In September, two Beyond Borders supporters and I travelled to Lagonav Island, where we met a boy named Mano.
Several people asked me to share the story of our encounter with him, and I wanted to share it with you too.
Thank you so much for your open heart for Haiti’s children and families.
Jesus at the Gas Station
By David Diggs
The hood of Samuel’s SUV was open, and he was staring stone faced at something. Only because we often hire him to drive for visitors we host in this remote part of Haiti could I detect any sign of frustration beneath his stoic glare. I warned the visitors we had with us that we would arrive late for the meeting we had organized for them.
They were very patient. I was not. The heat was stifling in the backseat, so I opened my door hoping to increase our chances of catching a breeze. The open door made me more accessible to some primary school students who were walking by. Curious to see what a foreigner was doing sitting idle on the outskirts of their isolated town, they drifted over from the road to my side of the car.
Our conversation was a welcome distraction during the wait. We talked about their classes and families and what it felt like to fly in an airplane. As they lost interest, they drifted in twos and threes back to the dusty road.
Only then, when nearly all the students had left, did I notice a boy standing observing us from behind the car.
I could easily guess why he held himself apart. He didn’t belong among these other children his age. Not only were they all wearing school uniforms, but the boys with their freshly pressed pants and neatly trimmed hair and the girls with their elaborate braids and pleated skirts were clearly children who had people who cared for them and families they belonged to. He, by contrast, wore tattered shorts and a heavy winter sweater and was coated from head to his bare feet with a layer of the same lime-white dust that covered the road. And while he appeared at first to be about ten years old, signs of stunting from malnutrition suggested that he might be much older.
I smiled at him, hoping to put him at ease. He cautiously approached.
“Hello, what is your name?” I asked.
“Mano,” he answered quietly. “My mama died yesterday,” he added blankly.
“Yesterday? Oh, I’m so sorry,” I responded, not sure what to make of the flat tone he used to announce this.
“What was her name?” I asked.
He seemed to have to think about this, but finally replied “Sonson.”
Sonson was, I knew, an informal name used among close friends and family. He didn’t seem to know her legal name or his own family name. Perhaps his saying that she had died yesterday was just a way of saying that she had died sometime in the past. If so, I suspected, she had died before he was old enough to learn his full name.
Nearly as soon as I began talking with Mano a bright-eyed 12-year-old girl stepped up beside him. She was one of the remaining students and had all the confidence Mano lacked. They clearly knew each other. With her help, I learned that he spent his days trying to earn tips by dusting off cars or motorcycles that pulled up for gas. Then in the evening after the station’s security guard had closed the gates, Mano would slip back through the fence and sleep in a hidden corner outside the station.
After explaining this she leaned forward and whispered to me, “Everyone here shuns him.”
There was a reverence in the kind way she spoke to him. It brought to mind how Mother Teresa used to tell her sisters to see each poor or forgotten person they encountered as “Jesus in disguise.”
Mother Teresa based this on what Jesus taught his own disciples. How will we each be judged on that final day of reckoning? Not by the purity of our morals or the orthodoxy of our beliefs but by how we care for the dispossessed, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and foreigners among us. “What you do to the least of these, you do to me,” he said.
Was Jesus claiming to be mystically present in those like this little boy? I don’t know.
What I do know is that something profound happens in those moments when my eyes are open enough to see through the layers of dust and humiliation and recognize the image of God in someone like Mano. The hard and lonely places in my own heart seem to soften and open up. Strangely, I never feel more whole or full than in these moments when I feel most empty of myself and hollow enough for love to pass through me and draw me to this “Jesus in disguise.”
Christmas is a celebration of a God who is a master of humble disguises, who seems to delight in showing up at unexpected moments and places and in unlikely people. Could there be a more unlikely scenario for God’s long awaited grand entry than this?
A poor teenage girl who belongs to an oppressed people in the hinterland of the Roman Empire conceives a baby out of wedlock. She quietly marries to avoid public shame. Far from home, she’s forced to give birth in a stable. And before her defenseless baby is even weaned, a death warrant is placed on his head. Mother, husband, and baby are forced to flee to a foreign land and become refugees.
By the time Samuel finally slammed the hood closed, the meeting we’d hoped to attend was over. Instead of frustration, though, I only felt gratitude for the encounter with these children.
Before leaving the station, I bought Mano some food and asked the gas station manager and security guard to do all they could to protect him. They said they would treat him like a little brother.
Mano gave me permission to take his photo, which I later shared with a Haitian colleague who directs our work in the region. She assured me that a new volunteer Child Protection Brigade we are training in the area would investigate Mano’s situation and include him in the care they are organizing for other children in the community who are homeless, out of school, or trapped in servitude.
Of course, we wouldn’t be able to mobilize communities to care for vulnerable children like Mano without you. Through your generosity, you were present in this recent encounter I had with him and remain present in all we will do to help the local community to better care for him.
In opening your heart to the least among Haiti’s children and families, you open your heart to the vulnerable baby who is the heart of our celebration of Christmas.
With deep gratitude, we wish you a Merry Christmas!
P.S. – Our No Child a Slave campaign is raising funds to support work with children like Mano. You can learn more and see the progress we’re making toward our goal at www.NoChildaSlave.org.