“Is this hard work?” I ask. He shrugs and grunts the way ten year-old boys do. And I don’t need a translator.
He presses the chunk of carrot against the grater and it becomes a blur. Lifts the grater and reveals a pile of orange, smiling at this magic trick.
“Your wife will be very happy some day that you know how to cook.”
The translator makes quick work of my sentence and it sounds so much better turned into Spanish. Like carrots into cake.
Under the brown of his cheeks there must be red. He wriggles and smirks without making eye contact.
“He isn’t married yet?” I wink.
She translates and he shows teeth for the first time. Always working.
Then he speaks, finally. A pile of words pour out of him.
“I want to have children,” he says. “But I don’t want a wife…”
His parents have recently separated, volunteer worker from the center explains to me. His eyes are back on his work, greasing pans, preparing to combine all his measured ingredients into something delicious. And profitable. It takes time.
And not only his.
Maria looks like she could be an aunt from my mother’s side – the side full of “M” names. Something about her nose, her smile. Conversation with family comes easy.
Through the translator Maria explains that she was educated to be a chef. She graduated from a culinary technical school, trained to run a restaurant kitchen. But she puts her skills to work here instead – at Compassion International child development center PE223 an “hour and some” drive northeast of Lima. And at two other Compassion centers.
Maria teaches mothers, most abandoned by their husbands, to make cakes, empanadas, breads…and a living. She teaches teens the same.
“I never married,” she says wistfully, laying a smile afterward over unmet expectations. “So God never gave me children.”
She gestures with palms up, motioning toward this room full of young people at mixing bowls. I say out loud what I think her hands are trying to. “Looks like God has given you quite a few children.” She grins wide and laughs loudly. Proud. “She’s very sweet to them,” another volunteer adds.
Maria’s cooking program takes three years to complete and, in the end, graduates are prepared to work in restaurants or to start their own enterprises. Five mothers are saving money from their sales, she says, to buy a commercial oven like the one Maria taught them with. Together they plan to share the oven and grow their businesses.
My mind drifts back across the Gulf of Mexico, home to our small church near Nashville. 400 strong and begging continually for someone to teach bible stories to little ones for an hour on Sunday mornings, pleading and pestering toward this kind of sacrifice and service – toward a sliver of Maria’s joyful easy love for children. And my time isn’t always so cheerfully given.
But this church of just over a hundred sacrifices daily to meet the basic needs of more than 200 kids in its neighborhood. And this happens in thousands of churches Compassion partners with all over the world.
What’s the missing ingredient? How to make all this good come from so little here? How to make church more than a place to raise hands to God…but become the hands of God Himself kneading hearts and minds into thriving followers of Christ?
For a moment, mixing with sweet Maria, I’m bitter.
The moment passes. Thoughts of what isn’t are overpowered by what is – here and now.
I’m handed an empanada – a breaded pocket filled with ground beef and veggies.
Maria speaks quickly, proudly listing all that has to be learned before graduating from her class. Lessons begin with cooking theory. Then simple combinations turn to the more complex. And unexpected. Vinegar mixed with cocoa. Carrots with sugar. Work and joy. The sweet overcoming bitter – better together.
I take a bite and Maria chuckles at the surprise that’s taken over my face. “It’s good?” she asks.
I can only smile and chew faster so I can taste it all over again sooner…and again.
When you sponsor a child you don’t only provide them with the gospel, proper nutrition, access to health care, socialization and education. Your child will also have the opportunity to learn skills that break the cycle of poverty for them and their family. Cosmetology, sewing, computer training, cooking – these are the kinds of income generating trades your child can learn at their Compassion child development center. Because it is development, not dependence, Compassion is after. And all through a local church.