Visiting the home of a devout Catholic family in Africa, I turned a corner in the courtyard and was startled to see a young man seated and chained under a tree. Why would they be so cruel to do this to their own son? I thought. Though shackled, he was dressed and clean. A closer look explained it all: he was mentally deranged.
In stark contrast, many half-naked disoriented people strolled down mainstreet, in filthy tatters, their long hair matted. It probably had not been combed for years. Others, some men, some women, walked the streets totally naked, crazed and avoided by passers-by. Most carried a begging bowl and made their rounds to various homes in search of food.
It was, of course, disturbing to witness these poor creatures roaming the streets. What to do? I chided myself for not inviting them into my home, as I would other African friends. “No,” a local pastor told me, “that’s not what they want. They want a bit of food, not your company with a cup of tea.” But I thought of Mother Teresa, taking care of the poorest of the poor. I thought of Jesus’ words “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
When strangers move into any neighborhood, most people observe them from afar before befriending them. This was our initial experience in Africa where my husband Neal and I worked for over twenty years. However, others came running to visit us. These people are many times the outcasts of the community. African social security is based on a complex web of friendships. Since there isn’t a lot of wealth to spread around, people seek out friends that are “upline” from them, ones who can extricate them from future jams. No matter how poor we saw ourselves, we were far richer than the average African.
Along with African pastors, priests and the very rich, we were prime targets for these “telemarketers.” They often appeared at meal time, bowl in hand. Because they were so persistent and so regular in their visits, we got to know them well. One lady, in spite of her dirty body, wild hair, and scrappy clothes, acted as coquettishly as a young débutante. She liked chatting with me and was thankful for any leftovers. Hungry people are not fussy eaters. Another haggard old woman camped under a tree at the Catholic mission. Because the priests and nuns did not know her name, they fondly called her “Our Lady of the Baobab.”
Our first encounter with “Soldier” came the day we returned from a near-by town with our newborn Benjamin. We drove through town hoping to wave to everyone, holding up our little bundle, but strangely, that day the streets were desolate. We parked in front of our house, got out of the car, and met a tall young man in army fatigues waiting to take the baby into his arms. It was only when I scrutinized him that I saw he was not normal. I quietly begged Neal to get our baby back, trying not excite the guy in the process. He yielded up our little one and continued on his way, stopping to write esoteric messages in chalk on our garage wall.
Jesus identified with so many kinds of people, even with the mentally ill. Surely, as G.K. Chesterton said, “no modern critic in his five wits thinks that the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was a horrible half-witted imbecile that might be scrawling stars on the walls of a cell.” But Jesus did endure the taunts and sometimes the treatment of the mentally ill. In Mark 3:21 we read: “When his family heard about this (the gathering crowds keeping him and his disciples from even eating), they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”
Another regular visitor to our home was a boy who began coming to our door around the age of thirteen, still fairly sane. I called him “Businessman” for he walked briskly around town, shoulders back, begging bowl under his arm, like a man on his way to close a contract. As the years went by, he became increasingly deranged. He started coming several times a day, which got annoying. We decided to offer him a few francs each morning to buy some hot cereal for his breakfast from the street vendors. It took several days before he understood that if he came at any other time, he would get nothing. According to our African pastor, we were doing the right thing. Everyone in town is expected to do a little for these people—every few days. We were not expected to support someone full time.
For some reason this pitiful young man often was cut and bleeding. I tried several times to clean and bandage his wounds. He was willing to have me do this. But later in the day, I would see he had ripped it all off in a fit. He did the same with the clothes we gave him and the new begging bowl. Most efforts to improve the lot of these people were frustrated. This was probably the reason their families gave up and loosed them.
By the time this young man was about eighteen years old, he had abandoned all clothing. However, he still kept coming to my door, stark naked in all his manly glory! Thank goodness, there was a screen door to separate us! I told Neal this was getting to be too much. Neal told him not to ever come again to our house without a covering. He persisted the next day, returning nude. I called Neal who reminded him of the conditions. When the boy would not budge, Neal chased him off the property and gave him a friendly boot in the invisible pants for good measure. The young man never visited again without first finding some scrap of cloth on the road to cover himself! He took to sitting under a kapok tree in the town center, along with a motley bunch of other pitiful souls. One day, our son Daniel returned from a walk and told us Businessman was dead, lying in the dirt for all to see.
The apostle Paul, who preached Jesus message, was also accused of being deranged. Acts 26:24 says “At this point Festus (the Roman procurator of Judea) interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” His zeal in reaching all mankind with the gospel made others tap their foreheads. In response, he said in 2 Corinthians 5:13: “If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.”
The mentally ill folks we knew in Africa suffered terribly from an affliction they did not choose. They became unwilling outcasts, rejected by the mainstream. Jesus said in John 15:20: “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Some of the heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11 went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated. When we get excited about God and His Word, we can expect some people to reject us too. “You left a computer job at $80,000 a year to go preach to the poor in Africa?” “You sold your beautiful home and dragged your four kids over to the Philippines to live in a jungle village and learn a native language?” “You went all the way through medical school just to go work in some poverty-stricken no man’s land? You’ve got to be crazy! Are you out of your mind?”
Yes, some of us are “crackpots,” jars of clay, but — cracks allow God’s light and power to shine through. II Corinthians 4:7 says: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Some of us are rejected by family and regarded as strange. We understand the pain of the outcasts of the societies in which we live. Choosing to follow the Master, we must be willing to accept rejection for the sake of God and His kingdom.