Escorted by only three locals, I joined a group of missionaries as they walked the dangerous streets of gang-controlled central El Salvador.
I could feel the piercing stares of men watching us carefully from their perches as we walked — their expressions ranged from suspicion, to curiosity, and even disbelief.
“Are you CRAZY, gringa (slang for white female), do you know where you are?” I imagined them thinking.
Our mission? Find the children.
And nothing prepared me for what I saw next.
You see, it’s probably better I didn’t “know where I was”, or how dangerous the territory I walked through actually was. I later learned the streets we navigated were controlled by Barrio 18, the main rival of the MS-13 gang in El Salvador.
Those men were likely stationed by Barrio 18 to keep watch on those streets, reporting all suspicious or unusual activity to the gang’s leadership.
And it’s probably a good thing I didn’t really talk much that day as we went searching for children, since much of the main work I did as a missionary served the children in MS-13 territory.
If I had said the wrong thing or mentioned a rival MS-13 neighborhood, I could have been killed.
But all I really knew was our task was to find the street children and invite them to a medical campaign and Vacation Bible School we were hosting nearby.
So I kept my eyes on the main goal and searched for the children.
I thought maybe they lived in tiny shacks or makeshift run-down houses. But I later learned I had set my expectations too high.
We walked up to one fruit stand, to invite an adult woman to our medical campaign, and to my disbelief hidden behind the stand I saw curious little eyes peering out at me.
It was dark and dusty, and I couldn’t see who the eyes belonged to at first.
But as I got closer, nestled behind the fruit stand in a dirty cardboard box with a dirty blanket, the little girl sat up. She looked to be about six years old.
With tears in my eyes, I realized this little girl lived here, and this was her home. The only thing keeping her from sleeping on the actual bare ground was a tiny cardboard box, ripped and torn.
I wasn’t reading about a statistic in an article, or seeing a commercial on TV, this little girl, we’ll call her “Sofia”, was standing right in front of me.
But now what do I do?
My motherly instinct kicked in. I wanted to feed her. Wipe the dirt off her face. Brush her hair. Do something.
And as I looked around, there were suddenly dozens more just like her.
Sofia was shy, and seemed to find comfort hiding behind her box. I thought quickly on what I could do in the short 15 seconds I had to interact with her, so I reached in my bag and pulled out a tangled web of cross necklaces, and quickly untangled a shiny pink plastic cross and placed it around her neck.
Her eyes lit up with delight, as if she was in disbelief the cross necklace was actually for her.
And as she proudly wore the necklace, it was as if the cross melted away fear and shame from her face.
We asked permission from the lady whose stand “Sofia” slept behind to bring her to our Vacation Bible School, but the woman said no. I couldn’t just leave Sofia without saying something, so I told my translator to tell her “Jesus loves you”, and he did. She smiled when she heard this, and we walked away and disappeared into the crowd.
I’ll admit, I was disappointed, as I wanted Sofia to come. But I had little time to grieve for her as dozens of other children grabbed my attention as we continued to walk.
When the children saw a group of us walking through the stands, they flocked to us in droves. Some simply grabbed our hands and started walking with us. No permission from parents. In fact, I wonder if many even had parents, or if they simply lived in the streets.
But behind their torn clothes and dirty faces, they were excited and eager about the adventure they were about to undertake! As it turns out, the young adults of this local church who escorted us frequently walked these streets and interacted with these children, so the children knew they were safe and it was okay to come with us.
These children had nothing and they were covered in dirt and scrapes, but they were eager to come and be a part of our Vacation Bible School. And many of them followed us because they knew they would hear more about Jesus.
Once we brought the children back to the church parking lot, we had to usher them in behind a heavy sliding metal gate into an area protected with tall brick walls. Barbed wire lined the top of the outdoor court. And once the gate locked, and no one could get in or out, we were faced with the curious eyes of 75 children staring up at us, wondering what was next.
