Editor’s Note: Tim Shelgren, FMS missioner, reflects on a powerful experience in Kingston, Jamaica where God revealed His presence through a day at the pool.
About thirty years ago when my children were little, every Sunday morning before church I used to go running behind our home on the “dikes” along the Allegany River in Upstate NY. Upon finishing my run, I remember thinking, “Why am I bothering to take my kids to church? God is out here on the dikes. Geese flying, the river quietly flowing, flowers growing wild. God is right behind our house.”
Then, as organized as possible, I would feed all four of the kids, iron their church clothes, get them showered, hair done and dressed, and race them out the door. For over fifteen years the kids were never late for Sunday school. And I was never late either as I raced upstairs to the choir room where I reported to the piano to accompany choir rehearsals. Whew! I wonder today what God thought as he observed my family’s somewhat spastic Sunday morning routine.
Last month on one particular Sunday morning, I experienced all of the above with the new family I have acquired as a missioner serving at Jamaica’s Mustard Seed home for boys. Due to be at the Missionaries of the Poor’ church Corpus Christi (in downtown Kingston) at 8:30 am, I arrived at Mustard Seed a half hour early. There, fifteen boys were standing outside gobbling down their breakfast and putting out their arms one at a time so I could button their sleeves. We went to church, and afterwords raced home for a special treat (that took me a month to organize), jumped in the Mustard Seed van, and drove off for a day at the pool and football field.
All the boys were extremely well behaved throughout the entire morning. I could feel the presence of God orchestrating the events. These fifteen boys are NOT always as well behaved, on time, or cooperative—by any means. To myself, I thanked God for his presence and for keeping a potentially chaotic group of boys calm.
Before unlocking the pool gate, we covered all the pool rules. Everyone agreed to and did follow the rules well. Ironic because the boys live on an island, my new FMS colleague Hannah and I found out none of them know how to swim. And we were both pleasantly surprised that the boys’ fear of the water kept them interested in the swimming lessons we were offering. It actually kept them happily playing and splashing around in the three and four foot end of the pool. Though some are sixteen-years-old, they had no qualms about asking us to help hold them up as they learned to tread water.
Encountering the Breath of Life
About an hour and a half in, I heard one of the boys, Richard (he is deaf), vocalizing the sounds he makes when he is trying to get someone’s attention. I looked his way, and he was pointing aggressively to the deep end of the pool. I looked that way and saw nineteen-year-old Alex laying face down at the bottom of the water. Two of the Mustard Seed caretakers (who also cannot swim) and a couple of the other boys were at the edge of the pool hollering to Alex.
I ran to the group and dove into the water. On my way down to Alex’s motionless body, I prayed instinctively, “Please help me get Alex out of the water.” Alex is six foot two inches, and as I dove down, frightening visions were coming into my mind. I did not know if I would have the strength to lift him. But, when I grabbed the back of his tank top and proceeded to lift and push, I found his body was as light as a feather. As if I was releasing a balloon into the sky, Alex’s body floated effortlessly—and fast—to the top of the ten foot water.
There, Hannah (also in the water by then) floated Alex to the edge where the caretakers and boys dragged him out. I flew up the ladder and, once again, instinctively prayed, “Help me remember CPR.” I put Alex on his back, started compressing his chest, then blowing into his mouth. In seconds, Hannah took over the chest compressions.
For what seemed like an eternity, Hannah and I kept pressing and blowing for about two minutes. I said, “Please God, please.” After several moments, my own body started to feel lifeless, and my mind felt like it was detaching from me somehow. The fear of failure was growing within me. All I could do was keep blowing into Alex’s mouth and saying my desperate and seemingly weak prayers.
“This is not Alex’s breath, but the breath of God I am sharing right now.”
Then, something literally life-giving happened. One of the breaths I was offering returned from Alex’s lungs back into my own. That exchange continued. As if I was exchanging breaths with the breath of life itself, I thought, “This is not Alex’s breath, but the breath of God I am sharing right now.”
Unlike the movies where the drowning victim begins to cough up water and breath normally, Alex simply began to take quiet, shallow breaths on his own. Soon, his caretaker stepped in and said, “This is how he comes out of his seizures, turn him on his side.” We did, and Hannah ran for help.
Alex spent three days in the hospital where they ran tests for water in the lungs and seizure-related lesions on the brain. Both tests read negative. And Alex was discharged on Thursday.
Like a miracle, one of the doctors who I met that Sunday morning at Corpus Christi was able to keep me informed all week on how Alex was doing. She is actually going to use Alex in a study that she and a few of her colleagues are doing on seizures. She suspects that Alex possibly had a seizure that put him at the bottom of the pool—and also may have simultaneously stopped his breathing—which explains the lack of water coughed up upon revival and later in the hospital tests.
With in-explainable relief and gratitude to God, I am now able to answer my thirty-year-old question, “Is God in the wild flowers or is he in the Church?” He is in both and more. On that unforgettable Sunday in Kingston, Jamaica, God showed himself in the call of a boy who is deaf, in the group effort made to save a life, in the water that supported and floated a six foot two inch body effortless toward the sky, in the breath of life exchanged between two people, and in the doctor who is showing personal and professional interest in one now special patient.
On the very next Sunday after church, Mustard Seed’s caretakers asked Hannah and I to walk with the boys down into the city to the National Art Museum where there was a reggae poster competition and celebration. Here is a picture of Alex, full of life, leading all of us on that beautiful walk. May God continue to reveal himself to us all as we live our lives together in him.
Reflection Question: Where in your life have you felt the overwhelming presence of God?