written by Stephen Stonestreet photos by Lauren Stonestreet www.elleeffect.com
A clique question plagued my mind and it went like this: “If your friend was about to be hit by a car, would you push them out of the way and get hit instead?” This question seemed to ask if the amount of love I have for my friends outweighs the love I have for myself. But every time I thought about it, I got this crazy, bitter feeling in my heart, asking: “Is that really all love means?” See, I believed there had to be something else.
For years, I could never seem to grasp it. Not until I found myself across the ocean in the midst of desperate country called Colombia. I was 16 years old. My life up until then had consisted of growing up in a Christian home, sheltered, home schooled (all the way through), and cared for to no end by my parents, siblings, and friends. I was conformable, felt good about myself (as much as someone could), and had a lot thoughts of what I wanted to do with my life. Colombia was a totally different experience for me. To be honest, as I packed for the trip, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to this place. But regardless of my fears and uncertainty, I flew to Colombia with a team of 6 other people, (the rest of them all being 30 or more years older than me).
When we arrived, I found myself in a dream. It was the most beautiful place I had ever been. As our team was being shown around the city of Medellin, population of more than 4 million people, all I could hear from the rest of the team saying, “You are just going to love Colombia.” So far, I was liking it, but wasn’t completely positive or comfortable. I was there to support a non-profit organization called the Open Arms Foundation. Their mission is to “feed, clothe, shelter, and restore the street children of Medellin, Colombia through the transforming power of Jesus Christ.” This is what I was to experience first hand; the abandoned, homeless, and abused street children. From what I could see, the ones who had little or no hope. My heart was with them, and I wanted to help them in any way possible. But I soon learned that it wasn’t about helping them, so much as it was about changing me. Yes, they do need our love, and they need to be given a better life, but how could I give that, unless I had it as well?
God was ready to show me something that would multiply my passion for these children, as well as their families and their country by ten thousand! Open Arms Foundation has several different ministries to these children. They work with boys and girls who have been abandoned by their families or who have run away from their homes. Once the dirty streets becomes their home, they are exposed to other abusive things like drugs, alcohol, violence and prostitution or sexual exploitation. The idea is to go to these children on the streets, develop relationships with them, and then invite them to the program. There, these children can get off the streets, be fed a meal, take a shower, receive new clothes and be loved by the people that are there to welcome them with open arms. This is what I was witnessing.
As the children continue in the program and show good progress in their attitude and ability to stay sober, they are invited to move into a home set up specifically for them by the foundation. There, the children have all the necessities they need, and are able to go to school and learn different trades that are provided at the home. They are also provided with their needs mentally and spiritually. The children go through many different levels of the program, and in the end, the results are the same: the children are restored. The one part that broke my heart, was knowing that many of the children could end up back on the streets as a result of them running away from this comfortable and peaceful place. This is due to after effects of the drugs and desire to continue to make the money on the streets (selling drugs and prostitution).
A few days into our trip, we headed to the home for boys in the mountains. It was about an hour drive outside of Medellin in a small city called San Pedro. As we took the trip there (now, as I write this, it feels like it was the longest drive of my life), I couldn’t imagine what I’d see there. In the distance, a sign read “Boys Farm.” As we drove down the long gravel road, I began to see exactly what God had intended for me to see for so long. Thirty boys running as fast as they could, straight towards the van where I was. With humongous smiles on their faces, every single one of them joined us in the car ride. They were waving their hands at us with a gleam in their eye full of excitement and pure abandonment. As we got out of the car, 200 pounds of pure boy weight was added to my back. Just as they jumped on the car for a ride, they jumped on me, grabbing my arms, legs, neck and waist. I couldn’t help but just smile from ear to ear, laugh as they were laughing, and try to see all of their gleaming faces as I almost fell to the ground.
While trying to stay on my own two feet, I saw Yerson (“Jerson”). At that time, I didn’t know his name, but I knew his face, and I will never forget it. During that moment, nothing more seemed important. My fears and questions simply vanished. As I reflect back on that vivid experience, (now 3 years later) I finally understood what God had done in me. When I looked into those young, innocent eyes as they gleamed back at me, I saw Love. Love was in Yerson’s eyes. Love was in his smile. Love had just entered my heart. I stood there, and I felt the most breathtaking presence of the Holy Spirit I have ever felt in my life. All I can describe is the feeling of a father to a son. That sounded so awkward to me at the time, because we were only eight or so years apart in age. Now, it makes so much sense to me. God was showing me what he feels for this little 8 year old boy. God was showing me how he feels for me. God was showing me what Love really is.
At that moment, I knew what it meant to lay down your life for your friends, and not only your friends, but complete strangers. It was not about dying for your friends, for that passage of scripture does not say, “die for your friends,” but to “lay down your life for your friends.” (John 15:13) Now, I find so much more meaning in living my life in complete sacrifice for others, a living sacrifice, instead of dying, even though I know if that day came, I would die for my friend, or a stranger.
After that day (which seems like forever, but only was three days), I couldn’t stop thinking of that one boy, Yerson. It wasn’t that I was trying to remember him everyday, he was just stuck in my memory. When I was not sleeping, I could hear his voice, and almost reach out my arms and embrace him. It didn’t seem like that was impossible. Even in my dreams off and on, he was there. I felt like I could reach across the ocean each day. I sometimes would drive to the highest point in my small town just to see if I could see over the mountaintops. I just thought, right over there, not to far away, is the place I met Love. And I knew in my heart, Love is right here in me.
The vision of his gleaming eyes and big smile still haunts me to this day (in a good way). This is what God had shown me. As Matthew 25:40, 45 says, “Whatever you do for the least of these (brother/sister and stranger alike), you are doing for me,” I believe I saw Jesus on that day, I saw Love. I not only saw his face, I touched it, I embraced him; I laughed with him, and ate with him, and I will never forget him.
“True religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep yourself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
The greatest love is not to die, but to live and give up your life to rescue those who have lost it all. When you give your life up, you will find it.