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Only One Hour

Steve North

“Only one hour. We’ll meet back here at the Center in one hour.”

This can’t be right—can it? For two days our multi-national teams have poured through the streets of the barrios of San Pedro, interviewing residents about their health needs and those of their children. We have each been touched and changed in some way by the hospitality and openness of those with whom we’ve spoken; and by the joy and enthusiasm for life of the children. Comfort-shattering images of human beings living in construction material leftovers and garbage and squalor will likely haunt many of us for months to come. Many of our hearts have been kidnapped by the children, and there is no ransom adequate to reclaim them.

And now, on the last day we have to spend with these incredibly resourceful and resilient, hospitable and generous people, we’re told, “only one hour.”

One hour to spend on what?

Joel is back with me today. He was my guide/translator on Monday. He made a request to come back today so we could see each other again. I’m thrilled to see him as we pull up in front of Centro Medico de Buen Pastor, and I’m certain this hour will be an eventful one with Joel here to help. We walk through the narrow, winding dirt streets looking for specific people and places, but also talking about Joel’s future.

Joel has star quality. He’s a good-looking, articulate young man with enough charisma for 6 people. He has a winsome personality that draws people in, evidenced by the number of people he knows in this neighborhood some distance from his own. Joel has many gifts—he’s a talented baseball player, and may become a civil engineer. He is extremely bright, can speak English well, and is a skillful communicator with everyone I see him encounter. He has a gift for leadership, evidenced by the crowd that gravitates to him and looks for his approval or opinion. Joel can do whatever he wants with his life.

After we return to the Center, Joel and I have a chance to talk for what may be one last time. I want to build into his life—to encourage him for his future—so I paint a picture for him of what I see in his life. I tell him that with the leadership gift he has, people will follow him his whole life long because they trust him. I tell him that with the gift comes great responsibility, and that he must earn their trust. I’m not sure if there are tears in his eyes, because I can’t see through my own, but he gives me a hug and says he will try.

Joel and I paid a last visit to Jenny, the shy little girl I met on Monday, before coming back to the Medical Center. She loves the stuffed animal I brought her yesterday, but is still too shy to come out of her house and let me take her picture. Her mother is very appreciative, and wants Jenny to cooperate, but the pretty little girl just can’t do it. I say my last goodbye and leave rather quickly because I don’t want her to be upset or scared—I want her to remember me for the gift I intended to demonstrate my care for her.

As we pass by the school yard next to the Medical Center, the children are playing with their signature exuberance. I put my camera above the tall wrought iron fence that protects them, and get a memorable photo. I’m walking away from the fence, when I hear behind me: “Adios Americano! Adios Americano!” The children have run to the fence to say their goodbyes to another of the strangers that have come to be with them during these days.

The picture developing before me is a haunting one. The question begged of me in their goodbye is crystal clear: “Will you come again?” It’s a question common to people everywhere that strangers come to visit or help. It asks for a definition to be given, an intention to be stated: “Am I a diversion from your own problems and life challenges, or do I really matter to you?” In the end, every person we encounter needs to know the answer to this question. It’s not a demand from these children, it’s just a legitimate need to know where they stand with these new people in their life.

So their goodbye asks me the question again, and my answer is clear: “Yes, I will be back.”

I regret having to get into the Dohns’ van to leave these people for the last time on this trip. I try hard to be the last one to give up and climb in, when suddenly I am confronted with a familiar face: Jenny has come to see me. She and her mom have come to say thank you and goodbye. She is still shy and doesn’t really want to have her picture taken, but she has come to see me before I go. Jenny shakes my hand and tells me thank you, and gives me a little hug. Then, after a reluctantly-posed-for photo, she waves goodbye and I am gone.

I have long believed that relationship is everything in life. No one makes it in or through life alone. But knowing and experiencing are two different things. My new friends in San Pedro de Marcoris know what it means to both need other people, and to give themselves to relationships with others. Today, they allowed me into their lives in very special ways to us all to experience what I knew. And, to my very pleasant surprise, it all happened in only one hour.