A gift from God
The photo she sent is of herself. I have to check twice to make sure it is really a photo of her. There are no signs of her once lush brown hair, always and characteristically hanging down to just above her shoulders. She is simply bald.
The phone vibrates in my hand again. It is another message from her. My thumb slides deftly across the screen to read the message. It shows another photo. It takes a moment or two to download the picture, because the cell phone network is a little slow. The picture on the tiny screen is of her and a few of her friends. All boast shiny bald heads.
I check the picture and recognise my sister’s friend, the one that lost her hair due to intensive chemotherapy. Her smile is the broadest of them all. Just the other day I took my daughter to school. Her teacher recently had another baby. The little boy was just a few weeks old when the social worker brought the seriously neglected little bundle to her home. It was a temporary arrangement, but it soon became clear that he was to stay. Every now and then his alcoholic and drug addicted mother insists on seeing him for an afternoon. She never arrives for the appointments.
The little boy had been with the teacher and her family for just over a year now. He still cannot crawl or walk. His small body suffers because of the exposure to all the poisons his addicted mother used while expecting him.
The teacher shows pictures of his first birthday celebrations. On the pictures we see his wild hairdo, that he has had almost since birth and that could only be described as a ‘funky affro’. The pictures show an ‘affro’ almost as big as the little boy. One of the pictures shows his adoptive brothers and sister, as well as his new mom and dad, at his side – each of them boasting a giant wild ‘affro’ wig. In that picture his smile is also the broadest of them all. In spite of a rough beginning, he found a home, a home with a heart.
Stories such as these often leave me wondering whether our ability to show empathy may not be our most remarkable ability as human beings. Is this ability to be touched by the stories of others not that which differentiates us from other living beings with which we share our planet?
It is not merely a case of being touched. Real empathy brings us in motion, it motivates us to act and makes us willing to walk the road with others. Sometimes we show empathy with a child, sometimes we try to walk in the shoes of a friend and at other times we even try walking in the shoes of a stranger.
Is that not what Jesus came to do? Did he not walk in the shoes of fishermen? He showed great empathy by taking the hand of a man suffering from leprosy, to heal the man. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, walking in their shoes too. Is that not the Gospel?
He also stands firmly in your and my shoes and paid most dearly for that privilege. Yes, He did it for each of us.
Our work at the CSO, in a nutshell, is exactly that: To walk with seamen, to walk in their shoes.
The stories we share are about men working at sea and how we are privileged in being able to walk in their shoes, every day.
Threatening red lights dance wildly over the bow of the ship, while water jets reach the ship in arches, sprayed from blood red pipes into the orange vapours of the fire. Onlookers are kept at bay with red and white tape. Most of the onlookers have their phones ready to capture pictures of the burning ship.
As the first ambulance leaves, sirens ringing, the next parks in its vacated space. The paramedics hastily put someone in the ambulance, before it also departs with ringing sirens. A third and fourth ambulance follow the same course...
One wonders about the thoughts of the men that are taken away in each of the ambulances. They are in a foreign country, being driven away and within strange circumstances... Every sense must be heightened, from the ringing sirens that screech in your ears, to the smell of medicines and the distinct smell of rubber as the tyres burn to leave the site as quickly as possible. Every sense, especially that of smell, signifies danger.
It is only you. You are somewhere. And you are nowhere.
At the back of the ship, the other crew members watch the scene speechlessly. The fire fighters work without pause to confine the fire to the front of the ship. Then there are the ambulances, taking your friends away. They depart, one by one, lights flashing, before disappearing into the unknown city.
In the midst of the crisis you realise that there are thousands and thousands of miles between you and those you love. The realisation is sobering. There is a silent fear lurking in every heart. What if it were me? What about those at home?
Fighting his way through the crowd despite the flashing red and blue lights, Danie reaches the ship. There is pandemonium, with shipping agents, harbour control, policemen, emergency personnel and others running and trying to find a solution for his particular field of expertise. But, apart from Danie, there is no one to ask about the wellbeing of the men.
Later they all flee into the bowels of the ship and find a place in the dining hall. They invite Danie to join them. They tell their stories and bit by bit, like a puzzle, they reconstruct the events of the evening.
Danie is there to listen to each of the men’s stories. The initial adrenalin high makes room for fear. Once that wall breaks, the flood of emotions will require a vent to release the intensity.
For a moment he is able to walk in the steps of many of the men’s lives. He becomes part of their families, their fears, their sorrows, their joys, their lives.
Much later Danie gets an opportunity to pray – for each of the men on board, for those that were injured and also for those the men love.
Hours later, when most of the crowds have disappeared, the dancing emergency lights on the quay are snuffed out and Danie finds his way home.
He knows that his work was important. He knows that he was there at the right time, at the right place. He knows that it was necessary for him to walk a bit in the shoes of those men on board.
According to an Iranian newspaper headline the chances are that news will be bad. Nuclear and chemical weapons, suicide missions, war, suppression and similar lines to support the typical rhetoric appear regularly as front page news. One never sees a simple headline with a photo showing a peaceful scene of children playing against a background of a colourful sunset.
And as a Christian? For a Christian it is probably one of those instances that we find uncomfortable, where we feel that our feelings do not match those expressed in the Gospel. If we use words such as ‘Christian’ and ‘Iran’ in a single sentence, certain stereotypical words such as persecution, suppression, fear and death often jump to mind.
Chris is in the Durban harbour. The next ship along the quay displays an Iranian flag dancing in the wind. It is also a military vessel. Nuclear weapons, war, suppression...
But, Chris acknowledges that he was taken aback, perhaps even felt a little embarrassed. As he walked up the small steps, he was almost certain that he would be greeted with a definite, deafening ‘No’, despite all his trouble to visit.
