September 7, 2011

Silent Service

At this moment I am grateful to be in a country in which I do not speak the language and must be silent. I am forced to be aware of my surroundings. He is part of my surroundings. I am curious about this stranger. I am curious enough to walk a few steps behind, just to observe.
In the small square of Via Franciosa, Italy, he has walked by beautiful architectural landscape taking photographs. The young man is wearing a cap and carrying a heavy backpack that is becoming lighter with every stop he makes. In his hands he carries a water bottle, a small book, and a camera. He seems less preoccupied with taking pictures and looks around desperately, as if he has lost a loved one among the crowd. He walks toward dark corners in the street. In small spaces of large beauty he has the ability to find people in hidden places and gives them something from the backpack. I watch him approach the homeless, hiding among street signs, huddled in corners on hard cobblestone. Who is he?
I am thousands of miles from home, traveling with a group. He’s in my group. During the lunch hour I spot him sitting on a bench in the courtyard, eating. He doesn’t sit for long. He has spotted someone. Carefully placing his meal on the bench, he walks a distance. This time he pulls out a handful of coins and places them in the hands of an elderly man. Every time it’s something different. Food, clothes, water, money . . . yet he never says a word.
2011 1525 page29As the day wears on I am astounded by the beauty around me. The stone and metal have been replaced by the landscape of Tuscany as we travel in the tour bus down a mountain of vineyards toward the train station. We are all mesmerized by the beautiful scenery. Travel companions are whispering, as if being reverent of the beauty surrounding us. I watch him quietly looking out the window. I wish I could talk to him.
At the station I discover I have missed my train and must wait. Taking a seat, I look around, and my gaze falls on a distant, familiar sight: the young man, finding a stranger. He sits on the floor, at the corner of the station, next to an old woman with a bandaged foot. He removes the few items left in his backpack, replacing them with the random items around the woman: a small blanket, an old water bottle, a dirty scarf . . . Those are her belongings! He hands her the pack. Her nonverbal appreciation is obvious, as she hugs the backpack. He sits a few feet away from me, places his belongings on an empty chair, and begins to read.
Apparently I am not the only one watching.
I notice a couple sitting a few seats away from him shuffling through their souvenir bags, quickly transferring multiple items into one bag in order to hand him an empty bag. They point at his belongings. All of us are silent today, but the unspoken words are clear: this is a simple replacement for your backpack.
Once in the train, I find myself with standing room only, nothing to hold on to for balance. I feel someone pull my arm, and I am suddenly sitting down. It’s the young man, trading places with me. Before I can express my appreciation, the train jolts into motion, and his book falls at my feet. It’s a small New Testament. The spine is cracked and is open to Matthew 25:40. This is what he’s been reading all day! It’s an English Bible. As I return the book, in labored English he says: “Work. Today?”
I understand. He points at the highlighted verses and states the obvious: “It is work for every day even when traveling. I sometimes forget.” I know. I recognize the work you are talking about and have done all day: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Dixil Rodríguez, a college professor and volunteer hospital chaplain, lives in Texas. This article was published September 8, 2011.