I’ve been thinking about another story today that is drawn from about twenty-five years ago, when I was a fairly new priest. I was very enthusiastic, but still figuring out what it meant to be a priest, so was still making lots of mistakes. This story is about one of those mistakes, from which I gained a little more insight into the nature of the priestly vocation.
The parish in which I was serving was in California. Although I was born and raised in California, I was returning after an absence of about twenty years. Consequently, I was not prepared for the couple who showed up in my doorway unable to speak a word of English.
The fact that they could not speak English irritated me, just a little bit. I have no doubt that a piece of that irritation was drawn from the embarrassment that I could not speak Spanish. I grew up with Spanish being spoken all around me. I even took Spanish in school. But for some reason, I never picked it up. Perhaps it was all that “I’m not a Mexican!” stuff from my last story. For whatever reason, I only speak English. That in itself is somewhat embarrassing. My wife speaks at least five languages. In Europe, the norm is to be multilingual. The expectation that in some places everyone is at least bilingual seems to be just plain common sense. That’s how communication problems are avoided in other places. On that day in California, we had a serious communication problem. The couple standing in my doorway and I had no common language.
I could see the couple’s old pickup through the window in my office. It was late Spring, so I assumed they were migrant workers, following the crops along the El Camino Real. When I was growing up in California, I’d not paid much attention to the migrant workers, who I would sometimes see working the fields under the hot California sun. I picked strawberries and beans to make some money one Summer, so I knew that working in the fields was hard work. So hard in fact, that most folks quickly find easier employment. Without migrant workers, the crops will not get harvested. This couple in my doorway were most likely among those who have been migrating up and down the West Coast harvesting crops for many generations.
I was wearing my clerical collar. Back then, as a young priest, full of vim and vigor, I think I slept with my collar on. So I was determined to help this couple get back on the road. I walked up to them, shook their hands and rubbed my stomach as I said “Hola. Hambre?” That about exhausted my Spanish vocabulary. They looked at each other, muttered something, and then turned to me, smiled, and nodded their heads. The church food pantry was closed, so I gestured for them to follow me in their truck to the local store.
I got a cart, and was picking things off the shelf, to be met with shaking heads. So I backed off, and let them take the cart. They chose a couple of pieces of fruit, some tomatoes, and a pack of tortillas. In the parking lot, they seemed hesitant to get back in their truck and leave, so I gestured again for them to follow, and drove them to the motel that I sometimes used to put folks up who needed help from the church.
I hate to admit it, but the motels that will give the church a discount are often “last resort” kind of places. The room the manager let me show the couple was really bad. They looked around, and without even speaking to each other, both smiled at me and shook their heads.
I offered them food, and they chose a light lunch. I offered them shelter, and they declined. What did they need? I gestured for them to follow me, and took them to the gas station.
Their tank only took a few gallons. They weren’t hungry. They didn’t need a room. And they were not out of gas. But here they were, in the parking lot of the gas station, staring at me, still not ready to leave. Feeling like a complete failure for my inability to communicate, and so not meet whatever need still had them rooted in the asphalt of that parking lot, I stretched my Spanish vocabulary and muttered “Adios” as I shook their hands.
I turned and began to slowly walk to my car. I heard a voice say “Padre.” I turned around, and the couple I had failed were both on their knees, right there in the parking lot. So I offered them God’s blessing, laying hands on them both and making a large sign of the cross over them, as I knew they didn’t understand the words I was saying. But it seemed to be enough. They both got up off their knees, and, with glowing grins, shook my hand again, and jumped in their truck and roared away.
They didn’t need food, or shelter, or fuel. They needed God’s blessing; they needed an assurance of God’s grace for their journey. Imagine that.
It is so important that we discern correctly the needs of those who present themselves to us. All Christians, including clergy, are called to be clear conduits of God’s grace. We receive the gift of grace, God’s unmerited love, and it flows through us out into the world. The way we allow grace to flow depends on the situation, of course. And in some situations, offering food, shelter and fuel are a good way to express grace.
But in most cases, those seeking out clergy are looking for a priest, not a social worker. That is the lesson I learned that day. And I also walked away with a new respect for my brothers and sisters who are migrant workers, some of whom will endure a stumbling and bumbling young priest with such grace and patience that they become instruments of God’s grace themselves.