The grandmother, Rama, was an old acquaintance who had worked as a house-helper for some friends of ours. Her son and daughter-in-law sat with her on the floor of our sitting room—their clothes and hollow faces declaring their poverty, the quiet despair in his eyes highlighting the harsh life of a day laborer. Recently, I had spent the better part of two days with them and they had come by our home to pay their respects before returning to the village. Sitting together now, I felt anger rise like bile in my mouth—anger at this family—at their poverty and ignorance and at the way they simply accept their lot in life. Anger at a world of injustice and suffering that we have so little ability to change.
The Need of a Family
A week earlier, Rama and her daughter-in-law tried to change their fate. They arrived on our doorstep with Sonu—a 5-month-old baby boy wrapped in a blanket. Only two large, unseeing eyes were visible. He was sick, and as the cheap village doctors had not helped, they had been to see our pediatrician who had told them that something was wrong with the child’s blood, and that the treatment would cost in excess of 2,000INR (Indian Rupees). They asked us to help as they did not have that kind of money. They had nowhere else to go and had spent the last two hours searching for our house in hopes that we might be willing to pay for the treatment.
Bundling them into a rickshaw, I abandoned my afternoon plans to sit in doctors’ waiting rooms and ensure that Sonu received the proper treatment. Speaking with the pediatrician, I began to realize how critical the child’s situation was. The doctor’s only official recommendation was an immediate blood transfusion. Unofficially, his entire manner spoke of the futility of even trying.
At a small modern hospital not far away, an elderly doctor with kind hands and a gentle spirit took Sonu from his mother’s arms, removed the blanket, and engaged in the fight for this small life. I had never seen anyone so sick and still alive. This small child was emaciated, with skin hanging from his body due to dehydration; each breath punctuated with small cries of pain. He was unresponsive when the doctor tried five times to find a vein that was open enough to allow for an IV. The little one needed oxygen, antibiotics, and rehydration fluid to try and control blood poisoning, dehydration, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.
Sonu’s immediate need was blood. He simply did not have enough to sustain himself, and without more he would die. Pricking, poking, prodding, and praying, the staff was able to coax just enough blood out of him for the tests required to match type and compatibility. I was handed two small vials of his blood and put them in my shirt pocket. I set out across town to the blood bank to bring back a liter of bright red life.
Taking Risks, Walking in Faith
Here in India, to get blood you have to give it. And so I found myself in a chair with small blood-soaked cotton balls on the floor and a man sticking a needle in my arm. Asking if it was a new needle, his grunt of affirmation did little to reassure me; for a split second I wondered if this was worth the risk of contracting some fatal blood-borne disease. But who else would give their blood for some unknown child? I didn’t have time to try and find a family member. And even if someone could be found, could I really ask that person to take the risk that I myself was hesitating to take? After all, someone had already shed his blood for me. The shedding of blood still seems to be the price of life.
The next day I found myself driving to and from the hospital—willing Sonu to live, pleading with God, giving hope to his parents, consulting the doctors, and always wondering if I was doing the right thing. And as Sonu fought for his life, I fought with my conscience.
“They are poor untouchables sitting in one of the most expensive hospitals in our city,” I thought. “What about current mission theory in regards to money, dependence, and the poor? Should I have taken them to a hospital that they could more easily afford? How much money will this cost me?”
Then the guilt hit me: “This is a child’s life we are talking about! If we had gone somewhere else, he surely would have died. Why does being poor mean that he should not get as good of treatment as myself or my daughters? How can I put a price on the value of a life?”
Then this thought came: “Perhaps it would be better to just let him die. He is in so much pain, and even if he lives, his life will probably be one of incredible hardship—driving a rickshaw or hoping for work as a laborer.”
Guilt reemerged: “Who am I to decide whether this child lives or dies? How do I know what his life will be like? Am I God? Who knows that God may not use this child to start a movement for his glory among his own people one day?”
“But what if he dies?” I wondered. “What if this is all for nothing? Oh God, please spare his life.”
Jesus in Disguise
It was midnight and my phone began ringing. I picked it up to find someone speaking rapidly in Hindi: “Sonu just died, please come immediately.” I hurriedly dressed and drove to the hospital. It felt like I had been punched in the gut—I could hardly breathe. I had so wanted him to live. Grief, anger, and relief welled up from within me.
Walking into the hospital room, Sonu was in his bassinet; all the tubes were still connected to him. I put my hand upon him, closed his eyes in the sleep of death, and removed the oxygen, the medical tape, and the IV. He was at last at peace. His breathing no longer labored; his body was no longer taut with pain. The doctors were kind. “We did all we could,” one said. “If only you had brought him in a few days earlier.”
Standing there with a dead child beside me, the answer to all my questions became clear. It was not Sonu in that small bed, but Jesus. It was his emaciated and dying body I touched each time I came to visit. It was his eyes that did not see anything other than pain. It was Jesus we did this for—not Sonu or his family. And as I searched the reality of a broken child’s body, I began to see with eyes of faith the broken body of our Lord. It did not matter how much or how little money was spent. It did not matter whether Sonu lived or died. What mattered was whether or not I had touched our Lord. Matthew 25:34-36, 40 says,
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness, imprisonment, loneliness. Food, water, clothes, presence. And the secret? That such simple acts of service can be transformed into spiritual acts of worship—if we have eyes to see Jesus in the faces of those we serve. The “least of these”—the poor, the oppressed, the destitute and deranged, the orphans and the widows—all are our king and savior, the God of the universe, in disguise. It took a little boy for me to see this truth.
Sonu’s family left our home with a strong rebuke for letting him get so sick before seeking out help. “It is God’s will,” they replied. “What can we do?” What could they do? The question echoed in my mind. As they walked away, I looked carefully, and it was almost as though I could see Jesus walking among them. Ignorance and apathy from long years of suffering made me wonder if they would show up at our door with another Sonu one day. But if they do, I am ready. I will abandon my well-laid plans to sit in doctors’ offices, find rickshaws, pay bills, and pray with all my heart for another small life. For the issue on that day will not be whether the child lives or dies, but whether or not I reach out my hand to touch one who is suffering, and in so doing, touch the king.