Boy Without a Name

I can’t share many photos from our time in India because of security concerns, but the photo above, like the boy it features, is anonymous. I call it “Boy Without a Name.”

Everyone called this boy Chotu, which means “Shorty” in Hindi. It is a non-name given to child servants in north India.

This child was on his way back from depositing a load of trash in the river when he heard the sound of children’s voices. He wandered off the narrow path through town and stood on the very edge of the stage where a group of school children were giving a cultural heritage performance.

I could almost hear his thoughts when I snapped this photo: “What’s it like to go to school?”

These moments of connection and empathy happened often during my first few years in India. But at some point I began to experience something I only recently discovered has a name: compassion fatigue. WebMD describes it like this: “Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma.” The symptoms are similar to burnout. You get tired, numb, apathetic. You can’t concentrate. You withdraw.

In short? You lose hope.

I got overwhelmed when I saw how bad things really were. When I saw people betray their own. When I saw money meant to help the poor go in the pockets of the rich. When I saw people choose destruction over change.

Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’re hearing an appeal for disaster relief, or counseling the hundredth addict in your practice, and you think, “Why keep trying? What I’m doing makes no difference.”

What do we do about that?

There are many wonderful tips out there, even entire classes, about how to recover from compassion fatigue. Things like taking breaks, having a support system, and practicing good self-care are all really important. And I tried them all.

But beyond these things, I needed a reason to hope.

And, ironically, I found one in the same place I lost it.

Another Chotu

Our landlords had a child servant they called Chotu, too. Although we call him by his real name in real life, I called him Chotu in my book to protect his privacy, so I’ll do the same here. 

Several years after the above photo was taken, Joshua visited Chotu in his hometown, far away from our project site. He was there to attend Chotu’s wedding.

There was very little food in Chotu’s house. It was sweltering hot, and since there was no electricity, the family found a boy with a big leaf to fan Joshua so he wouldn’t pass out. 

Things outside the house were busy. The village was trying to scrimp together money to help with wedding costs.

The next day was the wedding. But it was not a happy feast. It was a strained contractual arrangement between Chotu’s family and the family of a 14-year-old girl.

Nobody rode an elephant, shook their shoulders, or ate chicken biryani at this wedding. Nobody ate anything. The whole village walked home in the dark, hungry and unsure whether they’d done the right thing. 

These are two real families, with real pressures and real love for their children. People who notice the stars on dark nights and swim in the creek when it’s hot out and have favorite colors and favorite foods and bullies and best friends.

Because of Joshua’s visit, I learned that Chotu and his compatriots were sent to our area of India as much to keep them alive as to earn money for the family. If he hadn’t visited, we wouldn’t have known that Chotu’s 14-year-old bride was given in marriage not to uphold a tradition, but to protect her from potential rape. These parents didn’t choose between school and money or between an innocent childhood and child marriage. They chose between known hopelessness and unknown opportunity.

The lyrics from a song I heard in high school still resonate with me: “The bravest thing I have is hope.”1

Hope is not just a cute word that belongs in a cross stitch. It takes real courage to hope. Hope is the key left in the door, the crack in the cave wall, the way out of darkness. Hope is the intersection of two things: true risk and the potential for rescue.

I knew the risks all around me. But what would be my reason to choose hope? 

Finding a Reason

While Joshua was staying with Chotu’s family, he had the chance to visit with Chotu’s big brother and sister-in-law. Somehow, while Chotu was away, they had heard about Jesus and believed in Him. Around the same time we met Chotu, unbeknownst to us, his brother was praying for a Bible. 

When Chotu went back home, we sent him with an audio Bible he could listen to on his phone. So when he saw his brother again after so many years, Chotu had the answer to his brother’s prayers in his back pocket.

“Nobody smiled the whole time,” Joshua told me when he returned from the wedding. “There just wasn’t anything to smile about. But it was so striking, because Chotu’s brother and sister-in-law did smile. They seemed genuinely peaceful in the middle of all that.”

This couple knew that choosing the hope Christ offered them would not change their external circumstances. They knew that the brightness of His promises would make the darkness seem all the darker by comparison. And they chose hope anyway.

This is why I became a missionary. To give people hope. But what about me? Will I do the hard heart work of holding onto hope myself? When I am surrounded by pain and impossibility, will I hold onto His promises? Will I believe them?

It takes courage for us to believe in what could be, precisely because it could also not be. It takes courage to invest in fallible human beings who might not be okay, even if we spend our lives giving them the chance to be.

But hope takes courage for those in poverty, too. When those in power are corrupt, or when those in authority over you have not wanted the best for you, or when you see that humans can be creatively evil, it’s only natural to lose hope. Even to lose the desire to hope. 

“Hope disappoints,” I can almost hear someone say. They, like Chotu’s parents, must choose between known hopelessness and unknown opportunity.

Yet this “unknown opportunity,” this “unknown God” in a land of millions of deities, this hope, does not disappoint. The Bible tells me so. What a promise! What good news!

I cannot heal all the pain of the world. But I have something to offer. It’s something hard to hold, hard to give, hard to receive… but so worth the effort. To hold it, I must fight jadedness and compassion fatigue. To give it, I must trust God when He says, “That thing you’re giving out? It won’t disappoint them.”

No matter how many kids the world calls “Chotu,” God knows them each by name. And He offers them – and me – a hope that does not disappoint.

  1. From Daylight by braveSaintSaturn ↩︎
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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. You can read more from her at Whatsoever Thoughts, or check out her book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas.

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