In the catholic world, most of us grew up learning that during the period of Lent, we should renounce something during the 40 day preparatory period leading up to Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The purpose, of course, was to help us reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice, the grace of the forgiveness of our sins and the eternal salvation that we received through the resurrection of Jesus. We were then encouraged to combine that reflection with alms-giving and other charitable works.
I have to admit, it has been a long time since I have been able to positively answer the annual anticipatory question; what have you given up for Lent? I have always tried to use Lent to spend more time in reflection and inner communion with the kingdom of God within me. More often than not, my time was not well spent and I am very cognizant of the forces of evil that always put up the roadblocks to a successful Lenten experience.
This year Lent was different. At the beginning of Lent, a couple of young brothers (ages 10 and 15) began to help my partner with the care and feeding of his small ranch of about 55 cows. For any of you ‘country folk’ out there, you can relate with the enormous amount of work and energy required. My partner Gabriel’s overall health has not allowed him to keep up the pace and these two children arrived in the nick of time. Heaven sent?
One thing led to another and we soon found ourselves getting close to the family; mom, dad and the 4 children, but especially to Alfonso (Poncho), 10 years old, and Raul, 15 years old. Their poverty became clearly apparent and usually any meat on the table was what the two boys could hunt….mostly iguana or small birds. Mom cooks with wood on an outside makeshift stove, and the total meals for the day are two, consisting of tortillas, beans and whatever the boys hunted. Oh, and dad? Well, sadly his interest is limited to his alcohol intake and provides little or no support for his family. Mom works in a nearby restaurant but her earnings are minimal and she does what she can to ‘hold it all together’.
We have had the privilege to feed lunch to Poncho everyday when he comes literally running to the house after school at about 1PM, so that he can go with Gabriel to tend the animals and other chores. Raul, who dropped out of school to help his mom and siblings, meets them at the corral. The boys work very hard, with Poncho taking charge and telling Raul exactly what to do. Their efforts of course are very much appreciated and compensated along with the daily ration of Coke-Cola and snacks that Gabriel brings with him for the boys.
Mom asked us to take care of the two boys for 5 days while she, the 6 month old baby and the 13 year old daughter went back to Mom’s village for a visit. We naturally agreed.
So what has all this to do with Lent? Everything. For the first time in many years, this Lent I have been able to share in the joy of Jesus who is resurrection and life through seeing two innocent, brave and determined children, experience a full stomach, quality time spent with adult male figures (us and others) that took a genuine interest in them, in what they had to say and took the time to patiently teach, counsel and most of all, enjoy the time with them. Yes, they worked like men, getting up at 4 or 5 AM to go milk cows, but they were also allowed to be children and even if it was only for 5 days, they didn’t have to shoulder the responsibility of helping maintain the family. Their hunger, like that of any child, for affection, approval, genuine support, guidance, playtime, togetherness and even a scolding if needed, was satisfied.
They gave me so much more than they received. Their total innocence, lack of meaness, child-like love, faith and trust filled not only my heart but Gabriel’s as well. It made me remember what lengths a loving parent would go through for his or her children. Is it sacrifice or a total outpouring of love? Poncho and Raul helped me remember that is the latter. Jesus’ did what he did, for love. Lent should be a time to remind ourselves not to give something up, but to give something away to those who are in need of any sort.
Thank you God for sending us these two little angels to remind us that love, while maybe not the easiest road, is the only one that leads to our final destination. Rest assured, we are keeping an eye or two on this family and will do all that we can to assist.
Bishop Tom Shortell, OSFC, D.Min. is the Bishop Ordinary for Mexico for the United American Catholic Church and currently resides in Guerrero, Mexico.