My Spiritual Root Canal
Waking to the sound of 12 boisterous children, suddenly my summer abroad wasn’t the romantic picture I had painted.
I woke up in a room the size of my parents’ walk-in closet to what sounded like a Tupperware party gone terribly wrong in the room above me. I felt like I had been sleeping on milk crates the whole night, sore from the thin mattress of an old twin bed. Jerked out of the ignorant bliss of sleep, it began to sink in that I was, in fact, the new uncle of 12 Venezuelan kids.
I looked up and saw two sets of black eyes peering at me through the door.
“Buenos días,” I said, sitting up in my bed and smiling.
The two children ran away squealing with laughter.
I wasn’t amused. Nothing amuses me in the morning, especially if it’s 30 minutes before I normally wake up.
But I couldn’t complain. I had, quite literally, asked for it. I had been planning to come to Venezuela that summer to see my friend Juan Carlos. Wanting to stay there for a month, I thought it would be a great idea for me to work with some sort of charity during the day and hang out with Juan at night.
Juan had found a children’s home called “My Refuge” that allowed Americans to come and do volunteer work. A doctor and his wife ran the home, taking care of eight children from abusive situations. Four others were biologically theirs’. When I spoke about it with Juan in the spring, he didn’t even finish his description before I was enthusiastically answering yes over the phone.
How lovely it had sounded at the time. Yes, my own, self-made Peace Corps mission to Venezuela. I had been there on vacation the year before, but this would be a noble, worthy cause.
Yet that morning, I wasn’t feeling an ounce of the fervor I had felt when I had whole-heartedly decided to do this without thinking.
Most of the enthusiasm I had once relished was drained out of me the night before when, while sitting down with the parents of the home going over the details of my work, the father had informed me that I would be living in the home with the family. Apparently, the children would know me as Tío (Uncle) Joshua and they felt it was best that family members lived in the home.
That was a small shock, since I had come to Venezuela under the impression that I would be living with my friend Juan and working during the day with “My Refuge.” Sitting on the old, velvet green furniture in the living room talking things over in the middle of 12 kids running around, the idea of living in a home with this family seemed like an anthropology project. But I pacified myself with the thought that Juan Carlos would be close by and that I would get to hang out with him almost three days on the weekend.
“So … I guess I’ll get to spend weekends with Juan, right?” I asked, simply as formality.
“Would Sundays be enough?” Papá Hugo, the father of the home, asked.
My heart vaulted into my throat and I felt all of my enthusiasm limp, hobble, and keel over in my chest.
But I didn’t say anything. I looked at my friend Juan, the prince of politeness, and hoped he would intervene.
“Sundays should be ok,” he said, smiling sheepishly.
That same night, I moved everything out of Juan’s family’s apartment and into “My Refuge.” Every sensation of the first day of kindergarten came rushing back, especially when it came time to say goodbye to Juan. That night, I went to bed expecting to wake up feeling differently. But when I woke up to all of the racket upstairs, the ache inside deepened.
Around 7:30 I inhaled deeply, dragged myself out of the bed, and went to the shower, resigned to the fact that I needed to come out of hiding. I didn’t want them thinking I had quit already.
And I wasn’t actually looking forward to getting washed up. While briefing me the previous night, the father of the home informed me that “in this house, the showers are cold.”
I rounded the corner to the bathroom, the theme from Jaws resounding in my mind as I began mentally preparing myself for an arctic bathing experience.
The night before, I told him that cold showers were no big deal, but after I stepped into the shower, halfway awake, my whole being reconsidered. I shivered, whispering unintelligible words through chattering teeth.
After a very brief shower, I went back to my room, not so much bothered by the shower but by the dull ache continuing to grow inside. I had talked about this trip with so much enthusiasm. Girls had tilted their heads and smiled when I told them why I was going. And I had tilted my head and smiled back, inwardly agreeing that I truly was quite a decent fellow.
Yet I had finally made it to the much-anticipated children’s home and in less than 24 hours, I felt lonely and uncharacteristically depressed and I wasn’t so sure how much I wanted to be there. I brushed off the feeling, hoping it was just a passing emotion.
But as the hours went by, the hurt went nowhere. Deep in me, I was certain God was behind it. Sometime before my trip, I had asked Him to weed out the selfishness, impatience and pride that was in me. But it was like He was getting started on a spiritual root canal and forgetting to give me the novocaine.
There was no escaping the challenge. I longed for life back home. In the US, I lived a fairly busy life by my own choosing. Go to work, go to school, go back to work, eat, call a friend, do some homework, volunteer some time at the church, read the Bible before going to bed and fall asleep in the middle of a prayer.
In the US, I didn’t have to deal with the most selfish, aggravating, obnoxious person in my life — me. I could blame any momentary frustration on selfish, stubborn, obnoxious people that I ran into every day, ignoring the fact that they were only reminders of my greatest weaknesses.
But in “My Refuge,” I couldn’t get away from me. The workers in the home were so patient and kind that I couldn’t point fingers at them. The children were just children and I couldn’t blame them for that (although I did occasionally, just to blame someone for my frustration). And the food was actually pretty good. As far as everything was going on the outside of me, I didn’t have much to complain about.
I couldn’t figure out my own problem. I tried, but it only hurt worse that I couldn’t seem to muster up enough of my analytical abilities to explain it away. I told God I was selfish, hoping that He would hear that I had learned something and give me a break. But He didn’t. He was waiting.
The longer I carried the burden of loneliness and frustration, the more I began to see how much of what I had professed to believe had collapsed under the weight of circumstances. All of my pacifiers were gone: my friends, my ability to carry on conversations while showing off my deft people skills, my parents and even my friendship with Juan, only 15 minutes away. I did my best to appear to be content with living in the home while inwardly whining as God used trying times to shed burdensome layers of my soul that had collected over the years and been dismissed as personality traits.
Pretty soon, those “God get off my back” prayers turned into “God please let me get on Your back” prayers.
Contrary to my expectations, He didn’t make it any easier to live in the home. Everything from trying to give “You’ll put your eye out” speeches in Spanish to hearing “Tío!” most of the day or just cleaning toilets brought me to a deeper realization of how helpless, selfish and obstinate I was. But there was a subtle reassurance that behind all of those frustrating circumstances, a loving God was orchestrating it all for my benefit.
Three weeks after moving into Hugo and Sharon Castro’s home, I left, not galloping out on a white horse, but with a humble respect for their work, and a deeper understanding of the ways God moves in my life. I left loving 12 little children, knowing them more intimately than I know many of my friends in the United States. I left and part of me stayed behind — some stubbornness, some insecurity and some cockiness.
And although I don’t know that I have the guts to work in “My Refuge” for that long again, I caught a glimpse of God in that house. You might not be surprised to know that He has little black eyes, makes a lot of noise in the morning, and sometimes, calls me Tío.
Copyright 2000 Joshua Rogers. All rights reserved.