Truly understanding the stories in the bible can be challenging for someone whose life is drastically different than the lives of those portrayed.
For example, it was always hard for me to imagine the story of the paralytic whose friends lowered him down through the roof so that he could be with Jesus. Where I come from the roofs of houses are slanted and more permanent. When we moved to Peru we lived in a house with a sheet metal roof; a roof that could have easily been removed. Here in Puerto Rico the roofs are flat and the space is used as a patio of sorts. These experiences have allowed me to visualize the story of the paralytic and better understand its significance.
When I read the bible stories that describe the lepers and their awful circumstances, I read with empathy. I've tried to imagine what it would be like to have leprosy and to be sent away, condemned to a life of solitude even though I hadn't done anything wrong.
I've tried to imagine what it would be like to have a family member or friend with leprosy who was cast out of the community forever, left to suffer and die alone. Historically, it was difficult for me to imagine this type of situation because I had never experienced anything like it; however covid has brought these bible stories to life.
For almost a year we've been doing ministry on the same corner in Aguadilla where the destitute congregate. Given their circumstances and habitual poor life choices, this group seems especially susceptible to illness, disease and general misfortune; however our impression is that they've always looked out for one another. "The woman over there has AIDS, so you know, just be careful." someone would say. "A friend of mine is sitting on the other side of the plaza, but he can't really walk because he's lost a few too many street fights. Do you mind if I take him some food?" Of course we don't mind! "Last night, my daughter (who is known for making her money on the streets) had an especially rough night, could you pray for her?" The examples of their compassion are endless. In fact, I've been really blessed to witness the love that these folks have for one another.... at least that was the case until the most recent spike in covid cases.
Now, covid obviously isn't a newcomer to Puerto Rico, but it seems that the majority of folks who gather on the corner in Aguadilla had only been impacted indirectly prior to these last couple of months and had varying opinions about the validity of the virus and it's potential threat. In June, before we left for vacation, there was no talk of anyone getting vaccinated and few chose to wear their masks as suggested. Aware of the likelihood that some of those we visit each week could be infected, we prayed for protection and continued on with our ministry.
When we returned from vacation we heard about some of the things that had happened during our absence: some chose to move away while others got evicted; a man named Victor committed suicide and a few others lost their lives fighting for things that don't matter. They made jokes about each other's new hair styles and teased the guy who keeps crashing cars because he's such a terrible driver. In addition to all these things, there was something else that had changed which nobody seemed to speak of - people were afraid of covid. Not only were more people wearing masks, but many were sitting away from the group with spray bottles of alcohol which the municipality has been giving away for free. We were pulled aside by various people that wanted to warn us of others' health status and inform us of who had and hadn't been vaccinated. We were given suggestions on what to do and for whom, which we've never experienced with this group. We thanked them for their concern, prayed for protection, and continued with our ministry
Three weeks ago, when we visited the corner, our friend, Ivan, was sitting alone way off to the side. Ivan has always jumped up to greet us and gets a prize for being our most enthusiastic participant. When we inquired about his unusual disposition, the group whispered, "He's got the covid." We said a prayer for Ivan, shouted a greeting to him, and then began singing.
When our activities were coming to an end I walked over to Ivan and sat down on the ground in front of him. As soon as he glanced up and recognized my face he got a big smile. "How ya doing?" he asked in English, like always. In between his waves of fogginess we talked about how he'd been feeling. He described his weakness and total lack of appetite. He said that his symptoms would come and go on a dime and that he'd been vomiting for no apparent reason. I asked him if he was scared. "No, I'm not scared, but I'm really lonely." Ivan proceeded to explain how nobody had talked to him or even gotten close to him in over a week. When he walked down the street the on-comers would cross to the other side. When he approached a street vendor to buy a beer the guy just tossed him one and said it was one the house, but Ivan knew that the man didn't want to touch his money. Everyone was treating Ivan like he had leprosy, which broke his heart. Before leaving, I prayed with Ivan. As I walked away, one of the women that we've gotten to know well insisted that I hose myself down with her alcohol spray. As she was dousing my hands, arms, shirt, legs and feet, she said, "You need to be safe. I love Ivan like a brother, but he's got the covid so we have to stay away from him." I smiled, thanked her for the bath, and assured her that if Jesus were there that he wouldn't be afraid of Ivan. "You're not Jesus," she informed me with a smirk. I laughed and said, "I know, but I want to love others the way Jesus does. I can't love others if I'm afraid of them." I've heard it said that the bible contains 365 verses which tell us not to be afraid - that's one for each day!
|Here's a photo of Ivan from earlier this year. |
He was the one who always wanted to help in
any way that he could. He'd hold our song
sheets and always did what he could to
animate the folks on the corner.
The following Sunday, when we arrived at the corner, Ivan was nowhere in sight. As we sang, my heart felt heavy because there was no Ivan to hold the other corner of the poster board with me. There was no booming voice praising the Lord in between songs. After we blessed the food, there was no Ivan to shout, "Amen, Amen!" We were told that his condition had gotten significantly worse and he was unable to leave his home. I wanted to go visit, but our family had other plans that would occupy me for the rest of that day and the days to follow.