So it took him by surprise when the captain invited him on board and agreed to let him deliver Christmas gifts to the crew. Suddenly he had to spark, because there were 145 Iranian men on board – far more than on a normal cargo vessel that usually carries about twenty men. He had to return to the seamen’s centre and had to make a few calls to find enough gifts for all the men. Eventually he returned to the quay with a car fully loaded with gifts.
Every one received a little something for Christmas. More than the little ‘something’, they were also reminded of the Child in the manger. For Chris it was a very special, but rare occasion. He would probably never have experienced such an event in Iran. On board he was allowed to speak freely, listen to the men’s stories and share being human. For a brief moment he had an opportunity to walk with them in their shoes. This token of empathy and care, became Chris’ biggest and most powerful testimony.
A cell phone in his pocket, earphones in his ears – he is one of the talking, chattering crowd. The sounds of their chatter blend with the clanging of mugs, plates, knives and forks in the dining room as they enter to still their lunch hunger. In spite of a vague smile, the man with the earphones separates himself from the lively conversation. He is captured in a private place of his own. He would have been alone, even among a thousand men.
As the noise subsides and the men start to disappear to begin the next shift, he is the only one that remains in the dining hall.
He removes the earphones, looking a little insecure, as if he has to choose to become part of this world.
Then he starts talking to our Evangelist. He talks about the ship, the sea and about how difficult it is. He also talks about his marriage that had to pay the highest price for his life working at sea. The final documents were to make it an official separation within a few days. He talks about the emotions and the loss – it is like a wave hitting him, continuously, every day and every hour. It is like the ebb and flow of the sea. Sometimes it threatens to drown him.
He insists to know why God allows it all to happen. At first it is uttered as an angry reproach. Then he seems down-hearted, crushed.
They talk about his story, about the ebb and flow of this valuable thing we call life. They talk about how fragile life is. One man working on that ship could share his feelings with someone. That person could listen quietly and without reproach. He could be there, even briefly, to walk in another man’s shoes.
The mercury reached fifty two in Alton Richards Bay the other day. Today, as Loffie walks down the quay, it is at a more merciful thirty eight degrees, but with humidity levels at almost ninety percent.
With him is a new face at the CSO. Boasting a brand new pair of steel tipped shoes, a mountain of paperwork and permits, a hard hat and a bright yellow security jacket that has never seen a day’s work before, André walks on the quay for the first time. They climb the steep steps, four or five storeys high, to reach the deck of the coal ship. For the first time André gets the opportunity to enjoy the majestic views from the bridge of the giant coal vessel.
It is the first of many ships to be visited. With time the sun will bleach the bright yellow of his new jacket and his brand new shoes will show signs of wear and tear, stained with soot and oil, evidence of their daily work in the harbour.
For a month Loffie will be at his side to introduce him to this new world – ship up, ship down. In between all the climbing he will hear the stories of the men working at sea for the first time. For the very first time he will walk in their shoes.
André, our new Evangelist, will shortly take over in Cape Town to continue his work among the men that work at sea. From Richards Bay Loffie says that he will miss André, but that he prays that André will find his feet and walk in the shoes of the men that work at sea.
André, may every opportunity to walk in the shoes of seamen, be special. We hope that it will enrich your heart.
By the tenth day the faces are more than familiar. A well-known idiom states that something familiar often becomes a loved something. The initial chats about every day trivialities are over and as Danie visits the ship for the umpteenth time in just a few days, the greetings are familiar, almost as he is one of the crew.
Sometimes the ore quay in the Port Elizabeth harbour is under immense pressure and when that happens some of the ships are loaded by the truck load. It is a lengthy process that affords Danie a rare opportunity to build relationships and it gives the men breathing space to visit the city and its shops.
After one of the visits, as Danie leaves, he notices a man sitting alone, staring intensely at the cell phone in his hand. Danie greets him, but the greeting disappears into thin air. He walks off and is quite far from the ship when he hears a voice calling.
“Daniel, Daniel, I want to show you something”. It is Michelle’s voice. Michelle is the man that sat alone earlier. Now he approaches quickly, almost running.
He pages through the images on the phone before holding out the phone proudly – for Danie to see. The screen shows a small bundle wrapped in a pink baby blanket.
“I want to introduce you to my daughter”, he says proudly as only a father can say it. “She is two days old today”.
The next steps involve joy, tears, sorrow, happiness – the best of times and the worst of times. He chose to share the moment with Danie.
The two men sit together, shoulder to shoulder, on the quay. One is crying and stares at the photo on the screen. He is without words as he stares at the picture of the little princess – a gift from God.
In that moment Danie shares everything that is important to this man. He steps into his shoes with as much care as possible, because he truly understands how special and blissful the moment is for Michelle.
The next day he returns to the ship and finds Michelle as he is talking to his wife via Skype. On the screen one can see the little feet and hands. One can hear the soft groans and cries of a little baby. Her eyes are open, as if she wants to see all during this first meeting with her dad, even though he is thousands of kilometres away.
The lyrics of an old pop song include the words: ‘These boots are made for walking, that’s just what they do, one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.’
The opposite is true of empathy. Empathy requires stepping into the shoes of others softly and with great care. One should handle their stories with care, deep understanding and a lot of patience. It requires knowing the fragility of life. We have all suffered under the boots of those that roughly and coarsely walk all over us and our lives.
May you experience that people approach you with the same mercy as Jesus did, with care and empathy, holding your life and stories dear. And, may you also share this gift, this immensely valuable gift, with others. May you be touched and handle the stories and lives of others with the necessary care and empathy.