The kid couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, though his eyes looked much older. At first glance, his gaze projected an unpleasant intensity, bordering on contempt.  Just past the hardened façade, however, I could see the subtle melancholy. His entire life had clearly been an uphill battle.

He clutched a little boy on his hip, who was probably around nine months old, a year at most (malnutrition always makes age difficult to assess). Another boy of two or three clung to his left pant leg. I can only assume the three were siblings.

Each wore threadbare clothes embedded with the familiar reddish-brown shade of the local soil. The same hue covered most of their exposed skin as well. While the oldest wore an old pair of sandals, the two youngsters had no shoes at all, and their feet were calloused and filthy.

When I first spotted them, they instantly qualified as one of the most pitiful trios I had ever laid eyes on.

School children perform in front of the festival tents at the Korogocho chief’s compound.

Heartstrings

The eldest tried to get my attention almost immediately, hoping this “mzungu” (Swahili slang for ‘whitey’) had money and was ready to part with it. I shook my head and did my best to remain stoic, so he prompted the toddler to come my way, trying to increase his odds. Begging was clearly this kid’s occupation, and he was a seasoned pro. The toddler, on the other hand, hung his head sheepishly and refused to follow his brother’s urging. He wasn’t quite ready for that line of work.

In my various travels, I’ve learned one important lesson under such circumstances. As much as my heartstrings might be pulled by the various beggars I encounter, giving money is generally not a good way to help the situation…food perhaps, but rarely money. In the end, long-term change comes from a different direction.

On this particular day, however, Mozart would have envied the symphony being composed on the ol’ heartstrings at the sight of this tragic trio.

Luckily, I was there with a handful of staff from Tumaini Clinic, and we were there to help. The Korogocho chief was holding a festival on his compound in honor of “African Children’s Day,” and he invited a couple community groups to set up booths for the day. Tumaini was one of the privileged few.

We planned to distribute Vitamin A to any kids under five, which gives the immune system a good boost. We also had de-worming medicine for anyone who would take it. (By the end of the day, more than 500 people received a de-worming dose. Aaaaah…the simple pleasures of working in the slums!)

Kids circle around Tumaini Clinic’s booth for their de-worming medicine during “African Children’s Day.”

Loving Kindness

By midday, the trio finally wandered over to the booth. And as they did, one of the Tumaini nurses greeted them with a wide smile and soft, sing-song tones. She was a modern day Mother Theresa if ever there was one. Had I not known these kids were strangers to her, I’d have thought they were her own children.

She caressed their heads. She spoke tenderly to them. She picked them up and inspected their sores. There wasn’t pity in her eyes. There was loving kindness. The sight was extraordinary, and I was stunned.

As the afternoon came to a close, I tried to tell her as much. But she didn’t seem impressed with my accolades, opting instead to cut me off with a few dismissive “thank you”s.

VIP Care

As I pondered it later, I remembered a possible reason why. One of the things that instantly struck me on my first day at Tumaini was the printout of the clinic’s three priorities, which someone taped to the wall in the main waiting area. “VIP Care” topped the list.

School boys display a traditional African dance for the crowd.

On the surface, this may sound like your average marketing strategy for any decent business model. In reality, however, this mantra of VIP care imparts divine lenses on the eyes of the staff, ingraining a perspective of Truth straight from the mouth of Jesus.

“Whatever you did for the least of these…you did for me.”

The least of these… Marinate on that phrase for a second. Imagine who might fit that description. Visualize what they might look like, or how they might smell. Now imagine touching them, and wrapping your arms around them.

In the germ-obsessed culture of ours, the image may very well send shivers down your spine, and have you running to the nearest bottle of hand sanitizer. Truth be told, I’ve found myself cringing on more than one occasion here in Kenya, and I’m a country boy for goodness’ sake, who actually likes to get his hands dirty!

