“What’s on Planet Ernesto?” I asked.
“There’s LOTS of dirt for dirt bikes and motorcycles, and so many trees that grow apples- but not the fruit kind, the candy ones. Can there be a rainbow road with unicorns and lots of stars in the sky? Sounds beautiful!” he replied, his eyes looking afar and glowing with wonder. I chuckled.
“Ok, your turn! What’s on Planet Angela?”
“Well, how about you make it up for me?”
“Okay, hmm…probably lots of coffee!”
As you could imagine, I bursted out laughing by this point. I mean come on y’all, that couldn’t have been more accurate- Planet Angela would most definitely run on coffee. I had been placing a tumbler with tea or coffee on the desk every day that I came in to class for “Impacto”, a summer enrichment program for kids in the inner city of LA located in Boyle Heights that I was volunteering for in my duration as a LAUP Intern. Ernesto, a 8 year old boy in the 2nd/3rd grade class I was assisting for, must have noticed my tumbler when we read together and stored it in his memory.
That wasn’t the only moment he proved his spectacular memory and attention to detail. As we walked on the streets for the program’s weekly neighborhood field trips (whether to a police station, park, or library), he would tell me from the beginning the exact directions to reach our destination. While we headed back to the classroom from lunch time, he would vividly describe a funny movie scene or tell stories of his family from years prior. He was even able to digest complicated plots in the Star Wars comic book that I read with him, which was way above his reading level- and honestly, I didn’t even understand what was going on half the time.
Throughout LAUP, I learned about the complex layers of systemic injustice and how that effects people, especially low-income ethnic minority communities. In fact, it’s so deeply engrained and complex that it feels hopeless to see any change no matter how much people shout for help and their voices to be heard, or how much they try to push and yank off the strings that are choking them. Trying to untie one string out of the many intertwined strings of a giant knotted ball still leaves an inevitably giant knotted ball. It was not the first time I heard about these issues, but being away without technology or worries of everyday life for 6 weeks really forced me to immerse into the deeper waters.
It’s one thing to hear about these messed up policies and the overwhelming, glaring statistics, but another to build relationships, hear real life stories, and witness them yourself. Also, I did not expect to see so much of my own story in what I heard and learned- how freaking uncomfortable! I was at LAUP to learn about injustice and God’s heart, not about my own past and present hardships or pains- what the heck, Jesus?! That’s what being at LAUP was like for me, if I had to summarize it.
The partial narrative of my LAUP experience that I’m about to continue telling here is about how one boy’s life intersected with mine at the right place in the right time, and how Jesus used this to grip my heart, alter my perspective, and realign the trajectory of my future. There is no happy ending or clear resolution to this story, but it is one that is honest and real.
I knew from the start of the program that Ernesto was different than the other kids his age. I mean yeah, he did act like a typical 8 year old boy, challenging himself to climb things in the playground, yelling and running around obnoxiously while playing sports, and always coloring outside the lines. I still noticed that he was very self-aware as well as keenly aware of the people around him. For instance, he asked from the first day how long I would be staying and knew that me and the other volunteers would be leaving soon. When I first brought my camera, he went around with it during recess and took a bunch of what I thought were meaningless photos- walls, stairways, the gym. I asked him what he was doing, and before he ran off he replied, “You’re leaving soon, so don’t you want to remember this place? What if you forget how things looked like? I’m going to take a picture of everything so you never forget!” Most kids care about themselves or forget easily, yet it was evident that he was naturally a very relational person that absorbed and retained everything he saw and heard.
This kiddo also frequently warned me during breakfast that Cesar, his 6 year old brother who was also in my class, was having a bad day to imply that he would be acting up later in class. Cesar was almost the opposite from Ernesto being more introspective, quiet, smart but lazy, and rebellious. He always used his cute dimpled face to get what he wanted and tried to beat his older brother in everything he did haha. My friends and I thought of him as a grumpy old man stuck in a little body (TINY RICK!! If you get the reference haha).
Although Ernesto was a bright kid with a charming personality, thriving creativity, and leadership skills, I quickly discovered that his reading level was significantly lower than other kids in the same age group as him. He struggled to read a book with 3 word sentences when another kid across the room was reading novels. It was also evident that he was not getting the attention he needed at home. Being the oldest brother, he still managed to take care of Cesar, his younger sister and step sister when they would cry or not listen to the teachers.
