Oct 4, 2010

The Poorest Man In The World

A painfully true story

The Meeting

       It was dusk on Friday evening as we were driving up the dirt road that we call the short-cut to our home that sits in the middle of a ranch in northern Mexico. We were on an uphill, curving section that is very stony and rutted. The combination of road conditions and deep shadows required my undivided focus. "Watch out," cried my wife, "I think that's a man!" I had not seen anything but, directed by her gaze, I saw what did indeed appear to be a man just beside the right front corner of our full sized van. His dingy clothing served as camouflage on the unpaved road. I had just missed putting our wheel directly through his body lengthwise. He did not jump up. He did not dodge. “He must be passed out,” I thought to myself. He had moved ever so slightly assuring me he was not dead. The terror of nearly accidentally killing someone began to fade and, as will happen at times like these, was replaced by anger and indignation. “Some fool had become so inebriated that he passed out in the middle of the road,” I reasoned.

       It is a rule in our family that no one travel this one kilometer stretch of road at night as it is too isolated and dangerous. As it was almost dark I decided not to stop. It was as likely to be a ploy by road bandits to get a vehicle to stop as anything else.  I thought I might have felt the small prompting of God's Spirit directing me to stop and help him. Still, I pressed on. I wouldn't be stopping tonight. Certainly not with my wife and all of our children in the van!

       That night I was experiencing the clear undeniable bite of conscience. "Should I have stopped, Lord?" Yes. Of course I should have. "I'm sorry I didn't listen, Lord, but if you will give me another chance I won't miss it." The next morning my oldest son and I were headed off to do what we had come to Mexico for, to volunteer our construction labor for orphanages and comedores (feeding kitchens for poor children). I purposely headed out via that same road. "Father, please give me another chance. I know I was wrong not to stop right away when You told me to."
Anticipation was building in my stomach as is normal when I am determined to do something that I find uncomfortable. Like the feeling that comes when getting up in front of a critical audience, or asking someone to forgive me for sinning against them. Would he be there? I can't remember for sure whether I was hoping that he would be or that he would not be. I do remember how nervous I was as I rounded the final turn to where we had seen him.

       There he was staggering dramatically right in the middle of the road, still badly inebriated! How could I help him if he was still that drunk? It was almost a certainty that I would not be able to understand his slurred Spanish. Experience had taught me there was not much to do for a man in that condition. I was wavering on my commitment to help this guy. "Do you really want me to, Lord?"

       I pulled up slowly intending to come alongside and speak with him through the window. As we drew nearer he fell right in front of the car. God had left no room for doubt. He was clearly directing us to deal with this man in some way. As he regained his feet, using the front of the vehicle to assist, and made his way back to my window I noticed something odd about his movements. They looked reminiscent of the labored spastic motions of a cerebral palsy victim. The restricted, coiled posture of his left hand confirmed it. These thoughts were churning in my mind as he grasped the door for stability and I had my first close look. It was true. He was not drunk. The violently repulsive smell was not that of alcohol. It was nothing I had ever smelled before - more foul than an open septic tank. His clothes were filthy. No. You're probably not picturing them foul enough. The jacket he wore had not been removed in months, at the least. His pants had split at several places along the seams and were soaked with body fluids. His right sock had no bottom and the remnant of the left sock dangled from his ankle. His skin told the story of someone who had lived unsheltered from the sun and without bathing for some time, the dirt built up on his nearly blackened hide.

