We stepped off a marine repair dock along an Amazon tributary and moved to the shade on the first landing of the steep stairs leading to the street far above. Julio, Marcos and I were talking to the owners of a speedboat that we were in the process of buying. The discussion took ten or fifteen minutes, and during this time I saw a young man sitting on the next landing above me. At first I didn't notice anything about him that was unusual, but as I watched I noticed his repeated swaying, his head hanging low and an awkward touching of his cheek and right eye. My first conclusion was that he was drunk and had just found a shady place to sleep it off.
Our negotiations were successful. We came to a final agreement on the boat and all turned to climb one of three stairways leading away from the water. Marcos and I went on the side of the railing that put us face to face with the stranger on the stairs. A tattered shirt hung around his neck and as we got closer he pulled it over his head like a bonnet. When I got within a few steps of him I saw the blood on his leg, his skinned forearm and the swollen bruise on his exposed shoulder. I stopped and asked him in Spanish what was wrong but he didn't answer. Marcos said that he might be drunk and it looked to me like his injuries were fresh so I lifted the shirt off of his head and asked again.
I was standing a few steps below him so when he looked up we were face to face even though he was sitting down. His face looked like a boxer that had experienced a decisive loss in the ring. He had a huge swollen cheek bone, a cut below his eye, an upper lip bruised and bleeding and eyes were glassy and vacant.
It was then that we heard the story. This twenty four year old father of two had gone to the docks early that morning to earn money for his family’s breakfast. They would eat their first meal of the day when he returned home. He had worked for three years hauling heavy loads of merchandise from ship to shore. It was a good day because a large produce boat needed workers to carry it's cargo up to the street level markets. This meant food for his family and one more day of survival. He had accepted the terms of his labor and harnessed the first load of produce to his back using a web strap that is the tool of his trade. The wooden crate that he carried was 200 pounds and exceeded his own body weight by over 50 pounds.
Part way down the ramp his feet slipped and without time to catch his balance he was head first off the ramp with 200 pounds of weight crushing him into the ground face first. The fall stunned him and his first memory was of other dock workers laughing at his misfortune. The lady that hired him was angry because of the damage to her produce and while this young man lay on the ground bleeding She threw him 35 cents and said, “This is all you get since you didn't finish your work.”
He had been sitting on the steps for several hours. The ice that he bought with the 35 cents had long since melted and the throbbing cheek bone continued to swell. His family was unaware of his plight and only wondered why he hadn't returned home with their breakfast. With no money and racked with pain from head to toe, walking the long distance home was not an option and continuing the work was impossible.
I asked if he wanted to come with us to receive some medical attention and with no hesitation he tried to stand. Marcos and I helped him the rest of the way up the stairs and had to assist him while he climbed into the motor car. Marcos has a gentle nature and is very soft spoken and sensitive. He began to tell who we were, where we were taking him and the nature of the work we did in the Iquitos area. He asked many questions of this new friend and set him at ease. During the ride to our headquarters, through bloody lips and watery, squinting eyes, this young man said at least six times, “This is like a dream.” At first I thought he meant because he had taken a sever blow to the head but as he expounded each time, he meant because someone had stopped to help. He said that many people had walked by and looked at him while on the steps but nobody had offered any assistance. “This is like a dream; I can't believe someone would help me.”
When we walked through doors of the headquarters, Rachel and Camila jumped up from the table and scrambled for medical supplies. We took him into the porch area where the light was good and within a few minutes Camila was cleaning wounds and administering pain medication. He kept repeating “This is like a dream.”
When the doctoring was done we fed him a large meal from the lunch buffet and the kitchen ladies bagged up some groceries to take home to his family. I gave him more then a days wage and we helped him out to a motor car taxi.
The headquarters fell silent while we walked him outside. People stopped what they were doing and the compassion was evident on every face. I am not sure what everyone else was thinking but my own thoughts crushed me to the ground like 200 pounds of produce. I remember the day when I was that man sitting alone broken, on the stairway of my life. I was ashamed of the condition I was in and did what I could to cover my face with the ragged garments of my own effort. My best efforts had left me bruised and bleeding with the occasional inquiry of the passerby and no real hope for the future.
Then I too, looked into the face of one who wanted to help and all I could fathom was that this must be a dream. Why would the God of heaven interrupt the affairs of the universe to stoop low and lift me up from the hopeless condition that crushed me?
There is something mysterious about being helpless to help yourself. It is in that moment when one realizes that our arrogance and false pride is what has often kept us from having our deepest wounds cleaned and bound by a healer with extraordinary powers. A physician that can do miracles on wounded hearts, broken spirits and lifeless relationships.
The fear that haunts me since that day is that in my frantic traversing of life's stairway I will forget the awe and wonder of being lifted up in my brokenness. But every time I pause long enough, I am overwhelmed with the unfathomable thought that the compassion that I received was not a dream.