“It is so nice to meet you!” I extended a long arm toward the hunched-over young man in front of me, eager to make him feel genuinely welcome. He looked to be about 15 or 16 years old and sat motionless on one of the concrete benches in our front yard, staring at the soil at his feet.
An awkward moment passed, my open hand lingering in mid-air, waiting to be received in his. He finally extended his limp hand toward mine without ever lifting his eyes from the soil.
My husband Darwin and I stood under the shade of a large tree talking with a middle-aged woman who had come up to our rural property with three of her teenage children, hoping to enroll them in our homeschool-style high school beginning next school year. They had heard about the program though a neighbor who has her son enrolled with us.
The mother was very kind and alert, commenting to us that she wants her children to be instructed according to God’s Word — which does not happen in the local public high school where chaos generally reigns. Her sons, however, did not match her enthusiasm. They seemed depressed or entirely uninterested.
After Darwin and I had given her the information about registration day (when we will be meeting/evaluating possible new students), I then turned to the young man on the bench — the one who had very reluctantly shook my hand — and I asked with great sincerity, “What is your name?” I believe my tone of voice soared even higher than it should have in an attempt to counteract his attitude of total apathy.
Another moment or two passed as he remained unresponsive. I began opening my mouth to reiterate the same question when he finally blurted his full name at the ground.
Somewhat caught off guard with the force with which he spat his name and entirely unable to understand him due to the way he murmured, I asked again, love spewing out of my voice: “Could you look me in the eyes and tell me your name again?”
Everyone present seemed to be caught off guard by my loving insistence, as bad manners such as the ones he was displaying are often accepted as normal in our area. I continued to stare at the top of his head as his eyes remained glued to the soil at his feet. I insisted. Waited.
He finally raised his eyes if only for a split second to meet mine before immediately glancing downward again, again murmuring his full name without me being able to understand him.
His mother, very well-meaning, immediately interjected with a slight laugh, ready to explain her nearly-adult son’s strange behavior, “Oh, he’s ashamed.”
She said so with the tone of voice that you would use to answer, “He’s cold” if asked why your son was wearing a scarf and mittens.
The next morning I spoke on the phone with my own mother about the prior day’s event with the ‘ashamed’ young man, and she commented very accurately, “People [in Latin American culture] use ‘shame’ as a way of naming people. Like, ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘It’s a girl.’ ‘He’s ashamed.'”
So, in this culture where many people from birth carry the stamp “Ashamed” across their forehead (and all well-meaning family members defend their right to carry it), an interaction such as the one we had yesterday is not something new to us. How many of our local students or live-ins, upon arrival, actually looked us in the eyes, were not ‘ashamed’? Very few.
So when this young man’s mother wanted to come to her boy’s rescue, defending his debilitating sense of ‘shame’ as if it were a genetic condition or acceptable form of behavior, I laughed in a very kind way and said, “Oh, there’s no place for shame here.”
I glanced over at one of the other benches a few yards away where Brayan and Arlen sat. These two precious teenage students of ours had just finished participating in a very intense Round 5 of rock-hauling, endless push-ups and frog-jumps as part of their character-formation process. They were beet red and had waterfalls of sweat pouring down their faces as their white school uniform shirts were heavily stained with dirt. I addressed them for the first time in a rather loud voice, “Is there any reason to have shame, boys?”
They both sat, exhausted to the bone, staring me in the eyes, and shook their heads ‘no’ as they confirmed verbally, “Nope.”
I threw my head back and laughed in victory. Yes! Had we not just spent over an hour with these young men along with several other of their classmates, hauling rocks across our large yard and hurling them over the fence? Had we not been loudly proclaiming truth over them as they did so —
“Let’s go, boys! Our life on earth is but a breath! There is no time to waste; submit yourselves to God’s will because He is good and faithful! You have been made in God’s image and redeemed by Christ’s blood! God loves you enough to have sent Christ to die for you, and He wants to adopt us as His sons and daughters! Your life is infinitely valuable, and there is a bright future ahead of you, but you must take hold of it in faith! Haul those rocks!”
