Day seven of the mission and all things great. The bridge is moving along nicely, the villagers are happy, and we haven’t lost a single Belen kid... that’s a plus. The experience has been filled with grace; God has been good!
I’ve always considered myself to be very respectful of our Church’s liturgy. I figure that if some of the greatest theological minds over the last 2000 years have developed a masterful symphony of form and ritual to best worship God, who am I to add or subtract. In other words, I take very few liberties, but I confess to have taken one last night.
From the moment a Belen student signs up for the BYM trip, I inform him that integral to the experience is daily mass. Not only is it the opportunity to thank God for the day, to nourish ourselves on the body of Christ, to strengthen our little community, but it is an ideal moment for reflection. How terrible would it be to go through a powerful experience like this and not take the time to reflect, to ponder the presence of God in the people, the place, and the work?
Since yesterday was the 4th of July, and we had several boys celebrating a birthday, we decided to work in the morning then take the afternoon to play a couple of games of softball with the locals. It was great, the Americans versus the Dominicans. As you would expect, we lost both games.
After we took our showers, before a dinner of hamburgers and hotdogs, we gathered as we do every night under an outdoor gazebo to celebrate mass. As the boys gathered, one of the adults asked me to look at the dirt field just to our left where the baseball games had been played. Along the third base line, where the Belen boys had been sitting, the ground was littered with empty water and soda bottles. It looked like a garbage dump of plastic. Then the Lord gave me an idea.
I asked one of the chaperones to get a garbage bag and hide it under his chair. To set the mood for mass, I asked the kids to close their eyes, to take a couple of deep breaths, to listen to the birds and the crickets, to feel the slight, cool breeze.
When things were quiet, I asked them to think of the poor children who lived in San Felipe Abajo; how they are loved and precious in the eyes of God. I reminded them that it was that very love that gave them their dignity, raised them up, and made them special. I knew our boys knew that and felt it deeply. I told them that everything they did for these people was an expression of love and kindness, but it couldn’t be reduced simply to the building of a bridge. That love and kindness needed to be expressed with every word and every action.
When the mood was set, I asked them to look to their left at the dirt field littered with their garbage. “What does that mess say to you,” I asked. “What does that mess say to them?". Our sins are not simply the ones that we intend or plan, but even the ones of which we are unaware. I told them that I feared that, while it was not their intention, the garbage they left behind could be interpreted by the campesinos as a sign that they were not appreciated, respected, nor dignified.
Then I started the mass. After the sign of the cross and the greeting, came the penitential rite. And here is where the liturgical liberty took place. As a sign of remorse for that and any other sin, I asked them to walk out to the field in silence and pick up their mess. One by one they went and filled the garbage bag leaving the field spotless. More amazing still was when the little kids who were sitting around saw our boys picking up the empty bottles. They also got up and helped. The “offended” were helping the “offenders.” It was a sight to behold.
When the boys came back and took their seats, I simply prayed, “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.”
There is nothing more transformative than to live the life of poverty. It humbles you and makes you aware more than ever before of the needs of others. Those children and that moment in our mass probably spoke more powerfully to those boys than any homily I could have preached or any lesson I could have taught. The most powerful and profound theologians may have designed the most beautiful liturgies the Church has ever celebrated, but those children and that moment spoke more powerfully of the love and kindness of God than anything I have ever witnessed.