By John Bell, Guest Columnist
It was 2007. I was 21 years old. I had just graduated from university. Almost instantly I got a job in my own field of study. The job was in a very prestigious public institution.
‘Miraculous’ was the word which flashed through the minds of many friends when they heard of my ‘good fortune.’
The job was in a city several hundred kilometres away from my family home, where my wife was, with our first child.
A year later, we welcomed our second child into the world. On the same day, we learned of an affliction, a calamity, which had come upon us.
My wife required my support. But I was 300 kilometres away. Why was this happening to me? What was I to do?
Shaken, I resigned from my wonderful job. Everyone wanted to know why. After I explained, eyes chased me, and tongues pierced me. Family, friends, neighbours, everyone had views, observations, opinions, judgements.
I felt I was clamped in the jaws of a vice, with pity on one side and gloating on the other. Their response was different, but their diagnosis was the same: my family and I had been given what we deserved.
I felt crushed. I felt I was dying slowly, crushed by both pity and gloating. My society had changed my label from ‘blessed’ to ‘cursed.’ I needed to recover my balance, to return to a state of being comfortable with myself.
I felt I could learn from others who had been put at the margins of society, others labelled ‘cursed.’ I felt becoming one with such persons might help restore my crushed spirit.
I thought of the sanitation workers in the city. Most of them were descendants of slaves. They were despised as non-tribals, non-professionals. They were treated as non-people, though they too were citizens. They have been stigmatized for generations.
Their citizenship was of value to the powerful only when they needed to ‘rent’ people for protest rallies or to serve as props when applying for grants of money from development agencies.
Through an acquaintance, I got myself a job as a sanitation worker. I must admit my arrogance. I chose them because I wanted to be among people to whom I was ‘superior’ in terms of education and upbringing.
My acquaintance was shocked that I wanted such a job, but he gave it to me. At my request, he assigned me to a place far away from anyone I knew, and to work in the hours of darkness.
I worked with the sanitation workers for just over three months. We removed the waste of others. We removed dirt from tunnels and bridges. We decorated sidewalks and streets. We did this over and over again.
The work and my co-workers were a balm to my soul. I felt my brain was being washed from wrong beliefs and ideas planted in my mind by the race and class-conscious society in which I had been born and raised.
I heard them tell sad, funny, and sarcastic stories. These taught me how they deal with the calamities which are never absent from their lives.
I watched their bodies dance, almost involuntarily, to any music. I learned that music is spiritual food for them, sustaining their weary souls.
I saw that they blamed society for their suffering but did not resent society. I know that much of what is claimed about their behaviour, beliefs and choices is false. The truth is, they’ve often asked those who hold power to give them fair treatment so they can rise above their misery.
My time with them showed me that contentment doesn’t come from aura, descent, education, prestige, wealth and so much else which our society values. My time with them showed me that they are better than me.
Those whom our society puts at the margins don’t need our greetings, smiles or money as much as they need to be treated as persons. Persons like us. Persons with dignity. Persons whom we will eat with at the same table.
The sad truth is that they are afraid of the institutions which we cherish. They avoid police stations, schools, even hospitals. Why? Because anytime they go to these places, they will be disrespected, treated as less then human.
The Messiah was also at the margins. His companions were “unsavoury” people, fishermen and tax-collectors. Who would His companions be today? What does that mean for me and for us?
1 Corinthians 1
28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.
26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—
14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
During those months, I was not a Christ-follower. I am now.
Now I see that God used that time to show me life from the bottom up. Now I testify that he has lifted the affliction, the calamity. Now I know he used it as a door to lead me into understanding and service.
Disciples should be neither merchants of pity nor gloating. Disciples should be restorers of rights which have been stolen or denied. Are we?
John Bell is a pseudonym for a non-citizen who has lived for some years in Malaysia.