Admittance to the World Race came with a suggested packing list. And while it was long, it was hardly exhaustive. It soon became apparent to me that in addition to the thousands of dollars I’d need to raise in order to finish the Race, there would be many other hefty expenses I hadn’t really considered. So I spent the summer before I left slowly accumulating the gear I would need. Among the new items that began to take up residence in the corner of my bedroom was a Nalgene bottle. Blue and white, 32 fluid ounces, with ‘UCONN’ written down the side (a reminder of home, and my life-long loyalty to the UConn Huskies). It cost maybe $15.00. Honestly, I can’t remember.
Fast forward to two months after leaving home and I am in Swaziland living on top of a mountain. The scenery is gorgeous and the weather has surprised us all and turned clear and warm. All I want to do is go for a walk in the mountains with some people I enjoy. Because sunny walks with people you enjoy are pretty effective soul-medicine and I have been traveling just long enough to start to feel homesickness settling in.
So off we go, my friends and I. Our destination is a particular rock with a stunning view of the valley, the river far below us and the fields slowly burning in the distance to keep the grasses from growing too high. I am forgetting homesickness and our fast-approaching travel day to Mozambique as I am again filled with gratitude to be right where I am in this moment. We make an attempt to capture it with a photo, but it does the view no justice.
We have to return in time for chapel, so we begin to head back. We take off running though the fields, past the carcass of a dead cow, to the dirt road that leads to the gates of the children’s home. We are nearly to the road and are walking to catch our breath when we see a little boy running to catch up with us. We stop and wait for him and when he speaks to us it is in Siswati, the local language. One of the girls with us has lived in Swaziland long enough to piece together what he’s saying. He is saying the word for water and it occurs to us that he is asking for a drink.
The boy is maybe seven. He is wearing well-worn, ill-fitting clothes and is barefoot. But not only am I face to face with this thirsty little boy – I am face to face with the Ugly Part of Me. I am afraid to give this little boy a drink from my Nalgene bottle. My brain is saying, “You can’t let him drink from your bottle. He might have HIV. That’s spread through bodily fluids. So he can’t have your water. You’ll have to throw out your bottle. It won’t be safe.” I hesitate as he continues to ask for a sip, unable to properly form words that express my concern. He repeats his plea again and again and I am frozen.
Finally, after what seems like forever, Amanda opens her bottle, tilts his little head back and pours water into his mouth. And I watch as gratitude sweeps over him; he is clearly incredibly thirsty and I have denied him a drink. He gulps and gulps and catches his breath before leaning back and opening up wide for more. I am full of guilt as I realize how thirsty he was. I missed my opportunity to bless him and all I can do is stand and look on as God provides for him in another way. I have failed to serve this boy and I have failed to serve Jesus.
He downs as much as he can before smiling to thank us and continuing on. We finish our walk back and I have nothing to say; all I feel is regret. “What would Jesus do?” I ask myself. Of course he would give the boy the water. He’d give the boy the whole bottle.
Later I find Amanda at the kitchen sink, liberally applying dish soap and scrubbing her bottle. I feel pretty stupid for not thinking of this. She tells me she was worried, but figures it’ll be fine. I figure it’ll be fine, too. I hear the Ugly Part of Me start to say, “You’re in the country with the highest rate of HIV in the world. Most people would applaud you for saying no.” But the sting of regret is still fresh. And I sit there and resolve not to let fear rob me of another chance to bless someone.
I lost my Nalgene three months later at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur after using it as a vase for some flowers. By that point, it smelled so bad I didn’t even miss it. And Amanda still doesn’t have HIV. And I’d forgotten about that little boy entirely until about a week ago when I was approached by a woman asking for money for a train ticket.
It was 1:30 on a Wednesday in downtown New Haven and I’d just come from lunch with a friend. She had an elaborate story about her boyfriend driving off with her purse in the car after they got into a fight. I’ll never know if it was true or not. But what I could perceive for certain was the great deal of shame she was carrying. Shame for asking a stranger for money and probably for a lot more. As she spoke to me, I prayed and asked God what I should do. He said, “Five dollars.” And as I reached and found the bill in my coat pocket, the Ugly Part of Me was saying something, but I couldn’t really make it out.
After I offered her the money, she threw her arms around me and gave me a huge hug, thanking me profusely. I told her not to be embarrassed. I asked her for her name. She asked me to pray for her. I did. I don’t know what she used the money for, but I do know that fear didn’t rob me of another chance to serve Jesus. And as I walked back to my car, I rejoiced at the realization that the Ugly Part of Me has less influence now that it did last October.