The church was empty... silent... I sat with my back pressed against the outside wall, eyes closed, memories flooding my soul.
“Let’s sing, Amy.” Mariana lay on her stomach, craning her head back to touch it with her toes. Outside the church, the favela sprawled across the mountainside, buildings squashed higgledy-piggledy like rotten teeth. Burning rays shimmered across the dirty white hovels and webs of electric wires spread like cancerous growths. It was a far cry from the magnificence of Rio de Janeiro, nestled far below us.
“Come on, Amy.” She twisted into an upright position. “My favourite song, please.”
I picked up my guitar and strummed the first few chords, thinking of the day I met Mariana. I’d committed to spending six months helping in the slums in Brazil and loved working with the children.
“You’re slow today.” Marianna pulled her hair across her shoulder as she complained.
I thought of the way it used to hang in stringy ropes; the way she spent most of her time prowling the streets, barefoot and wild.
I played a few more chords before starting to sing.
“I can only imagine,
What it will be like,
When I walk,
By your side.”
Mariana was a beautiful child beneath the grime and after a good scrub, her hair came up smooth and silky. The sun dried it off in minutes, releasing the fragrance of fresh herbs. The only pity was she’d go back on the streets. I’d go looking for her sometimes, threading my way through street artists and lock-smiths, averting my gaze from drug dealers and ignoring vendors selling pastries and spicy kebabs. The favelas were vibrant but with 150, 000 people crammed into one square mile, crime was rampant.
“Can you imagine if dreams came true?” Mariana sat at my feet a month ago and shared her deepest desire. “Can you imagine if I could go across the city and see Christo Redemptor up close?”
I hadn’t realised how limited her life was. That in ten years, she had never ventured further than a few miles from home.
I borrowed a car the next week and with loads of laughter, we drove through winding roads and crushing traffic to see the statue that watches over Rio. It was at its feet that I led Mariana to meet the real Christ, the living breathing one who loved her enough to die for her. It was a sacred moment for both of us and afterwards, I took a photo of her, standing in front of Christo Redemptor, her hands outstretched like his, joy bubbling from deep within.
“I love my picture.” she told me later. I’d laminated it and she kept it in her pocket, pulling it out frequently to gaze at it. “Jesus is my best friend now. Can you imagine that, Amy?” She loved the word imagine and we would spend hours together, imagining what heaven would be like.
I never guessed it would end like this. A young life gunned down in crossfire between drug-lords. The police found her tossed in an alley, her precious photograph clutched to her chest.
I stood, pain numbing my heart, heat waves rippling across dingy white hovels. Splashes of terracotta, teal and yellow reminded me of the joy Mariana experienced in her last days. Behind me, the church was no longer empty...silent...I heard people filing in, subdued voices whispering as condolences were offered.
A while later, the pastor called me forward to pay tribute to my young friend. “Mariana had a favourite word,” I told them, “And that was imagine. She loved to imagine where she was going after she died. She loved the thought of heaven - just didn’t expect to see it so soon.” I wiped my eyes as I picked up my guitar. “I’m going to sing her favourite song but I’ll need some help from you all.”
The words came slowly at first, but swelled into deep emotion in the chorus.
“Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel,
Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still.
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall,
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all,
I can only imagine.”
It was the briefest of impressions but for a moment I saw Mariana, hair swinging free, dancing with her Creator, twirling with eternal joy. A smile pierced my grief as I whispered softly. “I can only imagine.”
Words and music of “I can Only Imagine”, by Bart Millard
Favela – commonly used term for poor slum areas in Rio de Janeiro
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