Cookies for Communion

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The best gift I have ever been given was a half-eaten, double stuffed Oreo cookie with all the double stuffing licked out.

The giver was a four-year-old Guatemalan girl named Marisa with coffee-colored hair and big, round, liquid chocolate eyes. Marisa’s favorite pastimes included pinching other children until they cried, stealing crayons out of the art cabinet, and demanding treats (“give me candy” were her first English words to me).

I adored her.

As a summer day camp director, I knew I wasn’t supposed to have my favorites, but those chocolatey eyes melted my heart.

Camp Here and Now was an experimental ministry, a testing ground for development possibilities in the tired community of Watts Mill, SC. The community comprised largely of Latino and Latina Immigrants and other minority groups who were struggling just to get by. The children who came to camp lived in the folded up crease of the Bible Belt, hidden from sight by many of us who used that belt to hold up our ill-fitting faith. The community had a church on nearly every corner, and an empty belly or syringe in nearly every house.

Watts Mill looked an awful lot like the Kingdom of God.

Some days, working at a Day Camp was delightful. Like when the children mixed up their words and sang songs in Spanglish, “Si, Jesus te ama, for the Bible dice asi!”. Or when the boy in the back of the room misheard the word “fiancée” and spent the rest of the summer thinking that Mary was Joseph’s Beyoncé.

But most days, camp was discouraging, frustrating work. I was fresh out of my sophomore year of college, working through a crumbling belief system that had served me all my life, and still trying to understand what truly helpful and transformative service to my native community might look like. Temperatures that summer were sweltering—the highest recorded in decades—and we didn’t have air conditioning, resorting to running industrial fans at the highest possible power level and constantly warning children to keep their fingers out from between the spaces in the wire casing. We relied on fish-and-loaves miracles to feed hungry bellies. The floor flooded from a refrigerator leak at least once a week. Homeless men wandered in asking for a place to rest and drug-addicted mothers asked if they could come to camp because it was the only place they could stay sober. On top of this, we, the volunteer staff, had upward of 50 children under the age of 10, half of whom barely spoke English, decorating each other with chalk dust and crying because someone called them a green popsicle.

And then there was Marisa.

I don’t know what it is, but when it comes to children, I have an affinity for the naughty ones. (I may have some supressed anger issues toward the “goodie goodies” from my own childhood that skews my perception, but my therapist and I haven’t gotten around to that yet). Whatever the reason, I take a special liking to the children who stay in trouble. And so it naturally followed that Marisa would become my best friend. Marisa who threw tantrums twice a day (when she was in a good mood). Marisa who kicked the chair across the room when she was told to “sientete.” Marisa who caught three miniature frogs one afternoon and snuck them into Mrs. Patrick’s purse, sending Mrs. Patrick running, screaming through the room when she tried to retrieve her wallet to pay the pizza man.

I began taking special time aside during the day with Marisa. When the other children were doing the hokey pokey, Marisa and I put together puzzles of Disney princesses. When it was time for arts and crafts, I taught Marisa that glue is for sticking, not for eating. When little old ladies taught paper cut-out and felt board Bible stories, I would sit beside Marisa and she would rest her head on my shoulder. Slowly, I earned her trust.

One day, I was asked to participate in a skit for the kids that went along with the lesson for the day. I was a hungry thief stealing bread to feed my family. The shop owner in the skit demonstrated forgiveness with pardon for my crime. Forever the theater geek, I milked my hunger role for all it was worth.

At lunchtime, I took a seat next to Marisa. Dessert that afternoon was an Oreo cookie. Marisa had a major sweet tooth. She ate her dessert first every day. (There are so many reasons I liked this kid). Marisa began eating her Oreo. She pulled the cookie apart and licked up the goodness inside, then she looked at me. She stopped. A look of deep concern crept onto her face.

“Here,” she shoved the cookie to my lips. “You hungry. You eat it.”

And honestly—germophobia aside—it was the best cookie I ever tasted. I washed the cookie down with grape juice from a Styrofoam cup and realized I had just shared a sacrament.

Marisa may not have been the best at following the rules or earning stars on her memory verse chart, but she understood what really matters. She saw someone she believed was hungry, and she shared what she had. She saw someone who loved her and someone whom she loved, and she felt compelled to act out of that love. It might not have been much, and it might not have been perfect, but none of that mattered as she broke the bread and blessed it.

Rebekah Bell is the founder of Camp Here and Now, a summer day camp ministry for under-resourced children in Laurens, South Carolina. She is currently a student at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia studying Non-Profit Leadership. Rebekah enjoys spending time with her three cats, doing needlework, and sampling exotic teas.

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