The moment I saw him, I knew he wasn’t Catholic.
I was standing in the vestibule of St Mary Catholic Church after Mass on the first Sunday of Advent. As the tall, slender young man walked past me, he breezed right past the Holy Water. I watched him closely as he walked down the center aisle. He didn’t genuflect before sitting down in the second pew from the front nor he make the Sign of the Cross before he bowed his head as if to pray. I nodded inwardly and thought to myself, “That boy has got a heavy heart. He is looking for some comfort here.” I sat down in the back pew and waited.
It was my Sunday to be a greeter for the 7 A.M. Mass. Being a greeter means mostly saying hello to the same people I see every Sunday. I smile, say “Good Morning,” hug people, and try to be a welcoming presence. Being a greeter is not a hard job but it’s not necessarily an easy one, either. The Hospitality Ministry is pretty new and the ushers are still getting used to the idea that a greeter is horning in on their territory. They glower at me while I attempt to maintain a serene frame of mind. One usher in particular seems really offended by my hugging people so I try to pray for him while I’m standing there. I figure if I’m praying for him, I’ll keep from flipping him off which is what I am sometimes sorely tempted to do.
While I was waiting for our young visitor, I thought about all the times I went to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Like him, I wasn’t Catholic either. I was a lot like I imagined this young man to be: troubled, confused, hurting. I would go sit at the feet of the statue of Our Lady and cry. I can’t tell you how many times I watched the nice parishioners look the other way while I was suffering so much youthful angst. My memory of how alone and sad I felt in those days was one of the reasons that I was so bound and determined to be present to this boy. Of all the things I may be, a sanctimonious, stuffy church lady, I am not.
When our visitor stood up to leave, I got up, too. I stepped over to the baptismal font and blessed myself with the words: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I bowed toward the tabernacle and straightened up just as my young friend drew near.
I looked him in the eye and said, “My name is Tara. Are you okay? Do you want someone to pray with you?”
He nodded and told me his name was E–. After we sat down, he told me about how he’d been having trouble with drugs. His mom was insisting that he go to rehab before she’d let him come home. And there was a girl, too, whom he loved and lost. I could smell the cigarettes on his breath and I remembered a chain-smoking, binge-drinking eighteen year old I knew once. She was mourning the death of her boyfriend who’d been killed in a car wreck.
“I used to have a drinking problem, too,” I said. “I drank because I was trying to make the pain go away. I did drugs. I drank so much that I had black outs and shit.” Yes, I cursed in church; I told you I’m not a stuffy church lady.
We talked and prayed and cried together. Before he left, I gave him my card and told him I wanted him to let me know how he was doing. I promised him that I’d pray for him and that I wouldn’t forget him. I told him that I knew he could heal from everything that he’s gone through. And I told him that he has his whole life ahead of him.
A few weeks ago, when the scowling from the ushers was particularly fierce, I felt like an outsider again. I got discouraged and wondered how long I could tolerate the disapproval glares and being scolded for hugging people. I wasn’t sure I could get through it without mouthing off, either. On Thanksgiving morning, I asked God to send me a stranger. My reasoning was that as a greeter, I was there to welcome the person who was friendless, not merely to say hello to the people who see me every Sunday.
From the moment I set eyes on E–, I knew he was my stranger, the one I had prayed to the good Lord for. With all my heart, I hope I didn’t let him down. Maybe he heard me when I said, “You are not alone.”