Most of all, as I left, I was certain that they knew they were loved. They realized that what happens to them matters to Donna, to me, to the "Nerd Herd," and to God's people in an otherwise forgotten part of Brazil.
Maria, may you always know that you are...
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).
* The "Nerd Herd" is an affectionate name to a group of Internet writers, editors, and publishers who are big supporters of Compassion International and who have been on several visits to Compassion sites all around the world. I was blessed to be in the first group of "Nerd Herd" and Blogger visitors seven years ago on a trip to Uganda.[Back to Article]