I can’t get his voice out of my head. It’s like one of those tunes that just keeps playing in your head long after you’ve heard the song. It doesn’t go away.
I’ve seen him often in the last few weeks. Sometimes he’s sitting by himself at the end of a long table; sometimes he’s with a small group of people. Sometimes there’s a gaiety about him, but it always feels somewhat forced. As if he’s putting up a show—more for himself than those around him.
Most times I nod, say hello and move on to other people, other conversations. But yesterday moving on just wasn’t possible. He’d picked up his bag and was walking with a heavy gait towards the door of the shelter. I stopped him and asked, “What’s going on?” He turned and looked at me. I suppose he was deciding how far to go with his answer. I pressed him asking, “Are you ok?” Most of the time when I ask that question, folks say “sure” or “you bet” or “as good as can be expected”.
I wasn’t prepared for the reply I got. I wasn’t prepared for his words. “I’m not sure I’m going to make it.” I straightened up and waited. There was more to come. He choked out short phrases. “Never been homeless.” “Over a year.” “So hard.” “Don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I sprang into fixer mode trying to find a program that fit. He stopped me mid-course. “I’m in a program. It’s just a long wait. Six months. Maybe more.” Then he turned and walked slowly out the door. As he walked away, I found myself wondering if he would make it.
Most days I’m able to still those voices. But not yesterday or the day before. And not today. And maybe not tomorrow either.
Let me tell you a story about a different priest and a different set of voices. Let me tell you the story of Father Alejandro Solalinde, a parish priest from Toluca, Mexico. Father Alejandro had settled into a comfortable life as a parish priest. He knew and loved the people he served—tending to their births and deaths, their marriages and their first confessions. A life that satisfied until the church sent him to a conference in Oaxaca.
The scales fell from his eyes as he watched Indian women selling vegetables from the side of the road as their children played nearby. The way he tells it, “Dressed in smart clothes from the United States, (I) was suddenly ashamed.”1 He said, “God speaks, and the voices inside cannot be quieted. I wanted to blackmail God. But that voice wouldn’t be silent. I continued to be anxious until I gave up and I said: ‘Lord, you have won. You don’t want my wallet.”2 So he left that comfortable life as a parish priest and went to live with the Mixtec Indians in the mountains of Oaxaca.
Today, Father Alejandro Solalinde is known as the Oscar Romero of the migrants who pass through Mexico on their way to El Norte. He shelters them, he protects them as best he can, and he confronts those who would hurt them. In doing so, he puts himself at risk. In the last few months, he’s faced a lot of death threats. And yet he keeps on going. Father Alejandro listens to the voices of the vulnerable; Father Alejandro listens to the voices of the least of God’s children. In doing so, he listens to the voice of God.
This week, as I was thinking about the many voices that call to us, I ran across the story of Joe Paterno’s last few years. Joe Paterno was figure that loomed large in my life. Every Saturday during football season, my Dad gave us updates about Paterno’s most recent game. My Dad really admired Joe Paterno. He was the kind of coach that gave a good name to college football. Paterno believed that “the best way he could help change America was one college football player at a time.”3 But in the end, Paterno stopped listening to the voices of those college kids and all the kids that looked up to him. In the end, Paterno listened to the voices of pride and fear and stilled the voices of children whom he could have helped, children he could have saved.
We’re given many opportunities to choose the voices to which we listen, the voices which we follow and the voices which we still. Father Alejandro Solalinde had that choice and so did Joe Paterno. Herod Antipas had that choice and so did John the Baptist. Amos had that choice and so did that self-serving priest Amaziah. Herod chose to follow the voice of ambition, the voice of pride, the voice of reputation. John the Baptist chose to follow the voice of God.
You have that choice and so do I and does this part of the Body of Christ we call Live at Five. Will we still the voices of fear and doubt and that nagging question, “Are we up to it?” Will we follow the voice of the One who calls us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to give shelter to the homeless, to clothe the naked, and to visit those in prison? Will we listen to the voices of the vulnerable ones? The choice is ours.
1Elizabeth Malkin, “A Priest Stands Up for the Migrants Who Run Mexico’s Gantlet”, NY Times, July 14, 2012, p. A5.
2Emiliano Ruiz Parra, “Christ’s Path: The Story of Padre Alejandro Solalinde” at http://povertyinitiative.org/sites/default/files/20120209StoryofSolalinde.pdf.
3”Posnanski and Paterno” at http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2012/07/13/posnanski-and-paterno/