Far north in Kenya’s arid semi-desert, in a place dotted with little rises of rock, and speckled with stray camels, is a river and a town called Lokichar. There is an airstrip there, and it was my first time to ever land on it.
The river had recently left the banks in heavy rains, and a couple of small tributaries now formed across the runway. Before landing I had to fly low over the surface in order to get a good look, not entirely sure how the small Cessna would do rolling over the uneven sand.
I made a swift pass close to the ground, eyeing the ruts and quickly figuring where I would touch down and come to a stop. The unfortunate result of my swoop and zoom, however, was the emptying out of a nearby schoolhouse as several hundred children ran to the airstrip to see my plane close up.
Successfully dodging both rivulets and children, the landing was smoother than expected, and my three passengers and I made a hasty retreat to a waiting truck that would take us across the river and toward the reason we were there.
Behind the wheel of the old truck, Sister Catherine, an unassuming Kenyan nun, wrestled with the gear shifter and thrust us into motion from a complete stand-still, into third gear and down the road.
Lokichar seemed like an orderly place, maybe due in part to the small Catholic presence there. We soon happened upon a new church under construction and then a complex of neat and whitewashed buildings, all fairly new, arranged purposefully, well kept, and out-of-place for Africa.
As we arrived at the compound gate, a boy appeared. He struggled to reach the latch while we waited awkwardly in the back of the truck. Sister Catherine didn’t get out to help. She just waited as the boy continued to struggle, his motions unnatural. I realized after a moment that he was crippled. A view of the compound revealed children all about – hobbling, wheeling, shuffling to the car park to greet their visitors. Every disability seemed different, unique. The smiles were all the same however. Bright, and beautiful.
Some of the children peered in the open door to the small office where we gathered. Catherine stood behind her spotless desk, proudly passing us a guest-book to sign. “The John Paul Home for crippled children,” she explained, “is named after the late Pope.” His picture set squarely on the wall behind her looking down upon us with kind approval. “We have forty-four children here currently.”
All forty-four were gathered in the main rehabilitation room. They sat on floor mats, a mass of giggles and crutches. They sat respectfully, watching curiously, unbelievably well-behaved for their ages. Each wore a blue tee-shirt with the John Paul motto wrinkled across the back, borne from the Apostle John – “that they may have life abundant.”
The doctors I had carried out in the airplane set up to examine the children, one by one. Each of the kids waited for his or her name to be called, and then hearing it, clambered to his feet (or foot) and took a seat opposite one of the doctors. Our one-day trip to Lokichar was a short visit, simply for follow-up examinations, and to prescribe the next treatment or surgery for each child. At some later date, many of them would be sent to the mission hospital in Kijabe for the actual surgeries.
I basically helped with filling out the paperwork, misspelling every manner of medical term, as the doctors examined and then recorded progress. I watched them attend to the kids with tenderness, and confidence – possessing both the skill and the heart to really make a difference for these kids. I found myself fleetingly envious. To fix a broken child must be one of the most rewarding things you can do on this planet. I could merely wish them whole.
As the children filed through our little examination room, I looked upon children who were very much like my own, but who had in one way or another, broken bodies. Vitamin deficiencies, I learned, could curve the legs of developing toddlers. Heredity could leave one leg six inches shorter than the other, or form a club foot. A burn could curl up a hand into a useless contortion of fingers. And a virus could crumple up a child like a discarded ball of paper and leave you wondering why God quit doing miracles in this world.
I had seen Polio before, but I had never touched it. The injuries were shocking to me. Almost as much as the gracious little souls who bore them. These kids formed a marvelous little community – of shared pain and struggle through the things that are ordinary to any whole human being. But also a community that could find immense pleasure in the ordinary things – the things whole people take in stride and seldom savor. Swinging at the playground. Greeting a visitor. Singing a song. Meeting a pilot.
I had pulled the gold stripes off my shoulders before we arrived at the compound. They often attract too much attention when I don’t particularly need to. (Pilots are celebrities out here, for some odd reason.) I normally try to keep a low profile, hoping not to distract from the ministry on the ground where I’m at. The kids here at the John Paul Home were on to me however, and they cornered me after lunch to get my story.
So I reached deep down into the cargo pocket of my khakis and produced a set of tattered Captain’s bars. I buttoned them in place upon my shoulders and watched the eyes of the children light up, their imaginations soar. Two boys, both amputees, leaned in closer on their crutches, gazing at me as if I wasn’t the same person who was just standing there a moment ago.
I began to tell about my work as a pilot and what it is like to fly around – how exciting it is to climb above the clouds, and to come down and land again. I motioned with my hands, gripping an imaginary control yoke in mid air. I maneuvered the plane through the phases of flight, made a picture perfect landing, and had a captive audience before it was all through.
Some of the boys asked questions about what I studied in order to qualify as a pilot, how long it would take to learn – questions about the process of becoming. It took me awhile to realize, while answering each question academically, that these boys were imagining themselves there. They were imaging themselves here. In my shoes. In my gold bars.
Initially, I didn’t see the soaring hearts because I couldn’t see beyond the broken bodies. Truth is, these children were more whole than most who could look in a mirror and count four perfect limbs. Courage in their spirits, love in their souls, Jesus in their hearts, and the ability to dream impossible things – these count more.
I could see why these doctors were here. It is truly an awesome calling to be the healer of crippled children. In helping restore physical functionality to these special kids, they are adding goodness to greatness. And sister Catherine – she must be some kind of unrecognized saint, laboring patiently, and so humbly. The marvelous hearts of these children who impressed me so much in just a single day, must be largely her doing. Unlike the others, I didn’t have much to give the children, except for a few short stories of flying adventure, and the apparent thrill of meeting a pilot up close.
My feelings of inadequacy must be the reason that, shortly after taking off that afternoon, a devious smirk came across my face as I leveled off low to the earth, turned directly toward the John Paul Home for crippled children, and pushed the throttle wide open. My little Cessna rocketed toward the compound. The roar caught the children in the courtyard by surprise. For one second overhead, as the late Pope’s picture rattled on the wall, I rolled the gleaming wings left and right in a rowdy wave – my salute to the soaring spirits of a bunch of really great kids.
All I saw, for that fleeting moment, was a courtyard of hands raised skyward, waving joyously into the rumble of my furious fly-by. Even from fifty feet at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, I could see their smiles. Bright, and beautiful.