Greater Than Ourselves

By Alyssa Maddocks

Walking out of the dimly lit lobby, I feel a small tug on the back of my sweat-soaked T-shirt. Standing behind me is a young girl wearing a chalk-stained dress, peering up at me with large brown eyes. I drop to my knees to level our gaze and she quickly wraps her tiny arms around my neck. The language barrier is no longer an obstacle; our physical connection at this moment is more powerful than our words could possibly be. Our tight embrace causes tears to well up in my eyes as I think to myself, this is what life is about. This is pure joy.

While on a Minnesota Mission Trip in July of 2016, I was given the opportunity to volunteer at Mary’s Place. Mary’s Place is a family-oriented homeless shelter in Minneapolis that offers a variety of classes and opportunities for their residents. We, a group of naive high school students from Cedar Rapids, were signed up to volunteer at Mary’s Place for the afternoon. We were told that our role would be to entertain a group of young Somali children with games, sports, chalk, and countless bottles of bubbles. Little did we know, that afternoon spent at the shelter would be one of the most impactful events of our lives. Learning about Mary’s Place was one thing, but truly experiencing it was another.

This group of leaders and students from Veritas Church went on the 2016 Mission Trip.
This group of leaders and students from Veritas Church went on the 2016 Mission Trip.

The sun was beating down on our backs as we walked up to the large blue double doors. Our heads were spinning—we didn’t know what to expect once we walked inside. It took a second for our eyes to adjust to the dim lights, but once they did, we saw two young Somali girls walking down the nearest hallway. When they saw our group, their eyes opened wide with excitement. A large group of other Somali children joined us in the hallway in a matter of minutes.

   It didn’t take long for us to realize that these Somali children did not speak English. We had been warned by the staff earlier about the rules regarding physical contact. We were told to not pick the children up and to avoid physical touch when possible. This ended up being more difficult than we expected because the children frequently reached out to be hugged or held.

As we walked out into the side yard, we looked around and saw a pristine playground with a turf soccer field and multiple basketball hoops. I reached into the plastic grocery bag on my side and pulled out a soccer ball that I had brought. A small boy immediately ran to my side, admiring the new toy.

For the next two hours, our group of students opened our hearts to these hurting children. We learned how to communicate with smiles, gestures, and most notably, high-fives. When it was time for us to leave, the children were heartbroken to see us go. The small boy that once admired the new soccer ball came up to me to return it. I handed the ball back to him, and his eyes grew wide with disbelief as I pointed to him and to the ball. Despite knowing he could not understand my words, I told him that the ball was now his, and that he should make sure to share it with his friends. A huge smile took over his face as he ran over to the other children to show off his new treasure. Saying goodbye to the Somali children was incredibly difficult for our group of now deeply impacted high school students.

As I left Mary’s Place that evening, I was overwhelmed by the love, compassion, and pure joy that we had witnessed. Our group leaders were right—the children at Mary’s Place would absolutely rock our world. They would work their way into our hearts in minutes, and they would stay there for the rest of our lives.

In a matter of moments, these children taught us a lesson more valuable than anything we had ever learned. These children showed us that  joy is not found in the material, temporary things in life—in fact, it is so much more than that. Joy comes from our perspectives, our relationships, and our memories. Pure joy comes from within each and every one of us, and that joy is fueled by something so much greater than ourselves. Mary’s Place is more than just a homeless shelter—it is a place for growing, learning, serving, and loving—and it will forever hold a special place in my heart.