Joy in China: Learning to Love the Grandfather Leper

I still remember going into breakfast that day. I had a feeling that things were going to be different. As of last year June, I had made a commitment to leave school, and serve the leper colonies in China. Up until this point, I had lived in the facilities reserved for the volunteers. Several weeks of my time here, I had roomed with two of my friends from Andrews University and things had felt just like they had at school.

But that morning, I walked in to find several volunteers waiting for me, saying that they had a task for me. I took my seat, and opened my ears to listen, although I already had a pretty good idea of what they were going to ask me. Sure enough, in a matter of minutes, they presented me with the assignment: “Would you like to stay in one of our grandpa’s rooms and take care of him?”

In that moment, my mind brought up all of the stories I had heard of volunteers who had lived with certain grandmas and grandpas while taking care of them in less than ideal conditions. While I deeply respected their dedication and their selflessness, I doubted if I myself could do something like that. Volunteering during the day was no problem, but I preferred to at least be comfortable during the night.

They made it clear that I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to, but I somehow found myself reluctantly accepting the “offer”. After I accepted, one volunteer excitedly told me what a privilege it would be for me to stay in his room, while another affirmed this point, by stating how much this opportunity would give me room to grow spiritually. Despite hearing all this, the only thing that was on my mind in that moment was: What have I gotten myself into?

In the beginning stages, the experience was rough, to say the least. I recalled having this sinking feeling from the moment that I first heard him speak — I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Granted, my mandarin, even to this day isn’t the best, but this particular grandpa’s mumbled dialect made it nearly impossible for me to decode his speech. Most of his requests were met by my helplessly blank stares, leading to his exasperation and my own frustration.

We would play this wild guessing game of pointing and sign language with me cycling through literally every single vocabulary word I knew until finally, we would either reach an understanding or forget about it and move on. My days were filled with everything from cleaning up spilt urine and faeces to giving him baths in a giant wooden tub, to cooking for him, all while he insisted that I was doing it all wrong. The nights were hardly better and were often sleepless, with Grandpa waking up intermittently to go to the bathroom.

“…in that split second, I saw just how weak, selfish, and unloving I truly was.”

I remember one day in particular. Having stepped out of the room for a moment, I returned to find Grandpa sitting in the doorway. He noticed me, and his face contorted with anger as he stuck out his hand: “Give it back,” he said to me.
“What?” I responded, without a clue.
“Give me back my radio!”
“Grandpa, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told him truthfully.
“You took my radio; give it back!” He insisted.
“I didn’t take your radio. Why would I even want your radio?”

I had never seen him so animated, or even this loud for that matter. He continued to yell at me furiously while I turned his room inside out, searching for the radio. In the midst of all of the commotion, the grandpa next door arrived and also tried to convince me to hand over the radio that I didn’t have. My patience, which had been wearing thin by this point, was now almost non-existent. I began to lose my temper, raising my voice to defend myself against these false accusations….until it hit me. Grandpa had asked me to put an extra shirt on him that morning. I lifted his outer layer and lo and behold, there was the radio on his neck. He had been wearing it the whole time!

My hotheaded defiance began to cool and was soon replaced with mixed feelings of regret and shame. No “thank you” or “I’m sorry” was given to me, though. Instead, Grandpa merely nodded as he went about his business. I turned away burdened and defeated.

With my heart still racing from the encounter, I tried to evaluate the thoughts that were running through my head. Yes, I had successfully defended my name and disproved his accusation, but in the process, I had lost the more important battle. My patience had been broken and I was left with lingering guilt, as I realized my mistake.

Through all the hardships, I had been focusing on my own strength to “keep my cool” and persevere. I thought I’d been so strong in standing up to this grandpa’s demands and complaints, and so brave in helping him despite all of the inconvenience. Yet in that split second, I saw just how weak, selfish, and unloving I truly was. My cold and inconsiderate thoughts and feelings towards this grandpa, previously masked by my service to his needs, began to reveal themselves to me as these words flashed into my mind: “You are to recognize Me in the person of the poor and suffering.” 

As this man — weak and suffering from the aftermath of leprosy — sat before me in his wheelchair with his radio around his neck, I realized something else about him. He wasn’t just another grandfather — he was Jesus Christ in the person of the afflicted. I had merely been helping him out of obligation, and because I knew it was the right thing to do, yet I was ashamed to find that there was no real love or sympathy for this man in my heart. I couldn’t love him because I didn’t know how to.

Then, it dawned on me. Maybe all of these experiences were supposed to portray a picture of how I can be with God. God is long-suffering and daily strives with me. Although I’m ungrateful and demanding and even at times accusatory, He still loves me with an everlasting love. And how often is it that I impatiently ask for blessings and answers to my prayers, when I’m oblivious to the fact that He’s already been working in a mighty way in my life! The realization of the love that God has for me broke me afresh, and it became so clear that only by truly perceiving and receiving this divine love would I be able to love this grandpa.

So from that point on, I asked God to help me see Jesus in this grandpa. I also requested that the Holy Spirit constantly bring to my remembrance the infinite love that was poured out upon me. After my perspective changed, I gradually began to notice his sorrow, his pain and his loneliness.

As I began to see past his ingratitude, divine sympathy and love began to drive my service towards him. And I truly experienced what it was meant for self to be forgotten in Christ. I forgot my own struggles in an effort to — by and through the grace of God — truly relieve his suffering within and without. It is only when we see the vast extent of Christ’s love for us that we are truly able to love those around us.

And I believe that it is to show us this very love, the love that we are to freely receive and freely give, that Christ came to dwell among us. It is this love that will reconcile us with our Father in Heaven, and it is this love that we will sing of for all of eternity. This love is ours to claim and share today.

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God and every one that liveth is born of God, and knoweth God.” (1 John 4:7)


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Joshua Ahn
Joshua Ahn

Joshua Ahn is a student at Andrews University but has since dedicated his time to serving as a volunteer in the leper colonies of China.

  1. Wow, divine love is not anchored on an obligation to just do the right thing but on the abundance of God grace.
    This divine love enables one to serve selflessly.
    Thank God for your testimony and thank you for the revelation shared.

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