(SHEILA REID) – (C) Neal Street Productions – Photographer: Laurence Cendrowicz

Just before Christmas, we got ourselves a great gift and hooked up with Netflix. What fun we’ve been having on these long winter evenings exploring the archives of good TV series we somehow missed over the years!

One of my current favorites is “Call the Midwives,” a British show which follows the adventures of a dedicated group of Anglican nuns and public health nurses as they minister in the east end of London during the late 1950’s. As we watch, we begin to see their patients through their eyes—not as some abstract entity called “the poor”–but as real people with real stories.

I find myself understanding folks I would never encounter in my daily life and learning a lot in the process. The most dramatic story I’ve seen so far was that of an old lady called Mrs. Jenkins.

When we first meet her, she’s positively repulsive: wearing an old, mildewed coat over her ragged clothes, dirty, matted hair crawling with fleas, muttering to herself, with a wild look in her eyes. She seems obsessed with babies, turning up on the street outside whenever there is a delivery, cooing over babies in their prams until the horrified mothers drive her away. The nurses shake her off and flee.

But then the old woman collapses in the street and the midwives are sent to help.   When they visit the hovel where she lives, Mrs. Jenkins huddles into a chair corner like a cornered wild animal and won’t let them touch her. However, as they leave in disgust, she utters a “workhouse howl”—a nearly inhuman cry of utter pain and despair. So they are moved to keep trying.

Workhouses. I’ve read enough history to know what they were: England’s miserable attempt to help destitute families. They were meant to be uncomfortable so that people wouldn’t be tempted to stay. In that, at least, they were infamously successful. Men and women were housed separately; children taken from parents and siblings from one another. The assumption was that, by the very fact of their poverty, poor people were bad parents. Food—what there was of it—was awful. Accommodations, worse. Workhouses were places of intense degradation and suffering.

Sure enough, the nurses find out that Mrs. Jenkins and her children, including a young baby, had been locked away in workhouse in 1906. Though babies under two were supposed to be left with their mothers, all her children were taken from her. They died, one after another, and were buried, unknown to her, in a common grave. The baby’s cause of death was listed as “failure to thrive:” i.e., starvation.

Suddenly, I saw this woman. The poor thing had been 28 years in that awful place, losing her children, her health and her sanity. Her obsession with babies was a last feeble attempt to reconnect with a life she barely remembered.

Slowly, the midwives learn Mrs. Jenkins’ story and earn her trust. At last, she allows them to strip layer after layer of filthy clothes from her and give her a bath. They must use vaseline to take off her shoes, revealing sore dirty feet with in-grown, claw-like toenails. As they lowered her emaciated body gently into the warm water, I wept. Most likely, she had never experienced such kindness in her life.

And the Spirit whispered to me: “This is one of My poor, broken sheep. Have compassion on her as I do.” And I did.

I’ll confess I have always been frightened and repulsed by the poor and the outcast…especially those who are as filthy and unbalanced as poor Mrs. Jenkins. But I can feel my attitude changing.

Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:30 ff.) always amazes and convicts me….especially when He tells the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.” (vs. 37) I’m not ready to jump right into the pen with bloody, broken sheep as the Samaritan did. But seeing through eyes of mercy and compassion is a start.

And I’m becoming more willing to do what I can.