“He pays me money to give him a good time. Money is important, Pablito, else we don’t have food to eat and clothes to wear.”
“Mama, I want to go to school.”
“We’ve talked about this before, Pablito. You must take care of your brothers and sister while I’m out. Someday, we’ll have lots of money, then you can go to school.”
With that, she kissed the top of his head and went out the door.
“Someday,” she thought, more in desperation than in hope.
Single, and addicted to drugs and alcohol, Estella sometimes didn’t come home until late the next day. The few pesos she earned on the street weren’t much. When his mother was gone, Pablito would often go out on the streets to beg. Sometimes he would even steal. Estella loved her children deeply, but it was difficult to give them the care they needed. Sometimes she thought they’d all be better off dead.
As she drove down the street toward the Center, Lydia noticed a young boy she had never seen in their neighborhood. He was walking slowly on the sidewalk, occasionally stopping to look wistfully through the bars that surrounded the neat-looking homes in the area. Lydia and Todd, her husband, were missionaries who had a ministry to abused, needy and street kids in Santiago.
She stopped the car.
“Ola! God bless you!” Surprised, he almost stumbled and fell. She noticed his shabby clothes. She guessed he was from the barrio, but if so, why was he here?
“I am Lydia. What is your name?”
He mumbled his name.
“I’m sorry, the barking dog makes it hard to hear. What did you say your name is?”
“Pablito,” he said softly, hanging his head and looking at the sidewalk.
He was not used to people being so nice to him, except for Francesca, his neighbor. Francesca was a Christian and a good friend of his mother.
“Where do you live?” Lydia asked.
“Over by the railroad tracks,” he stated. “Down by the water tower.”
“You are far from home. What are you doing here?”
Pablito crossed his feet and shyly said, “I was looking for my mother, and I got lost.”
“Are you hungry?”
He hesitated to answer, but since he was used to begging, he said yes.
“Come with me and I’ll get you something to eat and then we can take you home. We have a bus that picks up kids from your neighborhood.”
It was Saturday afternoon. Estella dragged herself home about 3. David, 6, and Alejandro, 4, were playing in the narrow street. Baby Elena was crying in her bed. Pablito was nowhere to be seen.
“David,” she said louder than normal, “where is Pablito?”.
He hung his head and said, “I don’t know, Mama.”
She hurriedly gathered up the two boys and herded them into the house. The barrio was not a safe area.
“You don’t go out into the street when I’m not here!”
“I know, Mama, but Pablito wasn’t here, and we went outside to play.”
“You stay in the house, you hear me?” She couldn’t hold back the tears. “You could get run over, or worse yet, someone could take you away, and I couldn’t stand that.”
“Yes, Mama.” David replied. She grabbed up both boys and hugged them tightly.
“Mama?” It was Alex.
“I need to see about your sister, then I’ll go see what I can buy at Raul’s store. I also need to find out where Pablito has gone.” She was worried, but she was also angry that he had left them alone.
Estella had looked everywhere, talking to neighbors and shop keepers. No one had seen Pablito since early morning. Frantic, hot tears flowed. She didn’t pray much, didn’t really know how. As a child, she had gone to Mass with her parents, but, as a teen, she had rebelled and gotten into drugs and alcohol. Too proud and ashamed, she would not ask for help from her parents. As far as she knew, they didn’t know where she was or if she was even alive. She hated her lifestyle and life in general. But she didn’t know what else to do.
Sitting on the edge of the curb, rocking to and fro, she began to pray, “Please God, bring him back to me.” Suddenly, she heard Pablito calling her.
“Mama, Mama! You won’t believe where I’ve been.”
She was so happy to see him! She grabbed him and hugged him tightly and began to kiss his face and head.
“Pablito, I was so worried. What happened to you? Where have you been?”
Then she noticed his clothes. They weren’t the shabby ones he wore most of the time.
“Where did you get those clothes? Pablito, have you been stealing again?”
“Not this time, Mama. And look.”
A young man had come up behind Pablito. “This is my new friend, Augusto. He has some new clothes for us.”
Estella eyed Augusto suspiciously. Most men only wanted favors from her and sometimes used her kids to get them. But somehow, she sensed that Augusto was different. There was a light in his eyes that seemed to penetrate her soul and made her uncomfortable. Yet his eyes were filled with love. And he had a smile as bright as the sun. She suddenly became embarrassed about her clothes and looks.
But Pablito couldn’t stop talking, telling her about all the wonderful things he had experienced that day, how he got lost and how this wonderful lady named Lydia found him and took him to a center where there were lots of kids, how they played games and he made a goal in the soccer game and had a hot lunch, and then how they heard about Jesus, the most wonderful man who ever lived. She was almost out of breath just listening to him.
“Excuse my son, please, he just sometimes babbles on about nothing in particular.”
“It’s OK…” Augusto began.
“And look, Mama,” Pablito interrupted, “See these new clothes. Some for you and me and for David and Alex and baby Elena.” Augusto extended a bulging bag to her.
“Pablito! Slow down. You interrupted this nice man.”
“And they gave us some toys.”
“It’s OK, Senora, he’s had such a good time.”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to take the clothes back. I have no money to pay for them. Or the toys.”
“They are a gift to you and your children,” Augusto replied. “It’s part of our ministry at the Center.”
“The—the Center? What center? I don’t know of anything like that around here.”
“It’s about two kilometers northwest of here, up near the Super Mercado and the Pizza Hut.”
She knew where that was, but rarely went there because she usually couldn’t afford it.
“Estella. Every Saturday, we have a bus that comes to this neighborhood to pick up children and take them to our Center. It’s just as Pablito told you. We play games with the kids and feed them a hot lunch. And we do teach them about Jesus and His love. You’ve heard about Him, haven’t you?”
“When I was a child, my parents used to take me to Mass, and I saw His statue. And my neighbor, she talks to me sometimes about Him. But I’m so busy trying to take care of my children and earning a few pesos that I don’t have time for religious things.”
“I understand. But will you allow us to pick up Pablito and your other kids on Saturdays?”
She saw the pleading look in Pablito’s eyes. “Please, Mama. And you can come, too.”
“But it’s just for kids.”
Augusto interjected, “We have ministries for parents. We also have a church service on Sundays. And we’re building a school.”
“We can’t…I can’t afford to send my kids to school. I need Pablito here while I’m away at my job to take care of my other kids.”
Augusto knew her “job.” His mother had been a prostitute. But Jesus had intervened in her life, and now she and he were part of the team at the Center.
“The school will be free for the students. And there will be day care for the youngest.”
A glimmer of hope began to rise in Estella’s heart. She remembered Pablito’s wish. And she was so desperate for a better life for her kids. Yet she was ashamed of what she was and what she had done.
“I--I don’t think you want somebody like me to come to your Center or your church.” She looked down as tears began to flow.
“Senora…Estella…Jesus never turned anyone away no matter who they were or where they came from. And neither will we. Please come. You can learn more about Him.”
“Mama, please. I just know Jesus can help us, and there are other nice people at the Center.”
She wiped her eyes. “Yes, Pablito, you can go. And maybe I’ll come, too.”
Tears started in Augusto’s eyes. He’d witnessed this type of scene so many times before. “Gloria a Dios,” he said. “The bus will come by on Saturday at 10. And God will make a way for you to come on Sunday, if you wish. Dios le bendiga.” At that, he turned and walked up the street.
Everything that Francesca had told Estella was now starting to make sense. She just knew that things were going to be different. Now she had hope.