It was around 7 o’clock. The night was balmy. The street was lively with commercial neon lights, fast scooters and tourists. The smell from food stalls wafted into the air, inviting many hungry people to stop for a bite. Joel and I were walking hand-in-hand along this busy street of Chiang-Mai that has become home to so many. Then I spotted him – a man with hair like a bird’s nest wearing dark grey-green shirt, tattered shorts and no shoes. In the midst of the vibrant community, this bearded man stood still in the middle of the road, lost in the world he was trapped in. He was a man in the shadow. People looked at him but passed him by. No one stopped to speak to him. No one had the courage to. And I was one of them.
We were on the other side of the road. When I spotted him, I pointed him out to Joel, who quickly asked if we wanted to see if he was doing okay. Instead of saying yes, I hesitated. You see, the culture that I have been raised in paints a stereotypical image for the homeless – dirty and dangerous. As Joel prodded me for the answer, my fear gradually increased. “What if he attacked us,” a voice in my head sneered. So slowly and hesitantly, we walked away from the man in the shadow.
The silence between us as we strode home was so loud that even my attempt to chitchat was futile. We both knew what we should have done. Had this happened in New Zealand, while we were at the bible college, our response would have been much different. Somehow the strain of trying to survive and fear implanted by cultural misconception had gotten a better of me. Finally, I asked Joel, who had been quiet for a long time, “What are you thinking?” He replied, “Nothing really. Just that guy.” I looked at him and knew that he was hurting for the shadow man. So with conviction, I made up my mind. We held hands and almost ran back to the way we had come from.
With eyes like a hawk, Joel spotted him easily enough as he was making his way to the other side of the road. We followed him as quickly as we could until we saw him stop. It was in front of a closed restaurant. He was staring at the food pictures on display while his hand instinctively went over his stomach. The man was hungry, and I was afraid he would attack me earlier! Since I can speak Thai better than my husband, I had to be brave and talk to him.
“Excuse me,” I said shyly at first. The man was startled that someone noticed him.
“Are you hungry?”
He shook his head silently. Then he nodded.
“Do you want us to go get you some food? You could even come with us,” I was a bit more keen to talk now.
But that made him scared, “Um, no, um, I’m not hungry anymore.”
After a few attempts to offer with him halfheartedly trying to walk away, we decided to just go and grab him some noodle in hope that he would still be there where we left him.
We ran to the restaurant, ordered swiftly, and ran back….only to be greeted by silence and darkness. He was gone. My heart could not contain the guilt, the shame and the pain of seeing this God-sent man being so alone anymore. It was there in the shadowy street and in my tears my heart opened up to the Lord. The scripture from Matthew 25 came up to my mind, “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
This poor man with matted hair and dirty clothes was not dangerous but much-loved and highly valued by Jesus. The words from my husband and another Australian teacher, Stuart Penhall, rang loudly in my mind (and I’m paraphrasing), “It is so much easier to love and serve people like ourselves, but how many of us REALLY care about people on the margin, those who don’t seem to fit anywhere in the society?” When our comfort and safety are at stake, what is our reaction? Are we willing to dispense ourselves for the sake of the Gospel? How has God’s redemptive power transformed us and prodded us on to act righteously and administer love and mercy? The true test of our faith is not in a church or a classroom, but it is in the dark alleyway with a homeless man.
Thankfully, the story of the shadow man did not stop there. Joel insisted that we kept looking around. We asked a street vendor, looked into a shady corner, and walked the length of the street to make sure that we did not miss him. At last, when it was near our apartment, I suggested we ran past the main road one more time “just in case”. I felt despair because I realized that we probably had lost the opportunity to feed this homeless man. The noodles and water in my hand were going cold. So I prayed for God to guide us to him and to forgive me for my hesitance and fear. Then I heard Joel’s voice excitedly, “I saw him!” There he was, just like before, bare feet and tired. So I called out to him in Thai, “Pi Ka,” meaning “brother” and gave him the bag of food and water. He looked surprised, smiled and walked away. In that moment, like scales fell from my eyes, I saw him for who he truly is – a man with stories who God loves very much.
The Shadow Man’s stories are probably very different from mine. I got to come home with my husband, took a long hot shower and slept in a soft bed with air-condition whereas he was still on the street, sleeping in a dark corner somewhere. I wonder how he came to be where he was yesterday. How many more days will he have to lurk and hide? And I wonder if the gesture we showed to him would make a difference at all? If all people can do good, what makes our deeds different from any other people? Does it have to be?
Ravi Zacharias suggested that there is a sequence – redemption, righteousness and worship. When we are redeemed from the bondage of sin and death, we no longer live our lives in the same way anymore. A psalmist wrote, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14) God has given us a new standard of living – the one He deems “righteous.” To do righteously is to do what He tells us to do, including loving our neighbors as ourselves. The act that we do in obedience to God, therefore, is an act of worship. Joel and I believe that at the end God is going to restore all things, to make the world the way He intends it to be. God is in the business of restoration, and we are parts of His plan. Whether the deeds are big and small, we are individually responsible for our own vocation – to live out the Gospel as we are meant to do.