At some point in our human existence we all have those experiences when something we've learned and studied and believed transfers from our head, pierces our heart, and grabs hold of our gut. The hand of God rests upon our shoulder in such a way as makes us want to wriggle out from under it yet we cannot escape it. This was one of the most powerful.
It was Wednesday, the middle of our trip; it became the pivot upon which our week turned. I spent the morning putting sealant on the concrete dome-shaped computer lab with Cindy, a mom in our group, and some of the kids. After we finished I went into the room where the weekday morning prayer/Bible study led by Francisco, one of the directors, was being held. My Spanish is minimal but his wife Carol, mindful of this, translated for me. It was good just to sit and sing and listen to some songs in Spanish, and meditate in my own way.
When prayers were over, it was time to board the bus for our noontime mission and afternoon excursion. The kids and staff had prepared over 100 ham and cheese sandwiches plus a huge container of punch for us to take to the workers and residents of the Oaxacan city dump. There are 40 or so families who live and work there, culling recyclable plastic bottles from the mountains of garbage. They bundle up the plastic, load it on trucks, and it is then sold to a Mexican mafia who pays them about 400 pesos (40 dollars) for the week's work: 10 pesos (1 dollar) per family. Some of their food they scavenge from their findings. They work from sunrise to sunset, in 80+ heat, surrounded and permeated by the stench of rotting garbage. Imagine some of the worst stuff they could find, and they have found it and probably worse: medical waste, including syringes, dead animals, smells so bad they could be seen escaping from the just-ripped plastic bags.
This work of delivering lunches to these resident workers twice a week is a mission of the orphanage; the children fight over who gets to make the sandwiches and then deliver them to the folks at the dump. Children who are the recipients of mission also get to give to others so they see themselves as having something to give and so to share with others. But this week the children are grounded because of misbehaving, so it is up to our group and a group of college kids that have also been working at Casa Hogar this week to deliver lunch.
We have been told by Bryan (see Simply Smiles) that these people, upon introduction, might offer us their arms instead of their hands because of how dirty and bacteria-ridden they are. He urges us to shake their hands anyway. For Jesus there were no 'untouchables'; only people in need of human connection. We stop on the way to buy a huge sack of oranges to augment the meal. The trip takes about 30 minutes; the dump announces itself in its usual way. We pass by corrugated tin shacks that house these families and others; no running water, no electricity. We pull into a no-longer-used sorting station that gives us and the workers some shade to visit in. They see the bus and come in a few at a time, hestitant at first but then I get a sense of hospitality as they open their home to us.
I help dole out the cold drinks in plastic cups, giving a smile to substitute for a greeting in my crude Spanish. Then we grab the bags of sandwiches and oranges and hand these out. Soon everyone is digging in. I go and sit with a young girl, maybe 5 or 6, and her little sister, who seems to be about 2 or 3. I figure the little one's Spanish is about the same as mine, so I am in good company. She takes her sandwich apart and hands the half with ham to her big sister; she then proceeds to take pieces of the string cheese off the bread and eat them. Like any mother, I suppose, I start to make yummy sounds and rub my tummy as if to say "that must taste good." Instead she interprets my gestures as signs of hunger, peels off a piece of cheese and hands it to me.
Her hands are grimy and so are mine. I hesitate for only a nanosecond; what can I say...no, thank you? I take the cheese in my fingers and put it in my mouth, smiling at her, careful not to let the tears rise. And I think in some small way, she smiled back.
I have had Communion in more ways than I can count. I've had wafers, white bread, wheat, pita, little shortbread squares, and shortcake biscuits; Oreos and milk; crackers and grape jelly; I've had grape juice, red wine, and whatever awful searing stuff Catholics serve. I've been in all kinds of places: cathedrals, churches, camps, mission trips, retreats, the ocean, the mountains, the city, suburbia, rural town, in other countries, even on an airplane. It's been served all kinds of ways: in the pew, at the railing, by intinction (rip and dip, as we said in seminary), in a circle, at a table; in little cups (glass and plastic), on silver and brass plates, glass pitcher and goblet, stoneware, paper plates and cups, on an antique wooden tray with spindles to hold the tiny glass cups in place. I've served, and been served by, all kinds of people: men, women, children, teenagers, priests, ministers, laypeople, even served by a pregnant woman once, which I thought was meaningful on several levels, considering it was a Catholic retreat center.
But it has never meant as much to me as it did that Wednesday afternoon in the Oaxacan city dump, served to me by a little girl with filthy hands and an open heart in a place ridden with decay. Outside of marriage, it was the purest moment of Communion I've ever experienced. God does not waste anything, including people. We may do that to be certain, but through that little girl, God was visible, incarnate, real.
Whenever you do this, remember me, Jesus said. Remember love, remember compassion, remember sacrifice, remember grace and life and forgiveness and justice and peace. And whenever I take communion or serve it, I'll remember her, too.