What’s in a name? Maybe more than we realize. So much of our identity is tied up in our names. First, middle, last. A requirement on most every application. If we don’t give our names, we don’t get very far in this world. Without it, we can’t leave the country. Heck, forget world travel… a birth certificate must have a name before a baby is allowed to leave the hospital.
Certain names bring about an immediate response. A reaction, maybe good, maybe bad. Names are important representation of who we are. Just ask the nun in Calcutta.
Right? Was that last line just too weird?
Why don’t we give it a try.
Kim Jong Il
Did it work?
Names are important. Their pronunciation, spelling, and more challenging, remembering. Countless times someone has told me their name, and moments later I have to ask again.
My husband has an unusual (but wonderful) preoccupation with names. Pronunciation is key. Likely coming from 43 years of being called Veevek, Vivik and Vievek. His name is Vivek, pronounced Viv – ache. When he was 16 he became so tired of correcting people, he resorted to “just call me Vik”. Now people just misspell it.
In South Africa, we befriended a young man named Xolani; a Xosa name with a click in the beginning. Viv-ache had met his ultimate challenge. As I video recorded the area around us, you can hear Vievek practicing Xolani’s name for at least ten minutes. Over and over and over. At one point, a gracious Xolani said “yes, that’s it” but it wasn’t. So good ole Veeevek kept practicing. We haven’t seen Xolani in 13 years, but we can both say his name perfectly. Click and all. Every once in a while, for no good reason, one of us will just say it out loud. To make sure we can, should we run into him again one day. Victor and I.
I’ve noticed the importance of names most in the orphanages of India. Our first visit led me to believe the only English being taught were six words. “What’s my name?”, followed up by “don’t forget me”.
With 180 kids bearing names like Vedalaxmi, and Baalagopaal, all wearing the same uniforms, this was not an easy request. We tried our best though, and if the name was “Raj”, “Devi”, or “Rani”, odds were good we’d get it right when they came to check our memories. If we didn’t, their faces would fall, quickly recovering to repeat it, along with “don’t forget me”.
Exasperated with getting it wrong I learned the words “Tiger” and “Beautiful” in Telugu.
“What’s my name?”
This brought a smile every single time. “Beautiful”, and the girls would giggle behind their hands and run away.
I’ve gotten much better at Indian names now, and don’t have to resort to that as often, but it’s good to have a back up plan more affectionate than “uuuuuuh Raj?”
These kids are orphaned, and more than anything else they want us to remember their names.
Several months ago I noticed a man in our community. He’s hunched over, with longish matted hair that seems to have been cut in the back with a dull blade. The first time I saw him he had a fresh urine seeping through his pants.
I remember thinking, “that is someone most would regard as ‘hopeless’”. I say this because I used to be someone on the brink of hopelessness too, only I looked better. Most of the time, anyway. But this guy… he was the walking dead. Or, as close as I’ve ever seen.
I prayed and asked God to tell me what He wanted from me, if anything. I pulled into Big Lots parking area, and stalked him in my mini van. He didn’t move very quickly, so it wasn’t hard. I parked and got out, and just as he passed by, I moved in.
“Hello”, I said
“What’s your name?”
“I saw you walking by, and…”
“Do you have a light?”
What am I doing here?
I remember saying to his back as he shuffled away, “I’ve been where you are”. Now that’s not entirely true. I’ve never been homeless, hungry, or alone, but I’d certainly been helpless, drunk, and desperate, and at the rate I was going, the remainder wasn’t far off.
I got back into my van and asked God my usual post-encounter question, “what the heck was that about?”
About a month later we crossed paths again coming up a main street to my house after a trip to Trader Joe’s, there he was, hunched over, and shuffling down the hill. I prayed what has come to be a common prayer, “what God?” and the name “Wayne” went through my head. He really did look like a “Wayne”, and God must be telling me his name, right? So I flipped a fast U-turn, pulling into a side street, popping the hatch, and grabbing a protein bar, banana, and bottled water. He’d gotten further than anticipated, all things considered, and I took off after him down the hill at top speed. Coming up behind him I slowed, and quietly said, “excuse me?”. This startled him and he jumped off the curb into the busy street disoriented. Grabbing his arm, I yanked him back up which he didn’t like very much, and struggled to free himself and resume his descent.
“Excuse me, these are for you”, I said as he made his slow getaway. He waved his hand behind him in a nonverbal “take your food and get away from me” fashion.
“Wayne”, I said
“Wayne” I said again.
“Is your name Wayne?”
He turned, looking only at my shoulder from his bent over position, “no, it’s Johnny”.
Certainly Wayne had forgotten his name.
“Hi Johnny. It’s me, Valerie. Do you remember me?”
He walked away.
“Johnny, is there anything I can do for you?” I say in a helpless last ditch effort to do something for this broken man. I have to do something!
He never turned around again, and I walked back to my van in confusion.
Although I’ve never stopped praying for Johnny-Wayne, and I see him from time to time walking the streets, that was my last time trying to speak with him. Until today.
Driving to Community Market to indulge in fresh organic local produce for my green smoothie, I saw him on the street corner. It was a busy intersection, and even if I wanted to, there wasn’t a good place to pull over. I prayed for him, and asked God if He wanted me to do anything.
Pulling into the market I made my way inside, not really thinking too much about him again. Gazing too long at the cheeses (I was not there to buy cheese), I felt a presence to my right. I turned to look straight at Johnny standing no more than one foot away. My heart rate didn’t even rise. I just smiled as he grabbed a Chocolate Brownie Clif Bar and headed for the register. Guess my shopping is complete! I headed there too, and stood behind him, praying quickly to see if I was to buy his breakfast. Based on past experience, and not wanting to embarrass him, I didn’t. Johnny didn’t want a hand out, and he certainly didn’t need to be publicly singled out one more time by a well intentioned person with a bright idea and need to save the world. This wasn’t about me.
I watched as he pulled out his wallet like any other shopper to pay the kind faced cashier. That’s gotta feel good.
“Hi Johnny”, I said to the side of his head.
He turned, and looked directly into my eyes for the first time.
“Hi”, and then, he smiled. He smiled!
“It’s really nice to see you again”.
That was it. He nodded his head, collected his change, grunted something, and went over to the free coffee. The young man behind the counter looked at me in wonder as to what had just happened. How did I know this man’s name? Who knows how many times he has seen Johnny come and go. I looked at him and said, “do you carry Lydia’s Organic’s Green Soup?”
Sometimes I think these small encounters are more precious than the so-called big ones. They show me a bit more of what Jesus’ daily life was probably like, and how, if we pay attention, we get to live a little bit of that out. Maybe it’s as easy as remembering a name to remind someone they are human. Equal. Important. Loved.
Maybe it’s why He called me out of that hopeless pit of despair eleven years ago. So I could see people like Johnny, and see myself. Be reminded, God knows my name. He knows His too, and nobody is too far gone, too orphaned, too hopeless, and everyone wants their names to be remembered.
It’s likely I will see Johnny again, and this story will continue. I sure hope so. Maybe I’ll even learn if the name “Wayne” falls into play. If it really was God, or if it was just my own head.
I don’t know what God has planned for him, but I know it’s good. It was for me. Still is. I’m just grateful I got to be a part of His plan today.