“God, who is rich in mercy…” Ephesians 2:4
Mercy. Just seeing that word instantly brings to mind countless images and experiences and stories – my life is dripping with mercy. Indeed, our world is drenched in mercy.
I’d like to share just two of those mercy moments:
It’s the summer of 2003 and despite the fact that I can’t even find Ecuador on a map, I find myself on an RdC retreat in Durán, Ecuador.
I’ve never been to Ecuador before; never been anywhere in Latin America. I’ve been sheltered my entire life – lived comfortably, wanted for nothing (well, I wanted for lots of things, but that quickly becomes relative), and despite my anxious personality, I have actually feared very little in my life. Yet, here I am in an underdeveloped, extremely impoverished community in Durán. Everything is new. Everything is different.
It’s the first day in country and my group is told that we will get to experience a very atypical day for a retreat group because it is a special day for the community. We will be attending the ribbon cutting ceremonies of a grade school in a nearby neighborhood. The archbishop is going to bless the school. This is a big deal all around.
As we ride along in a van on our way to the celebration, we pass through urban streets into a more rural area, when suddenly our driver calls to the back of the van, “It’s time to close all of the windows!” Despite my bewilderment amidst this exhausting heat, I instantly oblige. Then, while I’m thinking of my own discomfort, it hits me – the stench. It is the most wretched smell I could ever imagine and I find myself happily closing the windows now – only now when I look out through the glass, I see something even more wretched than the smell.
For as far as my sight can reach, I’m now surrounded by mounds of trash – burning trash. Vultures are circling closely above and pigs are rummaging about. Cane shacks – people’s homes – are actually built on top of these mounds of garbage. Many homes are obviously created from scraps found in the heaps of trash dumped here every day. And in the midst of it all, I see a woman ravaging through the heaping trash looking for something. Something to use for her own home, something to recycle, something to sell, something to eat – I don’t know – and what’s worse, her small child is crawling through the trash alongside his mother with nothing but a diaper to clothe him.
That mother and child is a snapshot in my memory as clear to me now as it was looking out that van window. Compassion. Sorrow. Anger. Guilt. It was a moment of mercy that changed everything for me. I stood at the celebration at the school in the garbage dump and as I silently wept, a volunteer put her hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s okay because it should never get easy.” Since then, witnessing suffering and injustice has not gotten any easier for me despite its frequency in my life and work and for that I am grateful.
A few days after I returned from Ecuador. I had somewhat of a breakdown. A kid from my church had asked me if I had built any houses while I was in Ecuador and when I told him “No, that wasn’t the point of my immersion retreat.” His response was “Oh. That sucks.” Never mind that I had to look up the word “immersion” around the same time I was trying to locate Ecuador on the map. I went home to my mom and my breakdown went something like this. “They don’t get it. They don’t get it. No one gets it!”
And after having been patient for a number of days and having listened to hours of my stories, my mom stopped me by simply saying, “Marissa, last week you didn’t get it either. Be gentle with people who just don’t get it.” While my righteous tantrum continued, I knew she was right.
Since my first RdC retreat, I have continued to return to Ecuador every year with family and friends and most recently, with students as part of our high school campus ministry immersion program. Another immersion we offer is spent on the U. S. / Mexico Border.
While on the border immersion a few summers ago, we were given the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of travelers whose pilgrimage in search of a better life led them into the unforgiving desert.
Our guide for the desert trek, John, gave our group gallons of water and a few buckets of food and socks on which we were to write notes of encouragement and eventually leave behind at strategic locations along our path where these items were sure to be picked up by travelers in need. Our turnaround point on our own pilgrimage was at the sight of a makeshift shrine embedded in a rock formation in which travelers had left messages of hope in the form of Our Lady of Guadalupe candles, rosaries, scapulars, and holy cards.
It was here that John told us the story of Josseline, a 14-year-old girl who died in the desert while she and her 10-year-old brother were on their way to see their mom in the United States. Just a few years ago, their mom had been working in the U.S. and had reached a point where she felt established enough in the U.S. to send for her two children. Josseline and her brother were part of a group crossing through the desert when Josseline was injured and couldn’t continue with the group. It took her 10-year-old brother two more days after he left his sister to get to a phone to call his mom who would in turn send out a search party only to find her daughter had died on the way to see her.
At this point, as I sit in front of this desert shrine, it is impossible for me not to think of a baby crawling through a garbage dump alongside his mother as I’m told the story of a young girl crawling through the desert in search of her own. The two stories are deeply connected and cry out for our own merciful, compassionate, and just response.
So we prayed at the shrine. We prayed for Josseline and for those like her who risk everything for a better life. We prayed for our Church, our country, ourselves. We prayed for mercy.
Mercy is all around us. Mercy abounds when people celebrate the opening of schools built atop garbage dumps. Mercy cries out when people choose to leave Our Lady of Guadalupe candles and gallons of water for travelers in the desert. And mercy is the faint whisper in our own hearts coaxing us to be gentle with others and gentle with ourselves.
Marissa Madden was an RdC volunteer in Arbolito in 2005-2006. She now lives in Cleveland and is the Director of Campus Ministry at Magnificat High School in Rocky River, Ohio.