Humanity that celebrates the soul by Ed Koffenberger

February 12, 2013


His name was Kenri and there was nothing in my vacation plans that said I would be praying with every fiber of my being to see him smile. Yet such is true life when it is blessed, no matter how short in duration. When I finally saw that smile the warm Jamaican sun went golden. But this was not my plan when I awoke that morning in the comfort of a resort hotel room, surrounded by luxuries that Kenri will never know.

Montego Bay, Jamaica and the CYC Yoga Conference brought together yoga practitioners and teachers from around the globe. My wife is a yoga instructor and uses yoga with adolescents at a psychiatric facility. She needed some R&R and I thought a trip to Jamaica sounded like fun and a time to both get away and within.

As she registered, I heard someone tell her of a service option during the conference. Thinking that she would be busy during the day, I asked whether I might join the service project. I was directed to the only other non-vendor table: Karma Krew. They had organized a day trip to spend time with some orphans, providing the children a fun afternoon. Nicely wedged between lunch and dinner (wouldn’t want to miss a meal), why not?

As the bus pulled away, I noticed that I sported significantly more grey hair than my bus mates. As one of the leaders rose to talk about the trip, she began by saying there would be a time for each person to do some modified yoga with the children. In that the bus was air conditioned, I can’t blame the warmth of the Jamaican afternoon for the sweat that suddenly covered my body. Luckily, when I volunteered to work with any of the children who couldn’t or wouldn’t do yoga, there was “a child” that might not be able to participate because of his “limitations.” At that time no one knew just what that meant.

Sr. (Auntie) Jackie does not run an orphanage as you might envision. In reality, she is a warm and large hearted woman who has taken in abandoned children from all over Jamaica. As we entered a large shelter made of plywood and corrugated steel, we met the gathered 20+ children, looking warily at this bus load of strangers who had come to be with them.

Only one older child appeared to not be able to do yoga in that she had a turned leg and foot  and was in a wheelchair that she was outgrowing. Assuming that she would be my partner, I spoke with her about how caring she was for the younger children and how gladly they responded to her care. After Sr. (Auntie) Jackie gave us a short history of the children gathered there, we started out the door to the sand covered yard to begin the yoga portion of the visit. I was halfway to the door with this young woman when Kenri was wheeled in the door.

Profoundly challenged in body and mind, Kenri rode partially slumped in a flaking red wheelchair. His multiple challenges were unknown to Sr. (Auntie) Jackie, yet she had taken him in. There are times when you know something far greater is unfolding quite outside your control.  Kenri, Jamaica, karma yoga, and myself – a moment outside of time and space. I grabbed the handles of the wheelchair.

We joined the circle of children and instructors. Welcoming the sun was celebrated by tilting the chair back so Kenri’s face could roll into the warmth. On the first tip, as his head rolled back, his eyes met mine; beautiful clear round, deep brown eyes. We moved forward and back, tipped side to side, raised our hands together to stretch as best we could together. As the time continued I watched as his legs that were previously pulled to his chest in fetal position began to stretch and lengthen until his feet almost touched the ground. His high pitched sounds softened and eventually ended. With all these “yoga” movements, Kenri would begin to slump down in his chair for it had no straps. His mouth was malformed and he was given to drooling. As the activities continued, each time I pulled Kenri back up straight into his chair, his head would roll back and our eyes would meet. Then I saw the first smile.

Kenri taught me about what it means to be human. I do not hold my humanity within myself and neither does Kenri. We became fully human when we shared a moment. I was not bringing him anything solely out of myself, nor was he bringing anything out of himself to give to me. Humanity happened in that graced space between our gazes.

One note here. You may be thinking that these are the ramblings of an old romantic, trying to make something wonderful out of a simple reflex and/or exercising an internal, inflated do-gooder image. I have worked in an ICF/MR facility and a psychiatric facility with adults and children who are challenged with the same life as Kenri. If there is a way to be cynical about life, the world has offered the option to me. Yet, in that smile and the many that came after, Kenri offered me a deeper humanity, a humanity that celebrates the soul within each of us and the wonder of sharing in the greater soul of communion.

I thank Karma Krew and the CYC Yoga Conference for that brief yet sacred time with Kenri.


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