On Monday morning during this past trip in Belize, we had scheduled a time for the women of our team to work alongside the women of the Evangelical Quest Church – our sister church in Belmopan – to make fleece blankets. The blankets would be used later in the week for ministry and outreach in their community and other villages, and we thought that doing a project with the women would provide ample opportunity for us to get to know them and vice versa.
We had no idea how many women to expect. In typical Belizean style, no advance head count was given; we, in typical American style, wanted a precise number so that we could plan precisely how things were going to go. We should have known better. At promptly 9:00 on Monday morning, with a punctuality previously unheard of in the laid-back Belizean culture, two dozen women poured into our workspace. To say that we were pleasantly surprised by the turnout would be an understatement.
We began writing name tags for everyone and instructing the group as to how things were (hopefully) going to flow. Before long, a tiny Spanish-speaking woman named Rosa pulled me aside, grinning from ear to ear, and told me that she would not be cutting the fabric. She just wanted to watch.
I must have looked perplexed, because gestured to a private area a few feet away from the group and led me there. The smile faded a little but did not disappear as her eyes filled with tears and she told me what was on her mind.
“My mother died yesterday. She lived in Guatemala and I can’t get there to be with my family. I just think it would be best if I just watched today.”
My heart wrenched when I heard those words. My family is precious to me, and if my loved ones were going through something of that degree I would be by their sides in a second. I would make it happen, I think, somehow. I have the means to do so, and really, the only obstacle I would face would be my schedule. For Ms. Rosa, though, I knew that it wasn’t a work schedule or childcare that kept her from her family. It was something more basic and much more difficult to overcome.
I said all I could think to say – “Ms. Rosa, I am so sorry….I am just so sorry.” – and prayed with her (altering between English and Spanish as best as I could) for comfort and peace and reassurance. I gave her a hug and was relieved to see that her tears had disappeared as quickly as they had come. She smiled and told me again that she didn’t plan to help with the blankets that day; she was just going to watch the other ladies.
As she resumed her business of watching the blanket-making, I likewise resumed what I had been doing. My mind remained on her story, though, and I kept thinking of how she wanted to be with us that day even though she was hurting so badly.
I got sidetracked working on something – a blanket or some administrative something-or-other – and didn’t see Ms. Rosa for another hour or two. I was thrilled when I finally caught sight of her, standing in the worship area and – as she had promised – not making a blanket. Instead, she was playing with the worship leader’s guitar. (Against her tiny body, though, the guitar looked more like a cello or a bass.) Her smile had returned, bigger than ever, and even from a distance of about 50 feet, I could feel the joy she radiated.
For the rest of the day and the rest of the week, Ms. Rosa amazed me with her joy. She was a tiny lady with a huge smile; she was always so joyful, in fact, that a couple of times I questioned whether she was, in fact, the same one I had cried and prayed with earlier in the week. (I must confess that in the course of just a few days in Belize, I am easily overwhelmed by how many names and faces there are to remember.)
I don’t know, really, what I had expected of Ms. Rosa, but it wasn’t what I witnessed. Had I been in her position, I doubt whether I would have even left my house. In my thinking she would have been justified to sit and cry by herself, feeling sorry for her predicament and marinating in her grief. It seemed that for Ms. Rosa, though, that was not an option.
I’m unsure even now whether what I saw in her was a testament to her own character or an indictment of her culture. Maybe it was both – one because of the other. Women in Belize (and in similar countries and cultures around the world) deal with so much that I really think they are infinitely stronger, in many ways, than their American counterparts. From the time they are little girls to the time when they, like Ms. Rosa, are up in years and seeing the end of life up close, nothing comes easily for them. What’s more, they do not share in their pain. Each one of them walks through her suffering in silence, all while brushing shoulders with someone else who is dealing with the very same things.
I learned a lot from Ms. Rosa’s example, though much of it is hard to put into words. She showed a quiet strength that made a real impact on me, and that I sincerely hope and pray I will not forget. Her life is simple, but the influence she had on my complicated world is great. I couldn’t get Ms. Rosa to Guatemala to be with her family, but one gift I can give her is to remember her story and let it change me somehow.
Maybe I’ll remember her irrepressible joy. Maybe I’ll have an even greater love for her and Belizean women in similar situations. Maybe I’ll remember the strength God gives in impossibly difficult times, as I have seen in her life. Whatever the case, I pray Ms. Rosa’s story continues to ripple through my life, leaving a mark much larger than her tiny frame.