       His mouth was ringed in foam as he tried to greet us. "Puedo ayudarte (Can I help)," I asked? I have no notion of the intended meaning of his words but he confirmed his need for help by reaching toward me. I shook his hand, an essential gesture in Mexican culture. As I shook his hand he gave me a quick confused look. The whites of his eyes were a smokey yellow. He then reached again and I realized he had not intended it as a greeting. He was trying to indicate something. His speech was no help. I looked in the direction of his gestures and saw my son's and my lunches sitting between the front seats - a couple of sandwiches, apples, carrots in little baggies, and two water bottles. I offered him a sandwich. He looked mildly annoyed at not being understood and pushed my hand that held the sandwich aside. He continued to point in the same direction. I tried the apple. A little less annoyed, he took it and, after three tries, got it into his jacket pocket, but was clearly still focused on something else. He tried, as well as his muscles would obey, to display a drinking motion. "Oh! El agua (the water)," I cried out! "Yes!" said his hands, spastically grabbing in the direction of the bottles. They were three-quarter liter Gatorade bottles refilled with drinking water. He struggled momentarily with the twist top before I, embarrassed at my thoughtlessness, reached quickly to open it for him. He drank with passion and finally the obvious burst into my mind. He was dying of thirst! The eyes, the froth-lined mouth, the uncommonly dry skin. After finishing the water bottle we gave him the other bottle and a sandwich. He tried to thank us and took a step back to let us move ahead. He set to work consuming the apple.

       We said good-bye and began to roll the van to the side of the road to make room for the two cars that had approached head-on and were waiting, watching all this transpire. I drove slowly watching the man in the rear-view mirror trying not to run him over. He was just at the rear bumper when he collapsed to a seated position in the middle of the road. The two oncoming cars were effectively blocked. The road was only one lane at that point with barely room to move out of the way to allow oncoming vehicles to pass. I felt an urgency to move quickly. My feelings of compassion were, oddly, focused on the people that had to wait for him and me. I slammed the van into park, jumped out, and ran back to help. After a moment of scanning for options it became clear I was going to have to lift him. He could not stay upright for more that a step or two without something to hang onto. I grabbed for his shoulders to help him up. The feeling of a skeleton under a canvas jacket worked with the stench to create a knot in my stomach. He didn't have sufficient flesh to lift him that way. It would have been too painful for him. I tried with my hands under his arms, grasping his sides. He reacted with a grimace. In desperation I grabbed handfuls of his jacket front and lifted him to a stand. His left foot doubled to the side at the ankle so that he walked on the side of his foot. The other ankle exhibited little strength or stability. I had to continue to support his weight as he and I struggled to get him to the side of the road. Once he was seated comfortably I tried to say good-bye just as I would to a good friend but I doubt my expression was convincing.

       We pulled off of the road and, as the first car passed us, the driver called to us, "Gracias!" What did he mean? Was that “Thank you for getting an obstruction out of my path”? The look of affected grief on his face made me think it was something more. Something closer to "Thank you for helping that man." His face and tone seemed to convey that he was moved by what he had seen, but he had not left the comfort of his car at any time to help and as he passed the man he didn't even look at him. I didn't understand.

The Counsel of Friends

       As we drove away I had the distinct feeling that God was not done with me. I was poised to repeat my mistake of the night before to a lesser degree. “What more would you have me do, Lord?” God brought the story of The Good Samaritan to mind. I had simply not done enough. As I drove I prayed for wisdom. What could be done? What could I do? I called a Pastor friend and asked his advice. As well as I can remember , he counseled me to ask Mexican National friends and local pastors what they thought. I drove aimlessly towards town with the unclear plan of seeking counsel from someone there. I drove to our senior pastor's house but he and his family were out. As we went back down the road I realized that we had dear Mexican friends that were clearly the ones to ask. We drove to their home, unannounced, and caught them in the middle of breakfast. As good-mannered Mexicans they were perfectly gracious and invited us to join them. I could see the questions on their faces as they read the graveness on mine. I relayed the pitiful condition of the man as best I could. Neither of them looked up much from their plates. As they began to explain things it was clear that they wished God had not brought this conversation their direction. They slowly and reluctantly relayed to us the cold, grotesque facts. My son thought that the man had been trying to say something about the police. They explained why.

