I am sure there will be dozens, probably hundreds, of similar blog posts this night, mourning the death of Robin Williams. The news came at the end of a particularly sad day. This morning, Diana, who was one of the original founders of the Latino ministry in Fort Lauderdale I was so privileged to serve with, resigned from her position. The loss of her leadership is another hard blow to the most marginalized members of what was once a regional ministry that tried to embrace all kinds of diversity, including social class and power diversity. Like me, Diana has her rough edges and like me, she was always on a steep learning curve in the work of ministry.
As I was preparing to leave in the late Spring, we got word that the two teachers who had anchored the literacy program that made such an enormous difference to a community on the edges, were unexpectedly not able to participate this summer. At that point, I thought it was the end of the ministry. Diana refused to believe that was so. With help, and with single-minded purpose, she put together a plan for the summer program. What happened was not a watered down version of the past. Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of the summer was her ability to engage mothers of our community, many of whom have minimal schooling and who are used to seeing themselves as totally inadequate to helping their children succeed in school, so they very actively participated in their children’s summer learning activities.
I only got bits and pieces, small glimpses of what was happening, but it looked really amazing. The reading test scores for the 50 children who participated this summer were every bit as strong as previous years’ scores, maybe even stronger. The program was extended an additional 2 weeks. That additional time was resourced completely by the moms and was a learning celebration of the children’s country of origin cultures. Again, I have only seen bits and pieces. You just have to look at the children’s faces, and the see the pride in the postings that appeared on Facebook about all the ways in which 50 children’s lives were enriched by women who are taught they have no value, to see that something good had happened. Something very good.
I am enormously proud of the young woman I was fortunate to work with for 8 years. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, we had us some knock down-drag out fights along the way and we let each other down more than once. But we were working for a much larger purpose than our individual styles, preferences and needs and we always found our way back to what was most important: creating a space where children could learn and their moms could see, even if for only a moment, that not only did they have value, they were beloved children of God. Together we learned to be less judgmental of women in domestic violence situations and to try to find more creative ways of supporting them on a path to something better. Together we sobbed the day we found out that one had finally been killed by her partner. And with the rest of the El Centro, we ate lentejitas con arroz y maduro (lentils and rice with plantains) laughed so hard sometimes that our sides ached and the tears ran down our faces, and marveled at just how good life can be, even out there on the edges, where we did our work.
That very small, in some respects, insignificant chapter that we helped God write in those years is now over. Diana, like I, did ministry in a place where strong forces were at play that had a whole lot more say about the future than we did. I don’t whitewash the truth that my own limitations, my own failures as the priest of El Centro, also played into the reality that a day came when Diana found she could simply not continue to work in the situation that had evolved after my departure. I have come to the conviction that an essential part of my priesthood is carrying the weight of my own failures and I do so each and every day now, trying to learn from my mistakes.
I am also old enough to know there are no angels, no demons, in this story. It is just the way of life and I am far more comfortable than ever recognizing that some efforts will not get enough lift, will not find the legs necessary for long-term sustainability, no matter how noble their intent and effort. It once would have been tempting to parse out all the failure points, all the ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’s’. Even a few months ago, the blame game would have beckoned seductively.
Not tonight. Robin Williams is dead of suicide, a brilliant, gentle, generous and fragile presence who was lent to the world for too short a time. El Centro, as Diana, and Angel, and Pilar, and Daniel, Maria and Alex and Jaime and I thought it might be when we had soccer field, and storefront, and garden, and occasionally, “real” church Eucharists and sang “A La Huella” along with Mercedes Sosa at Advent, has almost completely spun out of existence. A young immigrant woman who worked hard to land a job with benefits has to start over professionally. I am sad and I am also fiercely glad that Diana and I were lent to a community and a community was lent to us for that brief and beautiful time. We were offered the gift of what felt like a day that flew by in the blink of an eye, and we somehow managed to “Carpe Diem”. What is there to regret about that?