To face giants and rescue snails (Finding courage part 3)

I thought I was done writing about courage a couple of posts ago, at least for a while. However, I was out with a friend recently and as we chatted I recalled a story from Buenos Aires Argentina involving my middle child, Talai, a story in which she showed great courage. With so many unknowns in our future as a nation and a world, I figured one more dose of encouragement couldn’t hurt. So without further adieu, allow me to share a tale of snails, bullies and courage.

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Outside our apartment in Corrientes. In the background is an asado or, “barbeque pit.”

When we first arrived in Argentina to study trauma counseling and work with victims of human trafficking, we lived in the northern province of Corrientes. The girls were so excited. We had finally completed our long road trip from Northern Michigan to Argentina and after months of endless adventure and travel we were getting ready to settle in to what would be home for the next several months. As a family we looked hopefully and excitedly towards a seemingly bright future. Unfortunately, we didn’t detect the dark clouds of bullying quickly approaching on the horizon.

The particular area we were in was one of the most anti-American places we’ve ever been. I remember standing in line at the store one day and trying to make small talk with a woman standing behind me.

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Homeschooling at our Corrientes apartment

“Hello, how are you?” I said.

“You know the Russians beat you to the moon,” the gal responded. “Stupid Americans; you think you rule the world.”

It was an intimidating experience, but with love and patience we won over most of our neighbors. It was a difficult time for our whole family, but Talai had the worst of it. Talai is an Aspy, which means she has a super-cool personality, but she sometimes struggles to read social queues and make new friends. At the base we worked on there were many children. Several of them picked up on Talai’s quirks and soon she was the focus of daily bullying in the community. During kids church one Sunday a teacher came and got Sal and I. Talai had been in a fight, or more like an ambush. Two boys had held her down while another punched and kicked her. During Sunday school.

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Enjoying a mate (being a South American green tea shared amongst friends from the communal cup, mate, and straw, bombilla) in front of our apartment

At one point we thought things were getting better when a girl around her age befriended her. The two girls were peas in a pod; they teeter-tottered and laughed and whispered together. Other kids started to leave her alone and Sal and I were so relieved. Then one day her “friend” led a co-ed group of kids into the bathroom and kicked in the door to Talai’s stall. She was mortified and heart broken.

The rest of our time in Corrientes was very hard on Talai. Sal and I tried working with parents and teachers to stop the bullying, but in the end we had to keep Talai in our sights constantly and discipline the other kids ourselves to keep her safe. Sal employed some interesting tactics to deter kids from picking on Talai, but even their fear of him was not enough to stop it completely or help her make friends. I think the most difficult thing for her was that these were fellow missionary kids; they were supposed to be her brothers and sisters in Christ. Truthfully, it was a sad commentary on a community where holding on to their racism was more important than embracing the international Christian fellowship.

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A game at a sort of party/vbs we held for local children in Buenos Aires, Argentina

As soon as we could transfer our studies, we left there and moved onto a missions base in Buenos Aires. We had been part of a daily program for street children and saying goodbye to them was difficult and sad, but we had to take care of our girls. Initially we liked the new base a lot. Both the adults and children seemed friendly and sincere. They apologized for the racism we had encountered and assured us that everyone was family on the base. We lived, studied and worked on the base and our whole family was adjusting well and making friends.

When the rainy season arrived, large land snails started emerging all over. My girls are lovers of all animals including the creepy crawlies and they loved seeing the snails everywhere. We noticed that broken shells started littering the sidewalk, but we weren’t sure why. Then one day Talai burst through the front door with tears in her eyes holding a smashed snail in her cupped hands.

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So many snails!

“Mom!” she exclaimed. “The kids are smashing the snails! They just take the poor snails and smash them on the sidewalk for fun.” She could barely get the story out as sobs of indignation and sadness wracked her. I did the best I could explaining to her the cultural and background differences that caused these kids to seem to her so heartless, but there was little I could do to console her, and nothing I could do to make it right.

