One morning while running I saw 15 wild green parrots perched on a barbed wire fence. I also saw a man I thought was dead.
This wasn't the first time. I've seen more than 15 parrots perched on that fence, and I have run by a man who actually was dead. I don't know when he died, or how, but it appeared he had spent the night sleeping in the dirt between the uneven sidewalk and the walls of shops and aluminum-sided homes. Sometime during the night while curled beneath flowering fuchsia bougainvillea, death had come for him. By the time I jogged past, a small crowd had gathered, people returning from prayers at the mosque or walking to work.
This time, the man I saw wasn't clearly dead or clearly alive, and no one was around. The man lay right there on Airport Road, the main road circling Djibouti City, not tucked away on a side street. He wasn't nestled against an aluminum wall or wooden planks, not sheltered by a bush or billboard, not laying on a scrap of cardboard. He wore a pair of dark trousers, baggy at the waist and short at the ankles, a T-shirt hiked up over a slightly rounded belly, and had a red cloth over his face.
I ran around him. It was still early, though most of the homeless men wake up before 6. If he was still there on my return leg, I would be surprised.
One hour later, he was still there. He lay on his right side with his arm as a pillow, knees slightly bent. He didn't seem to be breathing. He shouldn't have been there, not at this time, not at this spot, not without having moved. Was he dead? I kept running but something exploded in my mind. Hello, good Samaritan. The story flashed in pictures across the backs of my eyes to the soundtrack of, "Priest. Businessman. You are the one who hurried past suffering."
My mind engaged in a rapid-fire debate. To stop or not stop? What could I do? If he was dead I could flag a bus or taxi and ask them to take the body to a police station. Would they? If he was alive, what would he need? I didn't have any money with me, only a few sips of water in my bottle, so maybe he didn't want to be startled awake by a sweaty woman asking if he was alive or not.
And then there was that whole woman thing. What if he was drunk? Or crazy? Or just plain mean? He could hurt me. Also, Djibouti is a Muslim country, not extremely strict, but there are boundaries women don't cross. Boundaries such as touching men. I am adept at handing and receiving change, passing off bags, and delivering boxes without touch.
I took a deep breath and ran back, uncertain about what to do when I reached the man's body. No one else was around. No bus drove by carrying house workers to the mansions in the next neighborhood. I stopped beside his feet and stared at his chest. It didn't move. He was dead, then. I would flag a taxi. No, his stomach rose, ever so slowly and slightly.
"Ça va?" I asked in French, thinking that being woken by a foreign woman speaking Somali might be too much shock to bear. (Men have fallen to the ground in surprise in the middle of the day when I speak Somali.) No response. His stomach rose again. The red cloth didn't move and he made no sound. He didn't appear injured, no blood or crooked bones or obvious bruises or wounds.
Still no cars or people appeared. I returned to my run and finished, unsettled. Did I do enough? Was simply ascertaining that he wasn't dead enough? As a foreigner I don't have an immediate, innate sense of culturally acceptable behavior, or of when and how to cross those cultural lines without creating more problems than I am trying to solve. What does the Good Samaritan story mean for a woman in a conservative, patriarchal and semi-risky country?
I didn't mention the man to my husband until late that evening. I almost didn't mention him at all, but the question of what should I have done plagued me. When I did bring it up, Tom suggested I "pull a Deborah." Lead in vision and ask the man in my life to lead in action (Judges 4 and 5). To come home, tell him (right away, not hours later) about the man on the sidewalk. I would have done a good, compassionate thing and would put Tom in the position of choosing to serve or not to serve, while maintaining my safety and cultural honor, and the honor of the stranger.
This frustrated me. I initially felt trumped in being able to serve, thwarted from living like Jesus because I was a woman. Upon reflection, though, this frustration revealed my limited perspective. It honed in on one, specific act of service while neglecting the myriad of ways my gender allows me uniquely to love, ways in which my husband is the limited, thwarted person.
I don't think Jesus meant the parable as a prescriptive when you see a man lying on the side of the road…go and do likewise. It is an inclusive "when you see someone who needs help, when you feel compelled toward action, when the oppressed are trampled or neglected…go and do likewise."
Male or female has nothing up on the other. The specifics, the way we act out our service will look different. Sometimes my husband needs to pull a Deborah. Sometimes he says, "There is a woman at the gate. She looks hungry." He has led in vision, I can now lead in action or faltering inaction. I can remain seated or can fill a bag with beans and vegetables and cookies, and go to the gate.
There are unsafe, inappropriate places for a woman, experiences my husband has that I cannot share. There are inappropriate places for a man, experiences I have that my husband cannot share.
He has never rubbed the back of a friend in labor, whispered that she was strong, pressed ice cubes to her lips between contractions. He has never brought meals to women living in shacks along the railroad tracks. He has never held the hand of a woman grieving her uncle's death, suddenly terrified of the afterlife. He has never stirred goat heads in massive aluminum pots over wood fires and listened to the stories of the three generations of women stirring pots on either side.
Appreciating and entering these unique experiences, while not envying the other or feeling limited in service is being the body of Christ. This kind of risky, humble love is good, powerful, inclusive. We are free from prescriptions. The whole wide beautiful suffering world lies stretched out before us on sidewalks and in homes. Man or woman, let us together, go and do likewise.
Rachel Pieh Jones is a Minnesotan figuring out how to stay sane in Djibouti, hottest country on the planet. She lives with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children (only one named, loosely, after Indiana). Raised in the Christian west saying "you betcha" and eating Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east saying "insha Allah"and eating samosas. Read more at Djibouti Jones or follow Rachel on Facebook and Twitter.