Three weeks after returning to the States, the process of sifting and sorting my experiences has gotten fully under way. Between tackling the organization of teen weeks’ worth of photos and video footage I’d accumulated, reuniting with friends who have lived at and understood NPH El Salvador, and the almost agonizing solitude of a 5-day silent retreat, those kids have been almost constantly on my mind. The frustration of being so far away was worst when reviewing the videos I’d taken of Carmen, the little girl I’d decided to sponsor; I’d never, ever grown so attached to a baby as I did to her. A number of times I simply had to stop watching, so intense was the desire to simply be there as she struggled to stand up or walk. They tell me that she’s already running about Casa Niño Jesús on her own; my insides twisted up when I thought of how much she’ll have grown by the next time I see her, and each day how much I am missing. I felt like a father poring over the few mementos of his young family he had to console himself in his time away.
As a Catholic seminarian contemplating a life of celibate commitment, such sentiments may seem out of place, but a summer spent with this gran familia could not have done more for me to put in perspective the meaning of spiritual fatherhood. In spite of the limited time commitment I was able to make, I sensed an interior freedom to commit emotional energy to the pequeños in a way that lined up with the sorts of exterior commitments I was (and am) preparing to make. Their eagerness and receptivity to the meager affection I had to share depleted my reserves even as they drew forth more and more in ways that, upon reflection, surprise me.
Yet I experienced another dimension of this relationship through the receptivity that was, in a real sense, forced upon me by the inability to communicate fluently. The outlets through which I’d presumed I’d be able to “give” were depleted rather quickly; it wasn’t long before I sensed that I didn’t have much to offer to this flourishing little community. With time, it was almost as if by allowing them to take a genuine interest in me—and demonstrating to them that I appreciated that interest—that something in them was satisfied.
The clearest case of this was a young man, only 14, who arrived at NPH with his three younger siblings not too long after I did. He entertained the other children in the clinic by roughing up his younger brothers, who were almost as big as he was, with preposterous wrestling moves and holds, flying leaps and whatever the Salvadoran equivalent to “cry uncle!” would have been. Throughout the summer, we’d cross paths often, and it was always a project to keep up with his rapid and slangy Spanish. One evening in the clinic, we got a little wild (I think the nursing staff was always too polite to chew me out for winding the kids up right before bed) and he fell on his rear after I boosted him up into the air for the last big jump of the night (“seriously, now, this is the last one”). More out of embarrassment than pain, he crawled under the bed like a whipped animal and refused to come out. For a long time after that, I found it hard to believe he was as old as he said he was.
The last day I had to spend in the clinic was the Sunday before I left. I spent the whole afternoon playing with the kids and letting them run around and take pictures with my camera. My young friend was there again with a broken arm—he had a knack for having too much fun. While I was off in another corner of the room, he got one of the others to hold the camera and recorded a short goodbye message to me. I curse the microphone on that camera that picked up every single decibel of background noise while muddling his already rapid words into a slurry of vowels, but in a way, everything that needed to be communicated was present on his face. In his short adios I saw the man within the boy—direct, earnest, and self-confident enough to communicate his affection and gratitude without embarrassment or awkwardness. It is an ironic gift that the most lively token of my friendship with a young man I habitually regarded as a child is a 25-second glimpse of the man who, with the help of NPH, he is one day to become.
Father Wasson was known to have said, “The most important thing is that my children practice charity, because if they love, they will be loved.” Strange as it may seem to say it, my only boast is that I was a recipient of the love of these young men, women, and children—and that by God’s gift, they were better for it. What a strange, wonderful, storybook place this is, where the famous paradox of St. Francis stands on its head: it is in receiving that we give.