His breathing was more than labored. His bones protruding from every part of his little body except for his distended belly which heaved back and forth as his lungs rattled, attempting to breathe. The orphanage house mother walked through the small crowd of us straight to me and placed him in my arms, and it was if for one moment I was transported to a hospital bed and a nurse was handing me a child I had just birthed. I have held many babies, but have never felt quite that powerful an instantaneous affection.
As a team leader, and with this a very short visit, my brain subliminally selected overdrive to what my heart was experiencing in the moment, yet days later I still cannot shake it. Since my teen years, I have held babies and children in distress with both my arms and heart. I have come to recognize that I am incapable of saving anyone, and that beyond my own neighborhood, my energy is often best spent encouraging and supporting the sacrificial, beautiful people at every corner of the globe who are holding little Matthews and the thousands of other babies each and every day. But sometimes…
Little Matthew cried when nearly anyone else held him except for his big brothers. Eight boys who as young children had been kidnapped or sold into slavery in the fishing industry on Lake Votla in Ghana. Having been rescued, they were now growing young men being a part of changing the story for other children who could suffer the same fate if not for preventative, safe spaces like this orphanage on the sands of the Atlantic Ocean.
Just a stretch down the coast, we had walked the crude ruins of one of Ghana’s dozens of slave forts from the Transatlantic slave trade. We had been reminded of the absolute horror of dehumanization that slavery was. And is. Of how the ancestors of those beautiful black bodies that danced and sang around us today were victims, perpetrators, bystanders and/or witnesses of this historic and continuing nightmare. Of how our fellow traveler, a descendent of some of those who were shackled in these chains, forced to stand in the feces of a hundred men, women raped on the regular… how the story of his people, his mother tongue, his family lineage drowned in the ocean before us.
One of our hosts Johnny handed me a seashell collected from the shore, and I thought of the oft told parable of the starfish… for that one, it made all the difference. As we drove the coastal road towards the bustling city of Accra, the windows were crowded at every town with enterprising women, children and physically handicapped seeking to sell everything from bread to shoe polish off the baskets balanced on their heads. The man unable to stand weaving through car traffic barely in the sight line. The five year old whose eyes were separated from mine only by a pane of glass. The powerful, perseverant humanity pulsating.
Amidst all that stirred up tears, there was far more that inspired respect. It can be so easy to travel to nations where multitudes of its people live beneath the global poverty line and see what is broken. But what about that which is beautiful? What about the men and women that have surrendered their lives to love orphaned children day in and day out? Those who chased down a lost child sold as a slave to rescue them? Who open up their homes to host students that they might have better access to education? Those who spend the hottest hours of the day staffing their shop to feed their family and provide access to goods for their community?
Little Matthew is being held by arms that love him today not because Western money was infused into his town. His new home by the sea is the gift of a Ghanian woman to a Ghanian church that chose to prioritize loving and housing orphans, preventing and combatting trafficking and providing trauma-informed care for freed children over its own interests. I, the Westerner, simply get to bear witness to its beauty. And to be reminded that to whom much has been given, much will be expected.
Matthew is not my starfish. He’s just one I got to be with for a moment to be reminded how freed slaves, abundantly resourced women, multinational businessmen, faith leaders, presidents and politicians, every man, woman and child have a role to play in a world full of displaced and disregarded people. Who will we hold long enough to affirm their dignity and value, and lose our sense self-/family-centeredness enough to live lives implicated and impactful to their flourishing?
Hush little baby don’t you cry.
Mamas gonna tell your story wide.
And if that story doesn’t cause sting
Mamas gonna give up everything
And if even if that doesn’t change your song
Mamas gonna make sure you know you belong