Its one of those stories that even if it didn’t happen this way, we know that it is true.
Its one of those stories that is not so far from my mind that I won’t, in an idle moment when everything is going just right, think about it. It is a story of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century mystic who’s heart desire was for a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It seems that one day, St. John was alone in his room praying, when Mary appeared to him in a vision . It was rapturous, the saint later wrote, and I don’t know what that means or feels like, to have a rapturous vision, but as soon as it began for St. John, something else happened that I am familiar with. A beggar rattling at his door for alms. We get a lot of beggars here in Ghana. Mostly they come at us on the street when we’re walking on Oxford Street, or at the stoplights, when we’re in the Patrol or in traffic, when we are trapped. They see this big Patrol, with its roof rack, and it must be like a big NEON sign saying OBRUNI INSIDE, which I’ve got to figure, loosely translates to ATM on wheels for beggars.
About a month ago we saw a movie called “Emmanuel’s Gift,” [click here from the movie site] a wonderful story about a Ghanaian named Emmanuel, who wrote the Challenge Foundation, in America, asking for a bicycle so he could ride across Ghana. The thing is, he was born with only one working leg, and this is the story of his journey across Ghana, and then to the States, and then back to Ghana after an operation to give him an artificial leg. It is the story of a changed life and how he helped change the lives of handicapped people in the US, and later back in Ghana. It is a must see movie on several levels, for its beauty, for an insider’s view of Ghana, but also the story he tells is nothing short of amazing. Anyway, part of the story has him going back in to the streets of Accra and helping the handicapped, who in Ghana are mostly beggars. Emmanuel encourages them to work for money instead of beg, because even if it won’t bring in as much, it will give them dignity.
Now I think about Emmanuel Gift at a stoplight near us. Stoplight-yeah,
its really more of a traffic flow suggestion system, and that is only when the when the power is on, and since its off every other day, its really lord of the flies at that intersection (or junction as it is called here). Its cars against the 3Ts (TTT:TroTros and Taxis). Anyway, at this one light not too far from our house, there are two handicapped men without legs. They get around on little flat scooter things, gliding from car to car. One of them begs, and the other sells pens. I think I used to give to one but not the other, I guess I thought they were the same guy, but then the other day I realized, there were two different men. Now I admire their courage. Both of them brave the traffic and slide around on these small sheets of plywood with wheels on the bottom and are maybe all together two feet high. They come to our window and stretch out their hands toward us, or show us a lot of pens. We in this huge 4-Wheel Drive diesel motor Nissan Patrol, riding a foot off the ground, half their height, and even so they are fearless.
So I realized I’d been giving to the beggar guy, but not the pen-selling guy who displays four different pen types in varying colors. I vow (I guess because of the movie Emmanuel Gift) to start buying from the guy who is out working, and stop giving to the beggar. I figure I can always use more pens. I decide I’ll call him Johnnie the pen guy.
Back to St. John of the Cross, who is in his room praying, and he begins to have a vision, the kind he has waited his whole life for, and just as soon as it begins, another more common moment interrupts, a beggar knocking at the door. I guess I think about this story a lot because there is so much poverty here, and we have so much direct contact with it. The other thing that strikes me is what Johnnie the pen-guy is selling: pens.
For those who have worked for me, or know me well, pens are my stress indicator. The more pens I’m wearing, the greater stress I am feeling. I don’t remember when this started, I just realized it about two years into it that I’d just keep putting pens on until it felt right. Sometimes when I couldn’t find enough pens, I’d unconsciously “collect” them throughout the day, “borrowing” them as I slipped them in my shirt between the buttons. Then I’d pat my chest for one, or look down, and find three or four and wonder “What is this about?” I’d come home and Suzanne would look at my shirt and comment “So it was a three pen day, huh?” Later, I learned that staff would also count the pens on Pastor Steve’s shirt to see if they should maybe wait for a better (or fewer pen) day.
