I am a Starbucks addict. I admit it. I have been since I traded in my seventeen year diet coke habit for a coffee habit several years ago. I have also always enjoyed having a place where they know your name and your order. Just one place, that’s all I need. [Side note: Currently, I might have two Starbucks locations that know my name and order… and while one of those places was getting remodeled last summer, the employees temporarily merged. I walked in one day to both sets of employees saying “Hi Gretchen, your usual.” It was definitely an indication I might have a problem]. My first and most frequently visited location, however, was definitely the one nearest my work. I spent a lot of time there when I was still in graduate school, and over time, I not only knew the baristas, but I also started to recognize the other regular customers.
One customer in particular always stood out to me. I would see him come through the line in his wheelchair, get something, and leave. Each time he passed by, I was aware of his long unwashed beard, multiple layers of clothes, bags of items, and obvious physical challenges. Each time he passed by, I was also aware of his smile and the hearty laugh he gave to everyone. The first few weeks, I just noticed him. The next few weeks, I wondered if I should do something for him. Then, I started to reflect on him in my graduate school papers and verbally to other colleagues. Others, based on my description, ran into him and stopped to talk to him. They offered him food or money, and they got to know a little more about who he was. One person in my grad school class, read my discussion posts about him, and told me he knew exactly who I was talking about. He gave this person I had only encountered visually a name – Miguel.
One day, I was writing a paper on social justice and the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology and a man who stated “[i]f there is no friendship with them [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.” I had my headphones in and was on a roll moving between the stack of papers and books on the table and my computer. I felt a presence nearby, and I looked up to see Miguel positioned just slightly in front of me. He was looking at something beyond me, and I hesitated for just a moment… long enough for him to wheel away out of reach of conversation and encounter. I continued on with my paper only slightly aware of the irony of the moment.
This ongoing saga with Miguel was also during the Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Church. Mercy was therefore constantly on my mind – what it meant, what it was asking me to do. I discovered through the many homilies of Pope Francis that year that mercy means more than just forgiveness for a transgression. He said that “mercy knows how to look into the eyes of every person; each one is precious, for each one is unique.” He also says that “mercy overcomes every wall, every barrier, and leads you to always seek the face of the man, of the person.” To show another mercy is to show another love.
One day, a few weeks after my paper was written and turned in, I was tutoring and saw Miguel again. My tutee paid me in cash, and I thought to myself “Lord, if you place Miguel in my path, I will give him this money.” I thought it as my tutee left, again as I packed up my books, and again as I started to leave with Miguel still sitting on the other side of the Starbucks. I do not know what my hesitation was, but I eventually left – perhaps it just was not the time. I started my long walk back to my car left parked back at work, and I found myself continually pausing and turning around.
I kept looking for him to suddenly be behind me. “Lord, if you place Miguel in my path…” I realized, however, that Christ was not looking to make this easy for me. Mercy, compassion, love… they are not always meant to be easy. I slowed my walking down when I finally saw him coming out of Starbucks and making his way down the parking lot. This particular day, he was walking alongside his wheelchair, and his pace was slow. Suddenly, I decided I would stop and wait. When he finally reached me, he just nodded and kept walking, but I stopped him. “Miguel?” I said. “You don’t know me, but I have had a really good day today, and I’d like for you to have a good day as well.” I handed him my tutoring money, and he stopped to talk. He said he was on his way to mass at the same parish I worshiped in… and that he goes to that mass every day. Then, he took out a piece of paper and told me about all of these websites that will pray for you if you enter your name and intentions. He wrote each one down for me, encouraged me to visit the sites, and told me he would pray for me as well. I was struck by the thought. Miguel would pray for me. Miguel wanted me to know there were others out there that would pray for me as well. “Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.” (Luke 6: 6)
I have seen Miguel off and on since that encounter. One time, a year or so later, I saw him sitting on a low wall alongside the Church sidewalk as I herded my three boys into mass. He smiled that same big smile and laughed aloud and said hello to my boys. They all smiled back and said hello in their little boy voices back to him. Then earlier this year, I saw him again (after a long time of not running into him) sitting in his chair on the side of a busy street staring into the distance. Every time I see him, I am struck by how similar he looks to my childhood image of Christ – long hair, long beard, piercing eyes. Every time I see him, I am reminded of all the times that I see Christ and walk right past Him. Every time I see him, I am reminded that I still have a long way to grow in mercy.
May you continue to grow in mercy this Lent, seeing Christ in the eyes, words, and actions of all those you meet along the way… and letting them see Christ in you.
*The book I reference reading in this post is Gustavo Gutiérrez: Spiritual Writings from the Modern Spiritual Masters Series.