During those 2 hours, a group of missionaries from the States overflowing with the love of Jesus Christ, were able to show the power and love of Jesus in a tangible way.
Over 75 children on a sweltering hot day were able to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ! They heard Bible stories and did crafts to reinforce the message that yes, Jesus loved them.
Some children were so starved for love and affection, they were eager to hold our hands and sit in our laps, or just make eye contact with an adult who would look at them and actually see them, not past them.
My Spanish was minimal at best, horrific at worst, and the children laughed as I attempted to pronounce certain words and phrases. But somehow, despite my choppy Spanish, and thanks to the help from my translator, I was able to communicate. But even when they couldn’t fully understand what I was saying, they could read my body language and hear my tone.
And I learned that day, love is a universal language.
That afternoon was full of laughter and joy. Some children participated in the favorite pastime of soccer, and eagerly kicked the ball around the court. Others showed us their artistic ability proudly writing their name and drawing pictures in chalk on the pavement.
It was as if just for those 2 hours, their troubles disappeared, and they were simply able to just be children. Kids are kids. Whether in the suburbs of America or the dangerous streets of El Salvador. They just want to play. And laugh. And have fun.
When the two hours ended, they took their art projects and salvation bracelets, and knew it was time to leave. We held their hands as we escorted them home, through the streets laced with broken glass, dirty diapers, and used condoms.
The kids seemed unphased, but I was careful to make sure at least during that short time I had them, they would avoid stepping on something harmful or dangerous.
We arrived at the destination and I watched as some went back to their fruit stand “homes” and most likely curled up under the cardboard and blankets and resumed their place of rest.
My heart wept as I thought about the violence and darkness that surrounded them. I prayed for God to rescue them and protect them.
But I couldn’t help but shake the feeling, that’s why He put us on earth, to be His hands and feet and help them.
And while the task seems overwhelming, we can all start with just one. Showing one child the love of Christ can have a ripple effect on a community.
After all, Jesus tells the parable how the shepherd left his flock to go back for the one sheep. And as Christians, we know Jesus left the 99 to come back for us.
James 1:27 says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
And the command to care for orphans isn’t optional, it is part of who we are as Christians.
I don’t know what happened to little Sofia. I wasn’t able to rescue her. Or protect her. But I could show her the love of Jesus, and do my best to make her feel loved even for the short time I met her.
And I do know on that one special day, a group of missionaries overflowing with the love of Christ were able to show her the power and love of Jesus Christ in a tangible way.
In addition, I was comforted to know that this local church in El Salvador, located and surrounded by ruthless gang members, faithfully went out every single weekend and brought the street children in to hear the Gospel and show them the love of Christ.
It’s an amazing testimony to the power of Christ, that even amidst violence and gangs, the Gospel is preached. And it is true what God’s word says – the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).
And I learned that day, in the darkest areas of the world, His light shines even brighter.
But the reality is, not everyone can hop on a plane and go to a foreign country to love orphans, although many of us can.
However, think about ways you can help orphans right where you are. Perhaps you can help sponsor a child who is living in poverty. Or maybe your family is in the position to adopt an orphan, or even foster a child for a short time.
But no matter your situation, and even if you can’t adopt, all of us can do something to help those who are abandoned and alone.
To those of us who have children — think about if little Sofia was your child. Wouldn’t you want someone to care for her? Take her in to a safe shelter and make sure she is well cared for?
Well in God’s amazing grace, He allows us to be part of His plan to show His love to the fatherless. Children are near and dear to His heart, and it is His desire that these children come to know Him as their true Father up above, while also experiencing love and protection on earth.
So this year, think about ways you can serve orphans right where you are.
Even volunteering to visit local orphanages, or providing a financial contribution is doing something to help make their dark reality a little less hopeless.
And please continue to pray for all the children of the world, including those in our own backyard, who don’t have a safe place to lay their head.
Do you agree we are all called to care for orphans?
What are some ways you can think of to help orphans right where you are?
Tell us your ideas on how you can help orphans either overseas or in your community in the comments below!