This is part two – if you’d like to start with part one, click here.
Kirby’s was not a works filled food distributing, hammer-swingin’ mission. We were there to evangelize, to spread the good news. “Sure,” Kirby explained, “We can, and we often do, clothe them and feed them for a day, but when we’re gone, it’s still just a miserable existence for these poor people.” By spreading the Gospel, we give them hope, something to look forward to, knowledge of our God who loves them and gives them strength and a will to life and love as they struggle through each day.
His logical explanation reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s observations of time spent in the death camps of the Holocaust – the ones that survived were the ones who had hope, a reason to survive, to scratch out an existence, to love and serve each other. They knew that their captors, their misery, only had power over them if they chose to let them, they would then give up hope and autonomy, and quickly their lives faded away.
Each day we walked most of the morning to a neighboring village. Only one had a well, and it was not potable water. The village leader gave us a walking tour as we were tailed by dozens of filthy and naked children, and we saw the well that the huts and the village were build around. A naked woman was sponge bathing and washing her clothes there in a bucket as her friend washed the families cooking pot into this water source. “Wow,” I thought, “This is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen – a living National Geographic magazine. These kids will never forget this: This vision of true poverty, hunger and thirst, a third world culture, a three hour flight from home.”
These little villages all seemed to have a small church, and the best I could tell, were all served by Pastor Beau, a seemingly close associate of Kirby. We would all stay up late at night discussing faith issues, and he was curious that I could clarify and scripturally justify some major misconceptions he had about Catholicism; He seemed most fascinated to learn that some random Pope hadn’t inserted 7 extra books into the Bible, rather Luther disliked them and so after having been there for 1000 years, they were soon removed. Beau was equally impressed to find Cullen and me reading morning scripture as the sun was rising over the beautiful horizon.
The next morning found us walking a hot dusty road to the school that served the entire area. Hundreds of children wore blue plaid uniforms that were crisp and clean. Amazing. They take great pride, we were told, in sending their children to school clean and well put together, as a form of family pride. The children were all over us, but especially Noah and Cullen. I doubt they had ever seen white children before, and everyone wanted to hold hands and touch their strait hair. We arrived as they were beginning religion class, and were asked if we wanted to read to them out of our bibles; Pastor Beau and Kirby would interpret, line at a time. I was a bit embarrassed to realize that I didn’t know an appropriate passage to look up and read. I remembered the time Jesus was inundated with children, and the disciples were upset with them, sending them away, to which Jesus replied, “Let the children come.” How I wished I could remember where that was, because it seemed so appropriate now, as we were each about 50 deep with these beautiful children. So I blindly opened the book, initially disappointed to not have the Holy Spirit guide me to that very verse. Beau was interpreting each phrase, with the animation that would have looked like he was using sign language.
Soon my voice cracked as I read aloud the passage that I had turned to, Mark 9:36
36 And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Not exactly the verse I was looking for, but even better – I’m pretty sure my opening the book here was no accident. (By the way the “Let the little children come” verse was actually amazingly close to where I had opened to (Mark 10:13)
Life is sometimes funny, and humility is so much more beautiful than pride.
I turned from my exuberant group, all jumping up and down and shouting for me to notice them, to the other side of the room to tell Cullen what a cool “coincidence” it was for me to “find” that verse, and I was stunned. Cullen’s group were all silent, staring intently at him, captivated by something. I moved through dozens of children to get closer. Instead of interpreting every his every line, Kirby was standing staring at Cullen also. I have no idea what verses he was reading, but one thing was clear. My son was reading out of his English bible, but the words that came out of his mouth were in Haitian Creole. My eyes then met Kirby’s, as we both mouthed the same word, “Wow.”
We sat and chatted for a while over an ice cold Coca-Cola from the good pastor’s private stash!
We were led from shack to mud hut, talking to people, praying with them, holding their hands. We knelt and prayed over the village elder woman, very aged and feeble, beginning her transition to the other side. We held hands with the young mother, with a “hemorrhage” that had lasted for years; I was asked if I wanted to say a prayer, and from somewhere I quoted Luke 8:43. She was weeping and so sure that her sins were causing her disease. By quoting this verse (also Matthew 9:20 and Mark 5:25), I did my best to remind her that through faith her sins WERE forgiven, through Grace; she was “touching the hem of Jesus’ garment,” and that her’s should be a familiar Christ message, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” The look on Kirby’s face was priceless – a Catholic quoting scripture in a “healing service!” I turned to see how my young Catholic boys were processing this event. I hadn’t noticed Cullen’s hand on my shoulder, and Noah’s hand on Cullen’s. Our eyes met and I saw a look of pride in his father that I will forever hold as consolation that he knew what I was made of.
