Hold the ladder
When I came back from a trip to Bihar, India, I thought I knew that in those dusty villages with dung-daubed mud brick walls lived the poorest people in the world.
Then I went to Haiti after the earthquake.
I was convinced then that in those barren tent cities with no apparent water source, no services and acrid smoke permeating the humid, tropical air lived the poorest people in the world.
Then I heard K Brown’s stories and saw his pictures from Ukraine.
Once more, I knew that in those frigid and muddy streets twisting without rhyme or reason between leaky shelters cobbled together with nails, wire and plastic lived the poorest people in the world.
I think I’m right this time.
After his first trip to Ukraine, Brown, a masterful video story teller, brought home haunting images of the murky, fetid streets and shacks of the Roma village in Mukacheve. Their Ukrainian neighbors consider the Roma, or gypsies, untouchable. But Brown and his team found them so winsome, transparent and hungry that he has become a regular visitor, planning and bringing medical teams and vacation Bible school workers back every year.
So often our mission trips become a four-act play of we go, we minister, we cry, we take pictures to prove we care. We leave behind everything we brought to be distributed among the people because we feel suddenly selfish having extra when they have nothing.
Dana Brown left behind more than her extra jeans. Dana, who assists her husband K on most of his documentary journeys, is the victim of a genetic defect — cardiomushextremis. Basically, she suffers from an extremely soft heart, susceptible to the emotive vibes of the poorest among us, those who feebly cling to life’s fragile fringe.
Dana finds relief for her condition only in ever higher doses of gypsy children, administered through hugs and smiles that communicate more love without words than a common language ever could.
She paints fingernails, holding each little hand in her larger hand, skin on skin, dirt on clean, hope on heart. More than polish the kids want their hands in hers and they run behind a building and scratch off the color so they can jump back in line to have Dana paint their nails — and hold their hand.
Dana encouraged an older woman waiting on the edge to join them. She at first declined but Dana’s disease is communicable and the woman softened. When Dana reached for her, the woman clutched Dana’s hand and touched it to her lips, and cried as if she’d never seen love before.
In discussing the incident K said it is not unusual for a gypsy’s only experience with touch to be harsh, from the scourge of anger or the hard discipline of a parent or spouse frustrated at the impotence imposed by poverty.
“Maybe it’s been a long time since the older woman felt the simple touch of kindness,” K says. “Maybe she has no one who snuggles up and says ‘I’m here simply because I love you.’ The tears mean something. I just wish I knew the whole story.”
K says all the noise and chaos of village life fell silent behind the tableau being painted between two strangers, with a brush of love on a canvass of common humanity. The only sound, he said, was the drop of tears into Dana’s lap.
K is inspired by the faith of gypsy Christians who see the hand of God caring for them in the worst of circumstances. A Hungarian translator keeps going back to the village “because I feel like I’m climbing a ladder to heaven every time I’m around them.”
K and Dana keep going back. They’re looking for others to help them hold the ladder.
(This story printed in the November-December 2014 issue of Herald, a publication of Baptist News Global)