On Wednesday I returned to the corner to ask about Ivan's condition and inquire about the location of his home. Although he was still alive, the consensus was that he didn't have much time left. Nobody would tell me where he lived because they said his neighborhood is too dangerous and they didn't want me to get covid. They told me that if I went to Ivan's house that nobody would want us to do ministry at their corner because they don't want to get covid. I insisted that they tell me where Ivan's house is, but they refused. I pitched my argument in another way, but they held their ground. I bowed my head to gather my thoughts. "Look," I said with conviction, "I don't want Ivan to die alone. I don't care if he has covid. I love Ivan, like a brother, just like I love all of you. I wouldn't want any of you to die alone. It's just not right. I know that the Lord will protect me because I am doing His work. I'm positive that Jesus doesn't want Ivan to die alone, but I can't be with him unless you tell me where he lives!" Silence fell over the group as they exchanged subtle glances.
Finally, a guy that speaks some English said that he'd tell me how to get to Ivan's house as long as I promised to do what he said: avoid eye contact; don't stop to talk with anyone; if asked why I'm there, say I'm a missionary and I'm visiting "Momia", which is Ivan's street name, because he's sick. The others had a lot of opinions about me going, but finally acquiesced and demanded that I return to the corner when I was done. I agreed and left.
I followed the guy's instructions, but found myself unsure of how to navigate the labyrinth of alley-like walkways between the houses which were all built into the side of a hill. When I asked for directions to "la casa de Momia" I was told which way to go, but then watched carefully.
When I arrived I found Ivan laying on the floor of his front room, naked and trembling. His teeth and all around his mouth were covered in dried blood. He was unable to formulate a sentence and rambled emotionally. (The following photos aren't flattering, but I want to include them to illustrate the extent of his suffering.)
I wasn't exactly sure what to do, so I told him that I was going to sing him songs about Jesus' love. Singing certainly isn't my forte, but I'm willing to do anything for Jesus! As I sang loudly to drown out Ivan's moaning, I noticed the folks who directed me to Ivan's house were inconspicuously passing to see what was going on. I kept singing and praying, praying and singing.
Just about the time I was feeling unequipped to help in any tangible way my phone rang. It was Chris. He and Katelyn had successfully obtained her driver's license and they were ready to leave the nearby government office.
"Thank you, Jesus, for always giving me what I need.... when I need words, You fill my mouth; when I need direction, You guide my thoughts; when I need reinforcements, you send my family to help!"
When Chris and Katelyn arrived we sang together, prayed over Ivan and read to him from the bible. While Chris was out trying to find a priest to administer the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, I moved Ivan's mattress onto the floor of the front room and then lifted his frail little body into the middle in hopes of making him more comfortable.
Unsure of what else to do, I decided to pray the rosary as I waited for Chris to return, which he did shortly thereafter. Half way through the 4th decade a middle-aged man with a loud voice began yelling Ivan's name. He continued shouting as he entered the house. Unsure of everything, we just continued to pray. The man introduced himself as Ivan's nephew and apologized for his awful condition. He explained how Ivan's addictions have caused division in the family and ultimately hardened the hearts of all those who might have otherwise been willing to help. We talked with the nephew for a while and then left Ivan in his care. We were assured that other family members would be contacted immediately to figure out what to do next. As we were leaving I restated my conviction that I didn't want Ivan to die alone. He promised me that someone would stay with him at all times.
I stopped by the corner to let the folks there know that I was alright, which they appreciated.
The following day I returned to Ivan's home only to find a new lock on the front door and the windows closed up. When I called his nephew I learned that Ivan was admitted to a nearby hospital, not necessarily in hopes of him recovering, but just so that he didn't die alone in his filthy home. A few days later we received news that Ivan tested negative for covid. His problem was a failing liver, which finally gave out after decades of abuse. The medics were able to stabilize Ivan and arranged for him to be transferred to a home for the elderly as soon as possible. When we shared this update with the folks at the corner last Sunday they were relieved and grateful for our willingness to risk our lives for their longtime friend. "If it wasn't for you, he would have just died." they said. I wasn't sure how to respond, so I simply smiled and nodded. There was an incredible peacefulness that filled the air that afternoon as we talked about what it means to live the way Jesus asks us to live - to treat others the way that we'd like to be treated. As we preached, something seemed different; people were still wearing masks and periodically spritzing themselves with alcohol, but it seemed as though the underlying sense of fear had dissipated. Perhaps our love for Ivan brought the Gospel to life in a new way. Personally, I can say that I'm able to relate to the stories about the lepers more sympathetically now. I know how it feels to be criticized for associating with those infected with communicable diseases and have witnessed the suffering of those cast out. I pray that our life experiences continue to help us understand Jesus' teachings so that we can continue to grow in holiness and truly live as He teaches us to live.
I humbly ask for prayers for Ivan, that he's able to enjoy his last chapter of life in the nearby senior citizens' home. Please also pray for our family as we do our best to help others come to know Jesus in a more personal way.
In HIM, Karen
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