The host doctor handed me the list of more than fifty patients from the village. Added to that were a few “unaffected” children and grandchildren who have chosen to live with their loved ones. For most of them this village is the only place they know. “The youngest is thirty something and the oldest is over eighty,” he said as I scanned the names of those who had undergone treatment for leprosy. They were long since cured of the infection and a threat to no one. But their wounds remained.
Maimed hands and feet were everywhere—eyes that wouldn’t close, sunken nasal bridges, missing eyebrows. Their clothes, their food, and the general appearance of the town seemed no different from any remote town in Southwest China, but there was less movement, more huddled shapes.
“Why is this name underlined?” I asked.
“He is mentally deranged. He won’t participate; he won’t come out. Never mind him. Nothing can be done.”
I was intrigued, though I had no time to hold the thought. A crowd of thirty had assembled.
Jean W., twice retired, stood in the midst of the gathering crowd. She drew certain details to the attention of my thirty village doctor students. Jean went from hand to hand, foot to foot, eye to eye with the wealth of experience that should have merited a rest, but is not wasted because the One she serves has not forgotten this place.
The row of older men and women were strange if not horrible in appearance. They sat surrounded by my young, healthy students, many of whom were on their knees in the dirt cleaning the misshapen hands and feet of the surprised residents.
Here were village doctors from places like this leprosy village. Yet they had never seen leprosy-affected individuals. But they had seen their teacher, Jean, with unguarded hands, grasping what many fear to glimpse. So here were my students, for whom we plead with hopes of changed hearts, plunging in unguarded.
I remained in the clinic to care for the medicinal needs of many people. Virtually everyone in the village wanted to be seen. I had made the point to the students that a patient is a person, not an arm. Though the arm seems troublesome enough, there may be other problems—including headaches, stomach pains, and sinusitis. People with horrible ailments have the mundane as well.
In a sense I was caring for the mundane in the midst of the exotic. Yet “caring for the mundane” meant I got to see everyone! I could be the socialite asking about home life, dealings with the day-to-day, and the usual things a family physician digs into during a patient visit.
That day we saw twenty-five patients. Three young village doctor students, all women, had served me well. They gathered medicines, wrote records, and smoothed rough edges of the local dialect for me. In return they received mini-lectures on heart murmurs, pneumonias, and medical ethics. By the end of the day, we were a team. The crowd scattered. Seeking some diversion, the four of us strolled through town. The locals chattered with us as we went, offering smiles and supper invitations.
During dinner back at the school high above the village, an image lingered in my mind. We had passed a dark, closed door seemingly to a storeroom. I was only a few feet from it when it opened with a scrape. An incoherent muttering startled me. I had turned and caught a glimpse of something frightful—a man, down near the ground, cooking something in a black pot. Other than smoke, I saw little besides a contorted face. It seemed the entire room was full of black garbage. In fact the whole inside of the place was black. The man was blackened from grease or grime. His clothes were all black, as were his hands and his legs.
It was only a glimpse and perhaps only a shadow of the reality, but before I could search out any other details, the man uttered something in a low, slurred speech, and the door slammed.
After hiking to the top of a mountain to the school where we had supper, I spent my first sleepless night in a room above some livestock. The next day the same three ladies acted as my chief assistants. Liyan, a cheerful, sophisticated mother of two from a nearby county, acted as my main scribe. We saw over sixty patients. Word had gotten out. We saw several patients more than once—apparently they had compared notes after visiting and thought of more symptoms. I got a growing sense of urgency and helplessness as we saw these pained, lonely faces. What about the Balm that could give them hope of wholeness, quench their thirst, and ease their burden?
At the end of the day, again we had a bit of free time. I looked at the students, and I seemed to see it in their faces—I’m sure I made no suggestions. A glance, a nod perhaps, and we were headed to the dark door. We met Jean on the way, and she seemed to be headed the same way.
The door was ajar, and as we approached, the man seemed frightened. He reached for the door, but we were already in.
“Hello! Have you had your dinner yet? Sorry to intrude on you. Why haven’t you come to see the doctor?”
“I just stay here. I can cook for myself,” he said, as the smoke soaked everything. He answered coherently though with slurred speech. He had obvious paralysis of the right side of his face. Still he was understandable! His room consisted of a bed with piles of garbage spilling over on the floor except where he sat on a box. By his bed was a pile of dirt and sand to use much as a cat would use a litter box. He would not even leave his room to go to the village outhouse. The dark room was his hideous world.
“Come sit in the sun. Can we see your foot?”
“Well … I … Oh, it’s a trouble … don’t …”
Suddenly he was sitting in the sun five feet outside his door. Just as suddenly Liyan had him by the hand. She kindly asked if she could help him. A young man, Xiao Luo, who worked with Jean, was quick to give his own coat—a nice Nike jacket, very popular in China.
Liyan let go of the blackened hand to take hold of the left foot wrapped in some cloth. I suspect this had not been removed in months or years. The other two ladies joined in.
