The Bad Samaritan

April 18th, 2012

(these “beggar anecdotes” were written a couple weeks ago during the time I was visiting Lalibela in Ethiopia)

You’re Poor with No Opportunities?  Tough luck.

Was approached by a kid as I walked down the street who insistently wanted me to exchange Euro coins into Ethiopian Birr.  I had done this with a few other kids who had loose US change and the word apparently got around I was the new contact for currency exchange.

I didn’t appreciate this new role though and tried brushing him off.  Kept walking.  Told him I don’t need Euros anyhow and didn’t know the exchange rate to boot. 

Then another guy ran up from his internet café shop I was passing:

“Hey! Hey! You! You! Need internet?!”  I kept walking.  “NO, I told him.” 

He was as persistent as the kid: “Please!! Please! come to my internet shop!” 

“No! I don’t need your internet.”  Adding to myself, “And please go away.”

Then another kid came up on my left side with still more coins.  Could I please change these to Birr too?  My patience was wearing thin as I kept walking, telling them all, “No, no, no, a thousand times no.” 

But I was outnumbered, three people jabbering to me at once with different requests: “Internet! Euros! Change!  Please! Farenge! Internet! Euros! Birr! You! You! You!”  I insistently told them all, “No, no, no, no no, no, no…” as I continued striding down the street.

Yet the first kid became more insistent, holding his Euros right in front of my face and getting in my way, explaining he JUST wanted a few birr to buy some shoes!

In massive frustration I stopped right in the middle of the road and spun around on the poor kid and looked him right in the eyes and said, “Lookit! I am NOT a European so I don’t need Euros -  I don’t even know what the exchange rate is!  In fact,” I added, “I am AMERICAN.” 

As I was patiently explaining this to him, I noticed something about his eyes.  They were severely crossed – one turned inwards, just like mine.  He was about thirteen.  And I noticed he DID need new shoes, and he looked forlorn at my sharp attitude.  He walked off.

Of course, then I felt awful.  Yes, I AM American.  And because I’m American, when I was 13 years old like that boy I was having my second cosmetic eye operation to have my eyes straightened.  This kid, at 13, is just trying to scrape enough cash together to buy himself a pair of shoes.  He’ll never have the opportunity to have an eye-straightening operation, they will always be severely crossed. 

Yeah, so later that made me feel kinda bad.  At the time though I didn’t feel bad enough to come back and exchange his paltry Euros.

I’m a Bad Samaritan.

You Need Medical Help?  Oh well.

I walked to the top of a nearby mountain today.  As I left town, two boys decided to accompany me as guide up to the monastery.  I didn’t want them to accompany me.  In fact, I wanted to be alone for five minutes to think without being continually pestered.  Alone time, as you will find next time you visit Ethiopia, is not meant to be.

The boys came despite my protests; but they grew on me.  By the end of the hike, I liked them both quite a lot. 

One young boy, Tilouse, kept wiping his eyes because they were tearing up.  At first I thought it was dust or wind or something but he kept wiping them all the way up and down, about a three hour hike. 

Turns out he has had problems with his eyes since birth.  Also turns out he is “very clever,” as two of his friends later told me.  At least clever in Math, where he’s supposedly far above his age grade.  He wants to be an engineer someday. 

Even though he’s always crying and his eyes are bloodshot, this little guy is happy!  Always smiling (when I saw his family later they also told me he is usually happy).

Tilouse will smile real big, then his eyes tear up and he has to look down and wipe them.  I don’t see how he could be so happy with that type of eye problem.  If my eyes wouldn’t stop crying I don’t think I would be happy.

As we were coming down the mountain Tilouse looked at me with this big grin and said, “I am soooo happy!”  then wiped more tears away. Makes my eyes water just remembering it.

Come to find out, Tilouse is also an orphan. 

Later, I went to his grandma’s house, where he lives.  I met his sister and brother and uncle.  They all live in a dark mud-baked hut.  They didn’t ask me for money… a pleasant change.  In fact, they treated me as an honored guest and gave me coffee, tea, and chapatti.  One of Tilouse’s friends gave me a necklace and tied it around my neck.

I took Tilouse and a few other kids out to supper that evening.  Tilouse just kept grinning and crying. 

Apparently there isn’t anything the doctor in Lalibela can do for him except refer him to the Addis Ababa hospital, which he did.  But his family is too poor to send him to Addis; much less pay for medication. Tilouse told me he had never left the town of Lalibela before. 

