The blue sky, wispy clouds, and green hills painted on the exterior of Maria’s Big House of Hope differentiated the building from the dusty streets and run-down apartment buildings of Luoyang, China. The orphanage appeared playful and child-like, striking in comparison to the other government-run orphanage across the street. I wondered why two buildings, so similar in purpose, had been built this close to one another. What distinguished them from each other? Maria’s was bright and clean. The other was drab and dirty. Maria’s children were well-fed and cared for. The other children were hungry and discontent. But these sobering comparisons stood in the shadow of yet another haunting contrast, which hung heavily over Maria’s Big House of Hope like a beautiful, black veil: Maria’s innocent occupants were the unwanted of the unwanted. They were the rejects of the rejected. And unlike the other orphans across the street, they were dying.
I vividly remember the moment I realized that Maria’s orphanage was a house of death. Following the orphanage’s director down another long, white corridor, my heart ached as I gazed into the large glass windows overlooking children’s rooms. Our youth group of fifteen had just arrived at Maria’s with the intention of volunteering for one week. But I didn’t expect this. My heart felt heavy. We passed another room, and then another. Sunlight streamed in through the glass windows. We continued our tour of Maria’s, preparing to visit all seven flours; all twelve rooms; all one hundred and forty sick and dying children. I didn’t understand how the world could reject these precious little ones. How could I have taken my life for granted when these children’s lives were fading away so rapidly? The light in their eyes was slowly ebbing away, while my eyes were just now opening. Their short lives were coming to an unnatural and painful end. My life had just begun. That wasn’t fair. My heart stirred with sorrow at the realization that this vibrantly sunlit children’s home was a house of death.
I longed to hold these children. I wanted sound out their Chinese names. I longed to hug and kiss them, to make them giggle, and to relieve them from their pain if only for few, brief moments. My first morning at Maria’s dawned bright and early. I knew where I wanted to go. The sun was rising, and glowing rays of sunlight flooded the elevator as I stepped onto the seventh floor—the rooftop. Illuminated by two strings of light bulbs which hung across the length of the balcony, it was furnished with picnic tables and swinging benches. I walked the length of the rooftop. The wind blew, cool and strong, as I leaned over the wall and stared down at the roughly paved streets of Loayong, just now coming to life at the first hints of morning. I watched the streets begin to bustle with people as the sunrise’s first glimmer of pastel pink and purple faded beneath a haze of blue. My gaze slowly wandered from the world below to Maria’s concrete walls lining the rooftop—and the hand-written names lacing each one. The voice of the orphanage director came back to me in a moment. “These are the names of the little ones who’ve died here at Maria’s. This is our special way of remembering them.” I could tell every name was printed with the tender care. Each font was different, matching that child’s personality. I read the names slowly, thinking of the children just waking up below. I ran my fingers over the surface of the concrete wall. How soon would their caregivers find an empty spot on this same wall, black marker in hand?
I met Gloria two days later. I had never seen anyone so fragile and weak. She wore a small, hand-knitted, red sweater. Wrapped securely in a baby blanket, little Gloria slept soundly. Her tiny chest lifted in steady rhythm as she napped, oblivious to the sound of the other children around her. She was small and frail. “Gloria’s not a month old yet,” her caregiver told me, “she’s new… our youngest too.” She smiled after a moment’s hesitation, “Do you want to hold her?” At my nod, Gloria was placed ever-so-gently into my open arms. I studied her closely, marveling at her tiny fingers and toes. I compared Gloria’s small hands to my own. She looked innocent and alive–seemingly out-of-place in this house of death. How had Maria’s become her home? I continued to hold her, laughing at her bright smile, while my own heart broke. Her caregiver lifted her out of my arms to feed her, telling me she had a heart problem—a terminal one. I left the room a few minutes later, feeling helpless.
There were so many children at Maria’s—and though I had spent time with Gloria, she was just one of many. I wanted to hold each precious child. It frustrated me to think that my time at the orphanage was passing so quickly. I decided to move to the next room after my visit with Gloria. Walking a few steps, I stopped in the doorway and glanced around the room. Two children with cerebral palsy lay on a pink cushioned mat beside me. Another boy, who was paralyzed from the legs down, slept soundly in the corner. I walked into the room, smiling when I caught the eye of a caregiver. She motioned toward a three-year old at her feet—a little girl who smiled up at me, eyes shining playfully. Her short black hair was parted in the middle and tied with purple ribbons. I played with her for a few minutes. Her caregiver watched us, tone anxious as she told me the little girl had a rapidly-growing tumor next to her spine. She gently turned her over and pointed to a lump on the little girl’s back. “The doctors already removed a tumor. But it grew back again. It’s getting bigger each day.” The pained look in the caregiver’s eyes as she talked answered my unspoken question. There was nothing else the doctors could do for this little girl, just like Gloria, Easton, Brianna, and so many others at Maria’s Big House of Hope.
There aren’t sufficient words to describe my full experience at Maria’s Big House of Hope. I could never completely express how that week changed my perspective on pain and hardships. Those precious children taught me about the briefness and sweetness of life. Maria’s is a place where orphans come to die. But is it this truly a house of death? Or of hope—like its name implies? Maria’s colorful walls, open windows, and sunlit rooms don’t seem to fit this place of pain and suffering. How will I remember Maria’s? Deep inside, I know the answer to this simple question. I will always think of Maria’s Big House of Hope as a place of acceptance for the lowest in society. And though the shadow of death taints this haven far too often, Maria’s doors continue to swing open for each dying child, offering a confident reassurance that these unwanted little ones would find acceptance during their stay at Maria’s…an acceptance that the world has otherwise refused to give.
click here to read more about Maria’s Big House of Hope Orphanage.