The Common Good

Life, Death, and Connectedness in the Company of Strangers

In the recent past there was a small group of children gathered in the village of Tucville, located near Georgetown, Guyana. After a few hours of games on the street, the curious crew wandered away from adult supervision and explored a nearby abandoned sewage facility. The children enjoyed their playful investigation, but as they walked a narrow path near the edge of a raw sewage container, a 5-year old girl named Briana Dover accidentally slipped, fell, and quickly sank to the bottom.

Interconnected heart, _Lonely_  / Shutterstock.com
Interconnected heart, _Lonely_ / Shutterstock.com

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As to be expected, Briana’s friends immediately screamed and ran for help, but as neighbors and witnesses rushed to the site, they all stood in shock. Although some considered diving into the tank, no one stepped forward. The container was too large, the smell of rotten feces too disgusting, and the actions required far too dangerous. With each passing moment Briana held to the brink of life at the bottom of the sewage reservoir, moving closer to death with each tick of the clock.

In the meantime, a middle-aged Rastafarian named Ordock Reid heard the commotion. After initially thinking it was a worker dispute, he eventually examined the situation, and as he approached the tank, he was greeted with loud screams and anguished faces. When he was told about Briana’s predicament, he acted immediately. Ordock Reid – a total stranger – took off his clothes, tied-up his dreadlocks, fastened a rope to his waist (handed the other end to an onlooker), and submerged himself through the muck and filth in an attempt to rescue Briana Dover. 

After a few minutes, a large crowd gathered near the sewage container. Over and over again, Ordock rose to the surface for oxygen, and within seconds, dove back into the sewage. As time passed, he cut off his sacred dreadlocks in the hopes of moving more freely within the reservoir, for he believed such efforts would improve his chances of saving Briana.

In a flash of hope and excitement, after 30 minutes of searching, Ordock felt a slight nudge near his waist. He reached down, grabbed Briana, and brought her out of the filth and back to the surface. After Ordock lifted Briana from the tank, she was immediately rushed to the local hospital for emergency medical attention. The crowd cheered and congratulated Ordock for his bravery. Some offered him cash donations, while others gave a pat on the back and a few kind words. 

I first heard this story of Ordock Reid and Briana Dover while serving in Guyana (I lived a few hours from where the events took place), and while it all occurred more than six years ago, I continue to reflect upon it often, as there is much within it to consider, and various insights to receive.

While many would take risks for the well-being of a loved one, a call to action is often neglected without an observable personal connection with those in need – even if the needs are immediate. However, a reality of life is that each day we depend upon the love and faithfulness of strangers, and in turn, strangers continuously depend upon us. As a result, to follow Jesus within our interconnected world is to resist indifference and apathy, for we are called to recognize the profound connectedness of life, and thus live in faithful companionship with all of humankind. As spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.

As for Ordock Reid and Briana Dover, I wish there was a happy ending to share. I wish that Briana had survived the horrific experience, but she did not. While Ordock acted with great courage and Briana clung to life as long as she could, she died on Monday, July 17, 2006 in the Georgetown Public Hospital. She was submerged for far too long, and after five short years of life, young Briana Dover was dead. 

Within this story we recognize much of our human experience. On the one hand, there are times when we stand at the crossroads of love and apathy in the company of strangers, and like Ordock Reid and those standing on the edge of the sewage container, we discern which path to take. Do we jump into the mess of life for the sake of others, or shall we stand on the sideline and wait for someone else to step forward?  On the other hand, there are times when we are like Briana Dover, when our livelihoods are threatened as we slip, fall, and sink through the journey of existence, and while some look the other way, others come to our aid, at times in ways that are profound and noticeable, but most often in methods that are quite subtle and mostly hidden. 

Over the past days I have contemplated these thoughts with increased frequency and intensity, for my wife and I just celebrated the birth of our second child, and while it is natural for friends and family to congratulate us as parents, I am mindful of the countless strangers that made our daughter’s life a reality, and I am thankful for the countless contributors who guided my wife through surgery. Among others, I think of physicians, nurses, receptionists, custodial staff, administrators, etc., all of whom served with compassion and excellence. However, there are many others – strangers that I will never meet – who also assisted in my wife’s difficult labor. What would we have done without the medical advances, technological breakthroughs, specialized facilities, medical school improvements, and developments in surgical methods that occurred over the past generations?  While I will never meet the thousands of strangers that contributed through these various advances, my hope is to remain mindful and thankful, for there are other strangers who will rely upon my thoughts, words, and deeds – both directly and indirectly – in similar ways. And so, such knowledge of connectedness provides motivation to ensure that the same love we received from strangers this past week – both known and unknown – can be extended through us and toward others, directly, indirectly, far, and wide.

All together, as I reflect upon Ordock Reid, Briana Dover, my daughter, and my wife, I recognize that with each passing day we are deeply connected within the company of strangers, for they depend upon us, and we deeply depend upon them. This is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the “single garment of destiny.” And so, just as we would hope that someone – anyone – would jump into the sewage of life to save us in our moments of need, we are to be mindful of the times that others need such acts of faithfulness from us. These actions may be profound, like those of Ordock Reid, but most often they are the subtle deeds of kindness – performed each day – that often go unnoticed and/or unconsidered. And so, within this circle of life and death that we all participate within, may we be attentive to the inescapable network of mutuality that we all share, for we are indeed tied together, this day and always. 

In light of our connectedness within the company of strangers, may we be aware of – and thankful for – the aid, relief, and comfort we receive due to the faithfulness of others, and may we be inspired to take the path of faithful action for the sake of others.

 

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).

Interconnected heart, _Lonely_  / Shutterstock.com
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