The first rule of urban survival is simple: Never make eye contact with a beggar. Eye contact is the contract of emotional obligation. Beggars understand that although ugly scars and hungry bellies may prompt pity, it's the eyes that seal the handout. Pupils mean possibilities.
I've encountered beggars before. But the one I met while traveling through Calcutta, India, decided to follow me home. My conscience ended up adopting her.
Our brief moment of visual intimacy came near the end of a grueling week of personal ministry, during which I preached 19 sermons in eight days. Jet lag was yanking on my eyelids like puppet strings. The smell of curry--apparently India's national fragrance--was permanently wallpapered to my sinuses. I had spent my final night in a barren hotel room like a yo-yo, going up and down with dysentery. I was exhausted.
The last thing scribbled on my to-do list before heading home was to shop for a handful of Third World trinkets for my kids. I was informed the best bartering hole was near the heart of the city. But I was clearly warned: "It's infested with dying beggars."
Because I was short on time, I was not allowed the joy of a lazy stroll through the hazy maze of downtown madness. So I flagged a rickshaw, jumped aboard and began calculating Calcutta's currency rates.
My rickshaw captain was a tourist attraction all by himself. His naked feet were tougher than an alligator's back. His lungs had the stamina of a desert cactus. He had no discernible muscles or tendons.
I watched the smallish sun-baked figure of sinew and skin trot through smog as thick as winter fog and hustle his way through humidity equal to a steam sauna set on high. Yet, for all of his relentless exercising, his body still looked like a deflated balloon.
I realize it's difficult to accept the portrait of a 12- or 13-year-old girl begging. After all, in the United States, teen-age girls are known for posters, cheerleading camps and braces--not begging.
These, however, were not the descriptions of the junior-higher who was about to take residence in my soul. She had been abandoned and was homeless. She wore rags for clothing and was infested with lice. She was deformed and had no legs from the knees down. It is horrible to say, but I actually heard her before I saw her.
When I turned toward the noise just outside the souvenir shop, all my reasoning suddenly left me. After seven days in a flesh-reeking habitat, I was beaten into a heap of emotional pulp. This decimated young girl, now next to me, was dragging herself along with her right arm while using her left hand to reach against my side.
Amazingly, she was traveling as fast as a grown man's casual stride. But unlike a grown man's feet, her stubs had no covering. Kneecaps were her only shoes. Her legs were nothing but sawed-off stilts. It was ghastly. She was serving a life sentence of grotesque anguish without hope of clemency.
Only Satan could delight in such deformity. Only the love of God could embrace it. To the onlooker, she was a severe handicap to be rejected. But to the Father, she was an act of sovereign handiwork to be ransomed.
I couldn't help but think of my own 11-year-old daughter. My mind journeyed through the many novelties of adolescent femininity that decorate her world. I thought about her bedroom back home with the matching curtains and comforter.
I thought of the framed photo on the nightstand next to the pillow where she lays her head. It holds a picture of her hero: me. My daughter lives the life of Cinderella, but without the midnight deadlines.
All week the local missionaries had schooled us in the appropriate "No!" policy for beggars. But suddenly, I couldn't care less. Policies were made to be broken. Call me a stupid foreigner, but I handed this little girl my pocket change as if awarding her a first-place trophy. She was so desperate my mouth went dry. She rattled away. Calcutta was worse than they had told me.
Whether you ask for it or not, the presence of ill fortune is the pan in God's kingdom that separates the gold from the gravel, the gratitude from the gluttony, the authentic from the plastic. Like Peter and John in Acts 3, sometimes it takes an ugly scene at a Beautiful gate to awaken the man of God to the kind of world Jesus sees every day.
My final conclusion about Calcutta, India? It's paradise compared to an eternity without Christ. Calcutta has water. Hell won't. Calcutta has a sunrise. Hell won't. Calcutta has an airport. Hell won't. Scott Hagan is senior pastor of Harvest Church in Elk Grove, California, which he and his wife, Karen, planted 10 years ago. They have four children.
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