As the tenth anniversary of the Louisiana hurricanes approaches, we’re sharing stories from our book, Hearts across the Water. This week’s posts concern the aftermath of the Indonesian tsunami. I was part of a team that worked there in March 2005.
Beginning tomorrow, we’ll share stories from Katrina and Rita.
Chapter 13 : Triple Antibiotic
We spotted this man before he saw us. He wasn’t the only one digging in the ruins of houses and debris in an area south of Banda Aceh. There were many others. The smoke from numerous fires gave the air an acrid odor that burned your eyes.
The thick smoke only seemed to maximize the surreal scene of destruction in every direction.
As I neared I could see this man was working among the piles of bricks and mortar that had formerly been a house.
I believe it had once been his home.
He sat on a slab of concrete with a hammer and chisel. On each side of him was a rising pile. As he broke loose the bricks from the mortar, he would throw the whole bricks onto one pile and the broken ones into another. The broken pile was much larger. He would have a difficult time having enough to rebuild his home.
Watching the people of Aceh attempting to rebuild, I thought to myself: Where do you start? How do you start? When you’ve literally lost everything, including those closest to you, how do you begin again?
As I neared this man he looked up and gave a shy smile. I sat down beside him and began handing him small sections of brick wall. The sound of the hammer on the chisel was sharp as he broke the sections apart one by one.
Because of the language barrier and no interpreters nearby we really couldn’t communicate. But that was okay because I’m not sure what I would have said. I knew my job was just to sit there with him. Sometimes words are not needed and can only serve to hinder.
His dark eyes looked at me from time to time as we both sat there with only the clank of the chisel breaking the silence.
I had time to look at this man without appearing too nosy.
He was filthy.
He wore an old faded orange soccer shirt and some cutoff jeans. His clothes were stained with soot, sweat, grease, and who knows what else. I really believe these were the same clothes he had been wearing on December 26.
I wondered about his family.
He looked to be in his late 30’s.
Surveying the scene around us with flattened houses all around, I knew that the odds were that he had lost what family he had on the morning when the ocean came pouring in.
In every direction strips of cloth tied on sticks and pieces of lumber marked the spots where bodies had been found.
Looking at his dark sad eyes I knew he had suffered a great loss.
Then I looked as his hands.
They were rough and covered with healing sores.
His legs and feet were the same.
It was evident that he had suffered major abrasion over the visible parts of his limbs.
A small crowd came by on their way to our nearby clinic. My friend dropped his chisel and hammer on the brick pile and joined them. We walked along to the nearby house where our medical team had begun seeing patients.
When we reached the house, I felt in my pack until I found what I was looking
Deep down in the pack bottom I felt the small tube and pulled out. I remembered why I had come:
When the tsunami hit Indonesia it was just after 8 A.M. on the morning December 26. In America, it was still Christmas night as families all over our country were putting the finishing touches on a full day of eating, opening presents, and being among family.
The next day is when the first horrible pictures began to be shown on TV. Most of the early footage was from the resort areas of southern Thailand. It was amazing to see the power and destruction of this wall of water.
In the coming days we continued to see the pain and suffering of the peoples of Southern Asia.
As one missionary stated, “This is a disaster 5,000 miles long and one mile inland deep.”
Later that week I told my wife DeDe as well as my pastor, “I just feel I need to go over there and help. If all I do is rub a dab of triple antibiotic on a cut as a representative of Jesus, it would be worth the trip.”
That desire did not go away.
Even as the TV began to cover Michael Jackson, Terri Schiavo, and the deteriorating health of Pope John Paul II, this tsunami-ravaged area of the world stayed close to my heart.
I prayed that God would open the door for me if it was His will.
Then I continued a succession of pushing on some doors and each door, one by one, miraculously, swung open.
And those open doors led me to where I stood this day.
…So I stood there in Indonesia with a tube of triple antibiotic in my hand.
My new friend in front of me held out his hands as I began applying the ointment to each place of his hand.
He closed his eyes just like a cat will when being petted.
If he had starting purring, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
I spent a good deal of time rubbing on those sores, much more than what was needed. I just wanted this Indonesian man to sense and feel the compassion I’d brought from America.
I didn’t realize it then but what this man needed much more than ointment was the touch of a human.
One of our team members had snapped several pictures of our encounter.
Looking at this photo I could sense that this was a man in need of human touch. I wondered how long it had been since someone had touched him in love, hope and compassion.
Had those he loved to be touched by all disappeared when the three huge waves surged through this valley?
Did he even have a torn cloth flag to mark the spot where a body was found?
I wondered if he used that phrase with no closure. “They were lost. They are gone.”
Studying the gospels, we take note in the ministry of Jesus how many times He touched people.
The healing power of the Son of God was such that only a command or even a thought could heal.
However, usually Jesus would first touch the person.
Many times they were people who had not had a compassionate touch in a while:
a loose woman searching for this compassion in all of the wrong places.
an outcast from society and religion.
This man lifted his other hand to me and pointed out the sores.
I anointed his other hand with antibiotic and turned to start with the next patient.
But my dirty friend would not let me go yet.
He pointed down to his feet. They were a patchwork of sores and healing scabs.
It didn’t bother me one bit to get down on my knees and touch his sores.
This was why I had come . . . and if all I did was ease this man’s pain, loss, and suffering for a short period, it was worth the time, long flights and sum of money required getting to Sumatra.
It was worth the six flights and seven airports to come here.
I handed my friend the tube of triple antibiotic for him to keep.
He would need it. I pulled out another tube and begun to apply salve to an older woman.
Behind her waited several other middle-aged men.
I wonder if my Achenese friend will remember me.
We didn’t exchange names and really didn’t say a word to each other.
But I know I will never forget him.
He will be with me, in my heart, until I draw my last breath.
They say life is a long succession of snapshots that we carry with us.
Most are stored away and never return to our conscious mind, while others reemerge again and again.
The man in the dirty soccer shirt will be with me. I’ll show his picture again and again as I share about this trip.
This very story you are now reading will help him to be remembered.
Yes, I wonder if he thinks of me.
Does her ever think about me and our brief time together.
Does he remember that stranger, from America, a country he’d been told hated him, had come and touched him.
That this American . . . a follower of Isa Almarazee/Jesus the Messiah . . . came and touched him during the dark days after the tsunami.
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