The heat of Cairo in the summer can be unforgiving. When added to the smells in the garbage village, zeal melts into lethargy. I remember climbing the hill inside this garbage-collectors community to the Coptic Christian monastery where we lived with a team of American college students. Just in front of me, a single donkey suffered under an impossible load of refuse, struggling to reach the crest of the only paved road in the community. Unkempt hooves curled upward, patches of fur were missing from the beast.It slipped and fell to its front knees once or twice, as I followed with my daughter Hannah, she was twelve at the time. Atop the cart piled with garbage, the donkey-cart driver urged the animal forward under the motivation of a whip. Hannah looked at me with pleading eyes as the tormented donkey struggled up the hill. As much as I felt sorry for myself, panting up the hill in 110 degree heat, I began to have compassion for the donkey. Why? I wondered. What could I do anyway? I cannot relieve the donkey's plight any more than I can relieve my own misery climbing this insufferable hill.
Step by sweaty step, we press on. My conscience and my daughter continue to trouble me. Finally I give in to my unreasonable instinct. Without a glance backward from the donkey-cart driver (nor, do I guess, much noticeable relief for the donkey), I shoulder the back of the garbage cart and begin to push. What good is it, I wonder, to add to my suffering only to give some inconsequential relief to this creature without even the benefit of the owner's thanks? Still I keep pushing the stinking cart of rubbish up the hill until we reach the summit.
At the top, Hannah and I turn right toward the monastery, and the donkey and his driver turn left down a rubbish-strewn dirt road. There, sitting in his usual perch outside the butcher shop, is Romany. He's waiting for enough business to justify another pig slaughter. Every day we step through the blood and entrails that flow down in little rivulets from the hill outside Romany's shop. Romany is among those residents of the Zabbaleen, Egyptian Arabic for "Garbage People," who hold to the ancient Coptic Christian faith, delivered to Egypt, or so it is thought, from the Gospel-writer Mark in the first century. Romany had been a good friend to me and our team since our arrival in the garbage village.
As I passed, Romany said three words to me which I have never forgotten. Indeed, what he said to me has changed my life.
He said, quite matter-of-factly, "God saw that."
"God saw that." Those words have reverberated through my soul over these more than ten years since. I was not aware of Romany's watchful eye from his post atop the hill. As far as I was concerned, there was no one whose favor I would curry by pushing that blessed wagon of garbage, except perhaps my daughter, whose consideration of her father would, regardless of my service that day, fluctuate up and down through the teenage years. Romany wanted to remind me that to serve the suffering, the marginalized, the invisible, even beasts of burden, counts for something in God's kingdom. There was something about watching an American man trying to relieve the load of a Middle Eastern, garbage-toting donkey that must have struck Romany. Perhaps he knew Exodus 23:5, a verse I was unaware of until coming upon it this week:
"If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help" (NLT).
Romany's encouragement has inspired me. I want to be like him, acknowledging and spurring on those whose act of folly in the eyes of the world is an act of heroism in the eyes of the kingdom.