We were driving down a dusty and uneven road in Southern Sudan. I had been there for a couple weeks and had been asked if I wanted to deliver a few items and meet a group of individuals who were living with leprosy. The government of the newly established Southern Sudan did not recognize leprosy as a treatable disease. They still required that those living with leprosy to remain outside any town or village. Those living with leprosy lived in the wilderness outside of town. To meet with them you had to leave a message on a certain tree a few days before letting them know when to gather and then see if anyone showed up.
We arrived at the tree and no one was there. The driver asked if we wanted to go to another location where he knew of a woman who lived alone with leprosy in a small hut just up the road. We agreed and began our drive. On my lap was a package of Irish spring soap, a container of Vaseline, and a blue blanket.
The earth was deep red clay, and there were peanuts laid out on a tarp underneath a mango tree when I got out of the vehicle. Nearby a small brushfire was going to clear a field. The air was heavy and smelled of burning grass. We walked down a thin path to a small clearing where we were told to wait. A young woman who was with us walked ahead on the path to a small hut a short distance downhill from us. We waited.
Up until that point I had never encountered anyone with leprosy before. It is a disease that rarely occurs in our American context, and its treatable now. My only real connection to it was the stories of the bible where Jesus healed those with leprosy and made them whole and clean again. I didn’t really know what was about to happen. So like the others with me, I just waited.
Soon the young woman began to come back up the path towards us slowly. Eventually we saw a woman was with her, strugglingon her hands and knees in the red clay dust. She was perhaps 60, age carved into her face. Her hair was short. She wore a yellow tee shirt and a long skirt that covered her legs. She moved like a mermaid trying to travel on land, her legs more like dead weight behind her. She was missing fingers and the fingers that were there were bent and twisted making her hands look more like claws. All I wanted to do was rush over and help her instead of watching this poor woman drag herself through the dust. But I stood still, watching her make her way.
When she made it up the hill, she sat back on her haunches, trying to swing her legs around in front of her to sit down. In her adjusting, she lost her balance and fell backward, her head hitting the ground like a watermelon, her skirt flipping up exposing legs covered in patches were the leprosy was spreading and missing toes. We all froze as she toppled not knowing what to do.
“Help her!” Someone said. But we didn’t move. We didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know about leprosy and if it was contagious or if a man in Southern Sudan could rush over and help a woman without rupturing cultural boundaries. I didn't know what to do. I stood there holding the supplies feeling like an idiot.
And while I had my inner conflict, the young woman rushed over and righted the older woman, making sure she sat on solid ground. She fixed her skirt, covering her legs.
The older woman looked up at us with big cloudy eyes and a huge smile. “Silly me” she said through a translator, “I’m always doing that.”
One of the members of our small group began talking to her, telling her that we had come with some supplies and asked if there was anything that she needed.
“Are any of you eye doctors?” she asked.
“No, we aren’t. Sorry.”
“My eyes are getting worse and I was hoping someone could look at them.”
“Sorry. We do have some supplies though. We have soap and Vaseline for your skin. We have a new blanket. If you would like them.”
I looked at the things in my hands; the package of Irish spring soap, the container of Vaseline, and that folded blue blanket. I looked at those things and have never felt so helpless. Here before me was a woman who lived with a disease that would eventually kill her, crawling in the dust. A woman who was exiled and alone and going blind and even when she fell over- which she did often- all I could do was stand there. All I wanted to do was run, but my feet wouldn’t move.
In John 14: 20-21, Jesus says, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” At first, this all sounds like a horrid game of verbal twister. And it is easy to get tangled up in the what and the why and how of it all. But really it comes down to this: Love God and those around you the best you can, and you’ll see Christ who is always with you.
On that day, I was holding soap and feeling helpless, feeling small and defeated because I had somehow thought that I could possibly have something to offer this old woman who knew more about humiliation and suffering than I can imagine. Soap wasn’t going to help that. My heart broke for her. And so I did the only thing that I could think of. I sat down in the red clay dust next to her.
I sat down because that was where she was, in the dirt, staring up at me. So I went to where she was, where she lived most of her life because her legs no longer worked properly. She grabbed my hand and I held it because those claw like fingers needed to know that someone was there. And because I needed something to hold on to at that moment. She turned to look at me and I looked into those cloudy eyes because loving your neighbor means that you see them, even if they can’t see you. I took a deep breath and said the only thing that came to my mind.
“What’s your name?”
And in that moment I saw Jesus. Because sometimes Jesus shows up with the face of an old Sudanese woman to show us that we have more to offer than we think we do. By loving God and those around us the best we can, we begin to see the ways that the Spirit moves, the way God’s hands work and what Christ smiles. By opening ourselves up to do the things we know in our heart of hearts that we are being invited to do, we reveal a bit more of Christ to the world. For in the love you show to those around you, your face takes on the face of Christ.
And sometimes that thing we are called to do is sit in the dirt, to hold a hand. To ask a name. My greatest act of love wasn’ttraveling to Southern Sudan or passing out supplies to those living with leprosy although these things are good. My greatest act of love was sitting in that red dust and asking her name. Love God and those around you the best you can, and you’ll see Christ who is always with you.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Grace. My name is Grace”. Of course it is, I thought.
I don’t know if Grace is alive any longer. But she was one of my greatest teachers. Through her I learned that Christ has different faces, I learned what it meant to meet people where they are and I learned that sometimes truly helping someone doesn’t look like new soap, Vaseline, or a blanket. I learned that those I want to help often end up helping me. I told myself that day that I would tell Grace’s story as much as I could, that I would remember her and what she taught me.
Love God and those around you the best you can, and you’llfind that suddenly you’re looking at the face of Christ who had been there the whole time. I didn’t change the world that trip to Sudan like I hoped I would. I didn’t become an activist or a missionary or a martyr. But I learned to sit in the dirt. And that made all the difference.