There was nothing fake about it. The scream was real. It was not a scream produced in Hollywood, nor was it a scream in a dream created by my own hyperactive brain cells. It was an audible scream. I heard it, loud, clear, nearby. It was not a scream indicating physical pain nor was it a scream in response to terror. It was a scream of emotional agony, an unimaginable misery, an emotional pain so real, so great so intense it could no longer be contained. It was a scream of utter hopelessness. I turned immediately to seek the source of the scream, my hero wannabe instincts kicking into high gear. I was ready to help, to rescue to save.
From the alley I had just walked past in the horribly misnamed slums of La Paz (The Peace) in Guatemala City, emerged a woman in her late twenties, or thirties, or forties or her fifties. There was no way of determining her age, not because she was well kept but because her filthy, emaciated, unkempt face did not reveal if she had been in hellish misery for twenty years or fifty. Her hair was long and tangled in filthy, long strings not unlike an old mop. Her tears, after a lifetime of crying in the grime filled alleys in the slums, had left her face looking like a river delta, wet, streaked and muddy.
She wore a mottled brown-gray T-shirt, originally black, but which was now caked in dust and city grime in a modern, urban-destitute camo. Her pants were orange, or probably had been at one time. As was her face, the pants were muddy–very muddy–but the elements making the mud were obvious; she had wet herself. Both her front and back and both thighs down to her knees were very wet, very dirty, very muddy.
If misery could be painted in a paint-by-number kit, only one number would be needed to portray the misery displayed in her face – only one color was needed – the deepest, the darkest, the most intense lightless presentation of pure darkness. The desperation in her scream stuck in my ears and is now stuck in my mind, and it is hurting my heart. I cannot begin to fathom the depth of agony revealed in that scream. Was she screaming at something that had just been done to her by some debauched and depraved man, one of the countless men in the long and unending line of men abusing her stretching back to her long lost childhood and extending into her uncertain future? Did her wet pants remind her yet again of the only way of life available to her? – a way of life with no known escape, no known exit, no known hope? Did she scream because in some semi lucid moment she had seen that her current misery was but a foretaste of her guaranteed future and that barring some purposeful, directed, divine intervention she was destined to keep sinking down, down , down, down until she could sink no farther?
She stumbled a few more steps and lurched her way into a hovel, a tin and cardboard shack that opened to the dirty street on which I stood. She was gone, but the memory of what I heard and saw is not, and as horrific as it was, I hope the memory never goes away. I want to remember that moment as a reminder of what Jesus sees when he looks at the world. I heard and saw the misery of that one woman at that one moment, in that one tiny slice of space and time. Jesus looks down and he sees all the factors which when compiled birthed that scream – the neglect, the abuse, the brain altering pseudo-escape of drugs, the corruption of the ruling class, the greed, the men who selfishly took from this woman over and over and over again that which was not theirs to take. Jesus sees it all, and it breaks his heart more than it could ever break mine because he knows not only what is, but also what could have, what should have been.
We have all seen the signs in stores that say “You break it, you buy it.” That is how the world works. Our sin and our misbehavior are the causes of the vast majority of the pain, misery and agony in our world. Environmental degradation, crime, abortion, racism, pride, political hatreds, nearly all suffering and most of what makes us hurt and hate is caused by our misbehaving, our greed, our selfishness. These evils will not and cannot be legislated away. They can only be done away with via the transformation of us, the perpetrators. None of us is exempt, none of us is innocent because we have all sinned and fallen short not only of our own standards, but God´s. Our sin broke it and it is up to us to fix it.*
Jesus tells us in Luke 19:10 that he came to seek and save that which was lost. He never intended for us to create the religious hierarchy we have fashioned, a system often content and smugly complacent in its diabolical but wide acceptance of the status quo, of comfort, of spiritual hedonism and the delusion that religious activity is sufficient. Jesus came to save those who have screamed, are screaming and are about to scream. He then uses those who used to scream to reach out to serve those still caught in the snare of sin, still screaming, still without hope. He chose you and me to be his instruments to silence the screams of others, not by muffling them or ignoring them but by serving those who are hurting so they will no longer need to scream.
I followed up on the woman who screamed. Through a Christian social worker, I learned that the woman is in her early forties. She is permanently disabled because of her ongoing substance abuse. She has five children, all of whom were taken from her by the authorities. She scores her drugs by bartering for them with her body. The men with whom she “does business” are the scavengers who spend their days in the city dump.
*Jesus followers have been tasked with doing good works (Ephesians 2:10) We have been declared to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). Having become new people in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), our role is to use the power given to us by King Jesus to carry out his purposes (Philippians 2:13). Throughout recorded history, God has, with only a few exceptions, used human instrumentality to accomplish his will. Through God´s empowerment, it is up to us to help those who are screaming.