This article originally appeared in the World Orphans Spring Insight Magazine 2018.
In an open air church sanctuary in Haiti, she walks over to me with a twinkle in her eye, seemingly holding in giggles. Taking both of my hands in hers, she positions each of her hands directly underneath mine. Before I know what she is doing, she swiftly pulls one hand from underneath mine, and gently smacks the top of my hand while erupting in a deep belly laugh. I begin laughing too, surprised by the quiet girl with braids in her hair. Though we cannot speak each other’s language, we spend the next five minutes taking turns trying to catch each other off guard with a swift movement of the hand. Her friends start to push her aside, eager to prove their own skills in the game, and the laughter starts to spread from one child to the next.
A tiny, dead-end road leads to a Guatemalan church with a dirt parking lot and a fence that runs the length of the property. The parking lot serves a multitude of functions, including that of a playground. In 2016, a team from Crossing Church visited this Guatemalan church, Iglesia Evangelica Central Monte Alto, and the church parking lot quickly began to serve its purpose as a playground. Adults and children alike participated in a lively game of freeze tag that included some less-than-perfect dance moves, a lot of chaos, and endless laughter. Adults with important, dignified professions bolted through a crowd of Guatemalan children while screaming with delight. A tired Guatemalan pastor ran as fast as his legs could carry him in order to stay in the game, a smile across his face through the whole sprint.
In a wide open field in Kenya, frisbees whirl through the air, and volleyballs echo like the beat of a drum. Mixed with the sound of joy-filled children screaming and adults—both from the US and Kenya—laughing, the noise sounds like a strange song that we’ve all heard, but whose title we can’t quite recall. It’s one of those songs that we can’t remember the name of, but we remember how it makes us feel. It’s the song that makes us feel warm and gives us a sense of belonging. The team members from these two churches—Fountain of Hope of Kenya and River Oaks Community Church of Tennessee—interact like family members that have known each other for the duration of each person’s life. Their partnership has lasted for more than eight years, and yet, on this particular occasion, the bond grows stronger than ever. Members of the Kenyan church say it is the time to play and the freedom to laugh that makes such a difference.
Sometimes it’s a wide open field, a muddy, well-loved ball, or a room waiting to be filled with joy. The invitation to play comes in a variety of forms and mediums, and it is important. The Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2006–2007) noted that “play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” And we recognize that play is not only developmentally crucial to children, but it is crucial for adults as well.
What is it about playing? Why do we need it? The laughter that inevitably results is important, as it increases blood flow and oxygenation, aiding in the release of stress-reducing endorphins. Additionally, laughter is proven to decrease depression, boost immunity, and aid in the reduction of pain. But what happens prior to that eruption of laughter during play is crucial.
In order to laugh and play, we must let go, willing to be vulnerable and not fear looking silly. We have to stop fretting about the language barrier, worrying about how slow we actually run, and fixating on our complete inability to throw a frisbee. Good relationships, regardless of country of origin or language, are grounded in a healthy dose of silliness and play because it’s in those moments that we can truly be ourselves.
We can’t laugh until our sides hurt if we’re worried about how we look or how we’re being perceived the whole time. Laughter—the kind that demands you catch your breath afterwards—is both sacred and vital to the relationships represented throughout World Orphans. Over the years, we’ve found the ability to laugh, the freedom to play, and the willingness to be vulnerable are all invitations into deeper relationship with those we serve and those we serve alongside.
So put this magazine down. Grab a stack of cards, a ball and glove, or find yourself a wide open field. Have your spouse, your child, or your friend join you, and for a moment, just be there with that person. Don’t think about your to-do list and don’t fear the silliness. Just spend time with that person in that moment, and maybe allow yourself the space to laugh. You will find your mind, body, and soul will be glad you did.