Two Afternoons


It was a Thursday afternoon. My boys had just finished their week of exams at school, and now they were flopping around the house “bored with nothing to do.” Even though the weather was fairly hot, I suggested going for a walk to their new favorite store: Mr. D.I.Y.

This store is like a fancy dollar store, with just about anything you can imagine, including a large toy section. We have been reading The Chronicles of Narnia recently as a family, and my boys were interested in buying toy bow and arrows and plastic swords (the pacifist within me cringing a little, but only allowing it for the sake of encouraging the Narnia Imagination).

We had just successfully crossed the Sea of Cars, when I noticed a little boy ahead of us setting out to work as a silver boy1. Even before we saw his face, I recognized him. It’s Ishmael,2 I thought. His skin was covered completely in silver, his face, bare-chest, arms, and legs—all silver.

Ishmael was a student of ours for two or three years. We know his family well. When our boys were small, his mother used to help us with laundry and cooking three times a week. There was even a season when Ishmael would play at our house with our son for an hour before school started—because his mom had already left for work as a maid in a middle-class neighborhood and he had nowhere to be.

I did mental math as I tried to calculate how old Ishmael must be by now. If our oldest son is ten years old, then Ismael must be twelve or thirteen. He is tiny for his age and could easily pass as a seven-year-old still. I know his life has been awfully hard. Poverty forced both his parents to work long hours, leaving no one at home to ensure he attended school.

He dropped out of first grade multiple times (from three different schools over the course of three years, one time including Muslim boarding school in another city– which he ran away from and was escorted home by policemen). Can I blame him for how his life has turned out already? He smokes. He drinks. He works the streets as a singer-beggar, and now as a silver boy. He was born into a life of poverty, and the vicious cycle continues.

We greeted Ishmael, talked a little bit, and then continued on our way to buy Narnia toys. But my heart ached as I contemplated such different childhoods. My children get to hold my hand as they cross busy streets and go shopping. They get to buy new toys and laugh and play and be kids. Ishmael never got to really be a kid. He fended for himself from a small age, likely experiencing all sorts of trauma and abuse along the way—from the slum and from the streets. Lord, have mercy.

The next day was a Friday, the last day of lessons at our school before taking a week off to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan fasting month. I invited the two moms who teach with us and their children to accompany our family to the nearby movie cinema to see Kung Fu Panda 4. They were all very excited, as they had never been to the theaters before.

When we got there and parked our motorcycles, we rode the escalator up to the theater. We were all surprised to see three children that we knew playing at the entrance. They were three kids who used to be our students, but all had dropped out for various reasons (two ten-year-olds and one seven-year-old). We greeted them, asking what they were doing at the theater.

They were just playing and enjoying the air conditioning. They ran up and down the aisles, where people sat waiting for the theater doors to open. All three were fairly dressed up, wearing their Friday best. It was likely they had spent the morning begging from Friday worshippers at a nearby mosque and on their walk home had decided to stop and enjoy the comfort of air conditioning and soft sofas. Perhaps the security guards did not realize they were beggar kids and assumed they were children belonging to some adult walking around the theater, too.

They took a picture with us as we waited for the theater doors to open. We went in to see the movie, and they wandered off to keep begging or perhaps to just walk home (the movie theater is only a ten-minute walk away from our slum community).

Similarly to the day before, I was left with a deep grief at the reality these children experience. A deep sense of hopelessness came over me. Who can help these children now? What future can they possibly have if they are elementary school dropouts? Their parents send them out as beggars, and they are left on their own for hours at a time to face this big city.

Through the school we run in the slum community, we try to help children have a better start at education. But we mourn the many children that we cannot help. We mourn the complex systems of poverty—systemic injustices, parental sins, government corruption, and all sorts of other issues that have led to the lives our neighbors find themselves living and which these children find themselves born into.

What we are trying to do continues to seem like a pathetic drop in an ocean of pain and hurt. And yet, for the children who do continue to come to learn each day, we hope we are empowering them towards a brighter future.

But what about these four little boys — and the many more like them — that I met this week? Will Ishmael ever know that God hears him, sees him, and loves him?

Lord, shine your light in the darkness. Grant us your hope to continue to believe in the seemingly impossible. Grant us your love to reach out to these boys who spend hours working the streets. Somehow, someway, will your good news break through?

 

1 Silver boys (or men, women, or girls) cover their skin with silver-colored powder. They then stand in intersections or walk along roads, begging for money.

2 Name changed to protect privacy.

An earlier form of this article was originally published in my March 2024 newsletter.

Photo by Chintya Akemi Keirayuki on Unsplash

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Anita Rahma

Anita's high school years were spent as an American TCK in the Philippines. For over the past decade, Anita and her husband and children have lived and served in a slum in Indonesia. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring good books. She is the author of Beyond Our Walls: Finding Jesus in the Slums of Jakarta and Downward Discipleship: How Amy Carmichael Gave Me Courage to Serve in a Slum. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.

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