       The Mexican Government has no program to care for the infirm. If their condition is treatable, there are free hospitals. If they are mentally deranged, there are free care facilities. They knew of nothing, however, for those who are unable to care for themselves due to degenerative or terminal medical issues. Apparently there was a wonderful Christian facility near Mexico City but they were unaware of any others. With no Governmental provision, and little other choice, the chore naturally falls to the families and rightly so. If there is no family or they are unwilling or unable then their only remaining option is begging on the streets. If they are found to be a nuisance on the streets the police pick them up and take them down some rural road where they dump them to die like an animal. It gets worse. If you have compassion on such an individual and take them in to care for them or even give them a ride to the hospital, you are held liable for their well being. If the sick person dies while in your car or in your care you are held responsible! Mexican law is not based on the principle of “Innocent until proven guilty.” Quite the opposite. You will be held in jail until such time as you can be cleared of any wrong doing or liability. Our friends strongly urged us not to try to help this man. They were afraid for us. As they related the situation to us we could see that they were sorry or maybe even ashamed for the lack of a solution but that was just how things were.

       In order to help, and to protect us from making the dangerous mistake of taking the man into our care, they called a mutual acquaintance that ran a nearby drug rehabilitation home. He agreed to help. If we could get the man to where he was working that day, he would check him out and see about taking him to the rehab home for care. We made one more stop to get the opinion and advice of another of our pastors. His counsel was Godly, wise, and encouraging. Though there be dangers, if God was asking us to do something, then we should do it, but with all caution and getting counsel at each decision point, praying constantly. He also noted that, because the rehab home was not setup well to care for a person like this, it should be viewed as a short term solution.

Jose Luis

       When we returned, we found him right where we had left him. All of the food was gone but he still had a little water. Broken greetings were exchanged and we did our best to decipher whether he was interested in going to a care facility. It seemed clear that he liked the idea so we helped him into the van. The ride was excruciating. The smell was so overwhelming that I had to drive with my head out of the window. Just one breath with my head in the car was enough to make me dangerously nauseous. Later that day, after the van had been airing out for hours, just walking by it would turn my stomach. He did not possess the basic ability of relieving himself in a sanitary manner without help, and he had not had help in a long while.

       The director of the rehabilitation home was working with a crew of his men at a local orphanage. He performed a quick check-up and interviewed the man immediately upon our arrival. He concluded right away that his internal health, aside from the obvious physical impairment, was dangerously poor and needed to be checked by a doctor. He was able to partially converse with the man and learned a little about him.

       The man's name was Jose Luis! He had been in a managed-care home of some sort but did not know the address or how to get back to it. He had two daughters or sisters, it was uncertain which, that he believed to be alive but, likewise, did not know how to contact them. He was not a Christian but one of his old patrones (a man for whom he had worked) had taken him along when he went to church. One possible scenario is that his family felt unable or unwilling to care for him any longer and arranged for care in a facility. Then, at some point, somehow, he became separated from that home. We can only surmise how as his ability to communicate was insufficient for that discussion.

       He was sane, though, and somewhat able to communicate so the director agreed to take him, clean him up, give him some new clothes and shoes, and get him to the free General Hospital on Monday. We might end up caring for him in the future, but there was no way that we could do better than these men at getting him cleaned up. We gave them what money we had to cover any expenses they might incur. I finally felt that I had obeyed and done what God had asked of me, at least for the present. We returned home in the confidence that we had done right and all was well.

       Not more than an hour later I received a call from the rehab director. As Jose Luis laid on the bed and the men readied him for a bath, removing his old rags, he vomited all of the food we had given him along with a disconcerting amount of blood. The men rushed him towards the bathroom to finish undressing him in the bath tub. Half way there Jose Luis squatted and passed waste mixed with blood all over the floor. Seeing the urgency of his medical condition, the men changed plans. They wiped him up, put him in some fresh clothes and rushed him to the General Hospital, calling me on the way to request that I meet them there. My family gathered a backpack of clothes, shoes, a wash cloth and towel, water bottle, tooth brush, comb, and a sleeping bag and my son and I headed off to the hospital.

