Listening at the Portico

“Now in Jerusalem by the sheep gate there is a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-zatha which has five porticoes.  In these lay many invalids - blind, lame, and paralyzed.  One man was there who had been ill for 38 years.” (John 5:2-5)

Too often the biblical reality defies our own. In a culture characterized by impatience and immediate gratification, the above text seems unthinkable. We manufacture convenience, shortcutting the experience of waiting with a glass screen meant to distract us when what we want or need requires just a few extra minutes. Yet here we are, confronted by this man in John 5, whose position does not afford him the distractions our privilege does. His only option is to sit and wait - and for what?

I had the humbling experience of taking two Summer Interns to visit Safdarjung hospital in New Delhi, India, alongside our liaison, Manohar Paul. This government hospital is one of the largest in the city, a sprawling campus of poorly labeled and poorly maintained buildings stacked in seemingly random order: a ‘care clinic’ followed by an ultrasound room, blocked by stacks of chairs, next to a public drinking and washing fountain, leading to the entrance to the surgery wing. Littering the maze of buildings are people piled on top of people, families waiting to be admitted, not one hospital employee present in all the mess.

As we moved through the hospital portico we met a man named Ramjav, a poor farmer from neighboring state Uttar Pradesh. As we sat next to him I noticed his gaunt demeanor and thinning, gray hair. Though he looked to be at least 55, we soon found he was only 35. He had developed mouth cancer and his local hospital was unable to treat him. His only option was to spend all he had to travel to Delhi. As he told his story a chai tea seller came by. We offered to share a cup with him, but he declined. He had received an initial surgery, removing a cancerous mass from his cheek. Yet it had not healed properly, leaving a gaping hole in his mouth, covered by a thin bandage. When he drinks, liquid will often seep through the wound and spill out his cheek. The doctors told him he needed 35 sessions of ‘therapy’ to treat the cancer present in his body. In the five months he had been waiting he had not received one. He was too poor to afford any help, and so he sat, his family far away in another state, his condition worsening each day.  

As he spoke, another man approached us. This man told us the story of his wife, Rajin. Seven months ago she had been injured in an automobile accident. He was too poor to afford private care and brought her to the government hospital. Her femur was broken near her pelvis, requiring surgery to correct the problem. Again, poverty put care out of reach; she never received the surgery.  Her husband handed me a stack of charts, x-rays and lab reports. As I thumbed through the papers I saw numerous instances where hospital staff had filled in administrative information and stamped the form as completed, yet no tests were ever conducted. Now, he explained, his wife had developed an internal infection near the site of the break. Initially doctors warned that this would need immediate treatment. In their latest visit, however, they were told that her infection was getting better and the break beginning to heal. Though poor and illiterate, he is not stupid. He knew Rajin was not getting better laying on the stone floor of the hospital portico.

Moments like these are disorienting.  How do we respond? What do we say? Do we even have the words to speak? Do we shut down and stop listening, consoled by the fact that we will soon be home, comfortable and secure?

For people wanting to do God’s work, these moments are crucial.  Exodus 2:23-25 begins the story of God’s response to Israel’s slavery in Egypt: “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”  The following chapters unfold God’s incredible response to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt. Yet before the response is the experience. God waits with the suffering. The text notes that it was a “long time” that he heard the cries of his people, their groaning, observing the pain and suffering caused by a system of injustice.  God waits, suffering with his people, hearing their cries and observing their pain.  

We share stories like that of Ramjav and Rajin because we must be softened by the experience of suffering.  To sit with someone in pain, to hear their story and not immediately try to ‘fix’ hard situations, is a value we learn from God. Our response to these moments must be great, and I am thankful that our organization is working in primary health care and maternal health to provide alternatives for the poor of India to get the education and care they need.  However, it is important that we do not bypass the lesson to get to a response.  First, we must learn to sit and feel and listen.