By Alvin Peters
Father Stephen gathered his parishioners for a mission. He wanted them to see the church as much more than just four walls. He wanted them to see God not only in the Mass and their loved ones but also in the faces of the people who were unfamiliar to them.
So, one Saturday in December, they took the crèche, some flyers and bags of lunches and met in the Town Square. They said a prayer and began their work.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone whom he had never seen before. The person looked like he didn’t belong there or anywhere for that matter.
He took a box with a few of the lunches and approached the stranger. He introduced himself and offered one of the bags. The man looked off into the distance unmoved by the gesture. After some time, he asked, “Why are you here, priest?”
“We want to tell others about the joy and hope of the Season of Waiting as we prepare for the coming of the Lord, not just at Christmas but for His triumphant return as well. We brought the crèche and later we’ll sing. We also brought some snacks with us so we can nourish the body as well as the spirit. Here, have one.”
The man seemed unimpressed.
“May I sit here?” Father asked.
“Do as you want,” the man replied. “I cannot stop you.”
“We didn’t come here to impose ourselves but to help.”
The man motioned for Father to sit. The priest thanked him. He was glad for the brief rest.
The stranger said, “Not many are here with you.”
“True, but a few is better than none. More will come around,” he remarked somewhat confidently. He just had to figure out the right way to convince them.
The man turned and looked at him. His grey eyes matched the sombre visage. The natty hair and beard almost hid his square-like face.
On the whole, it gave him a severe yet dignified look. Fr Stephen looked at that face and felt like he was being judged. “Come,” the man said standing up, “let me show you something.”
“Hold on,” Father groaned, “I just sat down.” This won’t take long and besides it’s about your mission.”
The man took Fr Stephen around the park. They offered lunches to a woman with a young child who grabbed her daughter and dragged her away, a man with one leg dressed in rags who asked harshly for a bottle of sorrel and a flask of rum, and a teenager who snatched the bag quickly before walking away. There were others who were curious as to what was happening. He offered them all a blessing and an invitation to come to the church.
Strangers to them
They were about to approach an old woman when one of the parishioners rushed up to them. “Don’t bother. She cursed me and threw the food away.” Then he muttered, “That’s the thanks I get!” When the parishioner saw the stranger, he fell silent. “We have to find a way,” the priest said.
The parishioner protested while his friends looked on from a distance. “Father, we love you, but this is too much. You had us bring the crèche, sing, and offer lunches only to face this. This is not how we hoped things would turn out.”
Fr Stephen consoled his friend, “I am grateful that you are here. What all of you have done today is a good start. Don’t lose …” He stopped when they saw the stranger sit down and was talking pleasantly to the old woman.
The priest and parishioner moved closer as the stranger placed a hand on her shoulder and offered her a bag. “Miss Jasmine, what you did was not nice. Please apologise to the gentleman.”
“Sorry,” the lady said and added bitterly, “Didn’t like the way he looked at me. They always look at me like I am nothing.”
The parishioner sighed, gave Father a look of defeat and joined the others. The stranger got up but before he walked away said to Miss Jasmine, “Now, my lady, promise me that you’ll be good. I’ll be watching.”
She laughed, nodded, and began to eat. Fr Stephen gave her a blessing and joined the stranger.
“You see how your friends look down on us?” the stranger said. “They come here with their looks of pity and expect us to be thankful. Your mission may not succeed. Your numbers may grow fewer after today.”
“I know we will do better. I have hope,” Father said. The man snorted in derision, “Hope? You and your friends come here to play charity and you speak of joy and hope? Even your crèche reflects your incomplete mission.”
Then he raised his voice, “Why don’t you go back within your four walls and serve your God there. Stay where you are safe!”
Fr Stephen grabbed the man by the arm and confronted him. “Don’t be harsh with my friends! They want to do what’s right but these people here, they are strangers to them. They see their suffering and it worries them.”
The priest then loosened his grip. “The empty manger during Advent is a reminder that while we are waiting, we must reflect on what is missing in our lives. The Holy Family like us is incomplete without Christ. Our human family is incomplete until we see Him and serve Him in everyone we meet. I need to do a better job of showing them that.”
The man stood there for a moment weighing the veracity of the words just spoken. He said, “Perhaps they want to do what is right but remember this: because of fear we are all strangers.” Then he turned and walked away.
Father felt the sting in those words, but he humbly noted them. He mustered a smile and called out boldly to him, “For now yes, but I know that one day we will call each other, brothers.”