Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness.-Luke 11:34
I have written about Alex before but it has been a long time since I wrote about him. We haven’t had much contact with him these past few months. He is a complex person. He relates to people differently than the rest of the children. He is by no means a conversationalist. It is usually difficult to engage him in an activity with us. In fact, he hardly wants to do anything with us. At the same, he wants to be close to us. Sometimes he won’t even acknowledge our presence but he notices when we are not around. On top of this, he has some learning disability. It takes him a while to process things said to him and his constant abuse of paint thinner makes communication almost impossible. It is very rare that we have any talks with Alex. Since the time that we have known him, we had perhaps three occasions where we had meaningful contact with him. This was day different. He came to us announcing that his birthday was approaching. He wants to go to the Zoological gardens. He did this last year with another group but this time he wants to return there with us. We were honest with him. It wasn’t going to happen because of the logistics. It was too complicated for us to take three public forms of public transport with him to go the Zoo. I am not sure if he was willing to do this as well. The last time he went, the group had a car. Then again, I am not sure if it was really the trip to the Zoo he was after. An important aspect of our relationship with the children is interpreting their requests. I believe that it was an excuse for to talk with us. Alex has a hard time connecting with people. I think that his imminent birthday is just an excuse to talk with us.
After this animated announcement, Alex returned to his usual taciturn self. He sat next to us and was quiet. We sat there for a half hour in silence with him. Initially we tried making small talk but it was too complicated. His thinner-infused mind was not registering anything we said. He stared blankly at us for a few seconds and gave us unrelated answers. Silence was the best option for everyone concerned.
It is our practice to alternate between waiting at the steps of the cathedral and looking for the children at their regular haunts. Since nothing was happening with Alex and it looked like he wanted to be alone, we got ready to do our rounds. Alex looked up and asked why we were leaving. We explained that we were going to see if we could get the rest to come the steps. He said that there was no one around today. We understood what he was saying. He wanted us to stay there with him. He put away his thinner and then start talking about horses. I know it sounds random but this is Alex. The thoughts flow through his mind in some logical sequence that is foreign to most of us. We just are learning to go with the flow and listen to his stories. In a way, I am beginning to understand his logic. He has been thinking about his birthday and this must awakened in him a decision to talk about things that made him happy. Maybe during his silence, he was trying to decipher which happy story to tell us. Finally, it was the story of the horse. It was one of his most pleasant moments and it occurred in a state orphanage. He was given a chance to ride a horse at a small farm. Then he started talking about his childhood which led to the tragic story of his mother’s passing.
Alex was placed in the orphanage on a couple of occasions. The first time was because of neglect. It was much more complex than this. Alex was very sick at home and his mother went to get some medication. Unfortunately she was sickly as well and she fainted in the streets. She was taken to the hospital but they did not know how to get in touch with her family. This usually means that they lived in a makeshift shack that did not have telephone or even a proper address. The children being left by themselves and Alex’s deteriorating health prompted the neighbor to call the police. All the children ended up in the state orphanage until the mother could prove that she was capable of taking of them. She must have tried to be a good mother within her capabilities. She had very limited resources and finally they were forced to move in with their grandmother. The five children and mother were cramped up in a tiny room. This is all they had. There was a common bathroom which they shared with drug dealers and addicts. His mother became sick again and she fainted once more for the last time. Alex sat next to her as she was dying. The ambulance arrived after her corpse was cold. This is his most vivid memory of her. He told us this story several times. It is one of his most treasured memories.
It didn’t take long for Alex and his brother, Alan, to ran away to center. The street where their grandmother lived is one of the most dangerous areas in the center. In his case, being homeless was safer than being at home. It is the same street where some of the other boys like Ruan lived. Perhaps the lack of space and unintentional neglect had affected Alex in the way he interacts with people. However, he shared all this with eyes wide open and occasionally smiling when he had shared something funny. He transformed very before our eyes from closed up little boy into this lively and animated teenager. It was great to see this metamorphosis.