As we walked the long mountain trail back to the mission, Kirby asked me if I’d like to speak at the evening service that night, that someone could interpret for me. For some truly unknown reason, without hesitation, I immediately told him that I’d love to! I’d never preached before (my children might take exception), so I wasn’t really sure how to prepare. All the folks at Bible study had their Scripture “tabbed,” so that seemed appropriate. I chose a few passages to deliver a brotherly love message on, and inserted bookmarks, sticking out as tabs.
That evening we travelled by truck to a much further village, where apparently clothing was also optional. Bad attempt at humor, but it all seemed so surreal. The few clothes that children had were obviously donated, or left behind by some other “missionary tourist.” Torn, stained Ron Jon surf shop and Van Halen t-shirts seemed out of place on children with nothing else on. Again, this was a living National Geographic magazine. Which reminds me of something that was pretty funny. As we walked towards that village well that morning, I shared with my boys how my big sister Maureen and I used to dart to the bookcase with National Geographics when Mom and Daddy went out on a rare date night. She was about 12, so I was 8ish and I remember like yesterday laughing ’til my sides hurt and her wetting her pants as we looked at the pictures of the naked African natives. The four of us were still belly laughing at this image as we reached the well, to see that young woman standing there naked, washing her only clothes in the only water source. She turned to see us, and made no attempt to cover up. It was we who were embarrassed that she might think we were laughing at her. Not such a funny a story after all.
Anyway, the leader explained that this village actually contained enough people that they had TWO churches. Kirby must have told them about “us,” because it was quickly explained that one of them was a Catholic church!!! This certainly piqued my curiosity.
Both “churches” were effectively huts – concrete block buildings held together by mud (rather than concrete mortar), with a galvanized steel roof. Not even a cross (or crucifix) on either wall. The Protestant preacher, Pastor Beau, was one of the leaders that had been walking with us, and he explained Father Sergio was equally friendly, and that we’d really like him, but that he served hundreds of villages, so only said Mass there about once every two months. One of the parishioners lectored and served as acolyte, distributing the previously-consecrated communion each Sunday.
We met, saw, and talked to different groups of folks at each of these two churches. Although only 100 feet apart, the members did not enter each other’s place of worship, supposedly out of respect, but I’m sure the misconceptions and superstitions of the culture played a huge role.
But here’s the rub. Pastor Beau seemed to really connect with us (most definitely due to Cullen’s presence and his language abilities), and his request to Kirby that I speak that night I later learned was quite a coup. Never before had a Catholic stood in front of his congregation, and no one could remember if the Catholic folks had ever been inside their Protestant church.
My message was basically that it was we that were honored to be with them, and that we are called to love and serve each other, with verses read intermittently, and my interpretation of how the message applied to our walk here together. Afterward, Kirby, Beau, and I all embraced, with what I, at the time, felt was a bit of an exaggerated response. I didn’t think it was really such a big deal.
Later, it was laid out for me quite clearly. “You have no idea what you have done tonight,” Pastor Beau and the Catholic leader agreed. “Our village has been very divided, at times violently so. The mistrust, and misunderstandings are rooted in differences in religion. As an outsider, you were allowed to do something we’ve tried to do for years. You stood as a Catholic, and simply claimed to be a brother Christian, stating matter-of-factly that we are called simply to treat each other with love and respect. If this white American is willing to come to us and tell them that they are his equal, his brothers…” Beau just shook his head and kept saying he never thought this could happen, and that I just didn’t understand.
It still just doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Of course I would feel differently if I was a Christian in the Middle East or a Catholic in 1500’s England or even 1970’s Belfast, or a Jew in Poland in the 40’s.
We turned on the iPod playlist as we readied for bed that night.
Third in line to turn up in the shuffle – Matt Maher: “and I’ll be my brother’s keeper, so the whole world will know that we’re not alone.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
Rosemary was Mom’s big sister and one of her dearest friends. Two of her children, Lewis and Rosie, are still good friends, and when Aunt Rosemary passed away earlier this year I felt obliged to fly up to Missouri to pay my respects. Lots of family came down for Cullen’s funeral, and I’ll always treasure that they cared enough to come; I now realize how much these gestures mean. The closing song at Aunt Rosemary’s funeral was “Be Not Afraid:”
Be not afraid.
I go before you always.
Come follow me, and
I will give you rest.
You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.
“Wow'” I thought. So many gifts left behind. I get it.
Speaking in tongues forever takes on new meaning.
A wonderful and precious account, on so many levels. Thank you.