It's no secret that we're passionate about travel. I express to people constantly why that is: to see and experience an equally beautiful and desperate world. What I mean by that is I love to see the world, to marvel at creation, but also to experience different cultures, gain a little more compassion, a little more understanding. Simply put, it makes me love God and people more and teaches me how to love them both better. No small thing.
It doesn't matter if it's the other side of the world or an unexplored corner of my own city, travel simply exports you to a new and unfamiliar place. Having now spent well over a decade exploring, we've come to look for the unexpected, the seemingly random encounter that is anything but. We've come to expect God to interrupt our wanderings, or better put, to orchestrate our every step constantly directing and redirecting even when we believe we're the ones who coordinated the days itinerary.
Our recent excursion to the Hill Country was no exception...
The Saturday morning prior to the evening wedding, we woke early with the intention of driving out to a winery or two and hitting up a few antique shops in the historic town square of Fredericksburg. Our plans were quickly foiled by my realization that I'd forgotten shoes for the wedding, so off on a silly shoe hunt we went. Of course the stores weren't open yet, so we wasted a chunk of time waiting. Cue subtle frustration. Shoes finally in hand we set off for an idyllic picnic in the vineyards, the mornings redemption in my mind, only to end up more frustrated when we happened to choose the one winery in the area that, unbeknownst to us, had no vineyards. Only grapes shipped in from California. We rushed thru our lunch sitting on a patio staring at the parking lot, frustrations mounting.
Short on time we finally headed back towards our hotel to change for the wedding. We had about an hour left to kill, not enough time to do anything we'd planned but enough to grab custard at a shop we'd spotted near our hotel earlier. We thought we'd walk over to a little park situated on the beautiful Guadalupe river, our second shot at partly redeeming the seemingly wasted day.
I just wanted to take pictures. And sit quietly in the sun. And let my girl toddle around. And silently exhale the days frustrations. That's what I wanted.
Nearing the water I noticed a little boy bouncing around at the the river's edge. He glanced at us approaching and exuberantly yelled, "Hey guys! Look at that big bird! Guys! Hey guys! Come look!"
I thought surely we could nod and smile and be about our business. I was wrong. He was relentless.
"Hey guys! Come here! Look at those turtles!" Dark eyes and hair with a distinct hispanic accent, he was dressed in a long-sleeve camo t-shirt and much, much too small little girls pants that hit just below the knee. His chopped hair looked as if someone had literally taken the kitchen knife to it rather than scissors. I watched him waving and pointing as I slumped down into the grass with Ev. Josh walked down nearer the water as the little boy raced towards me with more observations, "Do you see that huge boulder in the water?! Why's it there? Look at those birds! What's that in the grass? You're eating ice cream?"
There it was. A twinge of something in my gut as his eyes locked on my custard... I nearly offered it to him, but he was already off again, "Hey guys! Do you know there are tiny fish in the water? Look!" He danced back and forth at the waters edge, pointing. It was as if he hadn't been out of the house in days.
Suddenly he looked my direction again and raced back towards me, sitting down directly at my side between me and Everyn, almost too close for comfort.
"What's your name?" I asked, scooting away ever so slightly.
"Yeah? Hi, Derrick. Nice to meet you. How old are you?"
"Seven. You're eating ice cream." He stared at my custard again. I felt another twinge of I should give this kid my custard. I glanced around to see if a parent or someone was nearby to ask, but saw no one. I was on the verge of giving it to him anyway, half eaten and all, when he jerked towards me, suddenly sober and serious, "Do you do drugs?"
What. I waited a long moment before answering, unsure where this was going. My first instinct was that he was about to offer, seriously, part of some kind of ploy. I glanced towards Josh a few feet away, "No..." He followed my eyes and nodded towards Josh, "Does he??"
An alarming sensation started creeping up into my chest, "NO."
Sitting with his tiny arms wrapped around his legs he nodded towards Everyn, "Does she?"
Entirely baffled I shook my head, my alarm melting into concern, "No. Why would you ask that?"
Though he seemed to relax a little, his little face fell as he glanced at the ground. All exuberance gone, his voice sad, almost wounded sounding, "Good. I don't like people who do drugs."
And my heart broke. All the pieces came together in an instant: his clothes, his demeanor, his strange but serious questions. This little guy has seen too much, way too much. I didn't even want to imagine what. I wanted to scoop him up and take him home with me. Then as quickly as he'd sat down, he was on his feet again headed for Josh, eager to point out something else in the water.
I sat silently, watching him. Saddened. Sobered. Wrecked. The familiar feeling of helplessness began to try and suffocate me. What can I do? What should I do? I felt that unnerving twinge again in my gut.
No. No, I am not helpless. A sense of resolve rose up in my chest. Before I had formulated anything in my head I was calling him over, "Derrick!" He turned and waved. "Come here for a second!" He bounded back across the grass, standing over me curious. "Can I ask you something?" He stared at me blankly. I plunged forward before I could over think it, "Do you know who Jesus is?"
His eyes lit up as he pointed to the sky, "Up there!"
I smiled, his recognition comforting, "Yeah, up there. Do you know He loves you?"
"Yeah!" He started kind of bouncing in place, almost proud.
"Good. I'm glad." I knew I only had a few moments to hold his attention, and I wanted to make certain he heard me, "Derrick, do you know you can talk to Him anytime you need to? Even anytime you want to?"
More recognition lit up his little face, "Yeah! My grandma takes me to church!" Questions resolved as far as he was concerned, he raced away, again exuberant.
I watched him run up the hill, shouting something I couldn't discern with his back to me. A man appeared near the top motioning for him to come. He yelled one last time, "Bye, guys!" as if we were old friends who would meet back the following day.
Josh walked up with a chuckle watching him disappear from sight, having half overheard our conversation, "So much for a moment of quiet." He stood over me seemingly amused, still staring into the distance, "Well God, I guess You had different plans for us today." I knew none of his commentary was directed at me. Yep, I thought, He sure did.
I don't presume to know what little Derrick has or hasn't experienced in his short seven years. I could guess, but I don't really even want to. What I do know is that on that sunny Saturday afternoon on the bank of the beautiful Guadalupe, when all I wanted was to sit quietly and enjoy my ice cream, God wanted something bigger. He wanted to remind a little boy, whether he already knew it or not, that he is loved.
And He wanted me to be humbly reminded that sitting in the sun on the bank of the river eating ice cream with my girl is no small thing. It is a blessing and luxury not everyone gets to experience.
I love the Hill Country. I love it for its beauty, its subtle resemblance of Provence with its rolling lavender fields and stretching vineyards, and I love it for this reminder and memory: I will never think of the Hill Country and not think of Derrick. Or his precious grandmother. I will never think of the Hill Country and not pray for Derrick and his grandmother.
Though the treasure hunting and wine tastings made for a perfect weekend getaway, perhaps this short encounter was the real point and purpose all along. It may have had little effect on Derrick, or unbeknownst to me maybe he'll be reminded of it in days or years to come in a moment he really needs it. Or maybe he won't remember it at all. But one thing is certain, I won't soon forget it. Nor will I cease to pray. And that is never a small thing, for me or him.
"The Lord directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives." Psalm 37: 23
Your steps are ordered, friends. Keep that in mind today.