I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.
I think there are lots of reasons Jesus tells us the importance of doing these things. People in these situations often are marginalized, forgotten, hurting, lonely. They may be in need of reminders they are loved by their Creator. They may have forgotten. I forget too.
Sometimes people are hard to love. We need this command to shake us out of apathy. He knows that we are self obsessed. That we often forgot, overlook, or worse chose to dismiss other’s needs. He wanted His followers to know the importance of being servants. Of Loving. He knows that to do these things it means moving from a place of apathy to a place of empathy. He knows that it makes us uncomfortable. That it is often scary, sometimes dangerous, and always stretching. Always requiring more than we have to give. Always needing to draw on His spirit.
But also He wants us to be changed by being obedient. Yesterday I was changed.
A couple days ago a good friend, neighbor, and Mama of 4 of the watoto at shule told me about a relative of hers that was in the local government hospital. Her name is Fatma and she has been sick with serious stomach issues for over 6 months. And about a month ago she stopped being able to eat or use the bathroom on her own because she is so weak. That is really all I knew about her. I said that the next time my friend went to visit (as she does often) I could come along to greet Fatma. Visiting people here is so important and people make it a priority and although I do not know Fatma personally my friend was very happy for me to come along and also to pray. The next morning my friend came back and asked me if I could go during visiting hours that day. After a little kid shuffling and rearranging with Jason who had interviews at our vocational school that afternoon I agreed and we planned to leave at around 4pm. Right as we were leaving another little girl in the neighborhood was attacked by a dog and had a pretty nasty wound on her leg so she joined us to get treatment at the hospital since we were going there anyway and they were about to get on a dala dala.
We arrived, parked the car, and started searching through the hospital to find Fatma. After climbing 4 or 5 flights of stairs and searching through 3 different rooms lined with small iron framed beds full of patients we finally found her. I was not prepared for this. At all.
Fatma lay in a small little ball under a kanga and some sheets. She was asleep even though the room was bustling with noise, visitors, family members, and patients. She is only 35 years old but looked closer to 60 because of the obvious toll her sickness had taken on her body. She probably weighed about 65 pounds, her cheeks and eyes were sunken, her skin was dry, and she was so weak she was unable to even sit up. I met some friends and family members also there to visit and they quickly shoved her medical records they retrieved from under the thin mattress into my arms and asked me to look through it and tell them what was wrong with her.
To say I was overwhelmed does not come close. My first thought was ukimwi (AIDS) but looking through her records there seemed to be no reports of that. Not that that indicates anything as the records were in a folder stuffed with scraps of paper, files, some ultrasound pictures dated months ago, some hand written blood test results I could not decipher, a medical history that included four miscarriage with massive loss of blood, and day after day of entries that read “malaise, stomach pain” with no treatment described. She was on fluids but they explained that often the doctors do not come back until the next day to change the bag. She also had a catheter and a bag for urine that hung off her bed and sat in a local bag woven from banana leaves. They said that was placed about 2 weeks ago but has never been changed since then and there was only about an once of urine collected. Her son arrived to visit and he told us they have been pouring some chai made from cinnamon leaves and some other local plants in her mouth everyday to try to get her to drink. They were doing all they could think to do. The room was lined with about 30 beds each holding a woman receiving treatment. The woman in the bed next to us was groaning and writhing in pain and they explained she had surgery the day before but was obviously in need of pain meds. They also explained that the doctors had told them Fatma needed surgery but since they were unable to pay a bribe that she has not been treated (or at least that is what they think is the reason). I just wanted to call in a medi-vac flight and get her out of there. Take her away and find out how to “fix everything.” But the problem was there was rooms and rooms full of people that would all need help. The sheer volume of the problem was too much for my small brain, my experience, my worldview to take in. And I could not do enough. I could not begin to touch the need in and of myself. The hum of noise and activity made it difficult for me to understand or hear everything as did the growing sense in me that this was hopeless.
It was intense.
I had to constantly take breaks from our discussion to look up at the cracked and peeling ceiling to avoid completely breaking down and sobbing. I have been to the hospital before but mostly to take someone who needed a minor treatment, to visit a friend who had a baby, or to pick up or drop off people. This was a new experience for me. All at once I was filled with this profound sadness that people around me were suffering, this vivid anger that people are cast aside like this, and at the same time this immense gratefulness that I was well and that I was there and able to visit and try in my broken Kiswahili express my sympathy and the hope I have in Jesus. We stayed and talked for about an hour. Just visiting. Laughing (mostly at my Mzungu self) between moments of silence and sadness. Before visiting hours were over I asked for permission to pray for Fatma. I explained I have no authority but that in the name of Isa (Jesus) there is tremendous power and hope. And that He made Fatma. He loves her. He knows her pain. They agreed right away and quickly ushered me next to her. I knelt down beside her bed and put my hand on her small bony hand. She did not respond or move and probably did not know I was there but I prayed. I asked God to be there with her, to help her, to reveal His power. I was so emotionally a wreck that I know my Kiswahili was terrible and my heart was beating out of my chest but I still sensed a bizarre peace. Even amidst this difficult situation. I prayed silently that God would multiply this tiny effort like he did with loaves and fish. And I confessed that I have faith but desperately needed help with my unbelief.
We promised to come back and visit next week and a female friend of hers hugged me before I left and thanked me for coming. We started back down some the stairs and tears flooded in my eyes. I felt dizzy and sick and close to losing it. I just wanted to run away to were it was “safe,” to where I could find refuge from all I saw. But we still had to check on the neighbor girl that was bitten by a dog so we headed over to the in patient area. The waiting room was packed full and there seemed to be no line or order to who was being seen in what order (at least to me). A man holding a small baby who was sweating and listless stood across from me, a women was escorted in and had bamboo poles she was using as crutches, and about 30 other people were sitting and waiting. We finally got into what I would call the “triage” area but before seeing the doctor we had to pay him (even though this is supposed to be a free government hospital). I was unsure of exactly what was happening but I slipped a small amount to my friend to help cover the cost of the injection the girl needed. At least I could do something small. When we entered the triage room there was a woman of maybe 20 who was wrapped in kangas covered in blood from her stomach to her knees. She was in obvious agony and after asking what had happened to her (no patient confidentiality here) my friend explained that she had a baby 4 days ago but has not stopped bleeding. I was dumbfounded. Silent. And for me that is something. Quiet prayers in my head was all I could muster.
I had a real sense that this is reality. This is the stuff of our humanity. Our broken world. Human suffering and pain. I have been removed from suffering like this. On this scale. And thus I had no way of understanding what was happening around me. No place to file these experiences. No way to make sense of everything.
We got the needed meds and headed home as it was nearing dark. As we pulled into our house we were greeted by Annikah and 5 of the watoto from shule. The kids were carrying Anni around on their backs and taking turns riding her scooter in the driveway. It was vibrant, joyful, laughing: Life. Such an amazing contrast to the sickness and death we had just left. We said our goodbyes and I told my friend I would go again if she wanted me to join her next time she visits Fatma. Even as I said this I knew although I really did not ever “want” to go there I needed to. That it was important. My friend collected her kids and headed home.
I headed inside and sat down and cried. Hard. All the emotions that I had managed to somewhat keep inside over the last few hours came spilling out. Even though Jason had already put Evy down for bed I went into our room and picked her up and squeezed chubby little body and felt her warmth and thanked God for her life. For my family. For our health. For our hope and for His Goodness even when I struggle to see it. I know a little more of why Jesus commanded us to visit the sick. It is not just for them. It is to change us too.