“When my parents save enough for a passport, I will come live by you!” I was already crying, but as Janelly continued her plea, the sanity left in my heart shattered into a million pieces, “Could I even live in your house?!” I hugged her in that moment. I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to leave this sweet girl behind. She was 8, just like my sister. Her favorite color was purple. And her soul was happy and loving. The moment that seemed like it dragged on forever yet also stopped so short became my biggest source of guilt. And I still haven’t gotten over it.
It was my junior year of high school, attending Maplewood Academy, and I went down to Belize for a mission trip. While there I had grown close with a group of girls, and one in particular was Janelly. She sat with me at every event, we played together, she colored me a picture, we laughed a lot. I was often frustrated during this trip because the muscle combined with extreme heat required to build their school was a little more than I could handle and I felt useless. Until I met the kids.
I helped out in some of the classrooms and focused my energy on establishing relationships with those around me. That’s probably why it was so hard to leave. I had invested so much of myself into these girls and I loved them with my whole heart. I have always loved kids, helping out in cradle roll and vacation bible school since I was old enough to do so, but this was different. These girls didn’t have modest American homes to go back to. They didn’t have their own rooms with plush pink pillows and cartoons playing on a loop on the tv. Most likely they weren’t safe, and some of them were abused in all the ways you can imagine. But they were happy. They still loved Jesus through it all, and they loved me too.
Being a 16 year old in a foreign country, I knew realistically there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. Of course, I wanted to take them all home with me. I wanted to adopt them, hug them, and save them. I wanted to protect them from the world. But they had families, maybe some even had parents that loved them and were trying their best. They were going to a good God-centered school. And I didn’t have much to offer them.
Guilt doesn’t know that though. I often have moments when a particular smell or image hits me, and it takes me back to the day I said goodbye to Janelly. I can hear the bus honking and feel everyone’s eyes on me as they waited for me to finish up, wipe my tears,and board it with them. I often get sick thinking about those girls and what I left them behind to face. When I remember that I’d forgotten to give Janelly my little pink Bible that day it usually results sob fest.
Why do we as humans feel guilt? Is it the response we give to the Holy Spirit impressing upon our hearts? Maybe it’s us trying to live up to standards the world sets, and when we fail to reach we spiral into sadness. Or is it just a reaction when our brains can’t understand a certain reality and it conjures up emotions so we can return to that and make it right? If the encouragement God gives us in the Bible is true, and I believe it is, we shouldn’t need to feel guilt. He says we have redemption and forgiveness through His son. Therefore, if we confess or we cry out, we shouldn’t have the need to feel like we could have done more, said more, helped more. Even though I believe this concept as true, I still struggle. I continually feel this endless void of sadness knowing I should have done more.
I went back to Belize again the next year. I never found Janelly again. I don’t know if her parents had actually saved enough for them to make the journey to America. I don’t know if she moved towns, or transferred schools. I don’t know if anything bad happened to her. All I have is a crinkled coloring book picture signed, “Janelly loves Jesse,” and the knowledge that she loved God and the hope that He has a watchful and loving eye on her. One day I will see her again.