It was a heartwrenching sight.
Against the background of the eclectic, bustling streets of Hong Kong filled with psychedelic billboards and a pulsing throng of people, a little man lay on the dirty sidewalk, tummy-side down, underneath a bridge, his neck straining to look up, only to look at the shuffling feet of the passing crowd. Dressed in rags, a pair of old, dirty crutches lay beside his missing limb, with a little plastic red bowl with spare change placed in front of his chin.
It was my husband, Cliff, who saw him first. On our way to catch a ferry to visit his grandma across the sea, we both knew we had to stop, even though we were running late. He placed a large note in my palm, a repeat gesture of love as he did several times before when we passed hunched, wrinkled elderly people selling trinkets or picking garbage off the streets of Hong Kong.
It was a chilly evening.
Exchanging knowing glances and bending down, we both asked the man simultaneously if he had had anything to eat- Cliff in Cantonese, and I in mandarin. To my surprise, he responded to my mandarin instead of Cliff’s Cantonese. It was then that we realized he wasn’t from Hong Kong, but mainland China.
“Xie Xie, Xie Xie,” he thanked us profusely, as Cliff walked across the street to buy him a hot meal ofchar siew(marinated pork) rice in the wintry weather.
Crouching down on the damp road filled with the stench of wet fish and smoke, his eyes met mine. I tried to fold my oversized trenchcoat in between my legs, but they swept the dank floor anyway. For that moment, we were on the same level.
“What is yout name?” I asked in mandarin.
“Wo jiao *Zhe Bin. (My name is Zhe Bin.)”
Many years ago as a child, he lost his left leg in a road accident.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Wei le zhuan qian. (To earn money),” he replied, not straining his neck anymore. “I earn a little more here than across the border back home.”
“Does anyone bully you here?”
“So far no trouble.”
I didn’t know what to say. The bill would last him a few days perhaps, the meal, a few hours. Whatever we did seemed so temporal, a vapor in the mist, almost. So I said the only thing I knew, “Do you know God? I just wanted you to know that He loves you, He cares for you, and when you pray when you are sad, He listens and He will provide for you.”
I half-expected a blank look, a cynical snort perhaps. Instead, the lines on his face melted into a knowing look of nostalgia.
“God?” he replied. “Ah, my big aunt back home used to tell me stories about Jesus.”
“He loves you very much,” I said. “Can we pray with you?”
Eagerly, he agreed. “God sent you to me today. I want to believe in Jesus because I know today He cares for me. Please, pray with me.”
As Cliff returned with dinner, a crowd of nearly twenty people had stopped to stare at us. We were a spectacle, an exhibit that had won instant interest. They could not hear our conversation, but the sight of a young couple squatting to speak with a maimed man lying prostrate was a draw enough. The old, the young, and the middle-aged, all came to watch this strange and unthinkable scene.
Somehow, people who had been too busy to stop for this man suddenly had the time to watch this unfold.
It was late. Cliff’s ninety year-old grandma was waiting. We said goodbye and hurried off, with twenty pairs of eyes still following our backs. As we wondered why it should seem so abnormal to stop for the poor, a man, six feet tall with broad shoulders and a wide jaw stopped us at the traffic junction. He had followed us a distance round the corner.
Frowning, he asked gruffly in Cantonese, then English after realizing I could not understand him, “You from Hong Kong?” His voice, slightly threatening, intimidated me a little. Cliff held my hand tightly.
“You are obviously not from here,” he said in Cantonese to Cliff, then repeating himself in English. “Let me tell you, it is ILLEGAL in Hong Kong to beg. It is against the law. These beggars, they come from mainland China to win the sympathy and cheat the money of our people. The people of Hong Kong do NOT beg.”
His animosity and acrimony towards the mainland Chinese people cut the cold winter air like a knife.
He then turned to look at me, his hard frown softening to a fatherly look of exasperation. “You, young lady, I see you looking at him, so compassionate. These people LIE and CHEAT to win your sympathy. You understand? They don’t deserve what you are doing for him. THEY ARE CHEATS.”
The light turned green. Time was ticking. We bade the tall man goodbye, and I worried if he might beat or cause Zhe Bin trouble.
We hurried along the sidewalk. “Are we doing anything tomorrow evening?” I asked Cliff.
Knowing me all too well, he replied, ” You wanna buy him dinner? Sure, let’s.”
Half-running, we dashed back and made a date with Zhe Bin quickly, trying to avoid attention. Same time, same place tomorrow.
They lie and cheat. Those words kept ringing in my head. Was a missing limb a lie, leaving a coin box on the floor, trickery?
Just an hour before our date, I sat to pray, asking God what it was that we could do for this man. Show me one thing, God, that we can do for Zhe Bin. Buy him new crutches, give him more money, ask for his address? How far should we go? Would we love till we reached the shore of convenience, to avoid getting wet by the sea of sacrifice, or would we go to the edge and learn to go where only You could stop us from falling?
