Yesterday, I visited a church celebrating the feast day of its patron in a city, described more than once over the last 25 years as, “the poorest city in the US” or, “the city with the most homicides”. After the crowded Mass said in English and Spanish, with the rest of the congregation, I exited the building and prepared to walk down the steps. These days, whenever I descend a flight of steps, I put one hand on a railing. However, the crowd was so thick that I found myself unable to reach a railing. What happened during the few seconds was all instinctual. There was no time to think. In the last day and a half, I have gone over and over the incident, pulling it apart this way and that. In the brief moment described below, my emotions went from cautious cynicism to pure joy.
No sooner had I taken my first step down when little fingers began to wrap around my right hand. By step two our hands clasped. On step three, I pulled in my solar plexus and my gluts determined not to fall – rather, determined to get the little person clinging to my hand safely to the bottom. At ground level, the little fingers let go; and, I looked down on a pony-tail wielding child of about four. Our eyes met briefly. I was about to say something when a voice from behind said, “Say, ‘thank you’”. I looked up at a tall young man, taller than most in the crowed and said, “She just helped me down the stairs.” In a blink of an eye, father and daughter disappeared into the throng heading toward the fiesta set-up at the back of the church.
The blind trust of a child taking the hand of a stranger, confident that that person would bring her to safety, is a humbling and enriching experience. Here in this notorious city, a child felt safe in a small enclave of a parish in which at least 85% of its members are Hispanic. Later, I learned that in the last five years, with the leadership of a Franciscan priest, the people of the neighborhood had taken it back from the drug lords who threatened it for years. It seems that the most effective weapon that the priest used in this battle was the children. He would take groups of them to city council meetings in addition to parading them and their parents through the streets. Two blocks south of the parish, an area that looks like a war zone begins. But, around the church, a parish school surrounded by trees, a clean city park, rows of modest, cared for houses and a community garden flourish.
After nine years of service to the community, the priest has been transferred by his religious community. It is my prayer that the neighborhood raise up a new leader to help maintain a safe and a happy place to live.