During the summer of 2000 Larry and I along with our two youngest daughters, Fawn and Autumn, took a sabbatical from our church in Alabama and returned to Honduras for a couple of months. While there I wrote about one of the greatest challenges I ever encountered. Her name was Marva:
My first day back I walk by the little wooden house where Marva lived, its windows and doors tightly shut, reminding me that she is no longer there. It has been seven years since we left La Ceiba, a city situated on the northern coast of Honduras, hovering on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. It was home to my family for six years, and this is the first time we have returned with our two youngest daughters.
Badly in need of paint, the house with its sagging porch is exactly as I remember it. I can almost see Marva, black skin glistening from the tropical heat, leaning over the rail wagging her finger at my children. "Now you children be telling your mother that I am still wanting my pumpkin cake and coke for my birthday."
She made them uncomfortable. I could understand why. She was especially large for a Honduran. And though she was barely into her forties, her teeth were gone and her legs and feet were covered with open sores, probably from diabetes. Though well educated, fluent in both Spanish and English, she had been rejected by most of her family. I understood in part why her family wanted little to do with her. She was demanding and totally without manners.
Dressed in their blue and white uniforms, my three oldest children walked to school every morning and then again in the afternoon after lunch and siesta. There was no way to avoid walking by the house with the sagging porch where Marva would sit to cool herself. It was inevitable that she would catch them walking by at least once a day and indignantly ask them why she had not yet received her pumpkin cake.
It wasn't long before she found her way into our home. I would hear the sound of the chain and the squeal of metal as the gate opened and closed, and then her slow plod as she ascended the wooden steps leading to the front door of the mission home. If the door wasn't latched shut she would walk in without invitation and proceed to ask for whatever she wanted or needed on that particular day. It might be something to eat, a bit of bleach for cleaning or petroleum jelly for her skin. Perhaps she needed money for a cab or some medicine at the "farmacia." And there was the frequent reminder that she was still waiting for her pumpkin cake.
I didn't like Marva. I was annoyed that she bothered my children and often felt like disappearing out the back door when I would hear her slow but unmistakable walk up my stairs. This continued for several months, and my attitude towards her worsened. True, I was a Christian missionary, but even we have our limits.
One afternoon I was home alone when I heard the sound of the gate and the heavy plod of my neighbor's feet on the stairs. I sighed deeply. I had looked forward to a quiet afternoon with my children in school and my husband away for the day.
I knew the moment she walked through the door that something was terribly wrong. "Miss Marcia. I just wanted to come and tell you goodbye before I be killing my neighbor." Her body was tense, her eyes blazing with hurt and anger. She found the closest chair and sat down.
I had seen her upset before but never like this. I was not in the mood to help her work through a problem with another neighbor. Heaven knows that she had issues with most of them. By now she was rocking back and forth, and I knew that she wasn't going to budge until I heard her out. "Ok Marva," I sighed loudly, hoping she would notice my impatience as I pulled over another chair. "What happened?"
She was shaking with indignation as she told me about the children who were eating what she felt was a dangerous quantity of green mangos. Fearful that they would make themselves terribly sick, she took the fruit away from them. An angry mother went on the offensive, and Marva, stung from the attack, was deeply insulted. Her only recourse was revenge.
Wearily I looked at my neighbor. She was still trembling from the encounter, and I suddenly felt inadequate, not knowing how to help this woman who had needs that were beyond my ability to meet. I didn't know what to do or say. In fact, I didn't want her in my life. I breathed a prayer, "Lord help me." I felt an inner nudge. "Pray for her." I turned my chair to sit directly in front of her. "Marva," I said. "I'm going to pray for you." She immediately bowed her head, still trembling. "Lay your hands on her." I knew God was speaking, but for a moment I hesitated. I didn't want to touch her. "Lay your hands on her." I suddenly found myself standing behind her with my hands resting upon her heaving shoulders. I could still feel her trembling under the wet, perspiring skin. "Lord, how do I pray for her?" My mouth opened, and suddenly words of blessing poured out of me. The sounds of the street below seemed to disappear as I prayed for God's peace. His presence filled the room as I prayed for healing in her relationships. And I sensed God forming a bond between us as I prayed that she might know His love for her. The tension seemed to ooze out of her as she relaxed beneath my hands.
The eyes that opened to look into mine were not the same. The quiet hush of God was still present in that living room. Nothing was spoken for a moment, and then she stood to leave. "Thank you, Miss Marcia." The voice was quiet, almost subdued. And she was gone.
My relationship changed with Marva on that day. Oh, she was still demanding and rude at times. She still had conflicts with the neighbors and would even occasionally get cross with my children. But there was a difference. She knew someone cared for her.
When Marva heard the news that our time in Honduras was drawing to a close she wept. She had been treated kindly, and the thought of losing those who accepted her unconditionally devastated her. During our final weeks we saw her almost daily.
A few days before our departure she came flying up the steps as fast as her weight would allow. I had never seen her so animated. "Miss Marcia. Now you don't be fixing yourself any dinner tonight. I'm going to be cooking you a nice meal, and I'll be bringing it over about 6:00." I was stunned. In all our time as neighbors, Marva had never done anything for us. I wasn't even certain that she would come through, but I assured her that we would be there waiting.
I had worked hard at packing all day when suddenly the electricity went out. Night comes early in Honduras, and we were frantically looking for a flashlight when suddenly a voice came from the bottom of the steps. It was Marva. "Miss Marcia. Mister Larry. I be standing at the bottom of the steps with your dinner, and I can't see to bring it up."
A few moments later with Larry leading the way, Marva entered the room with her arms full of serving bowls. She had obviously been cooking all day as she showed us what she had prepared, arroz con pollo, a dish prepared for special occasions. She beamed with pride as she laid it all out on the table.
"I have one more thing to bring." She spoke like a child with a wonderful secret. She disappeared with the flashlight only to appear a few minutes later carrying something on her best dinner plate. I could hardly speak for a moment. It was an entire pumpkin cake.
I come back to the present once again. Marva's gone now. She died two years ago, complications from diabetes I was told. I miss her. You see, when I insisted on cutting a piece of that pumpkin cake off for her, she wouldn't hear of it. "No, Miss Marcia. You've been my friends, my only friends in this barrio, and this cake is for you." She didn't say it, but I know she loved us. I knew it the day she brought us the pumpkin cake.