“Why do you people want to see this?”

“Why do you people want to see this?” he says testily.

He’s upset, and rightly so: death has been crouching foul in the corner all morning. I stand there feeling small and stung, the honest truth in his question deserves an answer. “Why? Why do you want to come all the way over here to see this?” he continues, not unkindly, “So you can go back and say you’ve seen a man die?”

He is a true friend – I need to hear this.

We’ve just emerged from a stifling mud hut into the hard Africa sun. The last few hours have been spent bent over a young father who lies inside, emaciated and atrophied on a borrowed death-mat.  The dying man has been abandoned by wife, children, family, and village. He cannot walk, sit-up, or even roll onto his side. His breathing is ragged.

We’ve stepped outside together to briefly stretch our backs and breathe in some fresh air.

“Why do you people want to see this?”

Throughout the long morning, I’ve watched good men provide a dying AIDS patient hospice care in horrific conditions. They have cleaned up waste, washed feet, and bandaged the rotting flesh of a poor man as if he were a prince.

The man is only twenty-seven. I am deeply ashamed that I cannot remember his name: I swore I would never forget it. It’s been less than two years since I knelt on a dirt floor and held his hand; the thoughts and smells are with me still, and it will take two million years to ever forget the question.

“Why do you people want to see this?”

Covered only in a filthy sheet, the dying man does not notice my presence. Instead, his eyes cling fast to the caregivers who sooth and tease while they work; ministering bits of physical comfort in tender and brotherly ways. They are good men.

Hannes Pietres, the man I’ve brought my Austin team to meet, goes about his work with a hundred-miles-an-hour urgency. He loves his people – especially the poorest and the sickest. He is fierce in his love for his children, and he loves his land.

Now, he spoons bird-like sips of strawberry yogurt over the dying man’s stretched lips and talks non-stop. “Oh my handsome friend, I’m so glad to see you!” he exclaims,  “I’ve brought you good things, today! You asked for sweets, and look what I have…  I’ve also brought you some American friends who have promised to SING.  They have come all the way here ON AN AIRPLANE to sing JUST FOR YOU!  I told them how much you like singing.  I do hope I can get them to sing something more cheerful today…their songs are usually so serious and can put you to sleep if you are not careful…..”  He rolls his eyes, winks, and smiles at me.

We’re back into the hut now.  I am breathing in death and doubt and uselessness.  I start to pray out loud. “He doesn’t need your prayers, now.”  Hannes says flatly. “He needs pain medicine.”

He is right. Prayer suddenly seems out-of-place, noisy, impotent.  But it’s all that I have.

“He needs real pain medicine, but I cannot afford it – so I am just giving him ibuprofen for his pain.” Hannes is agitated.  “Ibuprofren, Kimba!  For this pain!  The man needs Valium!”

“Why do I want to see this?  Know this?”

If you are a refugee, and stricken with AIDS in parts of South Africa and Mozambique, the hospitals cannot care for you. Unfortunately, neither can your wife, or your parents, as in the man’s case. You must go elsewhere so as not to be a further curse or burden.

You then must wait several weeks or months to die. You lie on a filthy mat while flies lay their eggs in the wounds on your legs and back. No one comes. You are alone – until Hannes finds you.

Now, praise God, you are remembered, cleaned, teased like a brother and fed strawberry yogurt. You are a prince. Your children are found and cared for.  Your funeral is arranged, your coffin paid for.  You are important.  You are a friend.

“Why do you people want to see this?”

God help us.

If we do not help the dying, or the orphaned, or the saints called to this holy work after all we have seen: are we not the most perverted type of tourists?

But now I am bound. I have seen. I have been witness. I am accountable.

A week at the beach,  a bottle of wine, a $25 pedicure, even a monthly mortgage check requires considerable and weighty thought.

“Why do you want to see this?”

Faith precedes all efforts to understand.  Oh God, I want to understand – please give me faith.

This I know. Christ has come to make the lame leap. He did not die a poor man’s lonely horror on a cross to manage death and despair, but rather God’s holy son took on flesh and bone, and died alone to destroy death completely and forever.

I’ve been witness to lonely and brutal suffering wrong-ness, and at the same time to the tender, life-giving ways of the righteous. Both teach me how to spend myself, in work inspired by God’s Spirit, for the honor of God, and for the good of mankind .

If you’d like to encourage Hannes and his part of God’s kingdom work, please let me know and I will connect you.

(All images with permission.)

5 responses to “Why do you people want to see this?”

  1. A. Nance says:

    This was such a good post Kim. You have managed to articulate the thoughts we sift through and struggle with when we live in our two worlds.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you!!
    We all need to see this!

  3. Carrie says:

    Kim,

    Poinient and beautiful as always.

    Love,

    Carrie

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