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《Six Days at a Peruvian home run by Brothers of Missionaries of Charity》__Ernest Yau (65)

In his journal entry on February 10, 1982, Henri Nouwen penned these words in Peru, “It is the vision that ministry means first of all searching for God where people are lost, confused, broken, and poor. Often I have gone to such people to bring them back to God, to the sacraments, and to the church. But that is acting and living as if God is where I am, and as if my first task is to bring others to my place. When, however, God is with the poor and marginal, then I have to dare to go there, live there, and find him there.”

I spend six days in Hogar de la Paz, in the La Perla Callao area of Lima, Peru, a home run by Brothers of Missionaries of Charity (MC) which was founded by Mother Teresa. Though the streets look clean and well maintained, it belies a reality more than meets the eye. On a side street, one shop’s store front has metal bars through which transactions between owner and customers are made. During my stay, one morning there is a shooting a block or so away on the main avenue. Some taxi drivers, I am told, may not bring passengers to the vicinity. Serving the poor in this location since the 1980s, the home embodies the Gospel (John 1:14): The Word, God in Jesus, became flesh and blood (human), and moved into the bad neighborhood.

Developmentally disabled males, currently numbering 25-30, aged 25-45, are cared for in the home. Their mental retardation condition is compounded by physical or emotional impairment or both. Many have been here for one or more decades. Currently four non-Peruvian Brothers serve the poor and needy, assisted by a staff of local women who prepare and serve meals, do the dishes, laundry and miscellaneous housekeeping chores. Volunteers from the community, ranging from warm, grandmotherly women to university psychology professor and his energetic students, have streamed through the compound, offering emotional and social support. I witness a sight of disabled men rarely seen: When they move and dance in the theatrical and musical activities, they come alive with Latin American flair! Among a few whose birthdays are celebrated with cake and song, one man’s eyes get misty, so touched by the women’s kindness. Showered upon them are diverse expressions of human goodness of which I add drops in the oceanic love of God.

Serving the poorest of the poor in a Missionaries of Charity home offers an unusually intimate and starkly real encounter with humanity. I help with serving meals, feeding the severely disabled, changing their diapers as needed before turning off lights at bed time and dressing them after morning bathing. None of these tasks is demanding yet the physically or mentally dependent men rely on others for such basic care daily. Nevertheless,doingsomething forthem complements well withbeingwiththem - the gift of presence - together a truly winsome service to the poor. Working alongside one Brother as I learn the rope of care-giving, we lightheartedly sing a jolly tune and affectionately play and laugh with the disabled men, while vibrating a genuine sense of loving and liking them. We offer our presence which is a many-flavored thing indeed.

I feed rice and chicken to a severely disabled man in a wheel chair. I move each spoonful of soup into his mouth slowly while maintaining a soft gaze and gentle smile, a moment of close attention. The steady rhythm is suddenly interrupted when he coughs and spits out food all over his bib. Not a pretty scene. I feel repulsed but nonchalantly I clean him, while I pray for grace to get past my visceral reaction. One man’s childlike face and innocent smile irresistibly charms me to curl up on a bench with him like two puppies. To another with a pair of eyes that looks straight through me, dazed and hollow, I gesture with my two fingers from his eyeball to mine to make eye contact. In time the frozen shell cracks and out wiggles a beautiful smile.

Leaning against the wall and slouching on the ground in the open court is a man who looks unapproachable, if not hostile. Afterhola, I position myself next to him in the same body posture. Silence. Then I tap his hand every time passing him while I walk with someone. He apparently does not mind me doing so. When I squeeze his hand gently, he brushes off the physical contact initially. Over time whenever I extend my hand, he reaches out his to touch mine in response, giving away a hint of intention. In the end, he never smiles once but his demeanor has softened a bit. Self-absorbed and acting strange, one man does not socialize with anyone, yet he kicks a rubber ball with modest interest. We develop a rhythm of passing it back and forth. As his face lights up with glee, the birth of mirth reveals a glimpse of his humanness.

