That’s a really heavy word to me. Usually the first thing that comes to mind when you hear it is unrequited love, which Wikipedia defines as “love that is not openly reciprocated, even though reciprocation is usually deeply desired.” But the word unrequited by itself simply means “not reciprocated or returned in kind”.
Have you ever been on a house-building mission trip? You spend all week there laboring in the hot sun, giving your time and strength and sweat in servitude to someone else. Sure, this is sacrifice. This is honorable service. But this is not unrequited service. At the end of the week, you get to hand the key over to the family that will live there, and you receive more thanks and appreciation than you could possibly understand. At least in my experience, these people that you thought you were serving end up serving you immensely more in return. They will bask you in gratitude, hospitality, and love. They will teach you more about your Father through their actions and their hearts. You took the trip to make a change for someone else. You ride home knowing that you are the one that has been changed.
I had the opportunity to spend some time in Romania a few years ago, working in a hospital for abandoned babies. I wasn’t prepared for the sharp contrast this trip would bear to any previous mission work I had done. Our main job there was simply to love the children. There was a two-story hospital with about 10 rooms, and 5-6 babies in each room. Most had been left on the doorstep by desperate mothers – many of whom had grown up abandoned on the streets themselves. The cycle continues. Several of the babies had spent their entire lives within these walls. Several of these babies would end their short lives within these walls.
On any given day, there would be 1-2 nurses to care for these 50-60 ill children. The nurses seemed numb and devoid of emotion, carrying each child the way you might expect them to handle meat. I never could decide if I could blame them for this. Would I be the same way if I faced this world day in and day out, never given hope for improvement? Most of the babies displayed failure to thrive and sensory disorders. Several of them had aversions to human touch and felt only pain when held. Some of them had cigarette burns lining their arms. One little boy was hooked up to an IV the entire time we were there. The IV was constructed of a 2 liter soda bottle, a wire hanger, and an old tube colored with rust.
We showed up at this place day after day. We held the babies that could be held. We sang to the ones that couldn’t. We pulled some of them up to their feet for the first time in their lives. We waved at them. We talked to them. We rubbed their backs and wiggled their little arms. We rocked them. We held them. And at the end of each day, we’d lay them back down and walk away with heavy steps and breaking hearts.
For the greater part of this trip, I believed that this was unrequited service, and I struggled with the thought. The nurses did not like us and did not thank us. We seemed more a nuisance to them than anything else. The few mothers that we did see on occasion were cold and unresponsive. The children… did they even notice us? Would they remember us years from now? Would they even live to see years from now? Would our time with them make an impact beyond our short month together?
Though it was hard to feel it at the time, we learned the impact of our actions later. By the end of our trip, two little girls were walking for the first time. They were 4 and 6. By the end of our trip, babies who had spent their days staring up into stark ceilings had learned to pull themselves up on their crib sides. By the end of our trip, the bleak, broken little hospital had heard laughter.
Walking away from those children for the last time was heartbreaking, but we found comfort in knowing that God would not stop with us. We were part of a pretty amazing organization that already had another team of people to take our place. The end of our trip was the beginning of theirs. With continued love and attention, some of those babies grew into children, and many of those children moved on to loving foster homes-homes where they will be raised and taught to love others like them. I hope the cycle continues.
I’ve been told that in situations like this, it’s normal to have one or two children that grab your heart and won’t let go. Mine was Sebastian. His crib was tucked back in a corner by a glass window that faced the front door. By the end of our trip, he would pull himself up and greet me each day with a smile. It broke my heart to leave him there, and I still think of him often. I’ve been told that he was moved to a home sponsored by our contacts.
I don’t know if he will remember me when he is older. But there is one thing I am sure of. For a brief month in his life, God used my arms to hold him. And for a brief month in his life, God used his eyes to break me. I hope that we will meet each other one day, in this world or the next. And I hope that I can thank him for the difference he made in my life. I went on that trip thinking I could make a change for someone else. And I flew home knowing that I was the one that had been changed.
When God is our ultimate desire, there is no such thing as unrequited love or service.