There were very few introductions. I was family now and everyone called me "Mum" or "Mummy Julie".
The children filled every vacancy on the personality spectrum: Edith was the perfect hostess, carrying my bags, smoothing my blanket-covered mattress and smiling shyly when I offered her a stick of melted gum. Jonothan ran circles around me and darted in front of my camera lens with his tongue hanging out. This made his friends giggle which only encouraged his antics to a new level of little-boy clown acts. And Sharon was like a little rabbit....curious about my fly-away hair and white legs, even sniffing me from time to time, but off and running if I let on that I was aware of her hand on my arm or her fingers touching the beads of my bracelet. If I ignored her, she continued her exploration. If I turned my head towards her she was gone, often in a fit of laughter with her girlfriends trailing behind, in awe of her bravery.
And then there was Shafik.
He caught my attention amidst all of the chatter and giggles,
and the little hands grabbing onto mine,
and all of the looks in my direction, of amazement and wonder mixed with healthy doses of caution.
I noticed Shafik because he refused to notice me.
I watched him often from my first day there. Studied him because he carried himself so differently from the rest; head down, shoulders hunched, his sandal-clad feet producing a slow shuffle on his way from one random point to another. Everything about him was drawn in. Like nobody was home in his little body. And no one was welcome to knock, either.
He reminded me of myself.
And for that reason I wanted to know more about him.
I inquired about the little three-year-old who wandered the courtyard.
"Who, Shafik? He's not three. He is five years old. Here, let me show you some photos."
And they placed in my hand a stack of images that made everything going on around me kind of fade into black and white.
This first photo showed the place where the Ugandan authorities found and rescued Shafik, from adults who were withholding clothes, warmth, food and of course dignity and love. He was covered in filth and waste from his own body and from the pigs that were sharing the same space with him. Shafik was literally eating dirt to survive.
With those photos in my hand, I stepped towards the window that looked out onto the courtyard full of children. And this time I saw Shafik , who was unaware that I was watching him, laughing with another little boy over a piece of trash that they had turned into some form of entertainment. His teeth were rotten, but he had a fantastic smile, made even more brilliant by what I now knew about his story. His movements were animated as he ran his "toy" up and down the sides of a low wall, speaking and pointing in a flurry of Ugandan commands and shouts of glee.
I stepped outside, mesmerized by this sudden display of life from Shafik. His eyes flickered up momentarily to mine and then the shades went down, removing his welcome sign from the front door.
I knelt down and spoke to him in English, telling him that I liked his pink sandals and touching his head with a gentle pat. Everything about him said, "You cannot be trusted. I have no idea why you are here but I hope you go home soon."
I knew then that I was looking at a bodily representation of my own heart. The way that I withhold the best of me for a select few, not trusting that there is ever a safe place to relax and just be. And it's one thing to know that I have issues with trust, but another thing entirely to kneel in the dirt and see myself in living color in the form of an African orphan.
God knows how to get my full attention.
He had me in a place where my heart was already overwhelmed with His love for these children and I was in no position to argue with the message He was folding up and quietly tucking under my door.
"Let me love you."
That evening I ended up in the Baby House where the government children, those recently removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse or abandonment, were filing in for their nightly scrub down. I was ushered into a back room and handed a stack of towels and a small jar of Vaseline. As the children came from being doused with cold water, a quick lathering of soap, and a thorough rinse, my job was to towel them dry, apply that Vaseline from head to toe and help them into their night clothes. (Usually these were the same clothes they had worn that day and the day before. Sometimes something stiff and clean, albeit for the opposite gender, from the clothesline.)
Shafik was among the huddled children waiting in line for my attention. They were getting scrubbed and rinsed faster than I could dry, grease and dress.
He hesitated when he saw me and his eyes widened but the house mother urged him forward with a less than gentle nudge.
I can't even begin to give words to what transpired in the next few minutes. Here was Shafik with no choice but to allow me to help him get ready for bed. I don't know how either of us got through the towel drying, and the putting on of Vaseline and then night clothes. I was aware of every jagged line and scar on his head and back and I was as careful as I could possibly be. His bloated belly was in sharp contrast to his thin arms and legs. He kept his head down and his eyes locked onto the floor.I was astounded at both his bravery and the almost tangible walls this kid had constructed. The other children around us were in constant motion; grabbing towels from each other in a playful way, helping each other find their missing socks, chanting out little songs and sitting next to me on the bed, giggling.
With every moment that I had with Shafik there in that room, I purposefully tried to convey safety and love.
I only had a few minutes.
I spoke to him quietly, knowing that he probably did not understand my accented English, but speaking it out loud anyways. " Shafik, you are a good, good boy. You have a lot of friends here who are looking out for you now. I hope you sleep really well tonight. I love you.".
I kissed the top of his bristly head.
And when it was time for him to move on to make way for the next child......
Shafik stood still.
So I took a risk....
slowly lifted him onto my lap
and instinctively began to rock him.
The other children stopped to watch this unusual exchange. Some of the boys snickered while the majority of the kids just stood at my side, watching, and kind of rocking along with me. Shafik let his head rest on my shoulder. His body relaxed just enough for me to take notice.
"Let me love you."
It was the same message from a God who, I was understanding, wanted my trust as much as I wanted Shafik's. A God who sees our suffering and our wounds and our fears and never stops waiting nearby for us to let Him hold us.
"To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do- to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst-is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed." Frederick Buechner
The very next day and every day after that, Shafik took every opportunity to show up beside me. He never made himself known or asked to be held. He just kind of backed up to me and stood still.
And I held him every time.
"He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.....He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me." Psalm 18: 16, 19
I could tell this was a new experience for him. That he was still unsure, but it felt good enough to return for more.
He began to come in first for bath time and bedtime. And he looked me in the eye and smiled.
He invited me in.
"It might come as a surprise that Christ asks our permission to come in and heal, but He is kind, and the door is shut from the inside, and healing never comes against our will. In order to experience His healing, we must also give Him permission to come in to the places we have so long shut to anyone. He knocks through our loneliness. He knocks through our sorrows. He knocks through events that feel too close to what happened to us when we were young...a betrayal, a rejection, a word spoken, a relationship lost. He knocks through many things, waiting for us to give Him permission to enter in." John Eldredge
Shafik is leading the way for me.
And maybe it is the way for you, too.
A little boy who recognizes that despite his experiences and scars, there is still a safe place to be found. That he is loved. That it's okay to look up.