I rocked her in my arms until she calmed down and then we buried the remains of the poor dead and broken snail she still held. Over the next few days she built a snail hospital and started collecting broken-shelled snails and caring for them. She poured her whole heart and all her time into it. A couple curious boys came by to ask what she was doing. They were intrigued by the hospital and so they went out, found a healthy snail, threw it on the concrete and then brought it to Talai to care for. Talai put her hands on her hips and proceeded to scold the boys for hurting the snail in the first place. The boys were abashed and quickly apologized. Then, they asked if they could help with caring for the snails. She sent them out to scavenge for food and they returned that afternoon with lots of greens and flowers from various people’s gardens which earned them official snail hospital staff positions. They came by daily to help and learn from Talai.

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Talai and the original Snail Hospital

Word spread quickly and soon we had large groups of kids in our front yard investigating the snail hospital. Most kids were puzzled over why she would care for snails (which they smashed because they thought they were gross) and left laughing among themselves. I began to worry for Talai. She had endured so much at the hands of bullies just a little while prior and now she was taking a stand that, although noble, was seen by her peers as foreign and odd. I worried that the other kids would use this as an opportunity to tease and ridicule her.

Sal and I discussed this and one night we sat Talai down to have a talk with her. We explained that, although we were very proud of how she was caring for the snails, her actions in doing so could possibly make her a target for ridicule. We told her to consider the possible price this endeavor might cost her if it resulted in being bullied again. We assured her that none of the bullying had been her fault, and that what she was doing for the snails was right and good, but even so it may have negative consequences for her.

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Talai selling Aloe Vera to raise money and awareness for her snail hospital

Without pause she explained to us that under no circumstance was she going to abandon her patients; as a doctor she was bound by the Hippocratic Oath. She told us that Jesus said that anyone who puts their hand to the plow and then looks back is not worthy of Him and she assured us that, while she appreciated our concern, she had counted the cost and that standing up for the helpless was always worth it.

What was there to do but hug our little world-changer and support her in her work? We watched her closely day-by-day, ready to jump in and defend her. But then, something unexpected happened. More and more kids became intrigued by how she cared for her little victims and started volunteering at her hospital. Meanwhile, Talai changed her attitude of anger towards the perpetrators into one of patience and understanding. She started approaching groups of snail smashers and reasoning with them, explaining how even snails were created by God and how it was much nicer to enjoy and play with them than to smash them. The change didn’t happen overnight, but it came on steadily.

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That’s part of my garden

More and more kids started to disapprove of snail-smashing. Talai received new hospital volunteers daily, which was a good thing because her hospital, which had expanded and annexed our entire front yard, now had hundreds of patients. Then, one day, snail-smashing ceased completely.

With almost all of the base kids involved in the hospital to some capacity, and without the emergency room being overcrowded from smashed snails, Talai led the kids to expand the hospital into an all-out snail rescue. My beautiful exotic garden became a sort of snail hospice (“Snail Heaven” as Talai called it) where snails who weren’t expected to survive went. As it turned out, my garden must have had some healing powers because many of the snails made a turn-around and became so healthy that they ate most of the plants to the ground. We also had the constructed and expanded hospital and the graveyard for those who didn’t make it in our front yard.

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Talai takes a shift on a rainy day as a snail shuttle scooter driver

Other kids volunteered their yards and gardens and soon there was a snail playground for the younger ones, physical therapy for the older ones and a diner. They started a shuttle service to transport the snails from one area to the next and designated “drivers” would carry the snails on their scooters. They even painted the snails’ shells and kept records of their progress. Scouts would go out in search of snails who had run away from the hospital and others hiding around the base and bring them to the rescue where they would receive health screening and a check-up before being released back to the wild. It really was an incredible operation.

My garden was devoured beyond repair; there was a constant stream of kids through my front yard and peeking in our windows; parents were complaining to me about their raided flower beds; and I couldn’t be happier. My daughter had changed the minds, hearts and destructive practices of an entire community. She convinced others to enjoy and embrace something that they had previously reviled. Many a good missionary has spent years and even decades trying to do that very thing. I was so very proud of her

Many people ask me what I do with my kids while we are in the mission field, as if my girls were annoyances impeding on “real mission work.” I don’t “do” anything with them. Together we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the widows and the orphans and preach the gospel of freedom and peace to the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. And sometimes they do it without me.

Thank you for reading this post. God bless you.