January 9, 2009

Reflection / Fr. David Blanchard, O.Carm.

‘I want to be a missionary like Beth’

I was sitting in my office, wading through a pile of correspondence and reviewing what bills we could afford to pay recently when a young woman who is a member of our youth social pastoral group knocked on my door and asked to speak with me.

Welcoming the reprieve, I said, “Come on in.”

I’ll call her Maria, out of respect for her anonymity. Maria is 15, and she is in eighth grade in the local public school here in El Salvador.

She was confirmed this year, and immediately joined the social pastoral youth group. This team spends their time helping others, and it is inspired and advised by Elizabeth Riehle, a Franciscan lay missionary from Sunman, Ind., who is known here as “Beth.”

“Father David, I want to talk to you because I have been thinking a lot and I have decided that I want to be a missionary and spend the rest of my life helping others like Beth,” Maria said.

This was Maria’s problem. I congratulated her, but suggested that she should first graduate from eighth grade, go to high school and then consider her options.

Crestfallen, Maria said, “No, I want to start now.”

Maria’s problem is a common one. She is in danger, and she needs to escape.

The unique part of Maria’s escape plan is that she wants to help others. Last year, she was raped by her uncle, an unsavory character who has a reputation as a murderer, rapist and extortionist.

These are not idle charges. He is probably responsible for most of these crimes but, in El Salvador, justice is a rare partner to the poor.

He warned Maria last year not to speak to the family, to the police, to school officials or others unless she was willing to pay the consequences: Death for her or for members of the family.

“Now, I am scared that he is going to hurt my sister,” Maria said. “She is only 12.”

Riehle, a member of St. Nicholas Parish in Ripley County in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, is a lay Franciscan missionary who has served this parish community for three years. As I mentioned earlier, she hails from Sunman, and apparently did not know many Hispanics there.

By her own admission, speaking Spanish comes hard to Beth. But as I was thinking about Beth last week after Maria’s visit, I realized something of the sacramentality of the missionary. Beth is a sign and instrument of God’s grace.

In the parish center, we have lunch for the elderly every Friday and Beth is always present. When she walks among the elderly men and women who gather for a bowl of soup and bread, I have noticed how their faces light up just because Beth is present. She gives everyone a hug, and everyone whom she touches feels special. In this way, Beth Riehle is a sign of God’s grace.

But she is more. She is also an instrument of God’s grace. Young people like Maria could easily become embittered by the indignities that they suffer.

But with her primitive Spanish, her jubilant smile and compassion, Beth inspires these young people to become active in charity and the struggle for justice. Countless numbers of our young men and women have been inspired by Beth to want to do more for others. Her crew of builders is now building their second home, and more are required.

“We’ll do more as resources become available,” Beth says. And trusting the infinite mercy of God, she lifts up another two by four and begins her descent to the river; a family is waiting.

“I want to spend the rest of my life doing good like Beth,” Maria said.

“Me, too,” I could have replied.

(Carmelite Father David Blanchard is the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Calle Real, El Salvador.)

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