It was a glorious day. Autumn was in the air. An armada of white, puffy clouds floated on a horizon painted deep, crystal blue. For our family of eight, it was one of those very rare, short breaths between frenetic summer and school activity. The only thing planned was church. Stepping outside the first time I couldn’t help but take it all in and think, “What a gift.” Little did I know.
What are they doing here?
Making our way toward church we couldn’t escape a couple with two, very young children. They were positioned outside the main entrance with a sign asking for help.
The barrage of questions. Are they legit? Did I bring my wallet? What should I give? Isn’t this someone else’s job? Where is government when you need it? Is there another door?
Discomfort can be a good thing. It can break down the walls of our comfort-crafted worlds designed to keep us incubated, removed from those not like us. To keep us, well, comfortable.
Reading the newspaper, I’m often struck by the ease with which I can so easily dismiss the plight of the world. Real people with real problems reduced to a page. All I have to do is turn it.
This young family couldn’t be so easily dismissed. They were clearly alone. From another country. The sign spoke of real need. A family does not subject themselves to such humiliation without some kind of need. Their presence commanded a response. More pointedly, it wasn’t so much about me evaluating the situation, but rather the situation evaluating me.
What am I doing here?
In the next hour my words would profess God as the Supreme Giver. I would not simply petition, but avail myself to being His answer. In sacred ways I would enter into a holy communion. Would there be integrity to my “Amen”? Would my life judge me to be sincere, or merely ceremonious?
A number of parishioners were moved to give some money. Joining them, I wondered, is that sufficient? I tried to inquire. In fragmentary English the dad expressed that they were Romanian and lived in New York. He had come to Erie expecting a job, but complications with a green card made that impossible. They had spent the prior two nights sleeping in a car. They needed gas money to return. I asked how much he needed. He expressed perhaps $150 or so — for the gas, tolls, food and such. There was an overall feeling of helplessness.
I took his cell phone number just before they were asked to leave the property.
Throughout Mass I could not stop thinking about them. My professions were measuring me. What are they worth? Again, am I sincere, or merely ceremonious? How far would I be willing to go? We have room at our house. Would we make that available if necessary? We don’t have many resources, but the amount we spend on discretionary things could very well be the amount they needed to get home. Which is of greater worth?
I couldn’t help but imagine. What if our situations were reversed? What if we found ourselves, for whatever reason, in their land? If we could not speak the language? If we had absolutely no means? I imagined my wife and children looking to me, depending upon me. Would we not go to a church with a sign? And if not there, where? The thought choked me up.
I had to follow through. After Mass, I had to find someone who spoke Romanian.
Amidst our Sunday brunch and activity, I kept making inquiries, hoping and praying for a return. After a couple hours I finally found a lead for a Romanian Catholic Church in New Jersey. By providence, Fr. David, an English/Romanian-speaking priest, answered the phone. An evidently compassionate man, he had given much in life to aid Romanian immigrants for thirty years.
Things moved quickly from there. Fr. David contacted our immigrant friends and called me back, clarifying the circumstances. With due skepticism, he expressed a sense of general legitimacy with the story. He advised that $150 should be sufficient to get them back home. I asked him to call them back and arrange for us to meet at the church.
Moments later Fr. David called me back. He reported that the dad, upon hearing our intent, could not stop weeping.
It all happened so quickly I had not given serious thought to the question of where we’d come up with the $150. A thought came to me.
My wife and I founded a nonprofit organization called Image Trinity. Our mission is essentially to invite families to live the adventure of family. By God’s design, we believe that family, in our capacity to love, images the Trinity. Our great mission is to reveal God, Who is love, to the world.
Integral to this movement are monthly events called Made2Worship. Words cannot describe, but here’s an attempt. As the sun gradually sets to uplifting worship, as the church grows darker, a multitude of candles placed upon a tall, pyramidal structure brightly illuminate Jesus in the monstrance. These candles are brought up earlier by participants.
This “Burning Bush” is not simply a powerful symbol of who we are, but of what we are to do. We are illumined by Christ to illuminate Christ.
So I remembered that we had “candle money” from people who purchased candles at the events. But would there be enough? I pulled out the envelope, and counted… yes, $150 exactly. I was suddenly overcome with an awareness that all this was, and had always been, in the guiding hand of “Someone else.”
My wife and I mustered up some “travel food” and toy items and headed off to meet the family. Their well-worn minivan validated that this was more than transportation. My wife stooped down to the little girl and handed her a baby doll. Her bright, brown eyes beamed. She kept kissing the doll, hugging her, gazing at her, as if to be reassured that it wasn’t a dream.
With tears streaming down his face, the dad took my hand and kissed it multiple times. He did the same for my wife. He was overwhelmed. In gestures and fragmented words, he repeatedly expressed the best way he could his gratitude: that they would be praying for us.
So, at the end of the day, am I 100% convinced that their story is legit? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that God did His thing. He knew. He put it altogether. He drew us all to worship Him, to illuminate Him with more than mere candles, but with our lives… even if just for one family whose needs in one moment we would never fully understand.
At the end of the day I return to my first thought, “What a gift.” I am humbly aware that there are the givers and the given. And depending upon the time of day, each of us are both.
At the end of the day I am aware that all is gift… and the greatest value of a gift is its capacity to turn the given into the next giver. And with that, I am so moved as a Catholic Christian to more fully understand that all this is literally embodied in the central sacrament of our faith, Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, whose root eucharistas simply means “to give thanks.”