My job has many facets. I work at a very old church, and the building itself is actually the eighth building for a church community that stretches back to the turn of the eighteenth century. Because of its historic significance (second-oldest continuously-operating parish in the U.S.) and its cultural significance (first to the wave of French settlers, now home to a vibrant Hispanic population) folks stop by all the time to see the church. Maybe they want to take a photo or two. Maybe they want to tell me a story (“…my grandmother was married here in 1954, did you know her….”).
There are community interest groups who stop by, too–buses of senior citizens on outings, historical societies, things of that nature. This week I was swamped with schoolchildren coming to see our Day of the Dead altars.
Last week a bus came full of students. Maybe they were fourteen years old. Maybe.
It was a diverse group—all shades of skin tones represented. I try to make my tours interactive. I ask questions. We move around. I tell stories. I tell them they can pick one student to go and lead a prayer or a song from the top of the very high, historic pulpit. The girl who ascended the steps sang a gospel song about naming Jesus king. We applauded.
There was another girl, a practicing Muslim from the looks of her headscarf and long-sleeved, long-skirted ensemble. (Muslims often practice a strict form of modesty–arms and legs and head all covered in flowing, draping material. But, in retrospect, I was not dressed too differently. That day I wore a maxi skirt, the hem brushing the ground. The cold of the cavernous, unheated church kept me in a full-sleeve sweater, and I even had a scarf wrapped around my hair-in-sore-need-of-a-cut).
She raised her hand.
I called on her.
Question after question she asked, all tour long, even after the tour had stopped and the kids were supposed to be taking pictures and exploring on their own. Her questions demonstrated a deep theological understanding, so deep that I often wondered how to answer at a level that could engage her peers.
“What is your description of heaven? How do you know what it looks like?”
“How do you know that God answered your prayers when you asked the saint to pray for you? Maybe he just answered on his own.”
“How do you know Jesus rose from the dead?”
“Do you have scholars in your tradition?”
“Do you know the story of the man who smashed the statues of the saints? They were smashed. They had no power. Why would they just let themselves be smashed like that?”
She wasn’t abrasive. She was gentle. And curious. And she has stories like my stories, because the Koran and the Bible have stories that overlap sometimes. Only, they stray a little, too, and we each didn’t exactly know where our respective stories ended and the others picked up.
So we tread gently, spoke softly, asked questions.
Muslims share one thing with Catholics that even my Protestant brothers and sisters don’t share with me–a special love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother.
I knew she had stories of Mary in the Koran–more, I’m told, than are even mentioned in the Bible. I asked her if she knew them. She said she did. She knew about the birth. She knew about the pregnancy which, in her words was, “a blessing from God.”
I smiled. I said, “Do you have a story of her receiving the message of this pregnancy from God?”
We have a painting of this moment (we call it the “Annunciation”) displayed high above the ground. I walked to the spot, pointed it out to her.
“Do you have the messenger?” I asked, “Gabriel?”
“Yes,” she said, “we say he was an angel.”
“We say that, too,” I said, “I just didn’t know if you had angels as well.”
“Is that Mary?” she asked.
“She’s wearing a headscarf?!” she asked.
I smiled. Of all the people in the church, this little Muslim girl looked most like the image—young and tanned and her head wrapped in the ancient style.
“Yeah,” I told her, “she is.”
She left with more questions. “I just don’t understand,” she would say, “I just don’t understand.”
It was time for the children to leave. I walked them to the bus, waved at them through the windows, closed the door of the church, locked it.
Before I walked back to my desk, though, I stayed in the church a few extra minutes, prayed a few extra prayers.
When taking this job, I did not expect to be touched so deeply by the people who visit the church every day. Frequently, after giving tours, I find myself in my car, crying.
Accompanying people searching for meaning and truth and simple comfort is, it turns out, very real and requires so much love…every day.
Last week, the day after that tour, I went to a charity function for a charity group that works with refugees.
“Refugees” is such an odd title.
Really, any title given to humans is odd and, somehow, less dignified than any human deserves. Because now these humans are this description, this title, instead of simply being humans like you or like me.
But, anyway, refugees.
And these refugees are beautiful people who have escaped their homelands for very serious reasons. And almost all of them have been tortured at the hands of their military or government. Maybe its because they voted for the “wrong” candidate or said the wrong thing to an official…or maybe they ran for an office against someone corrupt. Or maybe they wrote a newsarticle about the wrong person….or maybe they were just the wrong race, with the wrong skin tint and the wrong lineage.
I had toured their housing days prior. In one room, two women were fixing hair. One sat in a chair, the other at her feet. The one at the feet didn’t answer my greeting very quickly. She barely answered the woman showing me around.
Later, when the door closed behind us, the tour guide whispered that she had lost her hearing at the hands of her torturers.
