It was months ago that I first noticed him, sitting in a make-shift wheel chair on the corner, a blanket draped over the bottom half of his tunic wearing body, and a small khoffia (Muslim hat) on his head. He is elderly and frail, and it is obvious that he is crippled. When I first saw him, I thought his legs had been amputated, but have since learned that they are just withered and deformed. My home culture has taught me that a man of his religion is to be feared, but every time I walk by this man, I don’t feel fear, instead I feel curious joy.
It wasn’t the wheelchair, or his crippled legs that I first noticed, and neither was it his religious attire, but rather the smile that lit up his whole face day after day after day that he sits at the corner. He radiates joy and peace. He is crippled and obviously poor, but he smiles with such authenticity. There is something different about this old Muslim man. He is opposite of and doesn’t match the rhetoric that I so often hear about people who believe the way that he does. He is not the same as other beggars here either. Most, sit outside, asking for money, or jiggling their cupped hand with a few coins clanging together to solicit a few more from passerbys. But this man, he just sits still in his wheelchair and smiles at the people who walk past him. I don’t know if he receives much money. I have never seen anyone stop for him.
For months I passed him by too, but he would always catch my eye and smile, and I could not help but return that smile. It was involuntary. Since there are so few ferinji (white foreigners) in our community, I know that he quickly began to recognize me on my daily walks. As I left my gate, I began to look forward to walking by this man. There is so much need that surrounds me everyday. It is suffocating at times. I always pray that God will not let me grow hardened or used to the need here, and so far my bleeding heart has not allowed that to happen. My eyes will still burn with tears as we drive and encounter poverty around the city. Sometimes it is exhausting, and feels hopeless; but I would rather hurt than not feel anything at all.
There are so many conversations about how to best help the poor and needy. The conversations are so good and wise, and I never want to do more harm than good. I know that can often times happen with soft hearts and good intentions. There are so many great arguments as to why one should never give money to a beggar. Sometimes I really do follow that practice, but sometimes there is no doubt that the Spirit moves me to break those rules. It is a fuzzy balance, and is one that I have written of before. My very own child was once a beggar on the street, and although the few coins that he received did not save his life or ultimately help him out of his situation, they did preserve his life until God’s timing for change took place. I cannot forget that, and it impacts how I daily live here. So, admittedly, I probably walk out a posture that some would think was wrong.
As the months added up, and I continued to exchange smiles with that old, kind Muslim man, I felt more and more convicted that I needed to drop just a few coins into his hand. And one day I did. As I bent over his chair, looked into his bright, brown eyes, and as our smiles matched, I gently dropped a few coins into his warm hand. He grabbed my hand, and covered it with both of his wrinkled with paper thin, chocolate skinned hands. His touch was so grandfatherly, and his eyes held a story, a story of life lived and wisdom and love, and I so badly wanted the Amharic to bend down next to him and hear his story. Instead my eyes held his just for a moment, and the twinkle and joy in his eyes pierced my heart.
The very next day he was gone. He had disappeared from his corner spot. My heart flip-flopped. My immediate thoughts were drawn to Hebrews 13:2 “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” Now my fundamental, black and white background would have squirmed at this thought, but I have seen things here that cannot be put into that box. I casually mentioned the verse to my husband and oldest son, and they smiled at me sideways. Habi joked about a “Muslim angel”. I even began imagining things, maybe God was testing me, like in the parable of “the good Samaritan”, maybe He wanted to see if I would stop and pay attention to this man who practices a religion that I am supposed to fear. I was hoping maybe I passed the test. But day after day there was no sign of my sweet Muslim old man. After awhile I began to worry that something tragic had happened to him. Then just as quickly as he had disappeared, he reappeared. And I once again started stopping by his chair for a moment to drop a few coins into his lap, and to see that smile up close.
I don’t have a pretty end to this story. I have not done the “missionary thing” and shared Jesus with him. My Amharic is far from able to do that, and translating on the side of the road is not really feasible. I don’t know his story, but I want to. I want to know why this crippled Muslim man sits in a wheelchair smiling that gigantic smile. I want to know where he disappeared to, and whom he calls family. Where does he sleep at night? What are his fears? What has he lived? I don’t know if I will ever find out, but I am going to try. Right now that trying starts with exchanging smiles, gifting a few coins, and whispering some Amharic greetings. Maybe I can convince my husband to push him home for a meal.
By the way, yesterday he added some big, flashy sunglasses to his ensemble, and I literally laughed out loud. I guess I am learning to look and find joy in the most unexpected places - like in the smile of a kind old, sunglass wearing, Muslim man.