This story is from our team in Jakarta. It’s a powerful reminder of the realities of living in a slum–where injustice, life, and death, all come so closely together. (All names have been changed for security reasons).
The phone rang. It was Amy at the hospital. “How far do we go before we let someone die?” she asked in anguish.
Surrendering in the face of death is not something we’re accustomed to. It’s even harder when it’s a friend. Amy was buying ice when she discovered Ibu Yanti was bleeding and fainting, clearly anaemic. (It turns out she’d had heavy bleeding for the last three months). She called Yani and they drove her to the public hospital and paid up front for the registration. Our country is making fantastic progress on public health insurance, but it comes with a bureaucracy too mystifying for our neighbours.
The woman’s husband is a powerful boss in our slum community, sometimes intimidating even to us. But put him in the halls of an institution and he shrivels away: a man with bare feet, who can’t read and uses a thumb print as a signature. And there he learns that his wife has very advanced cervical cancer, which can only be properly assessed at Jakarta’s huge central public hospital. The doctor says there’s nothing to be done here, and he should just arrange his public health insurance and then take her there.
The man is crushed. The family can barely pay for meals, let alone travel across the city. Furthermore, to access public care he would need to obtain at least four other official documents, navigating government forms and officials both in his home village and at his current address (not-legally-recognised).
Meanwhile his wife is covered in foul blood and going into hypovolemic shock (a life threatening medical emergency caused by excessive blood loss), with no privacy and nobody offering help. Amy is barely able to contain her rage and she eventually shamed the staff into finding a ward bed and start steps to a blood transfusion (which first entails walking 200 metres down the road to the pharmacy to buy all the Intravenous equipment), to at least keep her alive another day and to ease her suffering.
The doctor asks her, “Why would you leave a comfortable country like New Zealand to live with rubbish pickers here?” Four medical students, a nurse and several patients stop to hear her answer. “We are followers of the Prophet Jesus Messiah, who was always with the poor and struggling. We want to do the same”. It’s our standard answer, and somehow it made more sense on this occasion, in front of the chin-stroking, head-nodding elite: a stunned appreciation in which the powers were shamed and the lowly raised up.
We paid for three blood transfusions and an overnight stay, before, like her family, we surrendered to reality. This decision was easy for her family. But for us, who actually do have the power to find funding for her radio- and chemo-therapy if we so choose (however unlikely it is to cure), the ethical dilemma weighs heavy. How much should we pay, and for whom, when so many of our neighbours have struggles like this? The family signed documents to discharge against medical advice, prohibiting them from ever returning.
At home in her slum shack, she bravely endured the loneliness, the shame, and the pain for the next six months. We visited as often as we can: to pray, to sit, to share a story. We printed Psalm 23 and she put it under her pillow. Yani led her in prayers to Jesus. We brought paracetamol, and when she could no longer eat, flavoured milk. Small gestures, that cried out “you matter! you are loved! you are not forsaken!” God finally took her from her suffering, and her family grind on, piecing their lives together again. Is this a story of transformation? Did she or her family find intimacy with God? Of course we can’t answer that for them. But how can anyone know the love of Jesus unless they experience it through another person? They can’t know. We, the body of Christ, strive to embody God’s love, and we pray that by our presence, our neighbours find it easier to glimpse something of Jesus’ love for them.