Alone in the big fenced athletic space, one man keeps himself company by making a bird sound. Imitating his bird call, I greet him to which he earnestly hops towards my direction. I extend my hand to receive him and he reciprocates with a radiant smile. Whistling half decently, we duet a song back and forth jubilantly. He then jumps up and down in excitement to which I follow suit. Momentarily I sense a togetherness between us, though separated by a physical fence, with our hands gripping and eyes gazing, making music of major and minor keys, of divine love and human suffering. Loving someone until it hurts is to allow myself to feel his pain and to let his suffering soften my heart. In that raw human connection, life-giving and life-changing experience unfolds. He has let me into his world and I him into mine. In the here and now, just the way he is and I am, together we create a moment of intimacy, mutuality, wholeness and authenticity - a gift of presence made possible by the Presence.

Tapping into God the Source allows me to love others beyond human ability. Contemplative prayer is the pipeline into the already and always present reservoir of love. The Brothers invite me to their daily praying, a significant part of their community life, at six different times in the little chapel - including singing, meditation, spiritual reading, silence and celebration of the Eucharist. In the week I delicately navigate a contemplative living that balances between communal and personal prayer. Contemplation flourishes the soul that touches the world. In the exclusive audience of One, I become more inclusive, embracing oneness with all. First taste the love of God, the rest are mere details. Having been loved by the Other, loving others follows. In the Presence, divine love flows through me into human suffering. Enlivened, I stand in solidarity with the poor in a sea of humanity. This is mystery which has more surprises for me.

Holiness awakens my consciousness when love is channeled from one disabled to another without a hint of pretentiousness. In the bedroom, standing next to a more functional man, as if in slow motion, I watch him caring for a significantly impaired one: Gently and attentively, he wipes the smear, cleans the area and then changes into a new diaper, while carefully positioning, lifting and covering the body with blankets against the morning cool, emitting grace, kindness and patience throughout. Or in the day room another impaired individual playfully and softly strokes the hair of a severely and multiply disabled man who is confined to a reclining wheel chair. His eyes sparkle as he gazes affectionately at the less fortunate brother who beams back an innocent, heartening smile. With two pair of eyes locking and exuding loving tenderness, time stands still. When holy breaks into the ordinary, Jesus in disguise, clothed in the uncanny ability of the lesser to give to the least of brothers (Matthew 25:40), is made visible.

God is indeed in the midst of the marginalized, disadvantaged and forgotten, as Nouwen’s quote points out. He shows up where human smallness, weakness, vulnerability, brokenness and powerlessness abound. In spite of their limited capacity, the childlike quality of the disabled - a heart of trust, goodwill and simplicity - magnifies God’s compassion in mysterious ways. Grace and suffering are two sides of the same coin in God’s economy. In the crucible, the suffering flame and melting grace together flourish the human soul and make the world a better place. Unbeknownst to the disabled poor, their humbleness and scarcity have enlarged and enriched my soul in this third tour of service to the Third World poor with MC Brothers. To this unique feature is added the unprecedented experience of sharing such a close community life with the Brothers who share all three meals with me besides daily prayers. On one social night, we play the card game of Uno. Not blessed with beginner’s luck, I lose pathetically but laugh heartily. I am grateful for their graciousness in my short stay.

In the last morning, goodbye finds its many expressions in hugs, kisses or handshakes besides words of endearment, both joyfulness and sadness. All said, I return to my room, bursting into tears one minute, only to fight them another. The floodgate of emotions is finally lifted next day in my hotel room in Quito, Ecuador. Sobbing, I message Millie who holds me closely in her empathy arms in the north continent, “I miss those men whose faces move me deeply…God’s love is too big to contain…I’m feeling their pain and loving them.”

Next days I spent some time in Ecuadorian Galapagos and Amazon rainforest. In spite of extremely unforgiving physical environment, the archipelago has endowed the world with Pacific green sea turtles and giant tortoises, blue-footed and red-footed boobies, marine and land iguanas, just as the disabled poor, despite their inhospitable life circumstances, have graced me with a gift from God. Hiking in the rainforest guided by a Quichuas naturalist brings to mind another indigenous group that one particular young missionary, Jim Elliot, served decades ago. Be it serving the urban poor or jungle Indians, Missionaries of Charity Brothers and Sisters have something to live for whereas Jim Elliot something to die for, whose poignant and profound words still reverberate in my soul: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

For your prayers, Gracias! Until next city, Adios.


“To know and be known”

“To love at a great cost” (John 10:14 &11)


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