I held their babies, the babies of these victims of horrific violence. I held their wiggly little bodies and their laughing, happy faces, and I just wished as deeply as I could that their lives would never know this sorrow.
At the charity event, one of the speakers mentioned the nature of the attitude in our nation against people who are “different,” people with the refugee status.
And I thought about the Muslim girl’s departing line to me.
“I just don’t understand,” she said, “I just don’t understand.”
Today my friend texted me.
For real, though, went the nature of the text, who are we supposed to vote for?
This isn’t a political post. I’m not making it that. I don’t need to hear about how the person you’ve decided to vote for is THE BEST and the other one is THE WORST because, frankly, 85% of my social media is convinced and shouting harsh words and mean memes at each other, but I am still unconvinced.
Well, I am convinced of one thing: none of the candidates is the savior I’ve been expecting. And both kind of look like a hot mess to me. (That being said, I know that God is just crazy about each of them, and that’s the beauty and wonder of the Gospel, isn’t it?)
I answered the text honestly.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but here are some baby pictures.”
And I sent attachment after attachment of the babies in my life–the ones with tiny faces and hands and little socks on their little feet.
I’ve been thinking a bit about something one of the dogs mentioned on a Three Dogs North podcast a hot second back (honestly, listen to the ‘cast already) (and vote for them) (Fr. Connor, I was going to say, “…something one of my friends said,” but I wasn’t sure if we were friends yet or not. Please clarify).
This guy (Fr. Connor. Friendship status: undefined) was talking about the most deeply real moments of our lives, and the things that impact us the most. Those, he pointed out, aren’t our national politics or far-reaching policies (even though those are important. I know they are). The things that form us, rather, are the families we live in, the communities we share.
How many of your most life-shaping memories, those from your childhood, were from political decisions or figureheads’ words?
And, I mean, of course they can become memories for you. For instance, I remember knowing that “Bob Dole” was running for president when I was a child. I also remembering being surprised that the bananas at the market across the street from the library were promoting his cause. Little did I know–different Doles.
But, that didn’t shape my life completely, did it? More of what shaped my life were my parents who sat us down for dinner together every day. More of what shaped my life were the aunts and uncles who came to my silly child birthday parties and plays. More of what shaped my life were the volunteers who taught me Bible stories with puppets and songs every summer at Vacation Bible School.
The human who is elected POTUS is important, and the policies and politics of today are important. And praying for these and voting where you can is important. Vastly, vastly important.
But (and this has been saving my sanity during this season): no matter the outcome next week…we will still be humans, and God will still be God, and we will all still have decisions to make that can impact our world. And this will be our responsibility.
There is a very favorite prayer of mine that we sometimes pray on select days/ at select masses. The prayer is one where we renew the promises of baptism.
“Do you reject Satan?” we are asked.
(“I do,” is the response).
“And all his works? And all his empty promises?”
(“I DO,” again, and boldly).
Despair is a sneaky Satan tactic. Super sneaky. And I think that there is a temptation to look at this election and despair. It’s there. For sure. With plenty of fodder on each side. But that’s not what I’m called to, people of God.
My mom has a picture of the feet of St. Teresa of Calcutta hanging in the bathroom. Her feet are deformed and mangled from wearing the wrong size shoes and living with the poorest of the poor and what not.
Ask me something about Indian politics and policies over the past 40 years. India. The nation with over a billion people. Ask me the top politicians, the policy-makers.
I don’t know many of them. If any of them.
But, I do know the name of this one nun who decided to pick the dying off of the streets every night, wash them, and holds their hands so they wouldn’t die alone. She is the one who changed the world.
Ugly will exist. It exists everywhere and in all pockets, because we live in a broken reality.
And Jesus Christ, unfortunately, is not now or ever running for President of the United States.
But, He still has my vote, the vote of my life, which is more important than any ballot I’ll ever submit.
There are a lot of vulnerable voices this election. Scores and scores of the vulnerable. The unborn. The refugees. The Muslims. Pick a minority and know that the world is a fragile place for minorities…always, but also right now. And, come next week, no matter who is elected, vulnerable, fragile voices will be ignored.
But, we can’t despair. And we’re not powerless.
It is likely that that Muslim girl will never return to my church. It is likely that she will attend her mosque for the rest of her life and we will never, ever cross paths again.
But, for one day, she visited my church. And she asked me serious, deep questions in a curious and forthright matter. And I answered her equally seriously. And it was a powerful moment for me, to experience the beauty of a human who opened her heart enough to ask me about the things that are most important to me. I wish more people were like her. I wish I was more like her.
And I still get that decision. No matter who is elected, as long as I have breath and what not, I can still make decisions that contribute to the beauty of the world, the goodness of the world, the kindness of the world.
And, you know what? God will still be God.
Pray. Hope. And don’t despair.