The ministry of powerlessness

Last Sunday was a very hard day for me.

Before Mass in San Agustín, I sat on the side steps of the church and was near tears. During Mass, I felt a heaviness. But, most of all, I felt helpless, powerless.

In the past few weeks, I have been sent by the pastor on two occasions to baptize kids – one four years old and one six years old, who were leaving the next day with their fathers on the long and treacherous trek to the United States.

In the last week, I heard of two cases of relatives of people in the parish who have been kidnapped in Mexico and were being held for an outrageous ransom. At one point, I embraced, prayed, and cried with the parents, wife, and sister of one of the men.

In the last few weeks, I also came into contact with family members of migrants who had died in the US and whose bodies were being returned for burial here. One was a 16 year old who drowned, the other was a man in his late twenties who was shot and killed.

On Sunday morning, I went for a Celebration of the Word with Communion in a distant village. I had brought Communion to several people there and asked about one of them. They told me he had died ten days before – just three months short of his hundredth birthday. I had visited him and his wife, who died not too long ago. I also had a scare a few months ago when I went to visit him and found him outside on the patio. He didn’t seem to be breathing and I feared he had died. Some relatives came and we got him to bed. He recovered a bit but was still very weak. Yet he died after collapsing while walking just outside his house.

After the Celebration, I visited a man in his early thirties who needs some serious treatment for some brain injuries; he had a drainage valve inserted years ago, but he needs another operation soon. The costs are astronomic for a poor family but people in his village and others raised about $400. But one day a man came and stole the money.

Just last week, another young man in another village, also with serious brain damage, died in a hospital in San Pedro Sula.

All this weighed heavily on me as I waited for Mass.

I realized that I felt powerless, impotent, useless. But I also remembered that St. Paul speaks about God’s strength being made perfect in our weakness.

As a gringo, I want to always solve things, to get things done (usually in the way I want to get them done.) But so many times here I’ve found myself powerless.

But then I remembered the powerlessness of the people and the powerful words of Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, who was martyred in El Salvador in 1980:

“Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent. Can I say to my neighbors — I have no solutions to the situation, I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness and learn from other poor ones?”

My heart was heavy as I drove home from San Agustín after Mass. A few hours later, I called Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, a good friend who serves here in Gracias, Lempira (and has served God’s people in Chile, El Salvador, the US, and as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious when they were experiencing pressure and possible censure from the Vatican). We talked. Sharing what I was feeling and listening to her words of encouragement helped me to recognize that being here, even when feeling totally powerless and useless, is what God wants from me.

As I reflect on this tonight, the vigil of the Transfiguration of the Lord, there are two thoughts.

I like Dove dark chocolate pieces, partly because they are good dark chocolate and are the right size for a quick snack. The wrapper has a short saying on the inside. A few years ago, the wrapper said, “You are where you are meant to be.” That made sense to me and I have it on a small white board I have in the kitchen.

A few years later, I came across this quote from the Polish Conventual Franciscan friar, Blessed Miguel (Michal) Tomaszek, who was martyred in Peru on August 9, 1991.

“You are not where you are now to understand the world, but to understand what the will of God is for you. It is a matter of being where you are supposed to be.”

I am where I am supposed to be.

But being here is a way that God can purge me, humble me, empty me.

A few days after arriving in Honduras in 2007, I came across this passage from Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ, who was for many years superior general of the Jesuits and had to suffer powerlessness after a stroke. (It is found in Pedro Arrupe: Selected Writings, p. 85.)

…what a missionary must be ready to undergo in a foreign country is highly instructive. To find oneself alone in a great city, without a single friend or acquaintance, without provision of any kind, whether it be physical equipment or the support and security one derives from ordinary human relationships; to be poor even as far as language is concerned, unable to express oneself, to tell people what one is, what one knows; always to be in a position of inferiority, a child just learning to speak, contemptuously dismissed in every discussion, painfully aware of the poor impression one is always making, and of the pity, or else the hostility, with which one is regarded – all this brings home to a person better than empty theorizing what poverty, in the radical sense of dis-possession, really means. Not only does it take away external attachments, it makes one truly humble of heart; for to be poor is to be humiliated, and it is from being humiliated that one learns humility.

But I can do this because we have a God whose strength is in his weakness, who, “being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be held onto; instead, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.… He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 6-8).

Humility is a hard lesson to learn, especially for someone as hard-headed and privileged as I am. But Jesus opens the way for us, by taking on the way himself and putting in our path the poor who teach us the wealth of a poverty that calls us to empty ourselves, to let ourselves be broken open by the poor and to sit and cry with them – crying out to this God who hears the cries of the poor.

Kathe Kollwitz

One response to “The ministry of powerlessness

  1. “Humility is a hard lesson to learn, especially for someone as hard-headed and privileged as I am. But Jesus opens the way for us, by taking on the way himself and putting in our path the poor who teach us the wealth of a poverty that calls us to empty ourselves, to let ourselves be broken open by the poor and to sit and cry with them – crying out to this God who hears the cries of the poor.” Thank you, John. Keeping you, your ministry and all the people of Honduras and Central America in prayer.

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