Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Passion of Joshua

A relief worker found Joshua some time after the quake, lying under a cardboard box, badly dehydrated and apparently abandoned.

About ten years old, Joshua is a bright child with cerebral palsy and club feet. In any country, disabilities like those can create a hardship. In Haiti, where serious disabilities can make you a pariah and a burden, some might say Joshua would have been luckier if he had never been born.

You wouldn't know that by hanging out with him, though. Joshua may be one of the happiest children I've ever met. It is impossible to feel down after only five minutes with him.

I met Joshua on Friday morning when Beth Milbourne, a nurse from Greenville Memorial Hospital in South Carolina, introduced me to him at the Centre Hospitaliere du Sacré Coeur.

Joshua greeted Beth with a loud cry of delight and played with her a moment until she gave him a hug and said she had to return to work. Joshua can't speak at all, but there was no question that he understood what was happening. As she stood up to leave, his face fell and the laughter faded from his eyes.

I stayed and played with Joshua for another ten minutes, getting him into an easy rhythm of frape men, getting him to smack one hand and then another. Sometimes I tried to catch his hand with my own when he smacked it, and sometimes I moved my hand out of the way just in time so that he would miss.

Whenever I would do this, he would laugh, and then try again. And when I moved my hand out of the way enough times in a row, he understood that the rules of the game had changed, and he would sometimes pretend he was about to swing his hand, in order to make me move my hand when I didn't need to.

It was a fun time, and when I told him that I needed to go, I didn't need to look at his face to know that he was sad.

He has a good memory, too. When I returned to the same clinic on Sunday, he not only gave an inarticulate cheer of excitement when he saw me, he remembered the games we had played two days earlier, and started to play them again as soon as I sat down next to him.

Like many of the children and adults now coming to the medical clinics, Joshua seems to have been physically unaffected by the January earthquake. There are places on his hands and arms where it looks like his skin was badly abraded, but those scrapes are healing now, and it looks like the only long-term disabilities he will have to contend with are his cerebral palsy and his clubfeet.

When Beth, the nurse from South Carolina, told me Joshua's story, she also told me this: His mother wants him back, reportedly so that she can use him to beg more effectively. There is surely more to it than that, since Joshua's mother has cared for him and kept him all these years when he would have been easy to abandon or to leave at one of Haiti's many orphanages; but a lifetime of begging for handouts is sure to be more than merely bleak. In a land where even winter temperatures can top 90 degrees, and where spring rains are pounding monsoons, in all probability, his life will also be very short.

To the Haitian authorities, though, that is irrelevant. Joshua has a living parent who wants him, and so to his living parent he must return.

News of Joshua's situation has hit more than a few people hard. On Thursday afternoon I sat talking with one of them in the hospital's break room, where she lamented that it seems like a cruel joke to take Joshua from a situation where he has been cared for and played with, only to put him out on the street to beg.

"It would have been better if he'd never come here than to come here and have it taken away," she said. "Now he'll be even more miserable."

"No," I said. "He won't."

All his life, Joshua has known there is something wrong with his body. He lacks the coordination to remove a wrapper from a piece of candy, to write with a pen or pencil, or even to hold something in his hand. He can hear other people talk, and he can watch them move, and he knows that his body does not perform the way it is intended to.

In the same way, he knows, as we all do, that the world is not as it should be. He was born with this knowledge, and all his life he has at some level understood that there is a better world, one where his body works as it should, and one where everybody is cherished according to the inherent worth of the Imago Dei in which they were made.

In Christianity, we understand that the fulfillment of this reality came in the person of Jesus, who at Capernaum declared "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19). And now it is we, his church, acting in his place, who represent the further fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

Far from making Joshua's life worse, I told this other team member, people like Beth have confirmed for him what he has always hoped and understood to be true: There really is a better, deeper world than this one. At moments when we allow ourselves to love as Jesus loved, this world finds moments of redemption and the Dream of God shines through.

Even if fears about his mother are borne out, and even if the church fails him, Joshua will never be abandoned again.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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