Bonelli. I cannot possibly begin to tell the story of Bonelli, the man whose vision was stolen by diabetes, until I first speak of Biemba, his wife. She was our “cook” for the week while we were in the Dominican Republic. By the world’s standards she is unspectacular; one wouldn’t look twice if passing her on the street. However, to a more spiritually attuned soul, it takes only moments to realize that with Biemba, you are in the presence of greatness. She has become a dear friend to the women who have lived and traveled down to La Victoria and a spiritual leader to the women out in La Canita who depend on her to lead their Bible study each week. A no-nonsense woman in her late thirties, if she spoke, I wanted to hear what she had to say, if she corrected, I worked to do it right. I watched the people as they filled up the bags with rice and garlic follow her meticulous instructions. As she examined the onion, they waited…they wanted her approval as well. There is a…regal quality to Biemba. As if royalty has been displaced and was dropped into a dusty Caribbean town to cook in a tiny kitchen in front of a hot stove.
I had the privilege of accompanying Biemba back to her home one morning. We had been out purchasing food for the day and she needed help carrying the dripping bags of beans that the toothless man with the overturned milk crate had ladled out for us from his tin pot. She gently scolded me as I took the flimsy baggie from the bottom and part of the contents spilled out dripping black liquid down my arms. A woman watched from her doorway and feeling sorry for the very inexperienced American, she rushed out with an extra bag for me to catch the rest of the overflowing contents. Though I was all thumbs, Biemba acted grateful for the “help”, as uncoordinated as it was. It struck me as strange that this woman would be cooking and serving us all week. It felt backward, like we should be serving her. Several times over the course of the week, I had the strange sense that I knew what the disciples must have felt like as Jesus, their King, knelt down to wash their feet.
As I followed her down a little pathway to her home, I noticed a small child bathing in a basin outside the door and a few chickens scattered out of our way. Her tiny home was dark, with a few motes of dust dancing in the sun beams that shone through the slats in the roof. Several “rooms” were partitioned off by clean unmatched sheets and I could see that the kitchen was at the back of the room.
This is when I first met Bonelli. To say “met” feels like an inaccurate account. As if you can meet a corpse, or have a conversation with a dead person. More accurately, I saw a man sitting lifelessly in a chair. He sits all day long, unmoving. Sort of staring off into nothing. He doesn’t speak or show emotion. Yet, as I shook his hand, there was softness to him, vulnerability. Bonelli had a gentle soul. Or maybe just a broken spirit. In sharp contrast to Biemba’s rich commanding demeanor, Bonelli’s is small and poor. However, his presence is very penetrating…like a vacuum sucking the air out of the room. Even, during our mealtimes when he was on the other side of the curtain, staying out of our way, his presence was felt. We knew Bonelli was there. He was always there. He never left.
Though I never had a conversation with her about this, the women who knew her better had shared that Biemba has grown very weary of Bonelli’s state of being. I quickly understood how taxing it was to have his lifeless presence around constantly. But even deeper for Biemba, she knew this man before he had lost his vision. He used to work and engage in life. This was the father of her children, her provider, and her companion. I had learned that on a previous trip, the women from our group had prayed over him to have his sight restored and she had asked that we do this again. Since then, one of those praying women had a dream that we prayed for him again and his vision was restored. So the intention had been set before the trip that one of our tasks while in the DR was to pray for Bonelli to receive his sight.
So here is the part of the story where I begin to squirm. I say I serve the Almighty God who is who capable of doing ALL things, yet I am acutely aware that most of the time, I don’t see this kind of healing happening. My scars have just begun to heal from watching my mom’s life get ripped away by ovarian cancer. I prayed constantly for God to heal Mom’s cancer and restore her health and I didn’t it see it happen. This kind of faith, this kind of praying rips the scabs off of my fresh wounds.
Additionally, I really don’t want to make God look bad. I mean, if we come in here and start praying for the blind to see, what are we going to look like to the rest of the world? To Bonelli and Biemba? Maybe they will see that I really don‘t have great faith. Maybe they will see that I often question if God is really interested in our physical comfort or health. I see so much suffering around me…everywhere…so much death, so many tragedies, miscarriages, cancer, and unexplained death of children. I see overwhelming evidence that seems to point out the terrifying proposition that God doesn’t heal the sick. Those are great stories in the Bible. Good Sunday school lessons. But to move out in faith and ask for that kind of thing to happen today? People might find out that He doesn’t answer my prayers. I might find out again.
It is much easier for me to go down to the DR to help women start businesses and meet practical life needs. I imagine myself telling my friends and family, “I am going on a mission trip to help women become more self-sustaining and to be able to buy food to feed their families.” This is all true. Not a stretch, not misleading…I could stick with that. It is acceptable even to non-Christians to do that kind of humanitarian work. But to tell people we are praying for blind people to see? This is a whole other level. People aren’t prepared for this. I am not prepared for this.
I know how this looks to the world. For that matter, I know what it looks like to me! I recently saw a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t pray in my school and I won’t think in your church”. Crap. We are those women. We are the ones who believe in the Bible…that God spoke into existence all of creation in a word. We are the ones who hold our hands up and dance and sing praises to God. We bow down to God, not to science. We have faith. We look so…foolish. Exactly. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. The wisdom of God looks absolutely foolish to this world.
So it was a risk as we sat down to Bonelli’s table the last morning of our trip and laid our hands on him and began to cry out to God for a miracle. Our hearts removed from our chests and laid out on the table, bare, vulnerable and open. And we asked the question. We made our request known to God. We didn’t come in the “back door” with a “If it is your will, would you consider healing him, but if not, we totally understand and know you have a better plan” prayer. We marched in the front door as God’s kids and jumped straight into His lap begging Him for a miracle in that moment. Complete restoration of sight. And then one of the ladies did something weird. Cuz this wasn’t weird enough. She said meekly, “Uh, guys? I feel like maybe I am supposed to rub spit in his eyes.”
And so she did. And so we waited. As I grabbed my heart back off the table and shoved it into my chest, I pleaded in the silence to God, “This could be your chance! You could heal him in this moment and really make a name for yourself here! I mean, wouldn’t everyone then know you care? You are loving? You are the one true God?” Much weeping in the room. Tears being spilled over. Something was happening. We waited. More waiting. Silence. Nothing. “C’mon God, do a miracle! We are really putting ourselves out there, ya know?”
Bonelli didn’t receive his sight that day. The part of me that wants to defend God here will go to the explanation, “Something shifted in the heavens that day and we will one day see it.” But I am not sure of that either. It’s Good Friday and I am reminded that many watching Jesus hanging on a cross that day were probably pleading in their hearts, “C’mon Jesus. Now is your chance! Make a name for yourself. Get down off the cross! Kick those Roman soldiers’ asses!” Much weeping. Waiting. Tears spilling over. Silence. And then what appeared to be defeat. I wish I could tie all of this up with a nice conclusion for those of you reading and waiting. But I am still waiting.
“Those who wait patiently on the Lord will not be put to shame.”