Valentine’s Day 2016 fell on a Sunday, and on this particular one, I went to a village church and met a little boy that would capture my heart and leave a mark on it forever.
He was about twelve years old, skinny, and leaning on a wooden stick. His face was serious. Stoic. When I tried to make him smile, he would not. It almost seemed like his eyes told the story of twenty years of suffering, as if childhood had been stolen from him. And no wonder, for his knee was permanently fixed at a forty-five degree angle, the entire knee joint swollen to the size of a large grapefruit. It was covered in a black, crusty, infected, chronic wound.
He had fallen off his bicycle two years prior, and although his family had done their best to take care of him with doctor visits, bone settings, and dressing changes, all their extra saved money eventually ran out, and this little boy remained unwell and resorted to dropping out of school and spending his days on a wooden crutch.
On Valentine’s day, his mother and father brought him forward at the end of the church service for prayer. That’s when I first saw him and learned his name was Joël. We prayed over him, and I remember telling myself that day, I’m not giving up on this kid until I see him smile.
Our team began looking into his options for medical care in country. We made some home visits to understand his story better. We sent him to a larger city for testing and a consultation that basically confirmed amputation as the only solution. We communicated with organizations in the United States to see if anyone there could save the leg, but even specialists looked at pictures and x-rays with uncertainty.
While all of this was happening on my side of things, Joël was back in his village waiting for any news about what we were finding out. On another Sunday during this time, I visited his village church again and saw him sitting under a tree. When I looked his way, spotted him, and our eyes met, he recognized me and the corners of his mouth turned up into a sheepish little smile!
Why, I don’t know. His leg was still bandaged and oozing, his pain still paralyzing. I had made no promises about his treatment or future. But I did see him and care about him, and perhaps that was enough to relight a spark of hope, which glimmered out through his heart-melting, lips-only smile. The smile that I had been waiting for.
Once I got a smile out of him, I set out on a new mission. I started praying that he would go “walking and leaping and praising God” like the healed begger in Acts 3.
Over the next several months, Joël boarded a plane to the United States and was welcomed into an amazing Christian host family with three children that just loved him extravagantly as one of their own. He started school and integrated quickly into American family and church life. He began treatment and therapy, just to see against all odds if the leg could be saved without an amputation. Even after a year, the doctors were still uncertain of his prognosis.
But over the course of his second year in the US, he made remarkable progress. A skin graft and ongoing treatment and therapy began to show marked results, and by the end of that year, he was not just walking without crutches, he was running! He was rolling on the floor with his adoptive brothers. He was playing basketball, weaving and turning without anyone being able to tell which leg had been injured. He even got back on a bicycle with a beaming smile on his face, enjoying once again the sport that had caused his injury four years previously. The people involved in his care were calling it a medical miracle.
When I returned to the United States for Christmas last year, I got to see him and even have him spend the night one time with my family. I cooked him tô with peanut sauce (a traditional dagara dish that he hadn’t had in two years) and he ate two helpings. We played uno on the floor, he showed me his dance moves, and then we watched elf, at which he laughed hysterically. The kid whom I once couldn’t get to smile now wouldn’t stop laughing. He asked if he could stay another night with us, and I said no, but that next time I would like to stay the night with him and his family in his village. He liked that idea a lot. But it never got to happen.
The next month I went to Togo for the year, then he went home to Burkina several months after that. Trying to follow along at a distance, I heard news from all my friends in Burkina that he arrived safe and sound and received the most joyous welcome from his entire family. “The whole village is praising God for what he has done,” one of my teammates said.
I dreamed of Joel growing up, telling his friends and family and even strangers his stories from America. I imagined he would probably become a pastor, but in whatever profession he chose, he would be a living testimony of God’s healing power. I imagined him being an old man, sitting in a wooden chair under the shade of a mango tree, and people would come around him and ask him to tell them again about America. And then he would tell and people would laugh and wonder and imagine, and he couldn’t talk about it without also talking about God.
But four months after Joël’s happy reunion with his family, friends, and village, we received the shocking news that he had fallen suddenly ill and unexpectedly died the same day while being treated at a local clinic.
Tears. A million questions. That deep hole in your gut. Some difficult phone calls. A salty wet pillow. Being so far away. His mother. Her deep joy and gratitude in his return followed by the abrupt unmerited sorrow. Guilt? The unfairness of it all. This definitely was not the way I would have written the story.
“What long, hard work for so little” some would say. So little?
A boy who had given up hope, whose family had run out of resources, who leaned on a stick with no smile, who quit school, this boy had parents who loved him enough to spend all their money on his care and then entrust him to strangers in a foreign country. This boy got to go to the USA, attend school, learn English, roll in the snow, go camping, drive a boat, see mountains and the ocean. This boy got to be welcomed into an amazing host family that loved him beautifully. He was received into a church family that wrapped their arms around him. This boy got to be treated by the most compassionate professionals and experience FULL healing of his leg when he expected an amputation. This boy got to know Jesus by being loved so well, and he ultimately made the decision to follow him. One of the things he wanted to do before he left the U.S. was be baptized, and then he got to go back to his village physically and spiritually healed – “walking and leaping and praising God”, testifying to God’s goodness and power, all the way being dearly loved by two different families across the world.
Is that what you are calling “so little?”
One of Joël’s adoptive brothers said that his favorite memory of Joël was his smile. The boy I met who wouldn’t smile is now remembered for his smile. That’s no small thing. A little boy brought to America for physical healing also received eternal life when he believed in Jesus and made a profession of his faith in baptism. That’s no small thing.
“What a waste”, others might say with regret, questioning why Joël hadn’t lived longer. But what exactly was a waste? Restoring hope to a discouraged family? Saving the leg of a little boy who expected an amputation? Giving him a second chance at life? Seeing a boy crippled from a bike fall get back on a bike again? An entire village exposed to the healing power of Jesus and the answer to prayers? Touching and transforming the lives of an entire family, church, and community in the United States who got to know him and hear his story? The beautiful reminder of the fragility of life, the power of the gospel, the impact of love, and the hope of heaven? Nothing was a waste. Nothing is ever wasted when God says he works all things for the good of those who love him.
Joël loved him. His family (both of them) love him. And I’m just incredibly amazed that God chose me (he could have chosen anyone) to be a part of Joël’s story, to see it unfold. Although his story didn’t end the way I would have chosen, I remind myself that the messy middle of the story didn’t go the way I thought either; it was actually better. So who am I to even say that the story ends here? For I know it doesn’t.
I went over to his host family’s house today to talk, look at pictures, grieve together, and remember. In the corner was his wooden stick, and I ran my fingers over the smooth wood and the indentions where Joël’s name was carved. He had left it there intentionally before going back home to Burkina, a sign to his host family that he didn’t need it anymore. A mission accomplished. A victory won.
“He doesn’t need this anymore,” I whispered, and I looked over at the chalkboard where each week one member of the family selects a verse to write. Before Joël returned to Burkina Faso, he got to choose, and it is written with his own handwriting:
“He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping and praising God.” Acts 3:8
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