Nov 2, 2005

Leading the children in song

Elias and Oriana
"But whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea." Matthew 18:6

When we left for Bolivia, Luz Maria's youngest grandchild, Elias Isaac, was just starting to stand up and take a few steps on his own. When I returned two weeks later (a week after Luz Maria), the first people to greet me were Elias and his two-year-old sister, Oriana. Oriana cried, "Abuelo (Grandfather)!" and Elias came walking proudly toward me on his own two feet.

Although he is happy with his new ability, Elias still likes to have me give him a ride on my shoulder whenever we meet. He also has learned how to knock on the door of the office I have set up in our house. Whenever I hear a tiny fist pounding about two feet from the ground, I know I will open the door to find a smiling baby boy waiting for me to pick him up.

At age 47, being surrounded by children is a new experience for me. But there was more in store for me the following Sunday. The children from the surrounding community often show up 30 to 45 minutes early for our Sunday school class (people showing up early for appointments is quite unusual in Venezuela). Since Luz Maria and her daughter Yepci (mother of Elias Isaac and Oriana) were busy with other things, I decided I would try to keep the children entertained by leading them in song. Of course, I have no talent for singing, but the songs they have learned are quite simple and even have familiar melodies, such as "Cristo me ama, bien lo se" (this is Spanish for "Jesus loves me, this I know").

In my life before Venezuela, I did not train to become a song leader or a teacher of children. But it is not as if there is a lot of competition for this job. This is a poverty-stricken area where many people have little hope for the future. Nationwide, the level of unemployment is currently estimated at around 20 percent. In our immediate area, however, as in most rural areas of Venezuela, the unemployment rate is well over 50 percent of the population.

Many of the children here will drop out of school after sixth grade. Girls start having babies of their own as early as 12 years of age. Luz MariaÂŽs five grandchildren all have two parents to care for them, but many of their friends and neighbors do not have the same advantage. Family instability, a key factor in the perpetuation of poverty, is common.

Single motherhood is a way of life for Venezuelan women. Some men, because their fathers felt no responsibility for raising them, feel no responsibility for their own children. Others are overwhelmed by the difficulty of supporting a family when even the lowest-paying jobs are hard to come by and just run away. Still others leave their families behind to seek higher-paying jobs in distant cities. They may do this with the best of intentions, but as the months slip by, they succumb to sexual temptation and lose interest in returning.

So generation after generation lives out lives of quiet desperation. Some live in shacks built of tarpaper, plywood and scrap metal, housing six or more people. Others are even less fortunate: they drag themselves through the streets on twisted, misshapen limbs, relying on the sheer pity of others. Or maybe they are missing one or more limbs, or have to carry a colostomy bag in one hand and a beggar's cup in the other. In Venezuela, just when you think you have seen the depth of suffering, you discover another level below.

But our task is to witness of God's love for humanity, especially for the children, and point to the true hope of peace and strength in the midst of life's trials, and of joy everlasting. One might wish for many skills here - to truly be a teacher, a doctor, or a pastor - but our primary call is to be witnesses of Christ's Gospel and God will provide the people and facilities that are needed.

It is also our job to bear witness of the misery and hopelessness that is the world and appeal to the consciences of those who profess belief in God and the sanctity of human life.

"Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong,
they are weak, but He is strong..."

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