What the Boy From the Dump Taught Me About Hope

  • by Rebecca Gonzales
Amber Johnson holds another boy she met in the Cebu dump. Photo courtesy of Amber Johnson

Amber Johnson, at 18, wants people to know the value of entering into someone else’s pain, the way that Jesus did with us.

The boy wailed.

His tiny back was shining red. An open sore filled his forehead.

His mother rushed him into the clinic. The toddler was playing in the water, and a live wire sent an electric shock through his body.   

This didn’t surprise clinic workers, who regularly treated families living in the city dump.

But it alarmed Amber Johnson.

Amber – a petite, blonde-haired 18-year-old – was overseas for the first time in busy Cebu, Philippines. She heard clinic workers tell the boy’s mother he needed to go to the hospital immediately.

Her stomach turned at the sight of blood. She’d never witnessed anything this traumatic.

So what she said to clinic workers next would surprise her even more: “I want to go with them.”

She got up to go.

Before Cebu

A year earlier, Amber climbed into the bed of her Chevy and stared up at the stars.

Since graduating from high school months earlier, Amber filled her days with clanging silverware and memorizing menu items as she worked as a full-time waitress.

She was grateful for her job, but this wasn’t her dream.

She’d asked God continually to provide an opportunity to serve Him. But she’d received no replies, neither from God nor the missionaries she’d reached out to.

“I began to feel out of control,” Amber says. “[But] looking at the stars and praying … this was a trust moment for me.”

Like the warm breeze, a mix of anticipation and peace washed over her. She would trust God. She would take a leap of faith when she got any reply.

A month later, she found herself in Reading, Massachusetts, serving a family who worked with Cru High School.

The family – Oscar and Candis Avalos and four young children – planned a mission trip for the following summer. They would take a group of teens to the Philippines to start ministries in high schools, serve at a non-profit women’s clinic and care for families in Cebu’s red-light district.

God was answering Amber’s prayers.

“I never regret trusting Him that night.”

The Boy

The Filipino mother held her struggling toddler close to her chest.

Amber followed behind, sweating in the humidity.

There was no waiting room, no chairs, and the hospital was packed with a couple hundred patients. More trickled in – an elderly woman, a screaming child with a broken arm, babies with heads wrapped in gauze.

Amber tried to help the boy’s mother as best she could. Amber felt heavy.

She filled her bottle with water and gave the boy sips. She’d been carrying around a book, and wiped the toddler’s now-sweating back with it. She lifted her eyes and thought, God, we need You here.

And she was moved to pray.

She looked at the woman, who barely knew English, and asked for permission. With a nod, Amber put one hand on the boy.

“Lord, we need You here. God, we need Your presence.” Amber struggled to get the words out at first, and then they became clearer. “Be here with us in this hopeless situation.”

It isn’t hopeless though, Amber thought.

She felt peace as she continued. She felt that the three of them felt peace.

Suddenly Amber felt, not only peace, but passion well inside her. He hasn’t abandoned us. He’s here. He loves us.

The boy was seen, bandaged and sent on his way.


The weeks after Cebu were more of a commotion.

Now, months into her first semester at New Mexico State University, she’s opening her summer journals as an antidote to feeling numb.

Life unfolded so quickly upon her return to the States that Amber was not able to think much about her trip. But she relived it emotionally all the time.

As she flips open a page, she is suddenly in Cebu again, returning to her teammates from the hospital late that night. Faith still glinted in her eyes, but she was exhausted.

“How’d it go?” Oscar, her team leader, asked.

Amber explained that the boy was better, and Oscar hesitated, not wanting to break bad news. But he didn’t want to be dishonest either.

“I spoke to the clinic workers,” he said softly. “He may not make it.”

Amber was taken aback. “He will. He was taken care of. He will.”

Oscar explained that because the boy lived in the dump, there was a chance for a fatal infection to set in. As Amber heard this, fury rose in her.

It was days before the anger began to subside, replaced with thoughtful grappling.

“When I was holding [that baby boy], it was the darkest situation I’d ever been in,” she remembers. But she says that praying over him, and believing God was with them, was a powerful experience.

“Getting to hurt with people in that way was good for me,” she says.

It was good because in a way, Amber was God’s hands and feet to the family – standing in the hot and crowded room, holding the sticky, small boy, and praying for him. She was with them in their pain.

But it was also good because, in that moment, God helped Amber remember Christ.

“He entered into our hopelessness,” she says, reflecting on Christ leaving heaven to come to our broken world. He is near to the brokenhearted.

She remembered that He experienced pain in more ways than we could know. And He came to bring more than just physical healing, but eternal life.

Even in her grieving, that hope keeps her going today.

Questions to Consider:

  • Where are you hurting right now? Where do you need God to enter in?

  • How can you be God’s hands and feet to someone who is suffering?

  • The Bible says Jesus experienced pain and the Spirit is with us in our present pain. What would it mean to you if you believed God was with you in your suffering?

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