[Shirt picture of a Five Pen Day]
So St. John leaves his prayers and this vision of Mary to attend to the beggar. When he returns to prayer, Mary says “that at the very moment you heard the door rattle on its hinges, your soul hung in perilous balance.” I think about this story and wonder sometimes if our souls hang in perilous balance each time we get stuck in traffic, and the beggars approach. Suzanne is the better person. She almost always has something ready to give when they ask at the car window. It makes me think that she plans for this when we are getting ready to leave the house. She must tuck something away just in case. Me, it is always a surprise, a surprise I am unprepared for, and so it costs me whatever I can dig out of my pocket before the light changes and the horns start blaring.
For example a few weeks ago, I was on Oxford Street trapped in a taxi. Usually I’ll walk Oxford Street since there is always, always, always a traffic jam and it is just faster to walk and then catch a taxi. But today I am taking our guest to buy a cell phone, and so it seems more civilized to taxi there. While we are trapped, a man comes to the window and says “
Sir, I respectfully ask if you are able to help me so that I may buy some food?” All I have is 20,000 notes (roughly $2.00 US), a fortune in Ghanaian beggar terms. 20,000 cedi will buy us four liters of Coke, 10 meat pies, 20 TroTro rides, or about 15 minutes of taxi time. I like how he has asked and so I dig in my pocket and out comes a 20,000 cedi note. I know Suzanne would have been ready with a 1000 note but she isn’t with us. Even the taxi driver is surprised as that is the same as the fare we have negotiated, and we have been sitting in his taxi now for 25 minutes. I ask him “Do you know this guy?” Yes, he does. He says he is highly educated but something went wrong in his head. The taxi driver taps his head, the universal sign for not right in the head. So now he begs, albeit very politely.
“Should I have helped?” I ask.
“It is good,” the taxi driver says. He is Muslim, I think, and so one of his mandates or pillars of the faith is to help the poor. Me, I’m thinking, “Today, my soul does not hang in the balance, at least not because of this beggar.” But then are those other beggars, the blind ones. They have a young boy to lead them from car to car to beg. They work the other side of the corner that Johnnie the pen guy works. A few weeks ago I saw a blind guy wearing a wrist watch and thought something doesn’t seem quite right. As I’m thinking this, I see him snap his wrist sideways, the way you do when you want to read the time, and then I know what didn’t seem quite right. He is reading the time on his watch. I feel conned, but then wonder: must our obligation to give be matched with a receiver’s need to receive, or put another way, if the beggar at St. John’s door had not been truly needy, was St. John still required to attend to him to see the Virgin Mary again? Maybe there is no connection between our need to give and a beggar’s need to receive. Maybe giving is enough. Maybe we need to give so that our hearts are never hardened to the point that we do not see, or are not affected by poverty. Maybe giving is enough because it breaks the addiction to hoarding. Now, I have not knowingly faced the quandary that faced St. John so I don’t know. When Mary appeared in his prayers the second time, she told him if he not “gone to the beggar’s aid, she could never have appeared to him again.” I think about how close he came to losing his heart’s desire and I wonder if I’ve missed a blessing at those times that I looked at their need, and decided to roll up the windows, crank the AC, turn up the BBC and say to myself, they don’t need it bad enough. But it isn’t about them, now is it? Its about me, about my need to give, and I’ve missed that blessing.
“What if the Ghanaian Methodist Churches took a special offering to help the Texas Methodist Churches,” I’m at Awaken to the World III, an eight week pastor’s conference in Accra and today’s speaker is the Bishop of the Methodist Church of Ghana, he continues. “What do you suppose would happen?”. I’ve met the Bishop on break and now he is using me as an example. “The Texas churches would say no, I tell you, they would not accept our money,” he says. “They know how poor our Ghanaian Churches are, they know we can not pay our pastors.” He is right, the rural churches are poor, and not because people don’t give freely like in the states, but because the people are very poor and though they give sacrificially, there just isn’t much to give from. Then he tells us—and I’m only now getting this three weeks later—it is about the need to give. “The Texas churches must accept this gift of the Ghanaian churches even though they don’t need this money, because it is about our Ghanaian need to give, not based on what the Texans need.
Ouch. So the answer is yes. Even if St. John’s beggar was not poor, he still needed to attend to him. Even if the blind guy isn’t blind, if he is the only one begging, then I still need to give to him. Even if I can’t find Johnnie the pen guy, I must give, but given the choice, I’ll buy more pens. One can always use more pens, but thankfully I’m not needing to wear them on my shirt these days.