Tilouse with Eye Problems

So Tilouse needs help.  But so does everyone else.  I wanted to help, but didn’t know how without staying in Lalibela longer to talk with the local doctor and figure out more details and then take him on a 12 hour bus trip down to Addis (and back), which I also didn’t want to do as it would be inconvenient, you know? 

So Tilouse will probably have eye problems his whole life because I didn’t want to stay an extra day longer to help him. 

I’m a Bad Samaritan.

You’re Destitute?  Sorry, I’m too Lazy to Pull Cash From my Pocket

A few days ago I was on a long bus ride when we stopped for a break. 

As I was walking back toward the bus I bought some cookies from a street vendor.  He gave me change which I had in my my hand as I turned around and was accosted by an old beggar lady.  I gave her some of my change.

Then I turned again and another beggar stepped up to me so I handed him my remaining change.  As I held the bills out I noticed with dismay he had no hands which to accept!  just stumps of arms.  He motioned with one stump toward his front coat pocket… so I deposited the birr there. 

As I again tried moving towards the bus entrance a third beggar blocked my way.  This time I was too lazy to reach into my pockets for a few more birr so said, “No,” instead and tried walking around him.  But he was insistent and tried blocking my path.

To my surprise, a fellow bus passenger literally stepped between the two of us and knocked the beggar backwards and told him to leave me alone.  Which he did as I quickly ducked back into the bus.

Jesus always had time for people.  And compassion. Not I.

I’m a Bad Samaritan.

I Can’t Help You All, So I Don’t Think I’ll Help Anyone

Pressing physical need is everywhere. 

Today I was on a mini-bus ride.  We were stopped waiting for more passengers.  I was in the back minding my own business by a window seat when my window opened (from the outside) and several beggars started asking me for money.

Among them were a few healthy-looking kids and an elderly lady who appeared to be blind.  I gave the blind lady some birr and told the rest, “No,” and shut my window.  I also drew my curtains shut too.  Just like Jesus would have done.

I am particular about which beggars I give money to.  My style is to discriminate on health: if they look pathetic I give a few cents which won’t help them anyways, otherwise I hoard just like Jesus said to do.  Because, as we know, I’m a Bad Samaritan.

But back to the story, it wasn’t 30 seconds before my window was reopened and a number of hands were thrust through the curtain practically into my lap!  Good grief. 

I wanted to shout at the bus driver, “Could we please leave now?? Like, RIGHT now?!”

There were plenty of other people in the matatu but I was the only one being targeted.  Because I’m white, and everyone knows that white people are filthy rich.  I felt like Nemo surrounded by piranhas.

From outside I could hear murderous chanting of, “Farenge.” 

All this solicitation has got me thinking about what it must have been like for Jesus.  Then I remembered he had 12 burly bodyguards to keep the crowds at bay.

“I can’t fix all of Ethiopia with my loose change,”  I stewed to myself.  I’m not going to give them anymore, I’m sick of giving handouts.

Why didn’t anyone else on the mini-bus come to my help?  Why didn’t any of THEM help the beggars?

Finally I opened my curtain and a myriad of faces awaited me.  More kids.  Another lady.  The original blind woman now practically crying in her insistence I give her more cash.  I told them all to go away – I wasn’t giving anyone anything more period.  Just like Jesus would have said it.  And, unbelievably, they did leave me alone.

Yes, I’m a Bad Samaritan.

Invisible Lazarus Becomes Visible

Everyone has a story.  Kids walk up and give me their story.  Are they true?  Who knows. 

Back at home I never liked handing out money directly to people who asked because I didn’t know what they would do with it.  Instead, it seemed better to give something tangible (like food).  Having said that, think I’ve only ever bought food for one person back in the States. 

HERE though, the kids oftentimes don’t even ask for money, they ask for food in the first place.  And they are happy to walk me to a nearby bakery or restaurant or street vendor.

In fact, these last couple days in Lalibela I had kids eat with me almost every meal.  Not that I really wanted them to, but invariably wherever I went I attracted a string of kid-followers.  All of them want something from me.  When mealtimes came I wanted to eat, but what was I supposed to do?  Have them sit outside the door (or by the window) and salivate over my food while they themselves are famishing hungry?  Or worse yet, have them come inside, sit down, and study my every bite?  No, I just invite them in and buy them some food too.  It’s cheap anyways.

