By Konrad Swartz
I was walking to the Supermercardo to meet a fellow youth worker. It had been raining during the night through the morning, so I skipped over puddles as I made my way. As I was crossing the street, a man called out to me. He asked if I was the guy from Belgium. The question sounded odd as I repeated it to myself. "Is there someone in La Ceiba from Belgium that everyone knows?"
The man approached me, obviously interested in catching my attention. He was dressed like a United States Postal worker. His collared, long-sleeved shirt was rolled up to his elbows, a washed-out blue against the darker shade of his skin. He was a Garifuna from the north coast of Honduras. A canvas satchel hung from his side, a jacket over the top.
I told him I was from the States, not the infamous Belgian fellow from town. "Which state?" he asked.
I answered, also naming Philadelphia as the city I grew up in, a bit of a lie I have gotten in the habit of. Not only do I enjoy thinking of myself as growing up in the city, but also I do it hoping to create some recognition in the Hondurans' eyes. I am quite sure that Spring City, my hometown, will not evoke instant recognition.
But to my amazement, he said, "That is where I lived for two years!" He spoke wonderful English as he described Philadelphia, the restaurants he visited, South Street, and the pride he felt in being part of the city. He recounted feelings of acceptance during his life as an undocumented immigrant coming to Philadelphia and being welcomed to the city of Brotherly Love by his employer, who blessed him with a place to stay. He was grateful to his employer--someone who genuinely and respectfully treated him like a human being. He told me of his life with a smile, spread through his patchy beard.
He asked how my Spanish was, and I replied truthfully, "It's not terrible, but it isn't too good either." He told me while he was in the States, he continually asked God to help him with learning the language. As evidence of his success, he told me in clear English to do the same.
I did not get much of a chance to say anything in response; his recollections and advice dominated the conversation. I was able, however, to mention that I had a friend awaiting my company. His attitude dropped. He became reserved, mumbling in hushed English. I had trouble hearing and became aware that he either really enjoyed this conversation, not wanting it to end, or wanted something of me. His repeated, "Well Conrado, you know I'mů" suddenly sounded guilty.
I tried to remember what I was taught about homelessness and responding to begging. I remembered that it is usually better to bless the person with food than the loose change and few bills in your pocket, and if you can't do that, to give them human recognition. However, I really couldn't catch what he was grasping for. He continually mentioned his age and I failed to grasp the significance. But I really liked the man, so I invited him to lunch.
He followed me to the mall, accepting my offer. His earlier manner had mostly disappeared, but he was still hesitant. And as we came off the elevator he remarked that he didn't want to be offensive, but he very much wanted to get going, that the food here was too expensive, simply the money for the bus ride home is enough. He leaned in toward me as he talked and it was obvious that he was insecure. I genuinely trusted his request, but was, for some reason, confident that all he really needed was a Burger King meal off of the wall--Number 2, con queso y Sprite. I told him this meal is what I could do.
We were standing in line when he told me about his past couple of weeks. He was coming back from Mexico and needed 200 Lempira to get home, to an isolated fishing village where the men work with nets. He promised that after this was all over, and he successfully made it home, he'd give me a call with the community's one phone, inviting me to eat some "real Garifuna food." I believed, and still do, that he was sincere. I told him that I'd pay for his meal and give him enough to get home.
Upon hearing my commitment, he latched onto my arm, displaying the most basic sign of gratitude, a smile. He deeply thanked me, mentioning my name several times. His demeanor changed after I affirmed that he could get home. He helped me with the order, making sure I said the Spanish words correctly, pointing out when the youth behind the counter was making fun of me. He told me that there was something special about me. My Christianity and my service had created an aura, and he could sense it. When he returned to his village, he was going to use this encounter as another testimony of God's love and grace.
But for some reason, as we walked away from the food court, I got too caught up in my original intent and I only gave him 100 Lempira. The food cost 100 Lempira, and I gave him another 100, when all he frankly wanted was to get home.
I was sitting down next to Matt, my co-worker, after I had given my friend the money and food, when I realized my failure. I laid my head on the food court table and felt terrible, guilty, inadequate, failing miserably. Why didn't I just truly listen to him and give him what he wanted? He had blessed me and I had given him a superficial fast food meal and enough to get halfway home.
I still don't understand why I failed to do as I promised and give him the 200 Lempira. Why I didn't think at the time when I was handing over the money, after he said, "Well this will get me halfway there," to simply just hand him the other 100, and reply, "Oh, well here's the other half." He invited me to his house, called me his brother in the spiritual world, and I aborted his hope for a quick trip home.
In perfect reflection to my dragging mood, we walked out of the mall into rain.
Konrad Swartz is spending seven months in La Ceiba, Honduras, under an Eastern Mennonite Missions program. He works with children and helps out in a community situated around and about the city's garbage dump. Swartz is a 2009 Christopher Dock Mennonite High School graduate. You may follow his adventures on his blog: <http://konradinhonduras.wordpress.com>.