• January 9, 2009

Mike, volunteer in Brazil

The Heart’s Home in Coroa, Brazil, 2003.

Mike was a Heart’s Home mis­sionary in Brazil in 2008.

Let me start with Maria, whom every­body calls “Pombinha”, which means “Little Dove.” Every Wednesday and Thursday morning, we go to mass in a church at the ocean’s edge. I first met Pombinha walking out of that church around April. She was about fifty, with puffy cheeks, ragged, dirt-caked clothes and tired eyes, and she was sit­ting on a wall sep­a­rating the side­walk from the sand. As I was walking past, I smiled at her and she responded, almost auto­mat­i­cally, by asking for money. Not having any­thing, I gave an apolo­getic shrug and then sat down with her, asked her her name, how long she’d lived in Salvador, and about her family. She didn’t respond very eagerly and con­tinued to ask for money, food and socks throughout the con­ver­sa­tion.

One of the chal­lenges of living a mis­sion based on pres­ence, on simply being with, is that the people with whom we’re trying to engage, are often crushed by so many mate­rial needs that at times they ini­tially don’t seem all that inter­ested in what we’re offering, that they need so much that we can’t give—often it seems they would much rather have a bowl of soup or a pair of shoes than a friend, and while we’re some­times able to offer some­thing small, we gen­er­ally don’t have any­thing mate­rial to give, and we just try to con­tinue humbly offering our time and atten­tion.

Yet often, with time, that hunger for a pres­ence, for a friend, for a space where they’ll be lis­tened to and val­ued—a hunger that, after a year here, I’m seeing more and more clearly as pre­sent in everyone, a hunger that I’ve found within myself and within my com­mu­nity as much as out in our neigh­bor­hood—e­merges beneath those mate­rial needs. That’s what hap­pened with Maria. As the months went by, I saw her every few weeks in the same spot. One morning when I had a little money I went with her to buy a sand­wich and spent most of the morning with her, but it was usu­ally just sit­ting with her for a few min­utes after mass. Some morn­ings she was respon­sive, some days closed and dis­tant; some days ready to laugh, other days a little deflated; some days sober, some days not. Over the weeks, I started looking for her as I left the church, and little by little she became a part of my life here.

Then last week I was walking out of the church alone—they have Eucharistic ado­ra­tion every Wednesday after mass, and I stayed for a few min­utes to pray, while the rest of the com­mu­nity had either already left or were still praying. I was about to exit the church, walking with my head abuzz with all the things I had to do that morning, so dis­tracted that I almost walked past her. She was slouched in the second to last pew, awake but in a daze, and seeing her was like walking into a wall: just the sight of her pulled me out of myself, out of the haze of all the plans I was making, and brought me back to the world, back to the pre­sent. I walked slowly toward her and sat down at her side. I don’t remember if I offered a weak “hello,” said her name softly, or just sat in silence; I just remember that a few sec­onds after I sat down she col­lapsed into my lap and wrapped her arms tight around my waist. She didn’t say any­thing for a long time, just laid there and squeezed, and when she did speak I under­stood almost nothing. I just sat there, holding her as she held me, cradling her head when she cried and smiling with her when, after about an hour, she looked up into my eyes and laughed. Shortly after laughing, she sat up again and we walked out of the church and into the sun­light together.

Part of what made the morning so pow­erful was that throughout the hour that I sat with Maria, the Eucharist was exposed up on the altar. Being able to look from her face to the face of Jesus, to feel her broken body in my lap and know that Jesus’ broken body was pre­sent and real in the same room, made the link between her suf­fering and the suf­fering of Christ, the link between His pres­ence on the altar and His pres­ence in His poor, so much more tan­gible, and made the call to respond to that suf­fering and poverty more urgent.

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