The next day, Alex saw us at the steps and he ran up to us. He placed his bag next to us and sat down by himself for a few minutes. Nothing unusual here. At that moment, a homeless man sitting not too far from us was being sick. Alex was the first to notice and asked us if we could something. We have seen scene many times before and we know enough to say the problem was that the man had too much to drink. We assured Alex that he will be fine. However, seeing the man’s discomfort bothered him, he approached the man and asked him if he was okay. The man was completely out of it and could not appropriately respond. Alex took a bottle of water out of his old worn-out backpack and gave it to the man. He then proceeded to pat him on the back and asked him to drink some water. He stayed with him until he got better. Alex walked back to where we were and sat down and went to being quiet and withdrawn. Mary tried to get Alex’s attention and she told him that he had a good heart. He did not say anything. I am not sure if he understood what she meant. He just sat quietly for a while and then start talking about different things that happened to him on this day. None of it followed a coherent sequence but yet we were able to understand him.
I have been taking the Bible to the streets recently. The children and teens know that I am a priest and they often ask questions about faith and God. I took the Bible out and before I could do anything with it, Alex started yelling out my name. He wanted to see the Bible. He flipped through the pages randomly. He was looking for the word, “John”. He is illiterate but he recognizes some words. I asked him if he was looking something specific. He wanted me to read the story of the Annunciation. I read from the gospel of Luke. He listened intently and then said that he did not understand anything. He wanted me to explain. He wanted to know how God came into the womb of Mary. We talked about the Holy Spirit and how with God all things are possible. His face lit with a smile. He said that he liked this part of the gospel when God became Man to be among us. His face lit with his characteristic smile that revealed a chipped tooth and afterwards he laid down his head to sleep. However, not before asking me if I could read to him another story from the Bible the next day.
There are two episodes from the gospels that Alex finds to be special; the Incarnation and the Passion of Christ, of course I would never use these words when speaking to him. He uses more simple and perhaps more profound phrases to describe them; God walking among us and God suffering with us. Incidentally, I found that the children and teens find it hard to relate to the Resurrection. It is not that they don’t believe it but they don’t understand its relevance to their reality. Maybe this could be our contribution. The resurrection means new beginning. The children take comfort and strength in God’s presence in their daily lives and sufferings but they cannot imagine a new beginning for themselves. Maybe through us, they can discover the words to describe this new reality.
We hardly use words in our relationship with Alex. Our conversations are sporadic and disjointed. Sometimes we feel that we are not getting through to him. This might be true. However, God has placed Alex in our lives. He is now part of our existence. In our storage of happy memories, our conversations with Alex are among them, despite the fact that sometimes we feel a little helpless and useless even when we are with him. Something is happening. It gives great comfort to know that God did not call us to save Alex. This is beyond our capacity. Our Lord did not call us to save people. He opens our eyes to see His Holy Spirit working in the hearts and minds of children and teens. Superficially speaking, Alex is not a friendly boy. It does not mean that he is hostile or bitter. He is neither of these. He is a complex young man and yet we can see the Holy Spirit working in his life. He is extra sensitive to the suffering of others. Mostly likely, he is conscious of goodness that surrounds him. He responds to these things in different ways. Our task is to testify the workings of the Holy Spirit in his life. Not just Alex, there are other children and teens who are moved by the Holy Spirit to do acts of compassion. The world passes by these children and teens and just sees a sad and depressing situation and people. God sends us into the world to proclaim and testify that the power of God’s love shines even when there is utter darkness. The gates of Hell cannot prevail against the Light of the gospel.
Alex has every reason to be bitter and angry. He did not ask to be born into the situation in which he found himself. However, when we spent these few days with him in silence, we did not see a hateful and closed person. We saw a young boy open to doing acts of love and compassion whenever the Holy Spirit prompts him. It is amazing to see that despite all the difficulty and injustice he has suffered, Alex continues to nurture a kind and loving heart.
With man this is impossible but with God all things are possible.- Matthew 19:26