Last week the orphanage children were dismissed from school for summer vacation—a vacation filled with 10-hour days of farming, assorted chores, cooking over an open fire and washing laundry by hand. Tonight the children are hungry and knocking on my door for a morsel of food. Even more than this they are starving for attention, starving for love. Obviously, the food supply is low. At dawn I rise with my fellow volunteer, Richard, and a trusted elder of the orphanage, Godsway. We venture 13 miles from the rural village to the nearest city seeking to buy bags of rice.
The bustle of the city market is raucous, and as we approach its entrance we have to dodge the cab drivers who are sporadically weaving through the sea of pedestrians. The potential danger heightens my emotions, intensifying the deafening noises, extreme heat and paltry odors that surround me. In the midst of it all and only for a moment I see a young boy, approximately 10 years of age. He is wearing nothing but a long grimy t-shirt that was once white. He appears to be homeless and aimlessly wandering alone.
My immediate thought is that this child would be a candidate for the Pope Francis Home and School. I ask Rich if he notices the kid, but he does not. At that moment rain starts to pour down, so we duck into a small food tent and relax for about an hour. When the rain subsides we cross the street to purchase the rice. The bags are heavy so Godsway finds a taxi while Rich finds a toilet.
Standing alone and moments later, the boy appears once again. The street is over-crowded, but it feels as if it is just the boy and me. I step forward, reaching in my pocket to hand him some money for food, but before I can, he vanishes down a narrow vendor’s alley. When he disappears, Rich returns and I yell, “I saw the boy again!”
Rich is so taken by my emotion that he decides to go into the alley to search for this mysterious boy. I ask myself: Does the child really look that bad? How could I be the only one that notices him? I don’t think for a second that Rich will ever find him, but minutes later they emerge. In Ewe—the local dialect—Rich gently says, “Come.” The boy now stands directly in front of us in a trance-like state, his body emaciated, beaten and bruised; he was dying. We put two bills in his hands but he immediately drops them onto the ground. I then open a bag of crackers, break them into small pieces and hand them to him. As he slowly begins to eat, I notice something strange. There is now a small crowd gathering and watching our interaction with the boy.
At this point, Rich runs to buy him fruits and vegetables as I continue to feed him the crackers. The boy’s lips are chapped. In his eyes I can hear the words “I thirst,” so immediately I ask a street vendor for a drink. Suddenly someone reaches out with a bag of water, but the boy will not take a sip. He never speaks or even makes a sound; he only gives a continual blank stare that pierces the depths of my soul. Rich then returns and peels a banana, which the boy immediately drops onto the ground. When he does, the crowd of hundreds of people has now stopped. The corner of that market has literally frozen. They are all standing in bewilderment watching us as if we are some sort of exhibit. I wait for someone to assist us since our knowledge of the language is limited, but no one offers. We continue to feed the boy, but the only thing that he will accept is the crackers. We decide to give him the entire bag; however, as I hand him the package he drops the crackers onto the filthy cobblestone pathway.
The crowd gasps and a man laughs. Without hesitation we point at the man and say, “Do you think this is funny?” The man doesn’t flinch a muscle and the crowd becomes deafly silent. Still no one offers assistance. The boy then reaches down and begins eating the crackers off the ground. It is as if someone has stripped him of all dignity, reducing him to an animal. With a gentle kiss on the boy’s cheek, we package the food the best we can while through the crowd he wanders away. We leave in tears.
It was Jesus in disguise. Our Father and redeemer appears in many shapes but often the ones we never expect. Today it was in the tattered flesh of a neglected and abused Ghanaian boy. To the crowd the boy’s condition was overlooked as a normal occurrence of their society; that is why they passed by. But the love of Christ stopped them dead in their tracks and they could only stop and stare. The question is this: What do we perceive as normal in our society that we just pass by?
Through this experience I see that we all need each other to remind one another what we are missing. It does not matter what one gives or does; it’s the intensity of love in which it is done. “Whatever you do to the least of my children you do unto Me.”
I will no longer pass by.
Touched by the Holy Spirit, inspired by Pope Francis’ call to serve the poor, and humbled by the orphans he met, in cooperation with the Catholic Diocese of Ho, Ghana, West Africa, Michael Barry is building the first Catholic orphanage in the Volta Region named Pope Francis Home and School.
The story continues…
The evening after our encounter with the Boy, Richard and I discussed if there was more we could have done. Should we have tried to take him to a hospital emergency room? We decided there was probably nothing we could have accomplished that day. I went back to America a few weeks later. But with Richard, the Boy was never far from his mind. In the fall Richard made several trips to the Ho market in search of the child. Finally he located him, the Boy was laying on the ground eating a donut, still in the same desperate condition. Richard summoned a Police Officer, who told him to call Social Welfare. Richard went directly to the Social Welfare office and told the Social Worker about the child’s condition. The Social Worker stated “he’s one of many and we have no place to put him”. Not willing to accept that, Richard demanded to speak to the Director of Social Welfare, that gentleman stated the same response. Richard sent a request out to other organizations, church groups and orphanages with no results.
Time marched on into 2015. We both often wonder how the Boy in the Market was surviving on the street. In February of 2015, Richard was telling the story to a Deacon and fellow church members at St. Michael’s in Tsito. During that discussion, the Deacon said he knew of that Boy and knew his family. The next day Richard and the Deacon went into the city of Ho in search of the Boy’s family. They found an Auntie who stated that the family loves the Boy and his name is “Michael”. He was 17 years old and that when he was 4 years old he had a seizure which caused brain damaged, limiting his mental capacity to speak and function. The family was extremely poor, living in a small mud hut with 5 other children. Michael would not stay still, he was always moving. With no community or government support, the child was left to wander the streets.
Richard brought this information to the Social Welfare office. He asked them to start a file for Michael‘s possible placement in a facility, if one could be found. Richard helped Social Welfare with the case file, then they went and interviewed the family who were open to any ideas to help their child. Richard continued to pressure Social Welfare to come up with a solution. Richard emphasized that Michael was “not one of many” that he was one child!!
I will let Richard finish the story. “After finding Michael, then his family, things then went cold. Brother Michael returned from America shortly after Easter. He told me of a Children’s home that he planned to visit while in Ghana, the place was called In My Father’s House. On faith we went and met the owner of the children’s village, Father Joseph, a Catholic Priest from Italy. I told him Michael’s story. By the Grace of God he accepted Michael. It was as if it was all ending as it originally started, for it was Brother Michael who identified the boy in the market and it was he who also knew where the children’s village was. In My Fathers House has been a blessing to the children of Ghana for 40 years. They are one of the very few children’s homes that will accept special needs children. The home requires a family member to live with the child. I was there the day The Boy in the Market arrived, he was accompanied to the home by one of his family members who revealed his name, which was of all names, Michael. At that moment I could do nothing but cry and the boy could do nothing but smile. Today the Boy in the Market is safe and thriving, not by any thanks to myself or Michael Barry, but it was only by Faith and in Faith everyone joined together as one body in Christ, to include our brothers and sisters who were praying from home. May we continue to step together in Faith when all hope seems lost. God Bless you.”