A group of people from my church had already gathered when I arrived. The small crowd enabled me to identify the house in the New Village easily. I was appalled at its condition. I had seen many poultry sheds and pigsties which were better constructed than the house. Yet it had been her shelter during the last 30 of her 70 years in this world. The shiny new casket which the church had bought for her seemed a big contrast to the shelter she had occupied while alive. Would she have thought it a luxury if she was to come back to life?
I joined the others to pay my last respects. But I felt like a hypocrite, going through an exercise in futility. Pay my last respects? If I had shown some concern for her while she was alive, that would have been showing respect.
Soon, the pastor arrived to conduct the service. I couldn’t concentrate on the opening hymn. As I stared at the song sheet, my mind dwelt on the details of the story narrated to me the day before. The deacons had had a hard time getting her death certificate because they could find nothing to prove she had existed. She left no identity card, birth certificate or any other document. She died penniless and “paperless”. They had searched her house for some form of identification papers only to find the stink of urine and faeces emanating from her death bed. Apparently, she had been sick for some time—so sick that she had been unable to care for herself. No one sent her to a doctor or got a doctor to make a house call. Her windowless room was full of cobwebs. The mosquito net over her bed was torn and tattered.
“Where were her family members?” I had asked the narrator in anger. “Why didn’t they show any filial piety, not to mention love?”
“Well, her only son happens to be mentally unstable. Her only daughter is married and hardly comes to see her. This daughter didn’t attend her father’s funeral either. Her only grandson is illiterate and has to eke out a living somewhere.”
Evidently, she had needed help. I was ashamed. Until a few months ago, she had been faithfully attending church services.
“If I had known of her plight…”
“What would you have done? Taken her into your home? Sent her to hospital? Or the old folks’ home?”
I couldn’t say for sure.
The pastor began to preach. I heard the Lord’s words being quoted. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
“Yes, I believe you’re the Christ,” my heart responded. “You were her only hope. People, even her loved ones, had failed her. You have taken her to be with you so that she might cease to suffer.”
I couldn’t follow the message any more. My mind dwelt on another incident. Somebody had told her one day that the Social Welfare Department was having a special distribution of food to the needy. She had taken a bus and gone all the way, alone, to Kuala Lumpur, 25km away. While trying to cross Pudu Road she had panicked at the sight of ceaseless traffic. And she fell. There was a screeching of tyres. Fortunately, she wasn’t run over by any vehicle. A kind passerby helped her to her destination. She came back limping, clutch-ing the two kilograms of rice she had received.
“What a lot of trouble to go to for so little,” I had said.
“It might mean a lot to her.”
“What has the church done?”
“Well, she was one of those who received an angpow of RM20 every Chinese New Year. The Oversight didn’t know of her need.”
“What a pity. If I had known…”
“How come you didn’t know?”
I was silent. It was a question that caused remorse. I tried to search for the answer. But my thoughts were interrupted by the pastor calling everybody to get into their cars and the van. Everyone watched in silence as the casket was carried to the hearse.
Her last journey had begun. As I stared at the hearse moving in front of me, another incident went through my mind. She had been left alone for so long that her solitude was soon noticed by a group of drug addicts, who gathered regularly in her kitchen for their fix. She was helpless. All she could do was to beg them to go away. But they could find no better place and remained.
She must have been nostalgic that day. Staring at the sky, she had put her hand under her much-patched, black samfu. Out came a small gold ring which she caressed with her fingers. Memories of old must have flooded back. Her reverie was soon cruelly broken. One of the drug addicts had observed her. The next thing she knew, numerous hands were all over her shrivelled and bony body, searching for inside pockets and hidden gems. She had almost died of the rude shock. When she recovered, her gold ring and earrings, both the only sentimental items left from her wedding, were gone. All those years, she had held on to them, no matter how needy she had been.
“Nobody called the police?” I asked.
“Well, nobody wanted to get involved.”
“If I had known…”
“What would you have done? Reported it to the police? Persuaded the addicts to go to a drug rehabilitation centre? Called the Malaysian Christian Association for Relief? Told them about Jesus?”
I could not say with certainty. The hearse arrived at the cemetery. Led by the pastor, the group sang,
There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar,
For the Father waits over the way,
To prepare us a dwelling place there.
In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore…
Then the casket was lowered into the grave. As I threw in a clod of earth, tears blurred my vision. No, they were not tears of compassion. Neither was I weeping for the loss of a loved one. It was the words of the Lord that rent my heart as they flashed through my mind.
“I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
“Who? Me? I couldn’t have treated you in such a manner! Didn’t I teach Sunday School? Worked on the YF Committee? Didn’t I help organise the church camp? Wasn’t I absent only a few times from Sunday service? Didn’t I start the church library? Didn’t I do all this for you?”
“Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
I wept because I had been a hypocrite. I had failed my Lord!
Written by Hwee Keng Ong
Hwee Keng Ong is a lay leader in his church in Serdang, Malaysia. He is also on the management team of World Outreach Malaysia, being responsible for media and publication. He and his wife Helen recently completed the intensive WOI missions Nations Course in South Africa. They are active in reaching out to migrants and also facilitate the missions Kairos course in Malaysia.
This story is from his book An Ordinary Man’s stories. In the foreword Rev Loh Soon Choy writes: “A spiritual person does not write to satisfy his ego. He writes out of a passion to glorify God and to bless others— or as a form of extended prayer or dialogue with God and himself. Hwee Keng’s stories are the product of much struggle and some pain—like that of a woman in labour. They deal with real-life situations and come from his inner-most being as he goes about his everyday life. These stories include reflections as he indulges in his favourite bak kut teh, as he travels for work-related conferences or on holiday, as he interacts with people at work and in church, as he struggles with personal issues of faith and prayer, stewardship of money and giving, envy and contentment, love and compassion, guilt and self-acceptance, bigotry and forgiveness, justice and racism, the environment and a simple lifestyle, and even as he sleeps and dreams.”
Hwee Keng says, “I dedicate these stories to our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave me an abundant life despite my ordinariness.”
Isn’t that true? – God can do extraordinary things through ordinary people who trust in Him.