Manuel: The Child Who Touched My Heart - My Family Travels
QUEENS, NY jess manuel smaller
QUEENS, NY jess manuel smaller

It was somewhere around ninety-eight degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived in Jamaica, Queens, but the beads of sweat on our foreheads seemed to indicate that it was much warmer. A short-term mission trip to a small neighborhood was something that I’d never experienced before, but I knew that it would be a trip that I would never forget.

Day one, we were assigned to run a kids club; we would play with kids, teach them a craft, and read some verses with them from the Bible. The church where we were serving seemed deserted — the old stained glass windows had duct tape covering the jagged glass where rocks had been thrown, and the grass surrounding the building was yellow, and laid flat over the dry earth. We set up our crafts, kick balls, and water bottles over the lawn. Soon, the kids poured in through the rusted gate. After playing tag, the girls sat together in a circle, and the boys tossed the football back and forth.  I noticed that there was one boy who did not quite fit in with the rest.

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Manuel sat by himself, playing with his baseball cap and picking dead grass out of the ground. Something pulled at my heart, and I decided to sit down and talk to him. As I walked over, Manuel looked up, and the biggest smile I’ve ever seen spread across his face. We talked about his family and his life in Queens. Before I knew it, it was time to go. I waved goodbye to Manuel, and he promised he would meet me there the next day.

The following morning, at the kids club, I spotted that same blue and white baseball cap from the day before. Manuel helped set up our stations and welcome kids to the club. Instead of sitting by himself, Manuel sat next to me and we resumed our conversation, as though yesterday’s had never ended. This time, Manuel initiated the conversation; his voice filled with energy as he told me about how he won a spelling bee at his elementary school. I left the church that day with a feeling of happiness that was overwhelming; I kept seeing Manuel’s smile in the back of my mind, and it brightened up my whole attitude. No longer did it really matter that I was sweating bullets or that I spent the night sleeping on the floor.

The next day, the vans rolled up to the vacant-looking church for the last time. I spotted Manuel, and he waved at me enthusiastically. He ran over, holding up a plastic CD case. Manuel exclaimed that he had recorded his spelling bee video for me. I kneeled down, gave Manuel a big hug and thanked him. I invited Manuel to the church service that followed. I held Manuel’s hand as we walked over to a pew and joined in singing. After the service, we met the pastor. Manuel shook his hand and told him he would be back soon. We walked out to the front lawn together, and I realized that the moment I had been dreading had come at last. It was time to go, but I couldn’t bear saying goodbye to Manuel. I gave him a hug and told him that I’d always be praying for him, and Manuel said he’d remember me whenever he went to the church. Saying goodbye to Manuel was one of the hardest things that I had to do on that trip; but meeting him in the first place was one of the best experiences that I have ever had.

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