Silver And Gold Have I None
In 1974 I was in the middle of my LDS mission in Thailand.
I spent most of it in and around the capital city of Bangkok.
The city sidewalks, when not inundated by floods and high tides, were awash with beggars.
Women with their small withered breasts hanging out, sitting sideways and holding a silent infant, followed me with their eyes; their lips and teeth stained a lurid red with betel nut. Blind men blew discordantly on tin whistles. And the crippled and maimed haunted every scrap of shade available, gurgling chants for relief.
Thai Church members told me that it was all a racket — the Chinese mafia put these people out every morning and picked them up at sunset, keeping most of the money collected and giving the poor beggars just enough to live on in unimaginable squalor. It was well known, the Thai members informed me, that anyone in real need had only to appeal to the nearest Buddhist temple and the monks there would be glad to see to their wants.
For several weeks in the Pratuu Naam area of Bangkok my companion and I went business tracting — that is, we went into office buildings, and, floor by floor, office by office, confronted officious secretaries to demand to see the boss right away. We had a very important message to deliver. We got in to see the boss surprisingly often, and would then deliver a ten minute explanation of the Family Home Evening program, leave a pamphlet explaining the program in more detail, and courteously thank him for his time before leaving. We gave nothing but the back of our heels to the huffy secretaries.
Each day during that period we walked past one particular beggar, who was spectacularly crippled. He looked like a contortionist frozen in the most agonizing part of his act. His fingers were splayed like the roots of a fallen tree. He was covered in scabs. He lay on his stomach as his arms and legs spasmed continuously, assuming impossible angles. He drooled constantly. His eyes did not focus.
He lay on a thin and filthy bamboo mat, in the direct sunlight.
Everyone averted their eyes from him, including me. He was sketched in my mind by peripheral glances, and I began to obsess about him.
A scripture from the Book of Acts kept recurring to me: "Then Peter said Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee . . . "
I wanted very much to be able to do the same thing for that poor cripple, frying like an egg on the scorching sidewalk.
But I lacked — what exactly did I lack? Faith? Authority? Permission? Courage?
All of that, and none of that. Giving in to emotional blackmail, I began to feel personally responsible for not being able to cure that man's wretched condition.
My companion and I went to the Chemical Bank one morning before beginning our business tracting, in order to draw money out of our own savings for the rent, our maid, and our food allowance. (As a sidebar, I must say that I never ate as well as when I was an LDS missionary in Thailand. The food was hallucinatorily good.)
And so we each carried 5-thousand baht in our pockets as we began that day's missionary work.
As we approached the writhing cripple on his stomach I fell a few steps back from my companion. When I reached the beggar I quickly bent down and put all of my 5-thousand baht in his pink plastic bowl. Then caught up with my companion. I never even looked directly at the beggar.
This was not a Mother Theresa moment.
I was relieved and guilty at the same time. I had done something, but it was not a miracle, and, according to the Thai members I had talked to, it was probably a complete waste of my own money.
5-thousand baht was a lot of money back then. I had to sell my leather briefcase, my wristwatch and my camera to some of the other Elders, and was still short on the rent for the month. Luckily there was an Emergency Fund that the Mission President had for wastrels such as myself.
President Morris did not ask why I was short, and I did not volunteer the information.
I never saw that crippled man again. The next day I was stung by a small scorpion as I was putting on my shoe and had to be rushed to the hospital with a severe allergic reaction. When I recovered I was transferred to a different part of Bangkok.
This episode remains unresolved in my mind, and after all these years about the only thing I'm pretty certain about is that some opportunistic passerby probably snatched up that wad of baht right after I had laid it in the bowl.