“I need talk you!” The tiny woman called to me from the beer bar as I was passing by. Lek stepped out from the noisy bar and pulled me to the side. “NJ is dead.” What? I was stunned. “She kill,” Lek drew her finger across her neck to illustrate. Confused, I asked her for the story in Thai. Our mutual friend, she said, had been murdered and her body thrown into a canal. I was puzzled. The week before an Uzbek woman had also been murdered, her body cut up, and thrown into a canal. Maybe that was the story Lek heard and she mistook it for our friend? It seemed too coincidental that both a Thai and an Uzbek would be murdered and thrown into a canal the same week. Lek insisted though, that it was our friend. NJ, our mutual friend is a little person who once worked in NightLight’s program, but her alcoholism kept her from succeeding. Two years ago NJ returned from a year of rehab and went right back to the streets and alcohol. Since then, we have encountered her many times totally wasted and sleeping on the streets.
Whenever we would see NJ she was bitter about the outcome of the rehab center. NJ would curse us and then refer to Peter’s denial of Jesus three times and how Jesus still accepted him back. NJ would quote John 3:16 to us and I suspect to many others – even when she was drunk. She said she wanted to go back to rehab and try again. She had been so rebellious at the first place that they didn’t feel they could trust her enough to take her back. We hadn’t been successful yet in finding an alternative. NJ had started coming back to visit us, and even brought a couple of friends from the streets to our worship night and outreach parties. Two weeks ago she came with her friend to the church. That was the last time I had seen her.
I expressed sorrow to Lek and then turned to continue my walk through the red light area now with the goal of finding NJ. My mind considered the possibilities. Was it true? If so, did we fail her? What could we have done differently? Was there anything we could have done to save her? Was her confession of faith and baptism before her relapse into prostitution and alcohol enough? My mind went back and forth between these questions and the question that was stirring deeper inside – really? I was puzzled by the lack of emotion in my gut and something told me that it wasn’t her. But still…what if? The unknown is enough to unnerve you when it comes to life or death.
I didn’t find her so the next day we sent one of our girls to uncover the truth. By noon we were 90% sure that it was NJ. A Thai woman’s body had indeed been found in the canal. It was at the hospital waiting for the family to identify. A friend said the police had come with pictures of the body. She couldn’t identify her from the disfigured face but the body and the garments looked familiar. The size was only 110 cm and everything pointed to NJ. NJ had disappeared over a week before. This friend was relieved that someone who knew her had come and would be able to contact the family.
The dreaded phone call was made to the mother to share the heavy news. But before our employee could share the bad news she received good news. NJ had left the red light area and had returned home to try to break her alcohol addiction. She was very much alive. NJ came to the phone and laughed when she heard everyone thought she had died. We were so relieved!
In my relief over NJ however, I had nearly forgotten another significant fact. For the second time in one week, a woman – most likely a prostitute was found floating in the canal. An unidentified body testifies to a tragedy but since no one knows who she is, there is no name to identify her by, no story to tell, and while there may be fear in the neighborhood, there is little grief for the unidentified.
In all of our neighborhoods, precious lives hang in the balance between life and death. NJ is alive and still has a chance. But there are many more who walk the streets unknown and unidentified even in life. God sees each and every one and God knows them by name. But that’s not enough. God calls us to open our eyes and to really see those in our neighborhoods, to know them by name, and to cherish their lives. In the US, unidentified, unnamed bodies are often tagged, “NHI” or non-human identity. The simple act of knowing a woman’s name affirms her humanity and her value before it’s too late. If we have eyes to see and we reach out to her in love, she will have a chance to live and know love. If we have eyes to see, and a heart of compassion, she will not die unknown and too easily forgotten. When she does die, she will be remembered by name, her life celebrated and her death grieved. In life or in death, the simple act of seeing her and of knowing her name affirms her value as a human being created in the image of God.
Next time you see her, ask her name – before it is too late!