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Growing up in the suburbs, I had the privilege of living in an incredibly affirming society. From the first day of school, I was told I was capable of anything. Every children’s T.V. show told me “reach for the stars” or reminded me that “anything is possible if you put your mind to it!”
In my church youth program, I learned how God valued and empowered each of us individually.
But whenever I applied this to HIV/AIDS orphans, it came out something like “even they are created in the image of God.”
I thought of them as somehow different, separate from me. As if it somehow made sense that I was created in God’s image, but was a mark of how merciful God was when he extended this title to them. It was the worst sort of pride.
Without realizing it, I had been pitying them. Not compassion, but pity.
Classroom, Not Clinic
When I arrived at Lily, I didn’t have strong expectations. I didn’t know what I might see or do. I thought I’d be taking pictures of kids, perhaps spending time at the clinic or interviewing one of the leaders here for an inspirational story.
I never would have guessed I’d be sitting in on a 9th grade social studies class.
Ninth grade is the oldest grade at Lily, and the most crucial. If ninth graders can pass the State-mandated assessment, they can apply to go to trade school and gain the skills needed for gainful employment.
As I sat in the corner with 13 very distracted students, the teacher asked,
“What determines what you do?”
In the din of eager replies, one girl’s voice stood out…
“How you are treated.”
And suddenly, I understood the real mission of Lily.
A Different Identity
Here at Lily, the kids are treated with respect and dignity. They are treated like capable human beings with the power to shape their own futures. They are treated like sons and daughters of a Loving God.
I had planned this trip to go and help orphans in the midst of the HIV crisis. Even in my planning, I had seen them as a goal, and upon arrival, as a story.
Now that I’ve been able to talk to them, to see them and listen to what they have to say, I see something different:
A young man who wants to be a biologist.
A girl who wants to be a social worker.
A little boy learning to play the trumpet.
A student who excels in English, and dreams of becoming a writer.
These aren’t simply dreams un-backed by work or commitment. These children attend class ten months of the year. Those studying instruments take long bus rides into town to meet with instructors. Those training in sports work tirelessly outside of school.
Lovers of literature and drama squeeze their meager book selection for every last ounce of creativity. And teenagers, still learning about what it means know God, are volunteering to help lead Bible studies for the younger kids.
These are not helpless victims of some foreign disease. They’re not even noble stories of kids trying to live a “normal” life.
These are young men and women in extreme circumstances who are refusing to be satisfied with the way the world is. And in large and small ways, they’re changing it.
What I’ve Missed
What I’ve been missing, what so much of the world is missing, is the simple fact that each of these kids are capable of great things.
They are capable of shaping not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone around them. They are capable of facing disease, poverty and decades of oppression and not only withstanding it, but overcoming and replacing it with something new and good. They are capable of all of these things, because they are created in the image of God.
They’re just waiting to be treated like it.
And here at Lilly of the Valley, that’s exactly what they do.
- When Helping Hurts talks about the need for a radical readjustment to the way we view and treat the poor and the marginalized. This is a great read for anyone and a must for those interested in becoming active in social justice.
- Education is essential in our society, but even in our local communities it is often lacking. Consider volunteering to tutor, or mentoring a child.
- One of the most important ways children learn who they are is by how they are treated. What children do you come in contact with? What do your thoughts and actions towards them communicate?
About the Author: Brad Miller is a year-long fellow with WND. A student of Psychology, Biology, and Theatre, he's worked as an actor, teacher, balloon artist and last-minute fill-in guy for any number of projects. He loves camping and tinkering with broken and discarded things. Brad's passion in life is to unleash the potential in others.