I had to cut the “shoe” off his foot with bandage scissors. The smell was revolting. I was afraid I might be overcome, but the students were quick with the Betadine, and the moment of nausea passed unnoticed by any but Him who is ever sleepless. There was so much dead skin, I needed a scalpel to remove it.
The girls scrubbed his poor toeless foot clean. Then they reached for his right foot—black but not diseased. They were simply washing his feet. Mr. Du leaned his head back and laughed with glee.
These three young ladies laid aside their white doctor coats and, kneeling in the dirt, washed the blackened man’s feet. All his neighbors gathered.
Mr. Du laughed again at the block party. He seemed to be wondering, “Who would have ever thought that there could be a day like this?” He said, “I am so sorry to you people, so sorry, so sorry … to cause you this trouble!”
“We are sorry not to have come sooner.” (This was all I could think to say, but it got a great clamor from the crowd.)
Mr. Du got new shoes, and he stood up and walked back into his house, smiling.
The third day I had different students with me. These two, unlike my other assistants, were “in the fold.” I was hoping that a new dimension of care would be added to the new shoes.
Mr. Du greeted us as we approached.
“Dear Sir, do you have any family?” I asked.
“Do you have children?”
“I don’t have a wife. How could I have children?”
“Any family, any relatives, father, mother?”
“I suppose my parents are dead. I have a sister, but she has not come to see me in many years. I don’t know were she is.”
“None. I am bothered by them.”
“They bother me, the gods.”
“Who do you mean?”
“They bother me. Yes, they bother me.”
Discussion followed. It was a time of sharing the news he had never heard. He seemed comforted by the intercession of our small crowd. He admitted that he was still afraid.
More encouragement, more sharing, more intercession.
“Tell him more about Him,” I encouraged the student who was doing most of the talking with Mr. Du.
We each added bits.
Could he understand? Was he delusional? Sure seemed that way. Haunted by hallucinations? My medical training would suggest it. Or had he just been convinced that whoever turns the planet causes the grass to grow but causes him to wither? What news, that He who set the stars has come to seek and save!
“Remember, Mr. Du, remember, He has not forgotten you. We have come to tell you that.”
With those words, we left him.
It was the last night. I had planned to leave early to get back to some patients in the city. The jeep came at seven in the evening. But I borrowed a friend’s cell phone, climbed up on a hill by the school, and called my dear wife. We would wait an extra day to see each other.
About forty members of the group gathered to discuss our observations. I looked around the room at my students, most as yet outside the fold. And I started recognizing some things about Mr. Du that seemed a lot like me.
My heart was once like Mr. Du’s black room. I preferred it that way. In fact I never dreamed that it could be any different. I kept my door closed. One day (how I still remember!) I was brought out into the light. I was cleansed. I was amazed. I never dreamed there could be such a day, and yet it came. And it came freely, but at great cost.
I recoil at having to tough out a few days sleeping above some livestock, having to climb a mountain for my supper, and having to smell the bus driver’s cigarette smoke during the six-hour trip from the city and back—my “hardships” for the week. We all bore up to deliver the free foot wash, the free proclamation, and the free embraces so rare in such a place. (A seventy-year-old was heard to say that no one had visited him in thirty years!)
Grace has a cost. It is paid not by the recipient but by the Giver. It meets the great need of humankind, and it cannot be bought with all the money in the world. But it can be had because of the payment that has already been made.
I used the story of Mr. Du as a door, an illustration, by which to I tell my students about that which is free to us and yet so costly to the Giver.
Would they take hold of it? I urged them to accept what is most necessary. In the wake of my feeble words there were other voices added. These included a young man, newly in the fold. His change was news to me. Great news.
Before the long ride back to the city, we had a good-bye ceremony. Lots of formality. Lots of singing, and performances by the students included puppet shows on tooth-brushing and hand-washing. Lots of fun and smiles from the people of the village to which no road leads—forgotten but not forgotten. I was running around trying to get some pictures for my students when I looked up. And there he was.
Mr. Du was sitting just off to the side of the front row, smiling in his new shoes and new jacket. The formalities were over, but the party went on. The bulk of the students were around Mr. Du, singing.
And what were they singing?
“I have come to tell you
The greatest news in the world,
That Jesus loves you.
I didn’t come to tell the earth.
I didn’t come to tell the sky.
I came to tell you. That is why.”
Foremost was Liyan, her arm on his shoulder, looking right into his face, singing of that of which she herself had only heard in the past few weeks—the greatest news in the world.
After the gathering broke up, the students ambled up the mountainside that I hope to descend again in a month or two.
Jean was the last to come along. Red from the sun, she let me in on the news that Mr. Du had visited the village outhouse before walking back to his room.
Doug Briggs, MD, attended Dallas Seminary from 1990 to 1992. He and his wife, Michaele (MA/CM, 1991), and their three children serve with Christar in Southeast Asia.