Extraordinary Moments

Old man waiting to be shaved


I lean in, razor in one hand and shaving cream in the other. I struggle for just the right way to place my feet and legs, searching for a position around the wheelchair that will allow me to get as close as possible.

The elderly man — one of the abuelos, or grandfathers, cared for by the Missionaries of Charity — is a nonverbal stroke survivor. He cannot tell me if I am hurting him, so I proceed with caution; I watch his eyes closely for tears or any other sign of discomfort.

The cheeks are relatively easy. The feel of the razor on his week-old stubble is familiar; it feels exactly the same as it does on my own face. I recognize the smell of the wool blanket, and of the man’s sleepiness. For a moment, my heart aches with memories of my own grandfather. I lose myself in this shaving process, feeling an inexplicable but unmistakable intimacy with a man who cannot tell me his name.

Now I am on to the chin and, even more challenging, the space between his upper lip and nose. The more intricate the task becomes, the more I lean in. Despite the coolness of this morning in Tijuana, I feel sweat trickle down my back. I am consumed by the task at hand, yet dimly aware that I am way beyond my comfort zone. When was the last time I was this physically close to anyone other than my wife? I keep going, intent on completing my task of offering this man the small dignity that comes from a fresh shave.

I am fully present in this moment. I am experiencing anew unfamiliar parts of myself; feeling, acting, living in ways that speak to the deepest longings of my heart that are too often buried by the stresses of daily life.

That morning, as our group of University of San Diego students walked into Casa Juan Diego — a dining room, migrant shelter and hospice, which the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa operates — we were expecting to do service. We were not expecting such a powerful and visceral experience of intimacy, of solidarity, of God.

That experience of God is why I keep going back. In my daily life, a great deal comes between God and me: professional deadlines, demands, and conflicts; personal insecurities, difficulties and frustrations. All of which serve to distract and distort my relationship with God.

In Tijuana, however, my usual defenses and preoccupations are no match for the central reality of life into which the poor draw me. In solidarity with them, I experience a clarity of purpose and an intensity of feeling that puts the rest of my life into proper perspective.

In Tijuana, the God of New Life consistently surprises me. This God unfailingly invites me to move beyond my comfort, let go of my preconceptions, re-evaluate my priorities, rediscover who I am and open myself fully to God’s love and grace. In Tijuana, the God of New Life greets me in the open arms of the poor, helping me come alive to praise, reverence and service. This is the spirituality of immersion.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Where is the seventh student?

We were supposed to have departed Casa Juan Diego 10 minutes ago. The seven male students and I need to meet our female companions across town at Casa de Las Madres — a similar shelter for women — in 20 minutes. Anticipating the unpredictable nature of Tijuana traffic, I know we’re going to be late. My stress level is high, and rising fast.

Who is not here? I systematically tick through the names of the students I can see in the small dining room with me, who are helping the sisters serve a lunch of soup and bread to the elderly men here. Finally it dawns on me. José is the one not here. Where is he?

I hustle out of the dining room and backtrack through the rest of the facility where we had spent the morning. José is not in the large dining room. He’s not on the patio. Nor is he outside where we had spent time washing windows.

As I enter again into the main building, I wind my way into the bathroom and then the sleeping quarters. There I enter a scene that takes my breath away: Along with one of the sisters, José is spoon-feeding a man who is close to death and therefore unable to get out of bed. The sister explains to José that this particular abuelo only wants to drink his juice, but he desperately needs the nourishment of the soup. The man cannot move his arms, nor can he talk, so it is José’s charge to spoon the right amount of soup into the man’s mouth and encourage him to swallow.

It is an extremely difficult and messy job. When the spoonful is offered before the man is ready and positioned just right, the man gags and the soup flies out of his mouth. When the spoon is too full for the man to take in, he chokes painfully, wheezes and coughs and spits, his whole body convulsing, and he has to be gently calmed down before another attempt can be made.

When the spoonful is just right, however, the man drinks it down and acknowledges José’s extraordinary care with a pleasant sounding gurgle.

José sits on the edge of the man’s bed and leans almost his entire body across the abuelo’s chest. Just as I was during the experience of shaving, José is in a most remarkable, intimate proximity with this man. Age, culture, nationality, language and all other borders fall away. For a moment, José and the man are kin, grandfather and grandson.

Prior to this extraordinary moment, I had been impressed with José. His maturity, thoughtfulness and sensitivity seemed solid if not sophisticated, especially for a second-year student. But I did not imagine him capable of such profound compassion. I did not anticipate his determination, his commitment to be present to this moment. I did not foresee the courage required to unflinchingly carry out the job assigned to him by the sister.

Clearly, José’s experience was one of compassion.

With the Palm Sunday Mass almost complete, I stand along the wall and savor the scene, marveling at how this small chapel — known as Real San Francisco — has been renewed in the past six years.

I recall coming to the site in 2009 with groups of USD students to pick up trash, level the ground before the construction of the patio, build a retaining wall out of used tires, and do other odd jobs or simple manual tasks. As the years unfolded, we returned several times a year, usually to make a very small contribution. On one occasion we cleaned the desks and classrooms used for children’s religious education; on another, we were asked to paint half of the outside walls of the school. Regardless of what task we were asked to attempt, the highlight of each visit was the opportunity to get to know the community a little bit at a time and, more importantly, to be inspired by the way in which they were mobilizing, sacrificing and collaborating to make the chapel the magnificent home and heart of their community.

As the final prayer begins, I start to plan my exit route. The chapel is standing-room-only full of families. I am preoccupied with the need to reconvene our group of 22 students amidst the dismissal and the chaos sure to ensue when the pan dulce and other treats I can see outside are served. I have been instructed to meet the matriarch of the parish, Conchita, who will, I’ve been assured, have arranged host families for us.

Find Conchita, I was told, and she will have everything worked out.

In the midst of worrying about how I am going to find Conchita, a woman I’ve never met and don’t know how to recognize, I hear my name on the church’s speaker system.

Miguel. Ven, ven aqui.” “Michael. Come, come up here.”

A woman at the front of the church is directing me to come forward for I know not what. With no idea of what is about to happen, I do as I’m asked and join this woman. When I reach the front of the sanctuary, Conchita introduces herself and explains that the matching of our students with their host families will be the concluding prayer of the Mass. It is my job to call our students forward in twos and threes to meet their host families in front of the entire congregation.

With all the eyes of the parish on me, Conchita holds the microphone up to my mouth. I nervously call out the names of the first three USD students. As they maneuver their way through the crowd to approach the altar, Conchita quickly organizes the madres who will be the hosts for the next two days.

Just as the students reach the front, the family appears and for each, Conchita exclaims, “Este is su familia nueva,” “This is your new family.” The assembly breaks out in wild applause. The family members hug each USD student with extravagant joy.

This continues for the next 10 minutes, until all of the USD students have been called up and introduced to their “new family.” Once we are all squeezed across the front of the church, Conchita asks the congregation to raise their hands over us in blessing. She leads the community in a beautiful prayer that I cannot understand, partly because it is in rapidly spoken Spanish, but mostly because I am overwhelmed at the beauty of the moment.

This is your new family. This is the spirituality of immersion. — Michael Lovette-Colyer ’13 (PhD)

The author, Michael Lovette-Colyer ’13 (PhD) is USD’s Assistant Vice President for University Ministry. This article was excerpted from a May 2016 article in Engaging Pedagogies in Catholic Higher Education. Read it in its entirety, along with other compelling stories from USD, at http://journals.stmarys-ca.edu/epiche.

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