Here's how to reach out to vulnerable children
My neighbour is 12 years old and he puts in a full day, every day, hauling cement on a construction site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It’s dirty, dangerous work and Heang comes home bone tired, covered in white cement powder.
Around 6pm every night, he knocks on my door and asks to play with our big plastic box of Lego. He plonks himself down on the ground and continues his construction activities for as long as I’ll let him – except now he is doing so as a kid. In a safe place.
Every now and then Heang ambles over to where I’m sitting, to present his latest Lego creation with pride. He hungers for my words of affirmation.
At first I’m effusive with my praise. Then after the first few times, a simple nod and smile is enough (and all I can muster).
When it’s time to go, he lifts his dusty hand high in the air and with a big grin, gives me a high five - the palm of his hand already more calloused than mine. The other kids crowd around and want high fives too. It’s a feeding frenzy of high fives.
Across the world, children like Heang struggle to survive. They walk the streets picking up cans to recycle for cash. Cash that will feed their family that night. They drop out of school to look after their younger siblings. They bear the brunt of their parent’s stress. Life is hard.
So what does it take to reach out to a 12-year-old on the edges of society?
Thankfully, Jesus shows us where to start.
In Mark 5, Jesus is surrounded by needy people. People with demands and requests. People longing for his touch. Longing for healing.
In the midst of all this bustle and jostle, a broken man comes to Jesus. He’s desperate. His daughter is very sick. Jesus is his only option.
But before Jesus can get to the house, they receive word that the daughter has already died, and the whole mood shifts. Shoulders slump. Heads drop wearily. A low wail escapes from the back of the crowd. Mourning has begun.
But Jesus asks them to hold onto hope. Hope.
And as Jesus walks into the room, he sees the girl lying on the bed, unmoving. He moves forward and reaches out.
Jesus takes the girl by the hand. It’s a simple act of touch. A physical connection. A high five. A pat on the head. An affectionate shoulder rub. Touch.
Jesus, more than anyone, knows and appreciates the power of physical touch. That’s why he reaches out and touches the man with leprosy - the one everyone avoided. That’s why he places his fingers over blind eyes.
And then Jesus speaks. Not words of magic or mystery. Not high religious words, or clever prayers. But words in the language of the streets – Aramaic - “Talitha, koum” – those simple words have been preserved in their original language for us to appreciate even today, in all their ordinariness.
“Talitha, koum. Honey (little girl), get up.”
I love that he has no magic spell to offer, no hocus pocus, no pre-written prayer, or clever formula.
Jesus comes armed with simple physical touch, and an ordinary word, to the most hopeless situation.
And the Spirit of God does the rest. Life is breathed into that darkest of corners. Resurrection comes to the one who has lost everything. The girl rises. The family is restored.
We do not know the mysteries of transformation. In most places, only the Spirit of God can bring change. There is not much hope, oftentimes. So, we dare not act alone. We dare not go as White Saviours, or as experts with all the answers. We must recognize our limitations.
But we do go.
We do go!
We do reach out. Because Jesus has shown us how. And it’s something anyone can do. In the spirit of Matthew 25 where all we’re expected to offer is a cup of water or a warm welcome. We put ourselves out there. And we offer what we can. For the sake of a child.
Who among us cannot offer an extended hand to a child in need?
Who among us cannot offer a simple word of life and encouragement?
Who among us lacks access to the Spirit of God? Who brings life where there is no life?
I look at Heang, playing there with his beloved Lego, digging through the box for the piece he needs. And I know deep down that I don’t have any easy answers for his life.
But I know where to start. Thank you Jesus.
With an extended hand of friendship. With a word of encouragement.
And a prayer that the Spirit of God will bring life to even the most difficult situation.
PS. Five years ago, I started Alongsiders International to equip young Christians to walk alongside vulnerable children just like Heang in their own communities. Today that grassroots movement has spread to 13 countries in Asia and Africa. Thousands of young people on the margins of society are reaching out to kids in their own communities. It is truly a movement ‘of the poor,’ ‘for the poor.’ Would you consider joining us later this year on Flip Flop Sunday - October 20th, 2019 - in a simple act of solidarity with those children? Join us as we walk alongside those who walk alone.