I know a place where unhindered joy pulsates.
But you won’t believe it when I first take you there.
Perched on the edge of desolation, humble and inconspicuous, a gray cement block building crouches behind ramshackle shops. Barefoot children play on a pile of rubble, and rusty-corrugated-roof shacks lean on either side.
Before we go inside the structure, come for a walk with me. At first the labyrinth is shadowed by tall concrete buildings. From balconies high above, small bodies lean over railings with wildly waving arms, shrilling a high-pitched chorus of, “Hi, how are you? Fine!” The path narrows between jagged metal roofs jutting out at eye level, and we precariously straddle ditches of trash-logged muck. Everything around us sags and slithers down rutted grooves, down, down to the river.
Before crossing the river, you hesitate. Boards crisscross, nailed to supports on either side. Between the slats, opaque brown sludge broils below. A misstep would be catastrophic by any hygienic sensibility. A child laughs, traipsing across the water’s surface, buoyed by garbage. As you calculate your first step, you glance down-river and try to comprehend a vignette of children kneeling at the river’s edge, filling water bottles.
After we are safely across, we duck into Zaomi’s dark one room shanty and blink rapidly to adjust to the sudden light shift. She greets us and tells us about torrential rains that fell the previous night. She stayed awake all through the dark watches, emptying plastic bags hanging from her ceiling so that leaks would not drip on sleeping children. Then her expression lifts as she tells us how she met Jesus and receives new hope to persevere through the challenges of poverty, even with her HIV+ status. She serves as a volunteer cook for slum children on her strong days.
We make our way back up the slippery slopes to the promised destination. We try to slip inconspicuously into the back of an L-shaped room, but eager smiling men usher us to the front and gesture for us to sit in a row of plastic chairs. Behind us, more and more people pack onto long wooden benches. There is always room for more.
Music commences, and bodies move. Hands lift, faces tilt, hips sway. A choir at the front leads, and you are startled as you recognize Zaomi, glowing, radiant. At first you feel self-conscious; but press through! Let your feet catch the beat. Follow Zaomi’s lead, arms in air, stretching high, then reaching low. Step in rhythm with the person next to you, a stranger, laughing together. When a conga line forms, weaving through benches and around cement columns, join us!
Worship the Living God with these people! Let the contradictions confound you, juxtapositions jar you. Abandon your heart to joy.
Leave, hungry for more.