This is something that happened to me a few years ago, but I was reminded of it today when I read Swarupa’s post, To help or not to help: that is the question.
If you have read my post about hiking various islands by myself, you probably know that I like to get out in the middle of nowhere by myself. Call me a lone wolf.
A few years ago, I took a trip to a small island near here called Wido. My plan was to camp without a tent: using only a sleeping bag and mosquito netting, because why not? I hiked to the end of the island and found a great place on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.
Of course, the most glaring drawback of mosquito netting is that it doesn’t do much in the rain. The weather that day had been absolutely perfect, overcast and cool but not rainy. However, as I lay down under my mosquito netting I saw the first flash of lightning off in the distance. I watched it far out over the water, silent because of the distance, and prayed it would turn aside.
Nevertheless, I got ready to move if I had to. I didn’t have anywhere else to go but if it rains hard when you under mosquito netting, anywhere is better than staying there. Sure enough, 20 minutes or so later, it started to pour. I packed everything up in the dark with just a glowstick for light and stumbled up the steep, thornbush-covered slope clutching the glowstick, an umbrella and the wet bundle of my ground pad and mosquito netting.
I made it back to the main road and decided to keep walking up the road in the direction I had planned to go the next morning, in hope of finding a gazebo (which were common enough there) I could shelter in. I started out but soon it really started to pour, with strong winds blowing towards me. My umbrella was old but even so, no umbrella is any good against sideways rain. I was completely soaked, my boots were squashy and my umbrella kept turning inside out. It was late at night and now I knew that I couldn’t stay in a gazebo even if I found one since it would be soaked too. I walked with my head down, splashing through the puddles and just keeping my eyes on the white line at the side of the road. I wasn’t unhappy; I’d wanted an adventure and you can’t get much more adventuresome that that, but still, I was tired and ready for somewhere dry to lie down.
After about 20 minutes, I saw a sign for a motel and turned off. As soon as I reached the sign, the rain stopped suddenly and completely. Divine sign or coincidence, I don’t know. It turned out that the motel was out of business but as I was standing there, a woman came out and told me she had a room where I could stay in her pension (which is like a motel). It was 50,000 won a night (about $50) but she said she’d give it to me for 40,000. As I was fumbling for my wallet, I said I wasn’t sure if I had enough and she assured me she would let me stay in any case. Setting aside ferry fee, I had 30,000 on me. So she took that and let me in.
I must have looked like a real charity case, as I stood there dripping wet. She immediately took my sopping boots to the sink and then led me to the bathroom and gave me some towels to clean up with. I stood in the bathroom while she bustled around cleaning up the room. As we chatted, I found out she was a Christian (actually she asked me) and that she had an adult son in New Zealand and a daughter in Seoul. Also, she was concerned because I was alone (“Don’t you have any friends?”). Koreans never do anything like that alone.
Before she left, I told her that I would come back some time and pay back the money I owed her. She brushed off the offer and said something I will never forget: 자비 있어요? (jabi isseoyo?) This can mean ‘Is there mercy (in the world)?’ but it can also mean ‘Do you have mercy?’ I said yes, of course, and she soon left. I said good-bye to her the next day and continued my trek back along the coast to the ferry (absolutely beautiful weather that day).
* * *
A few weeks later, I was sitting at a bus stop when a very old woman sat down next to me. After a few minutes, she moved over next to me, tapped me on the knee and said something. Older Koreans often have a strong accent and I didn’t understand, although when elderly people talk to me they either want to ask me where I’m from, tell me about Jesus, or ask for money. It was pretty clearly not the first two and soon she said held out her hand and said she was hungry.
I said what I always say when they ask for money and asked her if she didn’t have a family that could take care of her. She didn’t answer but kept asking for just a bit of money. I finally decided to give her a few dollars, but when I opened up my wallet I only had a 1000 and a 10,000 won bill. It seemed almost an insult to give her the 1000 since you can’t really buy much with that, so I just gave her the 10,000. Her face broke into a wide grin and she patted my hand and said she was going to go get something to eat right away. She got up and began to make her slow, hobbling way down the street.
As I watched her go, I suddenly realized that that 10,000 won was the exact amount the woman on Wido had forgiven me when I didn’t have it. I could hear her words again in my head, “Do you have mercy?” I thought of myself, standing dripping wet on her doorstep late at night and Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” and the words, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” I also realized that my debt of mercy was far from being repaid. I have many more 10,000 won notes to give away, in different shapes and sizes, some in monetary form, some not.
I hope I never forget that woman’s words: “Do you have mercy?”