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Loving Without Conditions in Guatemala City

When Luke Dove was 15, a high school mission trip to Guatemala transformed his life, and God put a passion and calling in his heart to serve the poor and vulnerable in that country. Since 2012, Luke has worked with Cada Niño ministry, which serves at-risk children in the city’s slums — areas that are continually plagued by violence, gangs, extortion, and murders. As the youth pastor, Luke works with the team to create long-term change in the lives of children and their families through community centers and programs that focus on educational reinforcement, family strengthening and spiritual formation. Here he shares the story of one girl (name changed) in the program.

In early November, we had our first ever youth retreat for the kids at the San Jose Pinula Center. It was a great day, filled with laughs, games, a sermon, a time of worship, etc. We closed the day by opening the floor for testimonies. We had talked all throughout our series on Mark about the importance of sharing our stories, and we wanted to provide an opportunity to truly do that. One of our teachers started us off, really pouring out her heart, and then a few kids who had volunteered beforehand spoke about their lives.

And then Adelia stood up and began to speak. She’s a student in my morning youth class, 16 years old, generally quiet, isn’t necessarily the volunteering type. She’s very smart-- I gathered that quickly from the conversations we had, but I didn’t know much about her story.

She talked about her family, how things had been really hard for them. Her grandfather, who had been an important figure in her life, had been arrested and put in jail for allegedly trafficking narcotics. She spoke about the bullying that ensued in school, as her friends all distanced themselves from her-- how she was accused of being a drug dealer, saying that everything she had was dirty money. Her family was in shambles as they tried to figure out all the legal stuff. Adelia’s situation was so bad that she had to change schools, which made her feel even more alone. She was worried that if she ever opened up at all, or even shared her name, someone might figure out who she was, and the cycle would start all over again. All of this while living in real material poverty, and then in a pandemic for the past year and a half. I don’t know if her grandfather is guilty; she swears he is innocent, but as far as it impacts her life and her family’s reputation, even being accused of the crime is as good as being guilty of it.

I’m trying to paint the picture as she painted it that day out in the mountains under a tin roof in a small eating area, a picture of a girl who feels totally and completely alone. Who feels like she doesn’t matter. One kid out of the 50 in her school classroom. One of many in a house where every additional person is another mouth to feed, another strain on very limited resources, another division in the tortillas that might be dinner. She is a statistic. One of the thousands and thousands of kids who grow up under-resourced, unlikely to finish school, unlikely to ever hold a consistent job, likely to be a mother in the next few years. Her government and country make it clear that she doesn’t matter. Her school system couldn’t care less-- there are another hundred in situations just like hers. Her friends have abandoned her for something she had absolutely no connection with, had no control over, and might not even be true. The world says that kids like her don’t matter. What a feeling that would be, what a profound sense of loneliness she carries with her.

She then began to speak about Cada Niño. Specifically, about the youth group and what the series on Mark had meant to her. What it meant to her, in her situation, to hear that the Savior of the universe died for her, loves her, and knows her by name. To learn that she is a beloved daughter of God. And then, to my surprise, she began to talk about me-- about what I meant to her. How my words had opened up the Bible to her in a new way, helped her think about things in a different way. How my best attempts to explain my understanding of a chapter in Mark in my far-from-perfect Spanish, God used to touch her heart in some way. That was all very nice, and it moved me deeply.

It was kind of her to say those nice things, but that wasn’t what she wanted to focus on. She told the story of one day when she came to class, feeling especially alone and in a dark place. In addition to all the other things going on in her life, she had lost a family member the day before to sickness. Nobody knew any of this, and she came to the ministry that day weighed down and broken. I taught my class on some chapter of Mark-- it doesn’t matter which one, and she didn’t remember.

At the end of class, as we always do, I asked if there was a volunteer who would like to pray to close out our class time. She volunteered to pray. This was rare as Adelia had never spoken up (but also because it’s rare to have a volunteer to pray in general-- teens all over the world are the same, I think).

As she began to pray, she became choked up, struggling for words and clearly not able to finish. I stepped in, finished the prayer, and we moved on. That group of students began to go upstairs, and the next set of my youth came down. As everyone got up to leave, I pulled her aside and asked if she was okay. She broke down crying in my arms. I took her to one of the offices so the other kids wouldn’t see and took a seat beside her there.

That’s all context. What made her cry once again, as she told this story in front of the rest of the youth in this retreat center, is what happened next. I asked another teacher to fill in for me and explained to the kids that I couldn’t teach right then.  And I went back into the office, with one working lightbulb, cement block walls, and a few broken plastic chairs, and sat beside Adelia, and we cried together. Every few minutes, without prompting, she would say a sentence or two about her situation, why she felt the way she felt, what was going on in her life. And we cried. That was it. I even felt a little bad later that day because words weren’t coming to me. I didn’t have any nice pastoral things come to mind, or some specific Bible verse that I could give her to help. But I realized as she was sharing that it didn’t matter; I didn’t need any of those things. She didn’t remember anything that I had said, or even anything that she had said for that matter. She remembered, and kept returning to, one thing: that I had cancelled the next class to be with her, just to be present alongside her. It impacted her so deeply.

In her world, where her friends abandoned her, where her teachers in school don’t know her name, where she views herself as a burden to her family and is invisible to almost everyone, a nameless face of poverty and systemic issues, I had cancelled class, for her, and just for her, because she matters. She asked about it and I said “Yeah, I know there are kids out there and I’ll catch them up, but my place right now is with you.” In that moment, she explained, for the first time in a long time, she felt very profoundly that she matters, that she is important, and that her life has value. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the right words, or that I didn’t have a plan. I was present with her in her moment of need, and that impacted her heart more than any words could have.

And once again, as she was standing in front of us sharing her testimony, I found myself crying alongside her. I wasn’t the only one. Her experience, those feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, are not unique. Many of our kids feel that, too. Adelia knows, and shared with the rest of our students, that our name, Cada Niño, which means Each (or Every) Child, is not just a name. We mean it. Is my job as a youth pastor to teach Bible class? Yes, absolutely. Our kids need to hear the Word, and I love sharing it. But it is also my job to hit pause on it all, and say right now, in this moment, I need to be here for this one kid. And the rest of our students appreciate that. They aren’t mad that I stopped class to sit and share in the burden of one of our kids, because down the road that kid could be them. In fact, at some point, it probably will be.

One of our students’ favorite worship songs is the Spanish translation of the song “Reckless Love,” which in Spanish is called “Love without Conditions”. In both the English and Spanish versions of the song it talks about the parable Jesus shares, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the 1. I’m not in any way trying to compare myself to Jesus, or even the shepherd in the parable. But I hope that Adelia feels that story in a different way now, that she sings that song a little bit prouder. I cancelled a class to be present and sit alongside her in silence, leaving the 18 for an hour to sit with the 1, and honestly the 18 probably preferred playing Uno or whatever they did. But that simple act moved her to tears and impacted her deeply, and according to her testimony, changed her trajectory.

How much more will her life be impacted as we continue to teach and do our best to model the Savior that is pursuing her relentlessly, that leaves the 99 to pursue her heart, with His overwhelming and never-ending love? Our Heavenly Father believes, like our team and I do, that Adelia’s life matters. She is important, simply because she is a beloved daughter of the Most High.

Cada Niño, Guatemala, Luke Dove, youth ministry

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