Her hand slipped easily into mine. It was the first thing of hers that I noticed was human. Until then she was a beggar, the symbol of those poor we were supposed to ignore for the moment. But her hand, palm pressed into mine and fingers around that soft part of my hand between my thumb and forefinger, was hard to dismiss. Now my attention was off my work, bringing home the images of Mozambican life. Startled, I looked down to see her little African face looking back up at me.
The other children moved into my path and walked backwards in step with me, their eyes fixed on mine and one hand palm up. We had our orders. "Don't give even one of them money, there will be a mob around you in 15 seconds." Some of them were wearing burlap for clothes. I could read the print that named the corn mix that was once relief food for a local distribution center. They flooded around us wherever we went, constantly underfoot.
But not her. She was quietly happy to be my companion, and so as the others begged, she and I walked along hand in hand. Many of these children are prostitutes at an obscene age. And this might have been her story for all I know. I judged her to be about eight years old.
I told myself, "giving any of these kids money will not help them. Parents or pimps or both will take whatever I give them..." We satisfied ourselves with the plan that we would give money to relief organizations instead of beggars. A good plan I suppose.
I moved my hand out of hers to set up the camera for the next shot. The other children tried to get in front of the camera as they always seem to do in the third world. I don't have any recollection of what, exactly, I was filming, but I can almost certainly reconstruct the scene of the street and faces around me. It was 1992. 15 years ago. Memory is funny that way.
We picked up our equipment and kept walking, and there was her warm hand again. This time though, it was not a shock to feel that hand there. It was not foreign. This same event repeated two or three more times after setting shots. We, at last, set up a shot that took our attention for longer than usual. We stopped the camera, folded the tripod and started walking.
I remember looking all around me, in the sea of faces that had become our entourage. My hand stayed empty from that moment forward. Even the next day as we continued our work, I fully expected my friend to appear at my side to put her hand in mine, but it never happened. As it turned out, she had never spoken to me. She never asked me for anything. We exchanged smiles a few times as we walked, and I remember her pushing some of the other children away as they tried to move too close to her grip on me.
The cynical side of me says she was working me for money. I don't know. It doesn't matter really, because though I never saw her again, she's never really left me. I don't dwell on the story, but now as I sit here in the thick of the Christmas season, she's a powerful reminder that the streets are full of poor around the world. Christ was indeed prophetic when he said they'd be with us always. He said it to defend the woman who poured perfume on his head and washed his feet with her tears, if I'm not mistaken.
An undeniable reminder, that story, to worship Him in spite of the world's trouble. And here we are celebrating his birth, and life. I suppose, after all, the little miracle that comes even in the warmth of a friendly little African hand is mercy overflowing. There is no guilt or sorrow in that. Christ will be glorified even with the poor before us... and for that matter, far away from us. May His blessed birth, lowly and humble, be our call to pass on His mercies in far more abundance than we receive them.