In Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly (which I highly recommend everyone to read) she makes the case that interpersonal relationships are the backbone of human existence. We all long to connect with others and need it to survive. With this in mind, she goes on to argue that the key to unlocking meaningful relationships is vulnerability. Vulnerability is standing with arms outstretched completely stripped of any defenses and open to attack. The antagonist of vulnerability is pain. Like every other person, my reaction is to avoid vulnerability in an attempt to protect myself from getting hurt. However, what I have realized is that when my defenses are high and tight, although it might offer protection, it also diverts the good.
As Brown also points out in her book, accomplishments are the means by which our culture measures worth. In other words, what you accomplish and how good you are at accomplishing it is indicative of how valuable you are. Although scripture teaches the importance of humility, Christians are not immune to prideful pursuit of recognition. Perhaps that isn’t true for everyone (who am I kidding?), but this mindset subtly makes its way into my thoughts and actions even when traveling to third world countries on short term mission’s trips. Here’s an example of my internal monologue:
- I am going on this trip to bless those who are less fortunate than myself. I am going to offer my time and resources to better someone else’s life.
- If I don’t make an impact on anyone’s life in a positive way while I am here, than I am not fulfilling my purpose in being here.
- If I am not fulfilling my purpose in being here, then I am a failure/bad Christian.
I felt this internal pressure to connect with the locals. Sure, part of my motivation came from simply enjoying interacting and engaging with people. Nevertheless, I still compared my performance to others and measured it by the number of smiles, hugs, laughs, “thank you’s”, and this-will-make-a-great-story-moments. I wanted to make a (visible) difference so badly. So much so, that at times I would fail to remember that I was called to simply serve without expectations. What does it say about me when the kids are not jumping up and down when I arrive? What does it mean when no one says “thank you”? What about when no one is laughing?
Villa Esperanza is a home to 24 girls from Nicaragua who would otherwise be at risk of poverty, abuse, early pregnancies, and dropping out of school. Some of these girls have lived there since it first opened nine years ago. Others have come as recently as two weeks ago. The oldest is 24 and the youngest is 13, but the majority are between 14-17. They are teenage girls with traumatic pasts, who don’t speak English, and are unimpressed by the 20+ teams that come to the Villa each year. When you walk into meet the girls for the first time, they are not jumping up and down. They are not laughing. In fact, if they have never met you before, they often just ignore you. They can be guarded and maybe even a little bored. Once you get past the initial barriers, everything changes, but this can be really difficult.
When I met the girls for the first time two years ago, I quickly perceived their apprehension and then felt completely at loss of how to even begin to connect with them without knowing a lick of Spanish. I was very uncomfortable and even anxious. More often than not my attempts to engage were met with what felt like rejection. There were times when I felt a little stupid and insecure. However, despite my discomfort and discouragement, I somehow mustered up the courage and determination to keep trying in spite of what felt like inevitable awkwardness. Thank God for this because it changes everything.
Rewind to one day in August 2015, I was sitting in a cold air-conditioned church building with my team and girls from the Villa. During the service, I saw one of the girls had her arms wrapped around herself shivering. With some hesitation, I took off my jacket and offered it to her. She gave me a slightly confused look but readily took the jacket. After the service was over, it was her friend, Elaysa, who came up to me and handed me the jacket and said in English, “thank you”. I was slightly surprised since when I had previously been introduced to Elaysa she only told me her name and didn’t talk to me again. However, it was clear that she came up to me with purpose, as if it was important to her that someone expressed their gratitude at my gesture.
Later in the week, some of the girls were braiding each others’ hair, and being quite good at it myself, I jumped on the opportunity to participate. They were impressed with my skills, and I just felt relieved that I had something to do and wasn’t left feeling awkward. Then Elaysa came up to me and asked if I could braid her hair. She managed to communicate what she wanted, and I willingly complied. As I finished with her hair, she surprised me again by standing up and planting a kiss on my cheek as a way of expressing her gratitude. As per her request, I also ended up doing her hair for the Quinceanera that was happening later in the week, which was a really special moment.
I wrote her and a few other girls goodbye letters (which is very common for team members to do) and handed them out on the last night. When I handed Elaysa her letter she lit up with a huge smile, let out a little squeal, and flung her arms around me. I realized for the first time at that moment that she really did care. I got to talk with her with a translator that night and learn more about her family, plans for the future, and whether she had a boyfriend. (That last part is kind of a joke because when you talk with any of the girls they almost always inevitably ask you, “tienes un novio?”) I started sponsoring Elaysa as soon as I left and have ever since. This means that we can keep in contact year-round through letters.