But our society’s preoccupation with a sterilized existence came with me to Kenya, and I underestimated its presence. Whether it’s the ground I’m walking, the water I’m drinking or yes, even some of the people I’m touching, my hypochondriac alarm has sounded frequently, with signals ranging from “caution – cooties afoot!” to “red alert – impending contagions and calamities!”

The Tumaini nurse and the Trio

Times and places like this take faith from the abstract to the tangible, from the sanitized bubble to the messy realities. And my faith needs some work.

Power

Should I think it mere coincidence that time and again, Jesus touched the lepers and the sick in order to heal them? Or the dead, or the bleeding woman (given Jewish law, an abhorrent notion)? Or that one of his final commandments we conveniently disregard is to wash one another’s feet?!

There is power in the human touch. But we, as a society, are weak. We’ve become paralyzed by the fear of our own fragility. We have such a desperate need to get our hands dirty, and a need to wear the same lenses as the Tumaini nurse, who saw beyond the filth and desperation of the tragic trio and elevated them like never before.

The least of these are the VIPs, and if we truly claim Christ, then such folks deserve honor, dignity and respect…not apprehensive cringes and hand sanitizer.

So bring on the contagions and calamities! And with them, a growing faith, bolstered by Truth…

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Next Steps
    • Further ponder the least of these. Do you come often into contact with anyone who qualifies? How do you react? Improve it through attitude and action.
    • Get your hands especially dirty this week, and be okay with it! Work in the yard, work on the car or better yet, do as the Kenyans do, and eat an evening meal with your hands…no utensils! Try it!
    • Reach out and touch someone! Make physical contact with someone you ordinarily wouldn’t. I don’t care if it’s a handshake, a back pat, an arm touch or a hug…do it!
    • Most importantly, wash someone else’s feet this week (your child’s don’t count, but your spouse’s do). Awkwardness must be overcome. Humility must be embraced. But a mandate will be obeyed. And you’ll be awed in the aftermath, trust me.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Stephen Crane is a year-long fellow with World Next Door. He has a bachelor's degree in theology from Calvin College and a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University. He has a passion for overlooked places and people and would snowboard at all times if it were possible!

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Comments

  1. Jocelyn said... 

    Reply

    June 23rd, 2011 at 4:28 am  

    Stephen, you are one of the most talented writers-and humble men-I’ve ever had the privilege to be around. Thanks for letting me hang out with you this summer! I’m learning more than you could ever know about the Kingdom through your “straight up” wisdom. Please keep learning and sharing, Always!

  2. Nickson Kirongo said... 

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    June 23rd, 2011 at 4:54 am  

    We need to overcome the fear of our own fragility by all means! Inspiring article

  3. Josie Tilyou said... 

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    June 23rd, 2011 at 7:34 am  

    Great writing! Thank you for sharing your life with these children. I’m sure they have started to appreciate the new “mzungu” in their town by now:)

  4. Ron Yonan said... 

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    June 23rd, 2011 at 8:37 am  

    Excellent perspective & such an indictment on our cultural lens. I love the VIP value which is a great reminder for me as I am ready to board a plane & join one of our teams in Mississippi. Thanks.

  5. Dave Rodriguez said... 

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    June 23rd, 2011 at 8:57 am  

    I’ll be thinking about VIPs in my life all day now. Thank you Stephen!

  6. Adam Wason said... 

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    June 23rd, 2011 at 10:13 am  

    You’ve got me crying at my desk, brother. I’m with Jocelyn, your straight up wisdom is inspiring and makes me really happy to call you a friend and brother. The good you are and will continue to do makes this world a better place.

  7. Kim Quinn said... 

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    June 23rd, 2011 at 12:15 pm  

    That left me in tears, some from the grief that the littlest and least of this world suffer, but mostly from conviction. How would I react to these children?

  8. Amy Sorrells said... 

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    June 23rd, 2011 at 1:02 pm  

    “We’ve become paralyzed by the fear of our own fragility.” Love that sentence. And often I wonder if it’s because we never risk breaking ourselves to find out how strong we are in Christ?

