I’ve never been one for reading lips, but I swear he was mouthing the word ‘leave’ to me.
There it was again. I must have looked at him with a bit of confusion, but this time I was certain that he was telling me to get up and leave my bench under the shady tree.
I had just spent the last half hour book ended on a bench with my friend and fellow missionary Joey. Between us sat two teenagers who spent a majority of their time laughing and discussing automatic weapons with another peer who paced back and forth in front of us. We were both convinced it was just another manipulative tactic on their end to intimidate a couple of naïve tourists from the United States.
“Those guns will just bring you right back to this place” chimed Joey, finally disgruntled with their tough-guy talk.
“Or dead,” I said softly.
“What did you say?” one of the youths sitting next to me asked.
“You might end up dead,” I said bluntly, not flinching, keeping eye contact with him to let him know how serious I was.
I was surprised at how quickly he backed down from his banter and promptly confided he’d never touched a gun before. We chatted about how corrupt the police and government are in Jamaica before they went on their separate ways one-by-one.
I suddenly realized I was sitting on the bench by myself and noticed another older, well-dressed teen walking my direction. And that was the precise moment in which I was encouraged to leave. I didn’t have much time to assess the situation, but unexpectedly I felt a little uncomfortable by this youth’s direction to leave. So I trusted him.
I followed the poorly dressed youth to the side of the carpentry workshop. He greeted me by saying, “You don’t want to talk to those kids; they are very bad. Go in the workshop and look around at the furniture they are building.”
Three adults who were hard at work on their respective furniture pieces occupied the workshop, which was built to teach a new vocation to the children at Copse Place of Safety. Sadly, there were no children apprentices learning the new skill, and the carpenters were too focused on their Guinness beer and sanding than they did in conversing with me.
“Do you ever get a chance to work in here with these men?” I asked the youth standing at the door of the workshop.
He numbly shook his head.
He was starting to chip away at my heart. He was starting to earn my trust and vice versa. I had spent an evening earlier in the week, discussing with the men of my church why I wanted God to break my heart on this trip. The desert I had been wandering in for so long was beginning to take a toll on me, and I wanted to get this over with a broken heart. Perhaps I was carelessly taunting God, but I had never predicted how He would break my heart. Now it was clearly beginning to unravel before my eyes.
I spent the next couple of hours conversing with this youth and learning about his upbringing. He had only been at Copse Place of Safety a little over a month. His father had been killed in some sort of accident and a drug dealer had recently murdered his mother. Because he had no other family in Jamaica, the government dumped him here with the other youths, ages ranging from 7-18.
“Are you a Christian?” I curiously probed, wondering what type of mentoring and education they are receiving at this Christian-based organization.
“Not yet,” he replied. “This place is too violent, and I can’t be a Christian and still be able to defend myself.”
“I’m pretty sure Jesus will forgive you for defending yourself,” I said, trying not to push the envelope too much.
We sat on the edge of the basketball court, which was built by missionaries the year before, and watched the children aggressively wrestle in the pea gravel. The other youth were trying to knock fruit out of the trees to eat, using lumber scraps and large stones. He shared grimly stories about the violence that occurs at Copse almost daily and spoke about being bullied by the older kids who would also steal money from the younger children. He shared with me a time when the older kids rubbed toothpaste on his eyes while he slept at night. And he talked about a time when another child was stabbed with an ice pick.
“What do you want to do when you get out of here?” I asked hoping for a brighter future for my newfound friend.
I discovered that he hadn’t completely lost his childhood as he explained how much he loved skateboarding. And while he admitted he wasn’t all that good with skateboarding tricks, one could easily see that he missed his beloved sport.
We spent the next hour or so talking about trivial subject matters like Michael Jackson, sports, why Jamaican men don’t have earrings (he discovered the pierced hole in my left ear) and so on. He even spent some time teaching me the rules of cricket and set up a makeshift field on the basketball court. In my experiences with children, there is always a demand to be the batter but in this case he was happy enough to pitch to me.
“I’ll remember this day for a long time,” he said without breaking his stare at the ground before him.
Those words resonated in my soul. They humbled me. And I wasn’t sure how to respond. I knew in my heart that I would remember this day and this child forever, and I started processing why God brought me to this place.
I reached into my pocket and secretly slid a handful of dollar bills over to him. I explained it wasn’t much, but it was all that I had to give to him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much sincere appreciation before in my life.
“Do you want to see the jail?” he later asked of me.
I was hesitant to go any further in the confines of the facility partially out of fear for my safety. But we had developed some mutual trust of one another in this short time so I nodded and followed him to a small courtyard. There stood two hardened teens behind bars chatting with another teen on the outside. He explained to me that these children are locked behind these walls 24 hours a day to protect the other children and to reprimand these youth for violent crimes committed. The locked up teens are isolated from one another and I learned that there were additional cells on the backside of the building, inaccessible from the outside world to converse with their peers.
My little friend suddenly became my very quiet shadow when I noticed some of the older teens walking about. Unintimidated I approached several of them with outstretched hands, shared my name and asked of theirs.
“I thought you were afraid of me,” said the older teen that had approached my bench earlier in the day. I later learned that Joey befriended this youth and shared his troubled story from his teen years in hopes of chipping away at a hardened heart.
“Oh, I’m not afraid of you,” I said calmly shaking his hand.
“Do you have anything to give to me?” he immediately asked sizing me up.
I found it interesting that the best dressed and largest of Copse Place of Safety had immediately targeted me for money, which I easily gave without asking to my friend an hour earlier; praying that this time it wouldn’t be ripped from him.
“I’m sorry man. I don’t have anything with me. The next time I come, I’ll bring stuff for you guys.” I said convinced I would be back with a truckload of resources and basic necessities for these young kids.
I glanced down the gravel road and noticed some delegates from our missions team were returning to collect us for our trip back to Montego Bay. My heart sunk as I suddenly realized I would have to say goodbye to my little friend.
I spotted Brad, the remaining third person who elected to stay behind for the day and let God move through Him and the experience. Brad already had such a wonderful, quiet spirit about him and I could tell that he was deeply moved and trying to process this whole experience.
“Erik, I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Garrett.” Brad spoke gently to me with a warm and reassuring voice.
I extended my hand to the fourteen year-old boy and shook his lifeless hand. Lifeless. His spirit was broken, and he wore it on his face and his slumped shoulders. My heart broke some more.
The team was just arriving to the epicenter of Copse Place of Safety and instructed us that it was time to return to the buses.
I turned to my friend with desperation and sadness in my voice and said, “I wish I could take you back with me, but I can’t. But I will carry you in my heart forever. I’ll be back,” I said struggling not to crumple into tears.
He nodded. He understood. He was disappointed, but he believed me.
I made my way down the gravel road with the rest of the team and turned one more time to remember my friend. His eyes met mine and he nodded again. We waved to each other and I put my sunglasses over my teary eyes.
At the gates of West Haven, we paused and took a picture with the kids who had followed us down to the buses. Then we said our goodbyes and started down the path to our transportation.
Brad gently rested his fatherly hand on my shoulder and said, “Are you going to be okay?”
I lost it and wept. And for the first time in my life, I finally understood the correlation to John 11:35 which reads, “Jesus wept.”
Please pray for the salvation, safety and health of my friend, Handre Jones Richardo.