I continued yelling out one edifying comment after another, allowing godly instruction to flow from my mouth non-stop as the youth ran back and forth all around me, sweating, bending over, lifting and throwing rocks. Suddenly I realized that many of the themes and Bible verses we’ve been studying together all year were being proclaimed over these young people as they engaged in the very difficult activity of manual labor:
“God desires to raise you up to be fully equipped workers — disciples of Christ! — who are ready and willing for any good work! We know that the harvest is plenty but the workers are few! May YOU be the workers God is seeking; take hold of this moment as training for your future! God has an entire Kingdom prepared for those who love and obey Him, but we must persevere until the end! So persevere even now, hauling these rocks, even though it is difficult! You are doing such a great job! God’s Word says that even in difficulties, God desires that we remain rooted in His perfect joy — so even now find Christ in this moment of pain, even now be joyful! Run!”
By the end of the activity my throat was sore and raspy and the kids were dog-tired. So, when I glanced over at 15-year-olds Arlen and Brayan, both of which we’ve known and been closely involved with nearly three years (they were the first local youth we met shortly after moving here) and both of which struggled mightily in the beginning with looking you in the eyes, telling the truth, maintaining focus, receiving God’s Word, etc, I felt inundated with new hope for this slouched-over young man who all his life had been taught it acceptable to call himself “Ashamed.”
And so I laughed. I laughed right there under that shady tree because I know God is still in the business of redemption, that He has a big eraser in His hand to rub off “Ashamed” from this young man’s forehead and replace it with a giant stamp that reads “Loved.”
And while my own thoughts warned me, “This kid is bad news. What kind of influence will he be on the others?,” my heart rejoiced because I know that this is exactly the kind of young man God wants to call home, wants to renew.
And so, a couple days after our encounter with the ‘ashamed’ young man, I found myself coaching our two developmentally-challenged kiddos, Gaby and Josue (both age 8) as they worked together to haul several big plastic buckets full of dirty clothes to our outdoor washing area that lies a good walk from our front door.
They were both struggling to do so as their faces scrunched up in concentration and their little fingers sought to get the best grip on the buckets’ handles. Gaby grunted in exertion and Josue teetered back and forth as he sought to keep pace with Gaby. The buckets were heavy, and they were wondering if they actually had the strength (and coordination, teamwork, etc) to get the job done.
Seeing as we engage in this character-forming activity with these two little ones every Monday morning, I began encouraging them as usual. As we crossed our large grassy front lawn — me a couple paces in front of them — I began calling out: “Let’s go, Josue! You got it, Gaby! Let’s use your strength to serve God; utilize your bodies as instruments of justice! You can do this! We must work as unto Him and not for men!”
They inched across our front yard, each little one supporting one side of the bucket (and there were three more buckets waiting for them when they finished with the first!), each showing several visible signs of exertion but almost no reaction to all of my verbal encouragement and instruction. I continued:
“God is with us and He loves us, so there is no reason to be afraid — ”
Gaby suddenly piped up, interrupting me, and added, “or ashamed!”
She caught me entirely off guard, as she generally displays almost no understanding of God’s Word despite participating in numerous Bible studies and other Christian activities each week. Is this little person with a big-girl body but little-girl mind possibly absorbing — and understanding! — more than we had thought?
She continued, as if to erase all doubt from my mind: “We don’t have to be ashamed because God loves us! Gotta work for Him and not for men. Jesus died and came back to life!”
As we passed the small high school building and neared the kitchen with still quite a long distance between us and our final destination, Gaby and Josue all the while hauling the bucket one step at a time as a towering pile of dirty clothes rocked about perilously between them, I felt as though our Father allowed me to see them in a new light, to understand His love for us in a new way.
These two children who have been abused and neglected, who are not very attractive physically and have numerous behavioral issues, Josue who wears diapers, Gaby who mispronounces words, both of whom are lightyears behind their peers developmentally and socially — these kids who the whole world probably looks at with pity, who would give them every reason to be ‘ashamed’! — are learning the secret of freedom from all shame, all fear: God’s love. If the Creator of the universe loves you and longs to include you in His family, His kingdom, what on earth is there to be ashamed of? No shame; only gratitude. Joy.
Amen! Glory to God!