Fast forward to the following year, last summer, when I returned to the Villa for the second time. Knowing what to expect, I was much more relaxed. This enabled me to connect with more of the girls, and honestly, just enjoy my time with them more. Although I was getting to know the other girls more, Elaysa was a little stand-offish. This is actually very common. I think this happens because when a girl gets close to a team member, especially if they sponsor them, there comes a point when they test how much that person cares. So, basically, this looks like they’re ignoring you and don’t want to be around you, when what they want is usually the exact opposite. I’ve heard that foster kids often do something very similar, because they are used to people disappointing them. This is really tricky because it is important as a team member to not reinforce this behavior but to also show you care. For me, it was hard because it meant that I would sit next to Elaysa at lunch or try and talk with her, and she would respond by crossing her arms and looking the other way. Again, I found myself having to push past the discomfort of rejection and continue to try regardless of the outcome. Slowly, she let her guard down a bit and started to talk with me again. By the last night we were running around playing games, laughing, and having a great time. (Also, the Villa throws one Quinceanera for all the girls turning fifteen that year. My team happened to be there when they threw that year’s Quince and Elaysa happened to be one of the girls turning fifteen!)
The following morning we had to say goodbye to the girls. I said my goodbyes rather quickly and walked back down the hill to the bus before any of the other teammates. I wasn’t emotional. I didn’t want to be emotional, so I didn’t let myself feel. I don’t cry alot and certainly not in front of other people. I hate it. It makes me feel weak. I was standing waiting for the other teammates to come down when the small voice (in this case, God) started to remind me how much I really did care and how important it was to care. With my heart beating fast and hard, I ran back up the hill (at this point, the other teammates had come down) and ran into the house where Elaysa lives, and asked the girls in the living room “where’s Elaysa?”. She walked out of her room, and I gave her a big hug and immediately burst into tears. She took my face in her hands and asked why I was crying. I told her that I cared about her so much, and that I was going to miss her.
Fast forward again to this year. I didn’t tell Elaysa that I was coming for the whole summer because I didn’t want to risk letting her down. Seeing the surprised and happy look on her face when she saw me for the first time was pretty great. Although we only get to hang out with the girls in the evening for an hour or maybe a few hours on the weekends, it has been great to see how my relationship with Elaysa has grown. There are still times when it’s hard. In the first couple of weeks, she would still ignore me sometimes or get “angry” with me for some reason I was unaware. However, more consistently, we will hang out and talk (as much as we can with the language barrier) with ease. I think and hope that she trusts more and more that I really do care and support her. I can only hope that I can continue to get to know her better and encourage her in all that she has done and will do in the future.
You know, I was originally going to write about an additional four girls, but since writing about one has already taken me this long, I thought it best to not. I will just say this: As much as I cherish my relationship with Elaysa, my time working for the Villa has also allowed me to build relationships with many of the other girls, which I have really enjoyed and appreciated. I don’t always know if the feeling is mutual, but I keep reaching out to each one as much as I can in the hopes that it will do some good. Recently I had to leave the Villa for a week and return to the states for a family reunion. I hadn’t really told the girls unless it organically came up in conversations. This means, without knowing it, I told some girls and not others. Over the days leading up to my departure, I had girls coming up to me saying, “you’re leaving?”, “why didn’t you tell me?”, “when are you leaving?”, “why are you leaving?”, “when are you coming back?”, “okay, I am coming with you.” Then when I returned, I had many of the girls running up to me giving me a hugs and welcoming me back with big smiles on their face. I was pleasantly surprised at their reaction since I didn’t realize that it would matter to them. Although I try to not rely on positive feedback, it is still nice to receive it sometimes. 🙂
So there you have it: vulnerability. Can you please just imagine something for a second? Imagine a friend, spouse, parent, or child that will never give up on you. Who, no matter how many times and how badly you screw up, always responds with “I love you”; “I think you are amazing still”; “I still have faith in you”; “You have so much potential, and I want to help you realize it”; “I’m proud of you”. For me, this person is God. Even when I don’t believe I am enough, he is telling me I am. Even when I put my best effort forward and fail, he says I still have potential. Since that can never and will never be taken away, I have freedom to expose myself to pain, humiliation, and rejection. I don’t always do that, of course, but I am learning that it’s worth it.