Mission New Mexico

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Jn 15:12-13

Sometimes, love and service look nothing like we expect them to. Sometimes, neither does laying down your life. Sometimes, it can take us a lifetime to learn this… and sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the recognition in a week… For me, this time, it was the latter. And it happened in New Mexico…

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jn17:20-21

The air was cool and clear, so piercingly clear, it felt good just to take in a breath and fill your lungs with the thin mountain air—if you could fill your lungs with it. The sight from the doorway of St. Patrick’s mission church was literally breathtaking: the stark contrast of the landscape, with the brilliant blue sky and the sandy or rusty red of the cliffs and the deep green pinons standing out so firmly against them both: they seemed to speak aloud in their vibrancy. You could almost hear them. I think the Navajos do…

I took in everything, and the cool breeze and the warm sun lent the sights some tangible, sensible reality, as we walked into the sister’s church hall to serve breakfast to their Navajos. Caroline and I took our seats at the end table, across from an elderly lady who appeared as silent and deep as the caverns we had driven by, and two younger women with their children. The children were jumping up to run about every two seconds and didn’t get much food in, and the other two women appeared as unsure and uncomfortable as we were. What do I say? It only takes up so much time to ask someone’s name, and then silence. I felt we were world’s apart, with a cavern of culture in between. So we asked about the girl’s schooling, followed the mother’s solicitude and pride in her children, brought the little ones more juice. Children are the same everywhere, and have an amazing capacity to be a point of instant connection between strangers. I kept being drawn to the old lady, whose eyes seemed to just watch without seeing, who seemed to be so far away, and yet somehow so present to what was going on in the room.  I felt as if there was too much between us to understand each other, and yet I desperately wanted to understand her, to let her know my love and concern, somehow. Yet she seemed so far beyond my reach, beyond the grasp of my love…

We stand in the doorway, the following morning, and look in on the double-wide-turned-into-a-church hall. It is the special place where the Missionaries of Charity serve their children, and we have come all the way from Steubenville, Ohio to Gallup, New Mexico to give them a new floor. The echoes of the laughter and the children’s feet and the hum of conversation still hang in the air from the day before, but above this is the pervading quiet of the morning. It is dusky and cool within, the floor looking hopelessly old and cracked, for all its having been wiped clean. With a sigh of readiness and faces set with commitment, we roll up our sleeves, and dive into the task…

Scrape, Caroline shoves the shovel beneath the first tile, and I lift it—for the old lady with the deep, distant, searching, tired eyes, that she might know love: and for the children that ran and played.


The next day, after a full day’s chore, the car rumbles and jerks and crawls along the rock-strewn, dusty road, the four of us bumping and talking, eyes heavy, knees sore. We see a car by the side of the road, a solemn face, hand held out. We stop. Mike greets the worry and concern with a ready smile, the fatigue dismissed for now. They need gas. They have stalled, the older man, two younger ones, and a woman. All other cars are passing by, and they need our help. The man tries to tell us what they need, the helplessness of one who believes he can’t communicate what he so desperately needs to is in his face, but we understand. No, we don’t have a gas can, what can we do? We are late to meet the rest of our team, they might already be waiting; we don’t know where the nearest gas station is, or how to get them to it. But back up the road is the sisters’ place, and maybe they can help. We all look at each other, the decision, unanimous: we turn back…

The next morning, laying the new tile, James pours the thick glue, watching it flow into a pile on the floor. Swish, I spread it out, smooth and thin, in its own way, a creative work of art—for the desperate old man and his family, that they might be satisfied; for all those like them, that live in want and disillusion, that they might not be passed by.


The stillness in the air is deep and wild, so peaceful and yet so strong, it seems to hold the expectation of movement in every moment of stillness. We sit, waiting for the glue to dry, eating our lunch, rejoicing in the pleasantness of each other’s company, talking of the weather, of Texas and Ohio and Virginia, of snow days and vacations and the glories of no school. Leo eats with us. He is not from here, though he has been here so long one could say he belonged. No, he tells us, he lived up in the frozen north, in a farm on the border of Canada, where trudging miles to school in the knee-deep drifts of snow, and the 20 below temperatures was life, and no one ever thought that elsewhere, it might be different, might be easier. Where no one ever thought to not go on with the everyday, despite terrible odds. And I watch him as he works, steady, efficient, his hands obeying him readily, as one who knows. How much work those hands have seen, how many intense things they have experienced! Yet here they are, working still. And I remember Richard from day one, who helped our team tear up the floor: his eyes so deep, they spoke a thousand things his mouth could not find the words to express, and his quiet, knowing smile, the way it made his eyes dance with the amusement the wisdom of the ages must feel when it encounters the innocent and inexperienced spontaneity of our youth…

I hold the tile straight and slash, James cuts it across to fit perfectly—for Richard, for Leo, that the stories of their lives and the wisdom of who they are might never be lost to those who will come after.


