LET IT aLL sTART hERE
For Catholics who care...
This is a story of Jesus asking me to do something for Him. Then, permitting me His Grace… all that is necessary to answer His call. It is also the story of Juan Pablo – a Salvadoran native, and a veteran of their decade-long Civil War of the 1980s. And it is the story of a string of aqua blue glass beads-- a discarded rosary that found its way to Juan Pablo.
It began on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. During the reading of Mark's Gospel, the narrator’s voice filled the church, and weighed heavy on my heart:
At noon darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
which is translated,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“Look, he is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it
on a reed and gave it to him to drink saying,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
As we knelt, I said: “If I were there, I would have saved you.” Suddenly, a voice outside me replied: Really… What are you doing to save me now?
I looked up in surprise. I glanced over at the priest on the altar; I half expected that he was in on it, or that he had heard Jesus’ question as well. Then I looked around at the rest of the congregation, but they remained faithfully bent in reverence and prayer. No one else seemed to hear Him!? After mass, I left the church hastily - eager to call a friend about what had happened.
Two days later, I sat home alone reading about the Martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Pope Francis had recently declared him a martyr), and how he is due to be beatified in San Salvador on May 23, the day before Pentecost. I was struck by the fact that even outside of Catholicism, Archbishop Romero is honored by other Christian denominations, including the Church of England; that he is one of only ten 20th-Century martyrs to be depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London. I hadn’t ever thought much about him, simply because, in our Catholic tradition, there are so many other things to think about!
But that was about to change.
Every Wednesday I travel to The Albany City Mission to work in their kitchen to help feed the homeless. In almost three years, I’ve rarely missed a day. I know the men who loiter there. I know who likes rice, who can’t eat pork, who never smiles, who has fallen off the wagon, who doesn’t buy into The Mission’s mission, and who does.
Enter Juan Pablo.
The massacre that raged on in the small Central American country he called home had left Juan Pablo with a sick spirit, nearly blind, and destined to wander these some 35 years without real family, friends or homeland. Today, Juan Pablo is a pilgrim in a foreign land searching for Christ among us. He lives some days on the streets and some days in a homeless shelter in Albany, NY.
I knew the face of this drunken, little man very well. I have smiled at him; asked him how he was doing? Tried to feed him…. But he barely and rarely responded to me. However, this past Wednesday something was different. As he sat at his table, staring into the mayhem of pre-lunch preparation, I decided to challenge myself to speak to him because I was able I recognized that he is Jesus and Jesus is waiting for me.
I sat next to Juan Pablo, and tried to engage him: I asked him if he were hungry? If he were Native American or Latin (at the time I didn’t know?). If he could see me? For the first time, it became clear to me that Juan Pablo had very poor vision, and that much of the time he must not have even realized I was speaking to him because I stood too far away. Now, I was sitting shoulder to shoulder with him…close enough for him to smell the scent of my perfumed lotion. He turned to me, and and answered my question pointedly: “I am from Central America. I am from El Salvador!” Shocked at the coincidence of my encountering the life of Archbishop Romero only the night before, I asked Juan Pablo if he knew Romero.
“Of course.” He replied. “I am a soldier. He was a great man! We would do anything for him. He brought God to the people wherever he went….”
“You knew him?” I repeated excitedly. Inspired by the undeniable fact that God was with me just then, and had been since Palm Sunday Mass, I felt compelled to give this sad stranger something to hold on to. I went to my coat and found the rosary I had taken from a small wooden "give-away" box at our church. It was one of many that I've collected, and when I lifted it from the box I felt a bit guilty for wanting it so much. I took it anyway, telling myself I would give it to someone who needs it.
The crucifix’s silver patina was rubbed off in places, and some of the glass beads were chipped. Clearly, someone had been praying to Mary for her intercession on these beads for a long time; I had been praying hard on them, and now Juan Pablo could as well. He took the rosary from me as if it were a handful of precious gems, and laughed gleefully to himself. From that moment on, I ceased to exist in his world. Now, it was just Juan Pablo, the rosary, his memories of San Romero, and his feeling that all was right in his world - if only for these few minutes . He turned from me, and kissed the crucifix of the rosary. Then, Juan Pablo hung the strand of glass beads around his soiled neck, and walked away.