Cliff. As my husband’s name would suggest, Cliff constantly provokes me to be challenged by what it means to go all out to the edge for Jesus. This was supposed to be a family visit combined with a vacation for us- an overwhelming sense of gratitude for his patience, compassion, understanding and flexibility to change plans flooded my heart.
While praying, I decided to pick up “Learning to love“, a compilation of wonderful stories by Heidi and Rolland Baker about their journey of loving the poor in Mozambique, Africa, to read a short chapter. The words leapt out to me: “..,Jesus brought dignity and eternal life to the Samaritan woman when He stopped and asked her for a drink of water from the well…”
That was it! Suddenly a deep and profound sense of peace and divine knowing pervaded my heart- dignity and eternal life. That was the answer to my prayers as to what to impart to Zhe Bin- dignity and eternal life. “Oh God,” I prayed, remembering yet another crippled man we had seen under the bridge days ago, ” how can we ever love them all?”
As soon as I had the revelation, Cliff awoke from his deep afternoon slumber. Excitedly, I shared with him what I felt God had put in my heart. It was then that Cliff shared, that as he was falling to sleep, he said that very same story in the bible came to his mind, as God showed him the importance of overcoming all barriers to stop for the one, just as Jesus broke the cultural norms of the time to speak to a woman of low standing. Slumped against the edge of the bed on the floor, we were both in awe and wonder at God’s consistency and divinity. We had goosebumps.
It was raining the next evening. The air, cold and wet, had a chilly, biting edge. There Zhe Bin was again, prostrate on the wet ground, this time on some newspaper, and clad in a tattered jacket and old dress shoes, dressed with respect for a dinner date with us. And next to him, the crippled man we had seen a few days ago under the same bridge! We were overjoyed to have him join us as well.
“What is your name?”
“*Guo Hui. Wo jiao Guo Hui.”
It was awkward at first, to see Guo Hui wrench himself forcefully from his wornout wheelchair, collapsing to the ground then waddling a few feet before pulling himself on the chair. Over a hot meal of claypot rice and soybean milk, Zhe Bin and Guo Hui shared their lives with us. When he was eight, a lorry had crushed Zhe Bin’s left leg. When he was three, Guo Hui contracted polio.
On that table, suddenly we were all equal. Our eyes met each other’s on the same level. They were fathers, sons, brothers, neighbors of people. They had taken a train across the border to “work” here because “money here is better”. The clothing factory they used to work for had closed down, giving way to rapidly expanding manufacturing plants which crushed out any competition employing manual labour, leaving them jobless. Zhe Bin has two sons and a daughter; Guo Hui has one son.
“We are maimed and crippled,” they said. “There are few options and fewer opportunities to find better work than this. So we move around like this to try and earn a living. Sometimes, like today, the police come, and we have to move. Why do people call the cops? Do we cause trouble or get in their way?”
“But today,” Guo Hui said, “is the happiest day of my life. Can you share with me this God you shared with Zhe Bin? Because I want to know Him too. I know He will not cause my problems to disappear magically, but I know He cares for me. He sent you two to send His love for both of us. Back home, we have a church, we will go back there together.”
We were amazed. That meal cost us less than twenty Singapore dollars. Yet, it’s value was infinite and of eternal value. God had brought us under a bridge and over a cliff to see how amazing things can happen and how lives can be unexpectedly touched when we let go and let Him interrupt our lives. A day ago I had shared with Cliff, that perhaps all we were meant to do was to make a beautiful memory for someone in need, but God had done more than that.
“He sent us to share His love, ” I said, ” but He also wants you to lead a life of dignity.” While those words were hard to say, they pierced their hearts deeply, lighting up their countenance.
“Yes, we know what we are doing isn’t real work. It is begging. It is against the law,” Zhe Bin repented aloud, bravely.
So in that humble little shophouse on that drizzly night over a warm meal, we prayed that though we did not know how, that God would somehow show them the way to quit this life of begging, and to find respectable work back home.
When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water from the well, the woman had thought how incredulous it was that God should want to associate with someone of her low and immoral standing, but He did. It brought to my mind a strange dream Cliff once had about me, drinking from a pool. He said for some reason, in the dream, he himself was the pool. Weeks later I learnt his last name, when read in Chinese, “Tam” has the same sound as a pool in mandarin. Since then, I realized that my husband’s name not only reminds me of the call we have to go to the edge, but to dig deep like wells, to be pools of living water to the people around us, just as he is an example of.
God calls us to go further, to the edge of cliffs as waterfalls, where nothing else but the wind of His love can catch and carry us; He calls us to go lower, under bridges as rivers, where the darkness reeks of destitution, dirt and dryness; He calls us to be wells of living water, to dig deep and spring forth His fountain of life and love with others.
“Thank you so much,” they said. “Today is the most significant day of our lives. We know God truly does exist.”
Over cliffs and under bridges. Are we willing to go?
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,
but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.
Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
– John 4:13