MOSCOW — She was one of the nameless ones. We usually found her at the same place in one of the train stations of Moscow. For more than three years, she had lived in a small corner not too far from the entrance. Thousands of people came through her front door every day.
Nobody seemed to show any interest in her, except for one of the other homeless people who tried to keep her alive by bringing whatever food could be found or begged. But that was not much in a miserable and busy station with its mixture of refugees, street children and other homeless people.
One day, while delivering food and blankets to the people of the station, Major Ivy Nash of The Salvation Army asked her name. Natasha became one of the ever-growing group of people that Major Nash tries to help every day.
Major Nash and the other Salvationists of Moscow often suffer great frustration because it is difficult to help so many people with such great needs. In the bureaucratic maze of the local authorities in Moscow, trying to help someone means being sent from one office to the next.
Social assistance is usually nothing more than a cup of soup, some bread and occasionally a friendly word. But more than that is needed to really help someone in need.
When I went to the station one evening with Major Nash, it was clear that Natasha's situation could not continue. In a long-ago accident, she had lost an arm. The dirty station had taken its toll on her body. She was covered in sores and her feet were nothing more than two hideous lumps of dirt. Only with difficulty could she keep the flies away from her open flesh.
We called the station police over, but they only shrugged their shoulders. She was, after all, only one of the hundreds of homeless people who they often literally chased and physically beat out of the station. Natasha's untreated wounds were clear testimony to their treatment of the homeless.
We did manage to get the police to help us find a rickety luggage cart and after that to get Natasha to a medical center.
From our own reserves we got a clean blanket to cover her. When the doctor who came to examine her pulled the blanket back, it was already covered with lice.
It took only a minute to diagnose Natasha with open tuberculosis. I tried to impress upon Major Nash the need for using caution and being mindful of her own health, but she belongs to the category of those who would rather have a flea from a tramp than a medal from a king!
I could hardly control my emotions when I looked at Natasha. She was a filthy, hopeless heap of misery. I couldn't keep myself from saying to the policemen that even the dogs of Moscow are better cared for than are people like Natasha.
Those who are familiar with the history of The Salvation Army know that I was only echoing the words of the Founder, William Booth, who saw the same situation more than a hundred years ago in London.
Today, in Moscow it is a sad fact of life that the majority of those who pass by don't even bother to look around them, let alone to stop. Perhaps it is because they have grown accustomed or hardened to the reality that every month dozens of people die of hunger in the streets or in the stations, and the way in which the dead bodies are dealt with is far below what could be expected or accepted. People like Natasha only remind everyone of how hard life has become in Moscow.
It didn't happen straight away but finally, after insisting over and over again, Natasha was admitted to the hospital and placed where she couldn't infect other people.
Major Nash became a regular visitor to her room. Not much could be done, but the doctor and medical staff agreed that a friendly visit and kind words meant a great deal to her.
The night Natasha died, Major Nash telephoned me.
We talked about our feelings of distress, even guilt, that we were not able to do more to help her and others in her situation. At the same time, we wondered what would have happened if her health had improved and she had been released from the hospital. As far as we could see, there was no other possibility but for her to return to yet another place in the station. The problem wouldn't have been solved.
We don't know what happened the night Natasha died. We don't know what her thoughts or feelings were. But one thing we do know — in the last days of her life she had met someone who cared for her. For the first time in many years someone had called her by her name.
I tried to encourage Major Nash with a phrase from Matthew's Gospel. Natasha was one who belonged to "the least of my brothers" referred to by Jesus (Matt. 25:40). What we had done for her, we had done for Him. Was it not probable that she had seen Jesus in our actions and come to know Him through us?
Natasha died. But there are so many more like her in Russia. The officers and soldiers of Moscow
continue to work in the streets and stations of that city. Sometimes we read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and we feel more like the priest and Levite than the Good Samaritan. We are frequently overwhelmed by the indescribable human need we encounter here.
What are we really able to accomplish? We try to listen and help. We try to ease the pain of hungry bodies, hearts and souls. Day in and day out, we try. But in our hearts we know we can never really do enough. We wonder if the old saying could really be true, that he who has saved one person has saved the world?
We remind ourselves that Jesus said the human soul is worth more than all the treasure of this world.Then, armed with food and blankets and the Gospel, we go back to the stations, looking for nameless, priceless souls, like Natasha.
Commissioner Reinder Schurink