Giving Cat a Voice

Several days ago we celebrated the end of our third year of the GO Seminary of the Americas.  We invited the students, teachers and their families as well as other collaborators to join us for a day at the public beach in Sosua, celebrating a year of hard work, theological discovery and a deeper understanding of the Churches call to overcome the culture of the broken world with the culture of the Kingdom of God.
Kerlyn giving instructions to the Seminary crew at the beginning of our day.

Kendrix and Kerlyn Pena, brothers who are third year students that will soon lead a church plant in the town of Tamboril where they grew up, joined me for some hang out time down on the beach away from a lot of the hustle and bustle.  We met our waiter, Richard.  He’s Dominican but was raised in Queens, New York from the time he was 10.  Richard explained that he continuously made poor decisions.  That he was frequently in and out of trouble until he got into real trouble some time ago.  He did 17 years of hard time of a 27 year sentence.  He got off early for good behavior and was immediately deported.  He’s been back in the DR for a year.  He’s a year younger than me.

We invited Richard to join us.  His transparency allowed us the opportunity to be quicker friends.  He didn’t know who we were yet but he didn’t apologize for his past and we didn’t shame him for it.  We continued to hang out.  This is incarnational ministry… being present with cultural outsiders, with sinners, with what the self-righteous religious identify as “those” people.

We were overlooking the beautiful beach and ocean.  A geographic location whose beauty is compromised by the brokenness of humanity, it’s reckless drunkenness and drug abuse, it’s prostitution, it’s exploitation and failure to live up to its own dignified expression of God’s image.  Some Dominican women came and sat down next to us.  I noticed a young Haitian girl on the beach near the water’s edge.

She couldn’t be missed because some Dominican men that worked the beach were heckling her and chiding her.  She couldn’t have been more than 15.  She had stripped down to a bikini and was arranging herself, scowling at her hecklers and then redressed.  I heard her vocalize and then saw her sign.  It became clear that she was deaf.  My heart sank.  Not with pity, but with understanding.
This girl has the misfortune to be a young woman in the context of the Dominican Republic.  It’s a life hard enough already for Haitian women, being positioned on the lowest rung of the sociological ladder.  Added to this is her deafness.  Deafness here means absolute vulnerability and on a public beach in a country known as the Thailand of Latin America for its own brand of sex trafficking it means that she is at risk if she is not already being exploited.

The reality of her deafness becomes clear and it hits.  It’s like I’ve been struck by a bolt of lightning.  I have two deaf, American daughters with cochlear implants.  They know sign, they speak, they hear crudely but have as much access to all of the world, hearing and deaf, that one can currently imagine.  They are not at risk.  They are protected, insulated from the sex trade, loved, cared for, not alone… in part because they were born to Vicki and I, but also because they were born in America and not Haiti, or not of a Haitian couple in the Dominican Republic.  This young woman, this girl, could just as easily been one of my own daughters had soul been sown to flesh differently.

Kendrix, Kerlyn and Richard continue to speak.  The Spirit is speaking to me.  “Go get her.  Feed her.  Silence the hecklers with your love and treat her like a queen for this next hour or two.  Show her love and hope and care without exchange.”  And so I excuse myself.

I walk down the steps to the beach through the continued sounds of men being less than they are intended to be and walk out to her near the water’s edge.  I start signing to her. At this point I don’t know if she knows an actual sign language or just a more general kind of charades.  But she does.  It shows that given her life she’s more blessed than others that face her same challenges in this context. She’s been to some kind of school.  I sign to her that I have children, girls, that two of them are deaf too.  I ask her if she’s hungry, if she wants some food.  She does and I motion for her to come with me. 

We walk back through the same on-lookers, hecklers before, now silent and watching.  As a perceived tourist and American in particular, there is
a certain amount of influence you seem to just have, whether it be legitimate or not.  Part of being a Christian means leveraging power and influence for those that don’t have it.  You take the Enemy’s weapon to divide and use it to unite instead.  This is how those charged to be peace makers by their Master do the work of justice and silence the Enemy behind his own lines.   I sit her down next to us.  I ask Richard to give her a menu.  It just happens to have pictures which makes it a little more useful for this girl.  She points to what she wants and we get her a drink.  I sign to her asking her name.  She acts like she’s pulling a whisker across her face from her nose to her cheek.  Her name is either “Cat,” “Chat,” or “Gato,” depending on whether or not you’re interpreting into English, French/Creole or Spanish.  I finger spell my name for her and that it’s nice to meet her.

At this point I’m concerned that Cat will think I want some kind of “compensation.”  I don’t know that this is the case but that’s the problem, I don’t KNOW.  So to be safe it’s time for me to excuse myself, pay the bill and leave.  Earlier Richard pulled me aside asking for some specific financial help because he claimed to need a few more pesos to purchase a phone.  I told him that I’d see what I could do.  But now my concern was that if I don’t leave, Cat will think I want something but if I do leave they will run Cat off and just keep the money spent on her behalf.  I pulled Richard aside, “Promise me you’ll treat this girl like a queen for the next two hours and I’ll help you with what you need.  Deal?”  “Deal.”
I said good-bye to Cat and left.  As I got to the other side of the beach I realized that I’d forgotten to ask for the receipt.  I went back 10 minutes or so later and Kerlyn went with me.  When we arrived back at the little restaurant Cat was feasting on a huge platter of food, Richard was sitting by her and looked up at me, smiled and said, “I’m taking good care of her, man.”  And he was.

As I got my receipt I asked if I could get a photo with Cat and she signed, “Yes.”  I signed to her that Jesus loved her and said good-bye again.  When I looked at the photo later I discovered that she had signed “I love you.”  I hope she knows or learns to understand if she doesn’t already that the one she actually loves is Jesus.  I was just trying to follow him and I’m not sure how well I did.  But I hope it further awakened in her, her own dignity as an image bearer of our God.

Pray for Cat.  I don’t know her story.  I can only guess at the hardships she faces.  I don’t know where she is today, who cares for her, etc.  I know that she’s at risk.  I know Jesus loves her and pray God has put and will put other Christ followers in her life to build into her, to lift her up, to honor the image she bears.