From Kate Lawler, ELCA Global Mission regional representative for South America, is based in Argentina. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Why can’t I remember their ages?
Sunday school in our congregation in Buenos Aires started up yesterday. This meant the joy of reuniting with children and others we didn’t see during the nearly three months that we were in the United States on home assignment. I woke up at 3 am last night, asking myself: Why can’t I remember their ages?
Leonel is 3 and a half feet tall, weighs less than 50 lbs. and has never gone to school. He is 7.
Graciela is expecting her first baby and sells second-hand clothes 12 hours a day in the market. She is 13.
Alfredo went fishing with a man his family doesn’t know. They drank beer and smoked paco. He is 9.
Ana gets up every day at 5 am, does the housework, cooks and gets her brothers ready for school. She is 15.
Carla lives a block away from girls who threaten her with a knife when she walks by. She is 11.
Elisa struggles as she prepares for First Communion because she does not read or write. She is 35.
Marcos looked up from his pizza during lunch yesterday and said, “at night I can’t sleep.” He is 4.
I can’t remember their ages because something deep inside me refuses to accept these realities that betray the images I have of what it means to be 4 or 13 or 35.
As I struggle to get back to sleep, the only prayer that comes to mind are the words of Carlos Mujica, an Argentine priest and tireless human rights defender who worked with people living in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires. He was assassinated in 1974, a couple years before the military dictatorship here started.
Lord, forgive me for having grown accustomed to seeing children who look 8 but are 13.
Lord, forgive me for having grown accustomed to splashing through the mud; I can leave, they cannot.
Lord, forgive me for having learned to put up with the smell of sewerage water, from which I can leave, but they cannot.
Lord, forgive me for turning on a light, and forgetting that they cannot.
Lord, I can go on a hunger strike but they cannot because no one makes a strike out of their own hunger.
Lord, forgive me for saying “man does not live by bread alone,” and not fighting with all my might so that they get their bread.
Lord, I dream about dying for them: help me to live for them.
Lord, I want to be with them at the hour of light.
–“Meditation from a Shantytown” by Father Carlos Mujica (1930-1974)