I met him at night on a crowded street in Belo Horizonte, Brazil many years ago.
I thought he was a child but he could have been a young teen. Our interaction lasted less than five minutes. No words were spoken. I couldn’t got a good look at his face, just the back of his head.
I sat on the sidewalk watching my teammates do a skit for the crowd. That’s when he came. I’m not sure how he knew he would be welcome in my lap. He didn’t ask permission. He just crawled in.
Tentative and a bit rigid at first but as I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him close, little by little he melted, first his shoulders, then his upper body, and then his whole body. I had his full weight and his full frame tucked safely in mine and I felt privileged to hold him.
His arrival surprised me but not as much as the smell. It wasn’t the smell of a child who had played too long outside on a hot day. Nor was it the smell of numerous days and nights on the street without care. Those smells I expected. Those smells were familiar. This smell was different. This smell was noxious, overpowering, even destructive. This smell made my nose bleed.
My eyes started to burn. I found it hard to breathe. I noticed he had dirty strips of cloth soaked in some kind of liquid tied around his wrists. I watched him as he periodically held those tattered fibers to his face and breathed in and out, in and out.
By now the strength of the fumes had changed the burning in my eyes to a steady stream of tears. I felt my nose running too, but I wasn’t about to let go of him, this treasure, for such a trivial matter.
From his size, I guessed him to be about eight years old. In those moments, time stopped for me. As I became fully present with this child in my arms, I prayed in silence, “Lord, help him feel your love.”
A minute passed. Maybe two. I had instinctively closed my eyes and focused my whole being on him as if every nurturing cell in my body could somehow silently reach him and speak of his worth.
A high-pitched whistle pierced the air. He jolted out of my lap and into a full sprint down the street. I saw other kids running to answer the same call. I watched as a group of 15 kids congregated around a particular man, a “street pimp,” on the next corner. Money they obtained through begging or other means was exchanged for the opportunity to soak their rags in his toxic bucket of shoe glue.
And then they were gone. Off to the next area making what appeared to be a nightly canvassing of the city. I never saw him again. I never had the chance to ask his name.
It took a while for me to comprehend his reality. What I thought was a runny nose was actually bleeding caused by the substance that he worked for, that he relied on, that numbed his mind and stole his life. If the fumes caused my nose to bleed in less than a minute, what effect were they having on him?
I found out there are thousands of kids like him on the streets of Brazil. Malnourished, smaller in stature than their ages, most without a place to call home or a person to call family. Hated by the shop owners from which they steal, hated by the public from whom they beg, even disposed of by corrupt officials who accept bribes to rid the city of this “nuisance.”
Once the fumes wore off, my nosebleed stopped. My tears for him, however, gushed like a river. For his innocence lost; for his life un-nurtured; for his worth un-celebrated; for a childhood lost to pimps, shoe glue, theft, and hunger.
Please know precious one, that on that night, a small-town girl from a place far away saw you, loved you, and wept over your wounds and your worth.
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