When I was in early high school, my dad and I wanted to make a SCUBA dive on a shipwreck off the coast of Venezuela. My parents were missionaries, the kind of loving and gentle people who give missionaries a good name. It was during Semana Santa, Easter week, the time when everyone who could spent the week camping on the wonderful Caribbean shores of Venezuela. By the time we arrived at the beach community, all the boats were already chartered.
Someone happened to remember an old fisherman who had a boat. We found our way to his hovel, a rickety shack built on stilts over a muddy swamp. To get to his house we had to walk along a precarious wooden dock which woozily swayed under each step, threatening to hurl us into the muck below.
The dancing dock announced our approach long before our need to knock on the door of the hut. The old fisherman came out to meet us. For me, growing up in Venezuela, unpleasant sights were not rare. The fisherman that emerged from his hovel was one more of those unpleasant sights. Ragged dirty clothes clung to him. Long tangled greasy hair hung along both sides of his head. The worst part was his skin. Some disease had ravaged his skin leaving it discolored, torn and scabby. Growing up in Sunday School and hearing all the Bible stories had given me an idea of what leprosy must look like, and this man fit my vision of that dread disease.
My dad and the fisherman talked for a few minutes and then agreed on the price to charter the boat for the day. My dad then held out his hand. The fisherman paused, looked at my dad and then slowly extended his own hand. As their hands met and for those few seconds that their hands were held, I looked at the disfigured face before me and saw in those eyes a sight I will never forget should I live a million years. For the first time in what must have seemed like a miserable eternity to the old man, somebody touched him. He felt skin other than his own rotting exterior. I can only describe what I saw in the old man´s eyes as a kaleidoscope of emotions – delight, joy, sorrow, yearning, desperation, unresolved grief. No one had touched that man for years as he dwelt alone, in isolation, in his lonely shack above the putrid backwater of the swamp in a cruel, involuntary social distancing caused by universal rejection. Yet my dad touched him. My dad, a man who loved Jesus and who loved the people Jesus loved, demonstrated the very thing Jesus would have done had he been standing with us on the rickety dock. That emotion-filled fisherman must have wondered who was touching him: a man named Elton or Jesus. Maybe it was Jesus touching the man through the hand of a man named Elton.
Did my dad take a foolish risk? I don´t know that he even thought about it. In my dad´s desire to live like Jesus he simply did what came naturally to him. Was my dad wrong in touching that untouchable man? Should he have stayed six feet away and breathed through a mask?
That question will never be answered, nor should it be. Human suffering and our reaction to it should never be relegated to a simple yes or no calculation. People are far more than just the purposeless accumulation in one place of a hundred billion random evolutionary accidents. Each person is just that, a person, a unique individual with hopes, dreams and fears needing to be dealt with individually.
What I can say with certainty is that the three-second handshake on the dock 50 years ago changed my life. That act of selfless love helped set the course for the life I am now living. Those three seconds gave joy, however fleeting, to the fisherman and gifted him with a memory he took to the grave; and they gave me a way of life to pursue. I was very proud of my dad. I hope I can be like him.
So, here we are in 2020. We may not have people with leprosy-like conditions coming to our doors; but do the poor and hurting in front of my house here in a poor fishing neighborhood in Mexico have COVID-19? How do I respond to their need? Is my health more important than their hunger? Do my comfort and security trump their fears? Do I learn how to meet their needs without violating safe social distancing practices? Do I lock myself away with my food and drink and spend the next month doing social distancing while playing on the internet in my air-conditioned office?
Because of my ocean-based lifestyle and work, because I was raised in Venezuela, because of good health in the past and good health now, I may have a greater risk tolerance than some. My good health could change in a second, even before I finish wri………. (Ha, it didn´t). Because of my belief in the escalating reconciliation of all things* and because of my hope for a wonderful future, I am not panicked by the current reality.
We are all in this together, so for the sake of unity, let’s be sure to respect each other´s actions. Those of us who are less risk adverse must not flaunt our freedom. For the sake of others we must do what we can to protect them by exercising appropriate social distancing and by taking protective measures seriously. We must comply with the dictated instructions given to us by our authorities even if we view them as a bit exaggerated. Those who feel they must follow strict protection protocols must be tolerant of those of us who seem a bit more relaxed if what we are doing is for the purpose of serving others. If my handing out of survival packs of food to the poor people in my neighborhood makes you uncomfortable, I will in no way whatsoever be hurt if you ask me to keep my distance from you till this crisis is over. I will be more than happy to respect your concerns. I fully understand your concerns and your desire to protect not just yourself but also those around you including me, and I sincerely thank you for your concern. Your attitude is truly honorable.
Now to answer the big questions: No, my dad did not get sick and the diving that day was superb.
* Colossians 1:15-20 New International Version of the Bible (The underlining is mine. This passage from the Bible is why I am not discouraged.)
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.