It was more than 100 degrees in the room we were in. A room smaller than my living room. With no furniture save four or five cheap plastic chairs for our patients to sit in. The five of us were practically standing on top of each other. And with no electricity, no lights, and no air-conditioning, we were almost desperate to keep the mob from pressing too tightly against the two small windows that allowed a bit of light and an almost non-existent breeze to wisp through on occasion.
When we had arrived a couple of hours earlier, it had been blatantly obvious that we were going to be dealing with a loud, demanding, desperate, and vocal crowd that day. It was really no surprise when we saw armed soldiers in navy blue uniforms and black berets begin to move through the crowd, grumpily trying to keep the peace, but really creating more discontent than they were alleviating. But as Americans in the midst of a war-torn Sub-Saharan African country, we had no right to ask the soldiers to leave. We did our best to ignore them and continue our work while they continued to stir up our patients.
I tried to focus solely on my patients—there were so many of them and the need was so great. As hot as it was and as much as I was sweating, I hesitated to stop and take a drink of the hot water in the plastic bottle that I kept hidden (so my patients wouldn’t steal it) because I knew that a break for me would be one less patient that could be helped. So I ignored the heat and the thirst, calling patient after patient. Virtie and Sandra, my two partners, worked at least as feverishly as I did. But as we glanced out the window, we saw the line growing instead of shrinking. And as loud as the patients had been all morning, they were now speaking at a deafening volume. It was all we could do to hear our patients answer us as we asked questions.
I guess it was because of the noise that I never heard the gunshots, but Tommy—the American police officer traveling with us—must have heard them. I watched him jump a chair and leap over a five-foot wall to get to the commotion. When I saw Tommy start running, I glanced out the window and watched the crowd surging.
We didn’t know until later what had really happened. There had been an attempted coup of the government, downtown at the Parliament building. When that happened, a riot had broken out there. As word began to spread, the people just became hysterical. Their lives were so empty and broken already—these people who eat an average of three times a week and who subsist on dirty sugar water—most of whom had never seen a doctor and who knew that once we left, they probably never would. The people were pushing at the gates and crying out, until in a misguided attempt to calm the crowd, one of the blue-uniformed guards had begun firing shots into the air.
That was all it took for the crowd to riot. They became a human battering ram, bursting through the high, metal gate and nearly taking down a cement block wall. Tommy jumped the chair, hurdled the wall, and with the help of some of the local pastors and translators, was able to get the gate secured and the bus loaded. Instead of finishing out the day’s clinic, we slipped onto the bus and left.
But as the crowd rioted and everyone—medical team and patients alike—had rushed to the windows to see what was going on, I looked back inside and noticed a little old lady, seemingly oblivious to what was going on. She was merely sitting in one of those cheap, flimsy plastic chairs, wearing the new reading glasses we had given her, and reading her little pocket Bible. And I knew that on that day, in spite of the heat, the noise, and even the riot, she was why we were there.
Katie says, “Stop and love the ones right in front of [you] and trust Him with the rest.”
That cacophonous day in Congo, we wanted to help so many people and we drove away crying about the ones we couldn’t help. But on that day, one little woman’s life was changed.
In high school, I had a young friend named Daniel. One day, while I was flirting with a cute boy in my car at school, Daniel came up and interrupted. He seemed upset and asked to talk, but I was too involved with my cute boy and was too wrapped up in myself, so I sent Daniel away. And when they found his body in the river several days later, I would have given anything in the world to have been able to rewind time. To put my arms around Daniel and say, “Whatever you need, I’m here.”
We may not be able to change the entire world. But we can love the one right in front of us. And to that one, it might mean the world.
This post is part of a weekly discussion that my friend, Jason Stasyszen and I are having about the memoir, Kisses from Katie. Feel free to stick around and chat, whether you’ve read or not! If you’ve written a response to this week’s chapter, however, you can find a widget over at Jason’s place to link it up. And say Hi while you’re over there, okay? Thanks for coming by!