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.