We sit together as a team in the quiet stillness of the chapel, in the soft light of the candles and a Presence greater and more sure than any of us, and we share our stories from the day, of those we served; the children, the sick: of Sullivan, whose blind eyes that were made to see catch a fleeting glimpse for five glorious seconds of the reality around him, and look into the beauty and light and joy of Liz’s face, the face of Christ. And he will never forget. And of Brady, who turns big eyes to Jake and asks, ‘Can you come home with me?’ He has found such strength, such love, such surety in him. He will never forget. And of Fabio, alone in a foreign and obscure land, so far from all he knows, but he comes across an ocean and across a vast country, and encounters brothers and sisters in Christ, and the same God in them that he left behind him. And he will never forget. And of Latricia, whose heart was bleeding and crying, for a heart that would hear her, for eyes that would see, and a soul she could trust to catch her when she let go, ready and willing to hold, to support, to lift up, when she let everything come pouring out… and then of the wonder she experienced, finding this soul in Lily. And she will never forget. And of Kate and Jon, our leaders, as they work closely together, learning what it means, what it takes, to be strong, to be true, to give and to take… to surrender self in service of the other, working together to serve all of us, to answer our needs, to fall to the ground and die, so as to become more than just a grain of wheat: to lay down their lives for their friends… and they will not forget. And as our team shares this God, this Great Friend, this Lord and Lover and Master and Christ with the least of His brethren, they are also given to in return, and find the same Face they are giving reflected back to them… and we? We did no see anyone new today. We are laying a floor. And now, covered in the dust of today’s lonely project, I rejoice for them, seeing His Face shining out to us from their own: receiving from them what they today have received, for they too will not forget…

All three of us work as one now, placing the tiles together, closely, like a puzzle, so it all fits neatly. We have to work as one, because if someone goes ahead of the other, the whole pattern may be ruined, and the tile broken. So we work side by side, back and forth, fitting the squares together, pressing them firmly—for Sullivan, Brady, Fabio, Latricia, Jon and Kate, our fellow missionaries: that they will never forget.


The last day, our task is done, we have cleaned and calked, and moved all back into place, and now we stand in the doorway, in the shade and stillness of the afternoon, and survey our work. Suddenly, through the song of the birds, an old woman slowly, so slowly, mounts the stairs. She is old and wizened; wrinkled, sunken cheeks, knobby little legs wrapped in rags beneath her skirt, a kerchief on her head, going so slowly and patiently. We all watch her. She reaches us and smiles, and the light of that smile brings life to the whole, ancient face. “Ya-at’eeh”, she says, hello. And we smile. She walks past the new floor, and into the new restrooms. And I stand in silence and watch her, and the silence overwhelms me. In that moment she is to me every man: I see in her an icon of every face that will ever look upon this floor, every foot that will ever trod upon these tiles.

And I realize that I am a part of something so much greater than dirt, and tiles, and dust and glue and mops and brooms… I am a part of a great story, and I have just witnessed the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another, seeing it stretch beyond me far on into the future.  And my heart and soul are only barely able to understand what it all means. Even though I did not carry children, or love the disfigured, or serve the needy, yet I see that this is my love, my gift: in every tile of that floor, in every inch of that room; that all who walk on it may know the love that so overwhelmed my heart, that was measured out to me, packed in, shaken down, and overflowing. Because it was not my love, but His, poured into me, and thus, it was infinite.

And as I turn to walk down these steps for the last time, I pray that everyone who steps upon that floor might know the depth of the compassion that I had no other way to communicate, but to build into the floor of that simple church hall. –For  the old woman, and the children, for the old man and his family, for Leo and for Richard, for Sullivan and Brady and Fabio and Latricia, for Jon and Kate, for our team members, for ourselves: that we might never forget…

— And for the Glory of the God whose Body we are.

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…and from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” Jn 1:14,16


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