Excerpt from The Memories I Made Up by David Joannes

The Beggar 

I have to describe my memories with words, inadequate as I know they are.

I’m sure you know the feeling too. We see the mental picture that we are attempting to explain as clear as it was then. The colors. The smells. The sensations. They are all there. And in our mind’s eye their descriptions are vivid and precise, the frames and sequences perfectly defined.

We are eloquent in the recollection of our memories.

But whenever we try to describe the memory to another person, the words seem dull and vague. They pass through the filter of our vocabulary until the bulk of their substance disappears, leaving us unsatisfied at the portrait we have painted for our listener.

Here is a memory that I have experienced in full color, but will describe in black and white.

It is nearing winter now. The air is chilled, and the partially leafy trees quiver in the breeze. Careless shoes tread over scattered leaves fallen in Jinri Park.

A seven year old beggar girl is pressing her rusty tin can into my belly. She is wearing tattered, dark-blue pants, obviously handed down from another sibling, and a holey pink shirt with tiny red roses embroidered on the neck. She is barefoot, and only has a stub for her left arm. Crusty dirt is smeared on her cheeks. She looks up at me with dejected eyes, hollow little eyes that look like they are ready to burst with tears.

“Uncle,” she pleads, “Uncle, give me some money.”

There is thirty-seven cents in her rusty white tin can, so in my empathy, I plop a quarter inside.

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“Thank you, Uncle.” But she doesn’t smile. I notice the wide seems in the gray sidewalk that has no ending. I notice all the passing black pointy-toed shoes.

As I am walking away, I glance back at her. She stands in the busy park while rich businessmen in pinstriped suits pass by, their gaudy outfitted wives on their arms. She stands in a blurry contrast of shifting gray hues with dirty wind burnt cheeks.

“Don’t give the beggar kids any money,” a missionary once told me. “Their parents are just using them. They don’t get any of the money anyway. I’m sure their father is sneaking around the corner somewhere right now, making sure their kid brings home enough money for whatever addiction he has. Let the Chinese take care of their own.”

“Go get a job,” another guy with blonde hair tells a beggar.

I know, I know: Give them a fish, feed them for a day. Teach them how to fish, feed them for a lifetime.

The point is: she’s just a little girl with dark-blue tattered pants and one arm. I imagine her at home teasing her little brother and playing with her only doll and drawing masterpieces in the dirt with a little stick. And when she is alone she runs down the sidewalk pretending she can fly. She has dreams and an active imagination and a name that no one knows.

The point is: she is precious in the eyes of God—precious enough that He knows her name.

“Uncle,” she looks up at me with those compelling eyes, “Uncle, give me some money.” My quarter clanks in the bottom of her mostly empty tin can. A dreadfully hollow sound. Maybe it’s all just a well thought out performance, and I am duped. Maybe in real life her eyes are not really that sad, and her father is laughing from around the corner because he is getting his fill of alcohol tonight with the money his daughter swindled from me. Maybe those missionaries understand the situation more than me, and all the Chinese know the act, and therefore neither party gives money to the one-armed girl.

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The point is: the characters in this act are real.

As I am walking away, I reach into my bag and grab my camera. I cradle it under my arm because I am too shy to point it at her. I subtly snap a digital photograph of the seven year old girl, and upload it onto my website later that day so everyone back home can understand the meaning of China. (I have since learned that photographs are most often as ineloquent as words.)

As I am walking away, a chilled breeze passes through the braches of a bony tree in Jinri Park. No one notices the brown leaf fall to the ground. No one is aware of the crackling sound it makes as it is crushed beneath careless, unintentional shoes.

David Joannes
Founder/President at Within Reach Global

David Joannes is the co-founder and president of Within Reach Global, Inc, which serves the advance of the Gospel in some of Southeast Asia’s most difficult places. He is the author of The Space Between Memories: Recollections from a 21st Century Missionary. David has a love for language, culture, and creative writing, and for the last 20 years, he has witnessed God’s Kingdom established in forgotten parts of the globe. David lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with his wife, Lorna, and their daughter, Cara.


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