From all the games we made up and played to the times I lost miserably on monkey bar races, I have countless dialogues and stories about Ernesto and many other kids I got to know. Although it wasn’t quite evident at first in the daily mundane activities, I knew Jesus was trying to get my attention here for something that can only be grasped by me being away from home for 6 weeks living with a team of 4 girls that I barely knew, without all the distractions and endless to-do lists.
On the second to last week of the program, Ernesto and his siblings didn’t show up one day. Two days. Three days…
You already know that the story does not have a happy ending (not to sound like Lemony Snicket in the “Series of Unfortunate Events”). After the 3rd day, the head coordinator let me know that their dad recently came in flustered and pleaded her for help. Their birth mom, who had been taking care of these young ones and giving them rides from a city 2 hours away from Boyle Heights, all of a sudden went missing. For some reason, she must have signed them up for the program hoping to provide a good learning environment instead of keeping them cooped up inside during the summer. She must have felt it was worth it to drive at 6 a.m. for 2 hours every week day to get them there. Now that she was gone, he explained that him and his gf were unable to oversee four young kids with his demanding job. If the kids can’t stay at the program for longer than normal hours, he had no choice but to send them back to Mexico to stay with family there. Although she did find staff to oversee them for longer hours, the father never returned the phone calls or came back again.
My heart felt shattered.
For those remaining 2 weeks of LAUP, I really wrestled hard with Jesus about this. I cried a lot, and I also prayed a lot. I asked God all the Whys; all of this wasn’t fair (like anything ever is). I knew that despite how much potential these kids had, a low reading level was shown to be directly correlated to low high school passing rates and higher chances of incarceration. I knew that an unstable home environment and lack of a consistent father figure was correlated to higher rates of involvement with gang activities and drug trafficking, as well as being stuck in a perpetual cycle of poverty- just to name a few things. I also knew that this was not a unique story- sadly, Ernesto’s story is one of many stories just like his.
Nobody ever heard back from his family or knows what happened. I have no idea if their mom was ever found, or if their dad did indeed send them to Mexico to live there for good.
When I was initially processing this, I didn’t even want to share with my team how shattered I felt because I honestly thought I wasn’t supposed to feel this way. Maybe I was too attached to Ernesto and his siblings; maybe I should be able to brush off what happened and give that over to Jesus. Maybe I’m too empathetic and being stupid since there was nothing that can be done and it’s useless to be sad. Maybe all of that is true, but when I finally did share, I was affirmed in that it was okay to feel this way. My team was able to translate that Jesus was allowing me to experience this in order to give me a deeper sense of how his heart wrenches and breaks for his people.
I was also able to come to a place of peace when Jesus reminded me of how He redeemed my own story. Without going into detail, let me just say plainly that statistics and the things I’ve experienced should not lead to where my brother and I are at today. Also plainly speaking, my family was privileged despite our hardships in that we were, for instance, never questioned for moving into nicer neighborhoods to be able to go to good schools because we were Korean and not people of color (if you don’t already know, I suggest researching on racial profiling and”red lining”). When all seemed lost, hopeless, and out of control, God somehow interrupted my life and initiated the process of healing- mending broken pieces that I never thought could go back together, bringing life into places of death. Even though all the odds may be against Ernesto, if God can interrupt and completely change the trajectory of my life, then He can do that for him too.
Before LAUP, I wanted to serve the low-income ethnic minority population with my profession, but in coming back, I realized that this is totally easier said than done. It’s going to be hard witnessing more stories like Ernesto’s, and it will be messy. If (for me, and perhaps most people) growing in relationship = growing in compassion/love, then lack of relationship = lack of compassion/apathy. It hurts to step into someone’s story, and naturally, I don’t really want to go through all the pain that it comes with. I’d rather look away or compartmentalize my duty from my heart. I’d rather try to solve the problem and move on to the next, not staying long enough to see how “helping” in quick fixes could leave more damage than not doing anything at all.
After LAUP, I heard loudly and clearly the invitation that Jesus was extending to me-
Will you choose to step and enter in? Will you choose to hurt amongst and stand up for the people I love most?
So I am still processing and unsure what all of this may look like in the future. I still think about and pray for Ernesto occasionally, hoping that, despite the pain and hardships, he may one day become a radical lover of people and proclaim the truth of God’s goodness and faithfulness in his life. Maybe he’ll be doctor or a celebrity on the red carpet like he dreams of. Well shoot, if he becomes famous, I hope he remembers me!
For now, I am left with Jesus’ invitation ringing in my mind every day. Yes Lord, I will choose to enter in.