  9. Jo Nading said... 

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    June 23rd, 2011 at 6:40 pm  

    I LOVE your honesty. I would say most people could never share with the world the way you are…about your perceived shortcomings and fear of the microscopic giants that threaten the health of bodies. I honestly believe your renewed sense of common sense will keep you “safe enough” while your courage to see and do greater things for the kingdom is being “exercised”. Ya know, there are as likely as many germs in the air as there are on those kiddos skin. So why not touch them and THEN reach for the sanitizing gel? There’s no real need to have an open house for the little germs that have never experienced an American farm boy…keep em on the porch then send them on their way….but while they are there….THAT is your moment to see Jesus….to be Jesus.

    I love the VIP track. And think how LITTLE it takes for the least of these to feel important.

    Keep up the “straight up” talk. We all need to hear it. I’m ready for the next article already.

  10. Darla said... 

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    June 26th, 2011 at 5:08 am  

    I know where you lived last fall and how many people would consider that unhealthy living… or outside the sanitized bubble. To use that as a reference to where you are now gave me perspective of how conditions are in Tumaini slums. I appreciate your honesty of owning your true reactions and feelings. You put me in the story with you as a great writer can only do!

  11. Roxi Scully said... 

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    June 26th, 2011 at 7:22 pm  

    Once again, thank you Stephen for another inspiring article. You give me the ability to see through your camera lens and to share your experience through your writing. You are walking the walk of Christ. Thank you. You and the people of the Tumaini slums are in my prayers.

  12. Jim and Elizabeth said... 

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    June 28th, 2011 at 8:40 pm  

    Hi Stephen,
    So impressed with your ability to communicate “your world” right now and the way it speaks to us also. We shared your first blog with Phil, and he was moved enough to give it a try in showing how to share your faith without saying a word.
    So thankful for you ! We continue praying for your time there with your team, and know it will be valuable for Christ and His kingdom.

  13. Fred Asira said... 

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    June 29th, 2011 at 5:02 am  

    Thanks Steve, you bring out a different vantage from what am used to. I meet them; ‘the least of these’ everyday, but how often do I take time to wash their feet? I don’t know, but God has the full picture of me, and everyone else out there….

  14. Maeven said... 

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    June 29th, 2011 at 1:41 pm  

    So inspiring to read. Thanks, Stephen.

  15. francisca osebe said... 

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    July 11th, 2011 at 8:59 am  

    hi mlami am honored that you saw me as a mother teresa of some sort and thank you continue doin the good work that you are doin n you are very differrent from the other walamis av met please dont be afraid to get your hands dirty.love others as you love yourself.thanx again.

  16. Miriam Olver said... 

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    July 11th, 2011 at 4:45 pm  

    If “VIP Care” was the top priority, I’m curious what the other two were.

    I like your writing: focused, plenty of evidence, the appropriate touch of pathos (and not too much), vivid descriptions of course, aimed (I would guess) at a white, middle class, affluent audience.

    There is at least one other reason why the nurse tried to cut your thanks short that I can think of. Many people who are in the trenches are relatively untouched when people try to thank them for doing for others what they consider is the least they can do. Your nurse may have been doing”the least I can do” for the “least of these”. When helpers know that what they do is woefully inadequate but there isn’t much else they can do, a “thank you” might seem redundant, superficial, or sometimes insensitive.

    You are doing the right things, in the right place, for the right reasons; your heart is right. Keep doing it, for Jesus’ sake!!

    (I got your website because I’m a friend of your mother’s.)
    Miriam Olver

  17. Tasha Simons said... 

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    July 20th, 2011 at 3:32 am  

    Thanks for sharing. What you wrote is so true… loving people is messy and/or dirty sometimes but it’s what we are called to do. It transforms us, but we have to step outside our comfort zones for that to occur. Will continue to think of what it means to love the least of them. Thanks, again!

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