It was a normal afternoon. We were just finishing up the school day (at the free kindergarten we run in the slum community we live in). All the students had gone home, and another teacher and I were sweeping the playground area. The other teachers were cleaning up inside.
Suddenly, I heard the other teacher yell angrily: “Hey! Don’t come in here!” She lifted up her broom threateningly.
It was Agung. He took a step into the entrance to the playground area. Agung is the man in our community who suffers from some sort of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. My husband and I have known Agung for as along as we have lived in this slum community. He used to live with his grandma in a little shack by the canal that runs through the neighborhood. When his grandma died a few years ago, someone else took possession of their house and Agung left to wander the streets. Sometimes he disappears for months at a time; other times we see him walking past our street almost every day. He refuses to talk to almost everyone; but occasionally he will answer someone he trusts. I would guess he is only a few years older than me, perhaps 36 or 37 years old.
We are not scared of Agung. We are not scared because we know his name. We have sat with him in his (previous) house. We have watched him play dominoes and know that he used to have a radio that he liked to listen to. But the three other teachers present did not know much about Agung. They only know him as the “crazy person” who wanders around, sometimes peeking in people’s houses. They know him as the person who always wears the same dirty pants and shirt and does not have a home. I could see fear in their eyes and body language as they retreated into the school— all of course in the same moment that my friend shouted “Hey! Don’t come in here!”
I quickly tried to assure them it was ok. “Don’t be scared. It’s just Agung.” I said. “He is not dangerous.”
I walked towards Agung and asked what the matter was. (Normally he only appears at our door if he is sick). He pointed to his foot. Underneath all the black dirt, I could tell that his foot was very swollen. I asked what had happened, but he would not speak an answer.
My husband came soon after that, and he too tried to ask Agung what had happened. No answer. Right at the entrance to the school is the large water tank and spigot for kids to wash their hands before entering the playground. My husband knelt down and washed Agung’s swollen foot. It just happened to be a few days after Easter, and I could not help getting teary-eyed as I watched my husband follow our Lord’s example.
The foot did not have any visual wounds on it. “Did your foot get run over by a car?” We asked. No answer. We felt helpless to really do anything to make a difference for Agung. We gave him some ibuprofen for the pain, a glass of water, and some ointment to rub on his foot. My husband gave him a shirt from his dresser. Then Agung was on his way again, limping away to wherever his feet would carry him.
Living in Jakarta for the past ten years, I have seen many mentally ill homeless people wandering the streets. Often their hair is long and messy, their clothes a brownish-gray color like the streets they live on. I feel so powerless to help them — and so aware that each person struggling with mental illness has a family somewhere, a story, and a name. This touches me particularly because my own brother struggles with very severe bipolar disorder. My brother has navigated multiple hospitalizations, ups and downs, and countless medications and doctors and therapist appointments over the past ten years. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, I have struggled with the realization that these people I see could be my brother. And actually, they are my brothers and sisters— precious people to be loved and cared for.
It has now been over a month since the incident with Agung, but it keeps playing over and over again in my mind. The fear my friends had in the face of interacting with the unknown, “crazy person.” The simple yet counter-cultural act of my husband stooping to wash his feet. This to me was a living picture of the gospel—of what our Lord has done for us. And we are to follow our Lord in serving those the world is fearful of, views as “unclean,” unwanted, dangerous even. Knowing their names. Speaking in Love. Offering hope.
Agung’s name means “Great.” It is often a title used for God. And somehow his name seems appropriate to me. In washing Agung’s feet, my husband was indeed showing love to our great Lord. The one who promises to meet us in whatever we do to the least of these.
We still see Agung walking past almost daily. He did not put the new shirt on, but he carries it on his shoulder. It is now almost as dirty as the shirt he is wearing. We do not know what is going on in his mind or heart—but somehow we know he knows we care.
Originally published here.
Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.