The summer I was fifteen, my goal in life was to get a good tan. In those days, you were nobody if your skin wasn’t bronzed beyond belief. That was before we knew how much the sun harmed our skin. Everyday at the public pool or in my own backyard, I’d slather up with a mixture of baby oil and iodine – trying to encourage the maximum exposure. No wonder my skin looks like sandpaper now and probably explains why, last Mother’s Day, my daughter looked at my arm in a sleeveless dress and said, “You look like a lizard.” What more could a mother want?
But in the late 50’s, brown was beautiful, and I had big plans for the summer – sleep late, lie in the sun, talk on the phone and pursue a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. My mother, of course, had a different game plan for me. Goodness knows I couldn’t sleep late like most of my friends – why the day was half over before they ever got up. But in our household, no sleeping occurred after 8 AM and usually, when my mother woke up, so did everybody else. So a lot of hours filled those long days. I would get up, eat breakfast, practice on the piano, do some chores, maybe read a book, and then start working on my tan.
Somehow in the midst of this tough life I got volunteered to help with Bible School – probably by my mother who constantly looked for ways to divert me from my mission. I complained a lot but secretly thought it wouldn’t be all that bad since I’d still have my afternoons free.
The women in my church had agreed to put on a Bible School at the Savannah Street Mission located in the area known as Cabbagetown, which surrounded the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. I wondered why it was called Cabbagetown. I hated the way cabbage smelled and tasted and couldn’t imagine why people would actually want to live in area named after cabbage.
So that’s how I happened to find myself early one morning at Haygood Memorial Methodist Church helping the women to make hand puppets out of washrags. Bars of soap, tooth brushes, toothpaste, combs, Band-Aids, and other items for personal hygiene and care filled these puppets. While we worked, a lady talked about the Savannah Street Mission and what we’d be doing while we were there. She said the children were poor and dirty, which is why we were taking them all of the items in the puppets. They could play with the puppets for a while and, when they got tired of them, remove the strings around the edges and then they’d have a washcloth to use with their soap, tooth brushes and combs. What a clever idea! And we made thousands of them.
A human saint ran the Savannah Street Mission. Sister Keel was the Mother Theresa of Cabbagetown. She directed programs in that area for the children and their families all year and was supported and occasionally assisted by churches in the Atlanta area. But she was there all the time for the children – they were her mission in life.
We were told to expect the place to be hot – just a covered concrete slab with no walls; dirty – it stood on a small, dusty lot next to the mill; and crowded – children seemed to multiply like rabbits in that area. But no amount of preparation could have been enough to get us ready for what was to come.
As we drove to the mission we began to get some clues from the houses and garbage we passed on the way through Cabbagetown. When we arrived that first Monday morning, bright and early in our white tennis shoes and casual clothes, swarms of children immediately surrounded us wanting to know what we had brought for them and what we were going to do that week. The only bright things we saw were the sun and the children’s eyes, for dirt and scum covered everything else. Stains and filth camouflaged the colors of their clothes, and shoes were practically non-existent. Open sores bled and oozed and attracted flies like honey. Normally I loved playing with children and telling them stories, but I was afraid for these kids to get near me for fear that I might catch a disease, or that some substance from their wounds would rub off on me. Sister Keel didn’t seem to mind as she welcomed every one of those children with smiles and hugs, and they responded to her like a fairy godmother.
We unloaded our pictures and Bible stories and craft projects and music and games and food, and the children soaked up everything we did, as long as we kept it simple. The most attention focused on the refreshments and Sister Keel explained that the juice and cookies we brought were probably the first things most of them had eaten that day. She made them bow their heads and give thanks before allowing them to take a bite. And then the locusts devoured every crumb, long before their stomachs were filled.
When the first day ended I felt contaminated, sick to my stomach, and exhausted from the heat and the activities and the sights. I could hardly wait to get home and take a shower. After removing my clothes and scrubbing my body almost raw, I still felt unclean. I ate no lunch and wasn’t at all sure I could go back the next day. But during the afternoon, I reflected on everything, wondering how people lived like that, and decided to give it another try. I almost felt relief when clouds covered the sun, allowing me to forget the tan that afternoon.
The next day I relaxed more with the kids. During craft time, I met a little girl whose rainbow nametag said ‘Diane.’ She smiled with delight when I told her we had the same name and she stuck to me like glue for the rest of the day. She was six or seven and had two little brothers very close in age. As she introduced us she told them I was her best friend in the whole world. It almost made me cry to look at the three of them with their crusted hair and ragged clothes. What possibilities did they have to look forward to in their lives?
After that day I scoured everything again but actually looked forward to going the next day to see the children, especially Diane. I wanted to take her something and I thought of the cheap chain and round disk with my name written on it. I’d gotten it at the fair and never wore it, so decided to take it to her.
When we arrived the following day, I didn’t see Diane. I looked everywhere for her as we started with the Bible verse of the day. In the middle of the story, she and her brothers came running in and her eyes sparkled when she saw me even though her face was streaked as if she had been crying. She climbed onto my lap and put her arms around me. Later during craft time I gave her the necklace and told her the letters on it spelled our name – D I A N E. She asked if she could wear it and I told her she could wear it and keep it. “Forever?” she asked and as I nodded my head, I couldn’t help wondering what her forever would be.
Later that morning I saw Sister Keel speaking harshly with Diane. In a few minutes, they started toward me and she told Diane to return the necklace. “But I gave it to her,” I said as I looked at the tears streaming down that small, angelic face and quickly added “to keep forever.”
Sister Keel said she was sorry, put it back around her neck and ran to handle the next crisis. Then it hit me…she thought Diane had stolen it from me. I dropped to my knees and hugged her and cleaned off her face with the mound of Kleenex I had started carrying in my pocket. That’s when I noticed the bruises underneath all that dirt, and then had to use some of the Kleenex for myself.
The last day of Bible school arrived and so did all the children – the most we’d had all week. They knew that on the last day they got a real gift to take home other than the pictures of Jesus and scrolls and flowers made of construction paper. We told stories and sang songs – they all knew the words by now and so sang with all their might. Sister Keel told them they needed to sing loud to show how much they appreciated the nice ladies and all they had done that week. Diane sang her heart out and I was watching her when I noticed a man staggering down the road, headed toward the group. He was obviously drunk and shouted something as he came that was impossible to hear over the children’s singing. Sister Keel saw him too and walked over to meet him. The children’s eyes followed her and when Diane spotted the man, her frail body started to shake and her eyes glazed over with terror. She moved closer to me, but at the same time Sister Keel turned and motioned for Diane and her brothers to come. They seemed frozen for a moment. But when the man lunged around Sister Keel, those three small children flew up and ran toward the dirt road like something was after them. They disappeared from sight as the man turned around and weaved his way back down the street, yelling and waving his arms.
I jumped to my feet and ran toward Sister Keel. “Let them go,” she said with a sadness that caused her voice and eyes to suddenly look old and tired.
“But they didn’t even get their Mr. Clean puppet.”
“Let it go,” she said again.
“Let it go. Their father told them not to come here and they sneaked out while he slept. Maybe they’ll remember something. Anything we do now will only make it harder for them.” She sighed as she put her arm around me and we turned to rejoin the group.
“What will happen to them when they get home?” I whispered, but she only shook her head and joined the voices singing –
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
I’ve never forgotten my Diane and still wonder what her forever turned out to be. And I also wonder if I touched her life even a fraction as much as she touched mine. Somehow, my tan didn’t seem so important after that. And it didn’t seem a fair trade – a small silver disk for a look into my heart.
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.