       We found them sitting outside of the entrance to the emergency room. When Jose Luis had realized that they had intended to take him to a doctor there, he refused to go in. I mean refused! He would not allow himself to be made to go through the door even by three stout men. Upon repeated questioning we determined that he believed that if he was admitted to the hospital that they would kill him quietly through an IV. We tried to convince him that his worries were preposterous as we would be with him. I promised him I would not leave him but that did nothing to dissuade his fears. He was terrified. He was certain that they would purposefully kill him. After an hour of reasoning, explaining how sick he was, and that if he did not see a doctor he would almost certainly die soon, he won. We gave up and arranged for the men to take him back to the rehab center.

       The director called and arranged for their volunteer medic to check him out at the home on Monday and then come up with a plan to get him seen by a doctor. I imagined that the medic might have to sedate him to get him into a hospital. The director was clear, however, that they would only be able to take care of him for a few days. He could not risk having a man die at his center. They would certainly be shut down during the inevitable investigation. We gave him the backpack and sleeping bag we had prepared and the director reassured us that he would give us a status update at church on Sunday.

       While driving home our thoughts and conversation were occupied by possible ways we would be able to care for Jose Luis as he was dying. We though it might work to mimic a hospice. He could stay in our fifth-wheel camper where we could care for him and spend as much time as possible with him to add dignity, comfort, and love to his remaining days.

What did we learn?

       We never saw Jose Luis again. The rehab director was not at church that Sunday. I had given him the last of our money and could not afford to purchase more minutes for our prepaid cell phone in order to call him. Time passed and I had not seen or heard from them. Finally I was able to call. The director said that he had met some nuns at a gas station that had agreed to care for Jose Luis. He did not know what order they belonged to or where their monastery was. As of this writing I am still trying to locate Jose Luis and the monastery but I do not believe he could still be living.

       On any scale of wealth that I know of Jose Luis was impoverished. He had no money or possessions. In the poorest of health he was greatly physically handicapped and apparently dying. He was uneducated and unable to communicate clearly in speech or in writing. He had no one that loved or even cared for him. Not his family, friends, or society. Worst of all he was spiritually bankrupt. He was headed toward death without having repented or being forgiven by God. He was the poorest man that I have ever known and will always serve as a potent reminder that things could be much worse.

       "Why, Father, did you bring Jose Luis into our path? What would you have us learn?"
I am convinced that one of the answers is that Mexico needs Jesus Christ! Right up to the highest levels of government and society. Not just so that they will take care of all of the needy but so that others can help without fear of being punished. It is not right that we should have to risk imprisonment for murder in order to help a sick person. It is not right that a care facility director should have to worry about being shut down if he takes in a sick client.

       Another thing that God taught me is closely related. It is that spiritual poverty is more important and should be more heart rending than physical poverty. I saw the physical and it was naturally more compelling to me, but God's desire is that I would become more like Him and see things as He does. All of God's creation is a physical analogy or image of the spiritual.  God used Jose Luis' astoundingly low state to show me how He viewed his spiritual need. Did I feed the spiritual need as soon as the physical hunger and thirst were quenched? Would he have been any better off if I had taken care of him and made his life comfortable to its end? It would have been good and kind to do but what would it have benefited him in eternity? He would still have suffered in hell separated from God forever.
We came to Mexico to care for the fatherless and the extremely poor children and to tell them about the Good News of Jesus Christ. Now I see that my reversed priority is even evident in how we state that purpose. I need to be telling the spiritually fatherless how they can be adopted children of God's through Jesus Christ and feeding the souls of the spiritually poor. Then, when I can, help the physically fatherless and poor.

       "Please forgive me, Father, for my out-of-focus compassion and for allowing people to die without Your Good News. Please help us to love one another as ourselves."

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