Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Meet Paola

“In this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he’s out of place in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong… he is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room.” Thomas Merton

She’s a twelve year old girl with a smile, a sparkle in her eyes, and a thumb in her mouth. It’s the best way I can understand the quote from Thomas Merton. Everyday I visit this orphanage/foster home (hogar) she is the first one to jump out of her seat, run towards me, and leap into my arms. She gives me the customary Chilean kiss on the cheek, hugs me, and pulls back and looks into my eyes, penetrating all my defenses. I am helpless with this child, she has come to mean the world to me. If you ask me the thing I love the most about Chile, I could answer without hesitation and complete honesty, Paola. At times, it is the only thing I love about Chile.

You find God in humanity. When I work with Paola and the rest of the kids in the hogar, it’s like all the causes and ideals, all that used to motivate me through high school and college, they mean nothing. It sounds heretical, believe me I know, but before you kick me out of the justice league, just try to understand. In place of those causes and ideals, marches and protests and catchy slogans I now have names I can’t forget with memorable faces and unbelievable stories. It’s Paola, twelve years old, who jokingly tells me again and again with a smile and a wink “para ti, baby” (it’s for you baby) in her best Spanglish. It’s Gisella, who writes me little notes telling me how nice I am and how she likes when I visit them, perhaps never knowing how much I love her back, because who knows if she’s ever really been loved before and knows what worldly love feels like.

It’s hard to remind myself these loving children are victims of physical and sexual abuse and now deal with issues of abandonment. Causes and ideals, protests and marches, they are good and needed, but it isn’t until we live amongst what we are fighting for that we really understand: causes and ideals are nothing special in themselves without love and dedication to what lies behind the scenes. In college, I fought the good fight for human rights, but sometimes was able to forget just what I was fighting for.

I wonder as I write this is you can understand what it feels like to truly find God in humanity, to truly believe God isn’t looking down at you from the comfortable heavens but right through you, through the desperate eyes of an orphan.

I might not be able to change the world like I once thought, but yet, changes can be made, for Paola and others like her, one cause, that is to say, one person, at a time. Walking away from the house they live in, a ritual has begun. Paola insists on walking me out with the woman in charge. I say my goodbyes, which in Chilean terms means kisses on the cheek all around, words exchanged, more hugs and cheek kisses, and at last, a long walk, and a final goodbye to the woman in charge as I leave their compound. Then a few feet outside the gate of the house, I hear Paola’s little giggle, and then hear her voice shout,- Tio Pato (tio being anyone in charge, pato, being duck, but also the nickname for Patrick) But anway, “Tio Pato, para ti... BABY!” The neighbors in this quiet neighborhood must think I am crazy, as I turn around, take one last look at her smile, laugh, pray she understands the story my eyes try and communicate to her, and with more meaning then she may ever understand shout back, no, para ti… baby!

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