I’d like to begin by sharing what happened to me today.
It’s been only one week since stepping down from my full time position. So, this evolution of my ministry from Executive Director of the Mission of Hope is certainly evolving and painful and difficult, yet right. And I confess today was particularly emotional. So, what does one do when evolving? Well, I was doing something which, for me, is rather mundane. I was grocery shopping. Now, for Sr. Steph, it’s an “outing” which she loves to do, as she strolls down the aisle in her wheelchair, taking in the sights and savoring the view and the experience. For me, it’s a task to be completed.
However, in the midst of this shopping trip, I was totally taken aback as I drove into the parking area of the grocery store. On the curb, there was this mother and son with a sign asking for help. This may not be out of the ordinary for most folks, and certainly it’s something I’ve seen a thousand times in Nicaragua, but it’s not very common up here in my neck of the woods.
BUT THIS TIME, IT WAS DIFFERENT! First, the son was a teenager, and second, the mother was playing violin music, absolutely beautiful and haunting violin music on the curb.
I parked the vehicle, asked the aide to start into the store with Steph and I walked over to where the woman was. She was truly lovely, but with a tense face and deeply sad eyes. I couldn’t understand how those sad eyes could transcend into the same person playing such soul stirring and beautiful music.
I introduced myself as Sr. Debbie and then asked her name and her son’s name. She said something to her son and I realized I didn’t understand the language. It wasn’t Spanish or French and obviously not English. He told me they were from Romania and that his mother said that “a few people had stopped, many were kind (implying some were unkind), but none had offered their name. You were the first person who did so.” She then told me they left Romania because they lived in the Northern part of Romania and the fighting in Ukraine was getting too close. She was afraid for her 4 children. I’ve always believed that part of sharing hope, part of mission and ministry, is to be willing to listen… and that’s what I was trying to do, truly listen with my heart.
After a few more exchanges of details, I realized I was crying and she was also crying. Her son put his arm around her protectively. I then did something many will question as to whether it was wise or prudent…I hugged the woman while she sobbed, then wrote my cell number on a piece of paper and handed it to her.
Yes, I’m fully aware of how easily I could have been taken advantage of. I’m aware my purse could have been taken, and I could have exposed myself to COVID while trying to fight cancer and care for Steph. I’m also fully aware that I could not control any ill motives, but could only control my motives, my offer of compassion, my need to share hope and kindness.
Before giving her a little money, I asked her where she intended to go and she said Virginia because a friend had a place she could rent for her and her children. When I asked her where the other 3 children were, she said the oldest daughter (age 17) was watching the other 2 little ones (ages 3 and 7) and they were all staying with an acquaintance locally for 2-3 days until she had enough money to get them to Virginia. She quickly offered their names and ages without prompting, now perhaps trusting just a bit more.
I’m sure it could be easy for folks to poke holes in her story or tell me I was naive, which I’ve heard a thousand times before; but again, I knew what I could share was hope. I knew I could listen to her story. I knew that my motives were pure and I sensed hers were as well….especially with a thin young 15 year old boy standing next to her. I was willing, as the poet Mary Oliver has said, “ to have my heart break open”!
I then did the ultimate risky thing, which was ask what they wanted to eat since I was going into the grocery store. I spouted off a litany of foods at the deli, packaged items and types of drinks. She looked at me, with tears still flowing and said (through her son), just a little piece of chicken and some water.
That was the moment of my heart breaking fully open! They could have asked for anything because essentially I offered anything, yet they only asked for chicken and water. If I’ve learned anything in my 24 years of Mission of Hope in Nicaragua, it was that those who are truly hungry, ask for the bare bone necessities..and that’s often water or soda and chicken.
In the moments while I walked back toward the store, flashes of all those we’ve served in Nica and other places, flooded my senses. And a deep deep sense of grief fell over me. It was grief from letting go of my Mission of Hope ministry, it was grief from realizing all those I couldn’t feed today, it was grief from knowing I may never encounter this woman again after today, and I cried. I cried for her and if truth be told, I cried for me too!
A few minutes later, I returned with a bag of chicken and bottles of water. Felicia and Armando, her son, exchanged hugs with me again, this time with expressions of gratitude. My final words to them, “Be safe, have Hope, and never give up”! She then began playing her violin once again.
So, stepping away from full time ministry in the Mission of Hope is not going to be easy.
Why this woman, this son, this experience today? My only answer….indeed, the “mission” will always find us if we are open and attentive.
As a Religious Sister and as a Dominican Sister of Hope, we never view ourselves as retired. While there may be evolution to our ministries, we never retire from “mission” within our congregation. Your mission, my mission, our mission, will always be to share hope and compassion. As a Dominican Sister of Hope, we say it this way: “We, Dominican sisters of Hope, are called to preach the Gospel to our world. In communion with all creation, we commit ourselves to the transforming power of Hope.” The Mission of Hope says it this way, …”North Country Mission of Hope is committed to fostering Hope and empowering relationships….”
And how we do that is as varied as each of us as humans.
The poet, Mary Oliver, says it this way, “I tell you this to break open your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world”.
So, as you reflect on this experience, may you and I always discern how to listen with our hearts and allow our hearts to break open…..with hope and compassion for those on our journey!