The Stranger among Them

E. Cordova – 2008.

I don’t know how it happened, but somewhere along the way I earned people’s trust. Time and time again I was the stranger among them, yet always welcomed in. I was welcomed in to hearts and homes time and time again to dine. It’s humbling and it has profoundly changed me.

I was the stranger, the outcast, and the foreigner who was welcomed into this foreign land of Pirua, Peru. Although, I’d been to Piura before this was so much different. It was as if I became one of them in the pew.

We often treat foreigners so poorly in the states. We have lines, borders, and divisions. We take sides and want to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Yet, there are no divisions in the gospel.

I held sacred space day in and out. People openly shared their hopes, dreams, and joys with me. Along the way I was invited into a new home that had been in progress for many years. I was invited for a meal to sit at table more than once inside a home out in a village. I heard about upcoming engagements, wedding plans and babies soon to be born. Dreams of becoming a doctor and lawyer too.

Then there were the harder things to listen to, like tragedy and death. I watched many grown men cry. I listened to people tell me of their emptiness, sadness, fear and despair. A miscarriage a few months ago, a tumor that is growing daily with worry, a parent shot during a robbery while in his taxi, a man who was so depressed he couldn’t get out of bed now that his wife abandoned him and his three kids. Worry and anxiety about paying for children’s schools expenses and putting food on the table.

I heard stories from people in the villages, the clinic, and people in the pews. Missionaries and staff too. So many stories. So much sacred space to hold. Is this what the priest experiences in the confessional I wondered? I heard things I wish I didn’t know. Things I want to forget. And things about people I know. Help me Lord not to judge, I would often ask. I had to remind myself often of the broken world in which we live and how easy it is for one to fall to sin.

How it is they all felt comfortable telling me this stuff? What did I do to earn their trust? Because by golly they are pouring out their hearts to me and I’m surprised by all this.

One day I’m leaving mass and feel very strongly to go and pray with this elderly gentleman and so I do. As I’m leaving, suddenly another man grabs my arm and says “me to, me to”. So I oblige and pray with him to. Several days later he finds me.

He tells a friend who’s fluent in Spanish that he’s so happy now. He’s full of joy and wants to thank me. We become instant friends. For his gentleness, smile, and eyes tell me he’s a good and trust worthy man. Something about him reminds me of my dad. So for the next month I sit with him at mass and we share a pew. I learn he too is divorced just like me. Somehow we get by with our limited conversation abilities to share little things.

The amazing thing about all this is that God uses this friendship of me being the stranger and him being the one everyone knows to bring life to so many. Whenever I felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit to pray, all I had to do was give my friend the look and he knew. Together we would walk over and he’d explain that I felt called to pray. We let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Amazing things happened and a fellowship of those I was getting to know was growing at a rapid pace.

Then there’s the man who comes every day to the parish to see the nurse. He has cancer in his eye and an open wound. I’ve prayed with him several times. So when I’d see him daily sitting outside waiting, I’d always say hello. He too now feels like my friend.

I would see the women from Casa Maria many times at the parish. The men from the rehab clinic and so many more. They all remembered me. They’d give me hugs and the stranger I am is welcomed in like I’m one of them. It’s very strange to me, as I wonder why they are all so welcoming to me?

Then it’s my very last day in Piura and one moment pulls it all together for me. I once again walk to that bridge of in between here and there. I buy my one tangerine and somehow I’m able to peel it all back in one peel. I’m quite impressed by this skill I’ve now acquired. I sit for a long time and wonder about so many things. I think all about my morning, my trip, and the journey to this very bridge. I’ve seen the power of God and it’s changed me. I wonder now what home will be like. Will I be as welcomed there as I am here? For so many times I was more comfortable here then among my own family and friends.

I’m on my way back from the bridge and I need to hurry. I still have to take a shower and pack for my flight home. All of a sudden I hear my name “Lisa…!” Which I seem to hear often now in Piura. I look up and it’s the painter I know. “How are you, he asks? When are you leaving for Chicago?”

Today, I tell him. I’m stunned, I have a friend on the street. In the middle of downtown Piura, I have a friend! Mi Amigo! For I am recognized here, it’s so strange and yet it melts my heart too.

Suddenly, he says “come, come, I show you.”

So we walk down the street a little and then cross. I’m concerned how far he’s going to take me as I only have a little time, I remember I still need to pack. I trust him so I follow anyway. I say, “how far?” “Right here”, he responds. So just down from crossing the street is a vehicle. In the vehicle is his family in which he introduces me to as his friend from Chicago. He tells them I have a few of his paintings back home.

He then opens the back hatch of the car and pulls out two very large paintings. They were huge, I mean something you’d hang in a very large space like a grand dining room. He begins to unroll them and lays them on the side walk. People are passing by and walk around us. I am completely aware of the sacredness of this moment. For this painter is sharing his unfinished work with me! I know a little something about this as I don’t usually share my writings till they’re complete. And there he is sharing his beautiful work with me.

The larger painting was of the The Last Supper. I’m so taken by it. He’s a man of faith and it shows in his work. I tell him they are beautiful. And they are, his work is stunning. Very dynamic. Thank you for showing me, I tell him. He says, “still need to finish and then rattles off how many hours it will take him.” He rolls up the paintings, puts them in the car and begins to say good bye.

Immediately I begin to cry. He hugs me and in this moment I hug him tighter and do not want to let go. He too reminds me of my dad, whose gentle spirit continues to show up in these random gray hair men I now call my friends.

In the midst of my tears on his shoulder, he then says this and moves by heart beyond words “Oh Lisa, I pray, I pray for you. You have a marvelous heart.” I cannot stop crying, I don’t even know why, and I’m so moved by his words. How does he know my heart I wonder? What does he see that I cannot see? How is it he trusted me with his unfinished work?

We say our goodbyes and I tell him, God willing I will see you again. I then head back to the parish to shower and pack before I go. The whole way home on the plane I cannot stop thinking that I now have friends! I have friends! I have friends in Piura, a community of people who know me, they love me, and they pray for me! I’m so humbled by this.

“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew 23:12

So I wonder was it me sharing the gospel and love of Jesus with them or did they share the gospel and love of Jesus with me through their hospitality. I believe it was both and more than anything else, it’s this that has humbled me.

I think it’s an important part of the nativity story we often miss or choose to skip. Mary and Joseph first went to the inn and were told there is no room. For it’s in a lowly stable. One filled with the smell of animals, and who knows what else in which a humble King is born. So for me too, something new was born in my heart, as this lowly servant was invited in again and again to smell the sheep.

E. Cordova – 2018

Hospitality is so important in spreading the gospel. We often think it’s all about coffee and doughnuts in the states. And sometimes here in Piura missionaries think it’s only about giving away food and clothes. However, there’s a much bigger landscape in being hospitable, as hospitality and humility go hand in hand. If we only give to the poor, but do not learn from them then we are rooted in pride and it’s nothing more than bragging rights on what we’ve done and given away.

Humility, however opens the door and enlarges the gospel in new ways which ultimately enlarges ones heart. Don’t ever be afraid to the smell the sheep, for they have something to teach you.

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