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As she approached our vehicle, an eerie hush fell over the gabby group crammed in the little bus. As the eyes of each occupant fell upon her, the shock of her appearance seemed to siphon the breath out of us and stop cold all conversation.
I was 18 years old in the summer of 1984 when I found myself in this moment suspended in time. Our missions group was traveling to a remote village on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to provide medical support. And while many of the sights we saw during our time in that wretchedly poor country were heartbreaking, none is riveted in my memory like the woman who approached our bus that day.
Never have I seen a human being alive who seemed so dead. She was literally like a walking corpse. Her thin flesh hung from her protruding bones. She had no discernible muscle in her arms and legs, and it made me marvel that she could still use them. Her vacant eyes were sunken into an emaciated face that was distorted by anguish.
She held one half of a coconut shell that contained an old crusty piece of bread. There she stood right in front of me with that coconut shell extended toward us, begging for something — anything — that might sustain her life for another agonizing day.
What she did next made my already-racing mind reel even more. She pulled back her tattered garment to reveal a deflated breast. “She’s telling us she doesn’t have any milk for her baby,” the Missions Director told us. “But don’t give her anything. If you do, we will be overrun by people begging for help that we cannot give them.”
So there we sat. Frozen. The woman just stood there looking at us with those hollow eyes as we did nothing. We obeyed our missions director, but not our consciences. My heart churned within me. I didn’t know if that woman would be alive the following day, and I wondered if I wasn’t hastening her demise by sucking what little hope remained from the heart of this already hopeless Haitian.
It could be likened to being adrift alone on the open sea for weeks and having your hopes raised by a ship passing close by, only to have that hope shattered as the people on deck just stared at you.
If it is true that hope can sustain a person even when life’s other necessities are not available, then we might have just driven the nail in that woman’s coffin by killing off whatever little hope might have been sparked by seeing a bus full of “rich” Americans passing by.
I have frequently asked myself since that haunting day nearly 30 years ago if I still would obey our missions director if I could relive that day. I don’t think I would.
Yes, by disobeying I would have broken the rules. And, yes, we might indeed have been overrun by other needy people begging for help we could not give them.
But if Jesus were on the bus that day (and he was there in spirit), would he also have turned that woman away, consoling himself with the thought that he was preventing having to turn away many others because of running out of resources?
I would be willing now to do whatever it took to provide the help that woman sought, even if it meant being sent home by the missions director, and even if it meant having my heart break as I turned away others after running out of resources.
The mandate of the master in Matthew 25 is clear: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
Yesterday cannot be re-lived. But there’s always today.
Edinburgh’s Andy Robbins is an author of several books and pastor of Columbus’ Blessed Life Fellowship. He can be reached at blessedlifefellowship.org or andrewrobbinsministries.org.
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