For I Was Hungry
“You’re just really heavy,” said a weary voice behind me. I turned and immediately empathized with the young mother who was wilting under the strain of carrying her son. The boy flashed a sly smile, reminding me very much of our little Silas.
“My sons are the same way,” I said with a slight laugh. “They are getting too big but still want me to hold them.”
“Yeah, that’s true, but I’m mostly holding him because he doesn’t have any shoes.” I looked and for the first time noticed the boy’s bare feet, feeling a twinge of shame in thinking that my experience as a mother compared with her exhaustion.
“How long have you been in Costa Rica?” I asked.
“We just arrived last night.”
Over the next few minutes we learned a little more about Rosa and five-year-old Mateo. They were new to the tent city set up in downtown San Jose, but they had been living as refugees for awhile. They had left their hometown of Valencia, Venezuela, in search of something better, hoping to find life in a land where a month’s wages would buy more than a day’s worth of groceries.
They had left with a large group, she told me, but their numbers and their funds dwindled as they crossed through the jungle in Panama. The jungle, we knew, is a stretch of land known as the Darien Gap, a vast uninhabited stretch of land that connects Panama with South America. Those who dare traverse the Darien will encounter steep terrain, waist-high mud, wild animals, parasites, disease, and intense heat, but the greatest danger comes from bands of criminals that take advantage of the rough conditions to attack, rob, and sexually assault migrants.
Nearly everyone who gathered that night had been through the jungle, some more than once. One man was preparing to go back, as he had left his four young daughters in South America. He showed us their photo and told us that he was planning to return with them, anticipating that the journey he had made in nine days would take at least two weeks with kids in tow. I thought about young Matías and just how far his mother must have actually carried him.
As the residents of the tent city learned that a group of Americans had joined the serving team that night, more and more people gathered around us simply to ask questions. What is it like in America? Do people want us there? If we work two jobs, will we be able to live on what we earn?
As we looked into their faces, we saw that they were hungry. Hungry in a literal sense, yes, but they have lived with those pangs for years. Full-time wages in Venezuela are currently around $13 per month. But what we saw that night was a hunger for hope. Hunger for a second chance, a chance to work two jobs and earn a living wage. Hunger to give their children something better. We felt overwhelmed, knowing that after all they have overcome, they are unlikely to find what they are looking for at the end of the journey
“If you find an opportunity along the way,” I said, carefully, “I would take it.”
The immigration question is complex, and there are no easy answers for what to do with the seemingly endless stream of people making their way to the southern border with the hope of entering the United States as undocumented workers or, in the case of the Venezuelans, as legal asylum seekers. While we understand the wide range of dynamics that people of all political affiliations have to consider, standing on the streets of San Jose, the whole conversation became much more human. The men and women standing before us were not mere numbers, nor political pawns. These were kind, polite, educated people, with names, stories, and dreams.
As the night drew to a close, we gave Mateo a stuffed rabbit we had brought with a few other toys that our kids no longer use. He hugged it, smiling, and we also noticed that he was no longer in his mother’s arms. The Costa Ricans that had come to serve had found him a pair of Mickey Mouse shoes, which he sported proudly. They didn’t have pants his size to replace the threadbare ones cinched around his waist, and Rosa declined to accept a pair that was much too big for him. Instead, she pointed out an older boy who could use the ones that were offered. On just her second night, she was making herself part of the community that had formed here.
We don’t know what will happen to Rosa and Mateo or to anyone else residing in San Jose’s tent city. The situation is, frankly, unsustainable, and we suspect that public pressure will soon force the government to move them out. But, in the meantime, we are immensely proud of the churches and church members going regularly and giving sacrificially to serve the least of these.
When I lived in Colombia, my heart was shattered for the desplazados, people who had fled threats of violence or the forced recruitment of their young children into armed groups that would turn them into ruthless killers or sexual objects or both. It was heavy. As we prepared to serve the Venezuelan refugees, I found myself wanting to harden my heart, not knowing if I could handle the emotional burden of their stories. I wanted to create distance. And then I met Rosa and Mateo.
Once again, we were reminded that we are called to be close to the brokenhearted, in the same way God has drawn close to us. He does not look away from our suffering. He embraces it. In fact, the story of Christmas is a celebration of One who left His comfortable home to dwell in a place of pain. He suffered greatly in the process, for our good and not His own.
In this season, what are we doing to bring about the “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” that we so often sing about? What are we willing to sacrifice? May we live this year and every year with our eyes open to those who hungry: hungry for food, hungry for hope, hungry for love. Whether it be a child, a widow, a refugee on the streets, or someone else, may we step outside of our comfort zone to love those the Lord places in our path with the love of Christ.
“I was hungry, and you gave me spaghetti and granola bars to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me tea and juice to drink, I was a stranger in your country, and you invited me in to your hearts, I needed shoes and you found them for me, I was heartsick and you prayed for me, I was a refugee in a tent city, and you came to visit me.”