Being in Ethiopia has frequently reminded me of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  Jesus said the Rich Man ate in luxury while Lazarus sat outside his door wishing for crumbs.   Apparently, the Rich Man never even bothered to give crumbs. It’s sobering how, in the story, the fortunes of these two individuals were reversed in the afterlife.

Did Lazarus go to hell because of failing to give charity? Was his lack of good deeds what sent him to hell? No, it was his attitude towards God that sent him to hell. But his attitude towards God affected his actions towards the less fortunate.

The book I’m reading now, The Reason For God, makes the point that God doesn’t send anyone to hell, people choose to go there of their own free will. And they continue to choose staying there. He says the afterlife is but a continuing trajectory of the path we begin in this life.

Even looking further at the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man it could be noted the Rich Man never asks to be let out of hell. He instead tries getting Lazarus to run an errand for him (revealing a lack of humility in viewing Lazarus as a nobody) and also shifts blame of his being in hell to God for not giving enough warning.

In short, the Rich Mans attitude in hell seems to be about the same as his attitude back on earth: on the arrogant and haughty side.

Keller writes,

The people in hell are miserable… raging like unchecked flames their pride, their paranoia, their self-pity, their certainty that everyone else is wrong, that everyone else is an idiot! All their humility is gone, and thus so is their sanity.

They are utterly, finally locked in a prison of their own self-centeredness, and their pride progressively expands into a bigger and bigger mushroom cloud. They continue to go to pieces forever, blaming everyone but themselves.

That is why it is a travesty to picture God casting people into a pit who are crying “I’m sorry! Let me out!” The people on the bus from hell in Lewis’s parable would rather have their “freedom,” as they define it, than salvation. Their delusion is that, if they glorified God, they would somehow lose power and freedom, but in a supreme and tragic irony, their choice has ruined their own potential for greatness.

Hell is, as Lewis says, “the greatest monument to human freedom.” As Romans 1:24 says, God “gave them up to…their desires.”

All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that?

Lewis writes:

“There are only two kinds of people – those who say “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

(The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, pg 79)

These are hard sayings, especially considering I see the same arrogance of the Rich Man in my own life. Being here in Ethiopia puts a mirror to my own face in revealing my often unloving attitude towards the less fortunate. Especially since they are the very ones I’m presumably here to help! I have to ask myself, “Which trajectory am I on, really?”

Sure, sometimes I do help gracefully and sometimes I am nice and take the demands with humor and grace, but more often I’m peeved and wish they would all get lost and/or take a hike.

Perhaps that is one of the benefits of traveling in an impoverished area: the mirror effect. Back home Lazarus is hidden; over here he’s out in the open. Here, Lazarus often takes the form of a young boy in tattered clothing following me around pleading, “Farange, I’m so hungry!  Could you buy me a piece of bread?”

I find any time I’m put into new testing situations it reveals more black yuckiness in my heart. Yet perhaps acknowledging that is a good first step towards resolving it. You can’t fix a problem you don’t know exists, right?

Final Note

I don’t want to give the impression that all I deal with is beggars and kids harassing me or that I’m having a horrible time.  Not true. 

It’s just that the negative points of travelling are what stick in my memory the strongest and – perhaps – make the more interesting stories to relate.

3 Responses to “The Bad Samaritan”

  1. Danny R Says:

    That’s some deep stuff man… Depressing too. Thx.

  2. Nella Says:

    Personally, reading this made me somehow feel very sad!!!
    However, visiting a poor country will somehow enlighten us on how the majority of the population of our world live….which we sometimes forget…or maybe we are allways in denial….until we (slightly) face it!!! I think everybody should visit countries such as Ethiopia….and look at the good and the ugly….that would be a great unforgettable lesson! But should not just remain as an unproductive lesson!!!

  3. Nick Says:

    Thanks Nella for posting. I’m sorry it made you feel sad :-(

    When I wrote this I was going through a valley trying to sort out what a correct response should be towards those with so much need.

    Back here in the States I often forget all about those who are so needy elsewhere. But I’m heading back to Haiti next week, so the reminder is coming soon enough!

    Have you travelled to a third world country before? What do you think the results of the “lesson” (of experiencing material poverty) should be in order to make the lesson productive?

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