You’ve seen the movies: a person is in danger, slipping off a cliff or a building or some other perilous perch. Another person grasps them by the hand and desperately tries to pull him or her to safety. That is the image Isaiah gives us: God grasps the chosen servant by the hand and hangs on for dear life. “I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant to the people” (Is 42:6). It is an image that Pope Benedict XVI sees in his book Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, the sinless one, plunges into the waters of our life, grasps a new covenant people by the hand, rises from the waters, all the while hanging on for dear life – our life. And we are baptized into Christ, raised toward eternal life, commissioned to journey through this life. Baptized and sent.
18 years ago, on the 2nd day of my mission to Kenya, I found myself in the back seat, traveling by car from Kisumu to Homa Bay on a mostly rough, uneven, dusty and rock-strewn dirt road only meters from Lake Victoria. The land was dry, parched, and in need of irrigation – all the result of irrigation projects promised but never seemingly a high enough national priority for this out-of-the-way corner of the nation. Later we were to discover we were between the short rains of December and the long rains of July and August – and in reality, at the beginning of a year-long drought.
In the heat of the afternoon there was no one in sight – until we came upon a family at the side of the road. The moment came and passed all too quickly. In my memory it is painted as an African Pieta. The father was standing, bent towards the earth with one hand on his wife’s shoulder – for comfort or support, it was hard to tell. The other hand extended skyward partly in prayer, partly in an effort to wave us to stop. The mother was seated on the ground, face turned away from the road, full attention given to the child laying across her lap and cradled in her arms. The child was dying; arms lifelessly draped, hanging to the ground, head arching over his mother’s cradling arms, faced turned to the heavens.
And we drove by, never slowing, not acknowledging the need. Another car no doubt that never stopped to help, to console, to heal, to do something even if only to stop to pray. But we were not just another car. There was a bishop at the wheel and two lay missioners as passengers. If not us, then who?
My mission partner was seated in the front passenger seat while I was seated behind the bishop. As the scene passed we exchanged glances wondering what had so quickly passed, wondering about our shared assumptions that surely the bishop would stop and our mission would begin here and now. In that glance, we were a 100 yards beyond the Pieta and heading away south.
It was in that moment the bishop began to speak to us, perhaps sensing our unease and questions. He explained the reality of Kenya as he saw it. Western Kenya was at the height of the malaria season and the beginning of a drought. The poor families, already malnourished, are impacted the hardest by these circumstances. There was little doubt that the child had malaria – and given the child was not conscious, it meant that the disease had already affected the brain, thus there was little to no hope of survival. The family would want the child to go the hospital, still another two hours away. Once there, the inevitable death – if it had not occurred already – would happen. Then the family would be in the grasp of the culture of kitu kidogo, a little something, meaning the family would have to bribe the nurse, the doctor, the morgue attendant and a few others in order to bring the child home for burial. They would have to rent a driver and a truck to bring the body home for burial. There were tribal obligations and customs to consider. However strange to my sense of importance, the family would have to rent a small herd of cows and professional mourners to accompany the funeral procession to the funeral plot yet to be bought. All of that would drive them deeper in poverty and debt.
Now we were miles beyond the family still heading southward, somewhere between doubt and this new, hard, reality. In time I came to learn all that bishop had said was true. Maybe it was a mercy in the longer run, but again maybe that is what the priest and Levite said when they came upon the robbed and beaten man – and passed him by.
There were other details of the reality of Kenya that the bishop shared that day. Those words have been lost in the ensuing years. But the visual memory of a roadside Pieta remains clear.
As we drove on towards Homa Bay, we prayed for the child and the family. And that is something, something good. Sometimes you never find peace with such things. As I came to know, there was a hard reality about life in Kenya and there are indeed limits to the actions that one can take in mission. Even limits to how one can be present to others in mission. Knowing the balance is never simple. But I do know there is never a limit to compassion, never a quota for prayer.
That day I did not much feel like a missioner sent in the name of Jesus. But there were many other days. To go and to continue in mission is to believe in the transforming power of Christ in the world and in yourself, and trusting that God can work all things to the good. Even on the days when we fail to speak out, pass by the moments when compassion is needed, and fall short of our baptismal vows. And maybe it those days that remind us we are called to be action heroes, to plunge in, grasp others by the hand. Amen, Amen I say to you the days are coming when your redemption will be practiced in a compassionate presence, a kind word, a helping hand, and a voice in prayer. Then, hold on for dear life.