I stood outside the park in Allentown. Kristen moved ahead of me assuredly, a marked contrast to how I felt at that moment. Young girls careened around on a bicycle, screaming in laughter, chased by a teen boy. Beyond them and through the bars of the wrought-iron fence, I saw men playing a lively game of basketball. Older women sat on benches or on the concrete of the center triangle, watching the kids.
I stepped into the park finally, behind Kristen, and my eyes rested on the children crawling on the playground or running through the grass. This is why I am here. I looked for a little girl I had met here two weeks ago. Her name was Nattie. I remembered the way she leaned into my hand as I cleaned cigarette ash off of her mouth and cheek. I had told her she shouldn’t eat those and asked where her mother was. She had only smiled at me. But then, she was my shadow.
I didn’t see her.
The group that has committed to reaching out in the city of Allentown gathered steadily around the table at the far end of the park. The spirit is cheerful and energetic. They have a purpose and they have a vision.
They want to start a church in Allentown. The ethnicity of Allentown is diverse and colorful. Many tongues and every color has settled here. The park is an apt representation of that.
I felt very deeply that I was not prepared to help anyone. My spirit was restless and when I looked around at the people, my heart did not stir.
How I wished it would! I want to love children here. I want to work where God has placed me.
I squelched another image of children laughing and playing under the sun on the opposite side of the world.
No, I will not think of where my heart longs to be. God has me here. Not there.
I am here to reach out to the children in this park. I have been asked to help with games and Geoff is heading up the story time for them. Kristen and Jess, two of my closest friends, are helping as well.
The group prays before it breaks up into teams. I listen to the words and send up a prayer as well. Help me love these kids here.
Jess and I run to the restroom at a nearby grocery, and on the way, we chatted.
“You are helping with the kids, right?” I asked her.
“I will help where I am needed.”
A prick to my heart. I should have this attitude as well.
“I’m glad to be doing this.” she continues.
“I can’t believe how it has all worked out.” Jess said as we waited for the light at an intersection. “I wanted to reach out to kids in this very park a year ago, but there was a need for outreach in a different area. So I helped with that and made contacts with adults whose kids they are now sending to this. It’s amazing how God works!”
“My heart was always with the kids though.” She said as we crossed, “And now God is opening the door for me to help in that.”
When we made it back to the park, I saw a circle of children in the grass, Geoff in the center, reading a story. My heart moved. I walked up and sat beside a little girl. She looked up at me and smiled shyly.
I didn’t know her name, but I knew she needed Jesus. Just like I need Him.
A group of older boys walked by and I looked up, sure I would see disdain.
One of them clasped his hand to his heart and shook his head.
“This is so cute!” he murmured, like he couldn’t believe his eyes, “This is so cute!” he kept saying, turning and still smiling as he walked away.
I looked at the circle with new eyes. Children, sitting in a circle in the grass, the spring breeze stirring their hair, their eyes fastened on Geoff. Learning about a man called Jesus, a man Who was also God and died to save them.
“Miss Eliza,” Geoff interrupted my reverie, “do you have a game for us?”
“Yes,” I sat up and their eyes turned on me. “I want to get to know you all a bit better, so I am going to ask you all some questions about yourself, some silly, some serious, and we will go around this circle and you will answer.”
“I know this game!” a girl of maybe eleven sat up, her hair unkempt and tangled on her head. Beside her, a younger, more unkempt version of her eyed me. They both looked a bit wild.
“Great!” I smiled, “so, let’s begin. If you were on a deserted island, what food would you want to have.”
The little girl beside me considered for a moment. “Bananas.”
“That would probably be on the island…” I laughed. “You?” I pointed to the next boy.
“Pizza.” he seemed very certain.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” I applauded his decision.
Around the circle we went. When we were finished, Geoff picked up where he left off. The younger sister of the wild and unkempt girl scooted up to me. She sat beside me, looking up at me curiously. I smiled down at her.
Through the course of Geoff’s lesson, the kids became more out-going and the air became magnetic. I looked around and saw adults gather to watch us, curious. I caught a lady’s eye and smiled. She smiled back and nodded.
Suddenly, the little wild girl beside me tried to kick someone.
“No!” I leaned down and caught her little ankle. “You shouldn’t kick.”
“Ouch!” she looked at me and then bent over her foot.
On her toe I saw a scab. It looked infected.
“Oh dear!” I took her little foot and examined it, “What happened?”
“At school.” she answered shortly.
“I’m sorry.” I put my arm around her.
“Mommy.” she said quietly.
“What?” I bent closer, not sure if I had heard her correctly.
“Mommy.” she said again. “You.”
I couldn’t think of a word to say.
“Mommy.” she insisted.
“She’s calling you Mommy.” another girl beyond her joined the conversation.
I nodded. What do you say? One interaction, moments in length, and a little girl calls you mommy. This is how much need there is in a child’s heart.
We sang together and played more games, learning the names and personalities of each child. They were a wild group, eager for attention and giving out hugs without reserve.
This is God.
“Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not…”
The words echoed. How He loves them.
When we were finished, as I stood on the playground, I glanced down and my eyes met those of a little girl I had prayed for.
“Nattie!” I felt my heart swell when I saw her smile. I kneeled and took her hands. “I was looking for you! I’m so glad to see you!”
She didn’t answer but her smile was answer enough.
In the middle of that park, feeling little hearts reach out for love, God answered my prayer. He always does. From the mountains of Thailand to bustling Allentown, God answers my prayer for these children. He gives me such a love.
He asks only one thing. It is a simple thing. Suffer them to come to Jesus and don’t allow my own desires and selfishness to forbid them from coming.