I found Critter under a bed in my house. The only conclusion I could come to was that a mommy cat had wandered in through the open balcony, given birth while we were away, and then took off when she saw that her baby was so small – tiny enough to fit inside the palm of my hand. I found him squeaking pitifully for his life and instinctively dropped him inside my sports bra to warm him up via skin to skin contact. He was soon wiggly and vocal, and I was in love.
Thanks to the internet I found that I was dealing with a premature kitten. The average kitten is 95 – 110 grams at birth, but Critter was less than 80. I had to feed him fancy kitten formula every couple of hours and keep him very warm. I also learned that kittens cannot pass waste alone and need their genitals stimulated regularly in order to release it. It was a lot of (gross) work. However, it wasn’t long before I was attached to the furball I was carrying around against my chest. For three days, I cared for Critter. On the third night he hit his first milestone when he started purring. But when I woke up the next morning and pulled him from his basket that was lined with towels and a heating pad I knew he was dying. For the next three hours I held him as he faded away.
As I cried and said my final goodbye, I realized that caring for Critter was the perfect metaphor for my life. Loving Critter was a choice I made when he quite literally was dumped on my doorstep. I knew that the odds of a good outcome were slim. I knew that most likely the end would be a broken heart. Premature kittens rarely survive, so much the more so without their mothers, but when I met him, I could do nothing but hang on to the slimmest hope of a healthy future. I don’t regret a second of the investment. He was worth loving.
Working with exploited people feels a lot like caring for a premature orphaned kitten. The work is messy and exhausting. And the statistics aren’t good. Often I know that it is most likely that healing won’t happen, rescue won’t come, and the situation is fatal. But I hope anyway. I cling to the minutest possibilities of wholeness, and I give away my heart knowing the likelihood that it will be broken. Maybe this is the only way I know to love.
Sometimes people ask what it is like spending time in brothels with trafficking victims when I am powerless to do anything about it. This is it. It feels like a choice to love and a choice to give whatever I do have, even if it is only an offer to walk through the valley of the shadows alongside. I do it because the women and girls that I encounter are worthy of being loved. They are worth crying for when things do not turn out like I wanted. Their suffering is worth grieving over.
What Critter’s life made clear for me is that we have to redefine what success is when it comes to working with vulnerable people. Success is not healing or even wholeness. Success is risky love. This doesn’t mean that we don’t strive for healing or demand high quality standards in our work; it does mean that we choose to love lavishly and not hold back just because the risk is high. For followers of Jesus, what we are called to is not a ministry of guarantees. We are told to “loose the chains of injustice, do away with the yolk of oppression, and spend ourselves on behalf of the needy” (Isaiah 58). This is not safe for our hearts. However, becoming brokenhearted is where we find the grace and comfort of Christ. It’s where we become truly human. I deeply believe that the only way we can come face to face with injustice, oppression, and the world’s deep need and not lose our own humanity is allowing ourselves to love not in spite of the risk of pain it may bring us, but precisely because of it.