I will call her Sunny. If she were a flower, she would have been a sunflower. Tall and thin like the stem. Long willowy arms like leaves outstretched. Her face broad like the brown and gold petals of flower itself. Her smile bright and beaming in the rays of a hot African sun.
We poured one by one out of the vehicle caravan into the heat. The red dust curled around our feet as we stretched and straightened. We all took a preemptive swig from our water bottles and made our way through the crowd. It had been a long, bumpy ride along little more than cow paths in corn fields all morning. We had survived sloshy bogs that almost swallowed the trailer and one scary hour or two where we were literally quite lost miles from nowhere in the bush. Young men from the village finally arrived on bicycle to lead us in. In my mind, where I romanticize everything, it was like a 1940’s adventure movie, native scouts saving the day.
The celebration that greeted us in the village took us all by surprise. Singing, dancing and drums heralded our arrival. The village had been told we were coming, bringing supplies and gifts for widows. I think most of us expected gratitude but I don’t think we were ready for the sheer joy that ensued.
A woman in the tribal culture of this particular West African country has nowhere to turn if she is finds herself widowed. She may be infirmed or too old to work in the fields. She cannot own property and it is likely she has no skill other than being a wife and mother to sustain herself. If she does not have an adult male in her family to care for her, her life is very difficult. She is really quite destitute and she may be viewed as more a burden than anything else.
So today, we were bringing a tiny bit of relief with our widow sacks. The day before, we had carefully selected and purchased in the town market certain personal items and necessities we believed would help. Toiletries, soaps, spices, some food stuffs and a pair of rubber sandals were wrapped to two lengths of brightly colored cloths known as pagnes. We also brought straw mats and enough grain for each woman to receive four heaping bowls full. We were told the grain would last about three weeks.
There would be speeches and prayers and more speeches and more prayers. Tribal culture is very ceremonial and our American concept of time has no real meaning for them. We were told over and over again that Africa time only measures event to event. There would be an opportunity to distribute the gifts later but for now, it was a party and we were the guests of honor. We took our places on the benches provided under some shady trees and soaked it all in.
Men looked on from a distance guarded and intense. Women danced and sang out songs of praise in their native tongue. Children watched us with shy, cautious eyes. We smiled and clapped along. This was a good day.
And that’s when I saw her. Sunny was about nine years old. Her movements were quick and jerky. Her arms flailed about and her feet took awkward, uncertain steps. Her eyes wide with wonder. She groaned but she didn’t really speak. Her smile was bold but her expression was somehow… empty.
And she didn’t have a stitch of clothes on her body.
Each time she approached any one of us, she was ushered away by a woman who seemed to be apologizing. Sunny did not go willingly or quietly. Yet, she was pulled away again and again. And each time, we protested assuring her escort that Sunny was just fine and not to worry. But the woman did worry. And so each time, she gripped Sunny’s arm a little more firmly and led her away.
Eventually, Sunny kept away, skirting the outside of the crowd. She was curious, so curious that she almost didn’t notice when Geoffrey, the missionary in residence, went to the vehicle, changed into another shirt and returned with the one he had been wearing. He indicated that it was a gift and the village women set out to put the “shirt dress” on Sunny.
She did not like it… at first. In fact, Sunny screamed and wriggled in such defiance we watched and didn’t watch with concern. One would have thought she was in pain. Perhaps she was. Perhaps the material was uncomfortable on her hypersensitive skin. Perhaps she felt too warm or too bound or too itchy. But the village women persisted and though she tugged at the neckline like it was choking her, soon Sunny began to smile. Everyone nodded in approval and her smile became bigger.
I was playing patty cake with a couple of other children who were sitting on my lap and close to me on the bench when I felt a small rough hand on my arm. I turned to look and it was Sunny. She was sitting in the dirt and she was resting her chin on my knee.
“Oh. Hello there,” I said and smiled. She smiled back. She reached up and touched my cheek and then my hair. She took her finger and poked it into my eye.
I repositioned the toddler on my lap and motioned for Sunny to join us in our game. She did. For a short time, I am not sure how long, Sunny sat still and close and played patty cake with other children and a woman whose hair, skin, eyes and words surely puzzled her.
She reached for the beaded bracelet on my wrist and pulled. It stretched and she pulled harder. Fearing it would break but wanting her to have it, I pulled my arm away to unfasten it. The woman, who I imagined was her mother, must have thought Sunny had done something wrong and reached for her. Tears welled up in Sunny’s eyes and she screamed! She kicked her legs and flailed her arms all the while she was carried away.
My heart ached. It was just a silly bracelet.
But I got to thinking. Our mission that day was to bring the gospel of Christ to those who hadn’t heard. We were to be the hands and feet of Jesus bringing gifts to widows and orphans. We were to love as he had commanded. I think we did all that that day.
I don’t know if there were any salvation prayers said. I am certain there weren’t any baptisms. There was a collective prayer that seeds were planted and those seeds would one day grow into the faith of many believers.
But what about Sunny? Had she heard? If she heard, had she understood?
Had she received the gifts we brought, literal and figurative? Did she know who they came from and the love they represented? Had a seed been planted in her sunflower heart?
Do special children, children like Sunny whose minds may not be capable of the comprehension required to make an informed decision for Christ get the “golden ticket” to Heaven.
Of course, they do! I believe she gets a move to the front of the line, no waiting ticket. I believe that because I know our God is a loving God. We are all saved by grace not by works.
“And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad – they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it.” Deuteronomy 1:39
God loved Sunny when she breathed her first breath. He has loved her every breath since and he will love her when she breaths her last.
If Sunny didn’t make a decision for Christ that day, it is okay because she didn’t need to. Christ decided for her. In Glory, I am certain she will have heard and she will have known and she will have said yes.
And her name will no longer be Naawin Yin Ma which means “It is as if God has forgotten.” Her name won’t even be Sunny. It will be Chosen.