My friend Widian Nicola delivered a rich address to a gathering in the Diocese of Camden the other day. I asked if she would share that address with her brothers and sisters in the Vincentian Family. Widian has been a Vincentian of Wherever (in Princeton, New Jersey, at St. John’s University, for starters). You’ll see. It’s in her marrow. I’ve broken her talk into three parts, and will share one part for these next three Sundays. (ed.)


Making Contact • Drawing Near

I’d like to begin this morning with a familiar story.

A religious scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus.

“Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

Jesus answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

The religious scholar said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and strength and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you love yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

Looking for a loophole, the scholar asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Jesus answered by telling a story.

“There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead.

Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

A Samaritan traveling the road came upon him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him and he drew near the man.

He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds.

Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable.

In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Jesus asked the scholar, “Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religious scholar responded.

In reply, Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

It used to be that neighbors were the people who lived next door, or down the street, or the apartment across the hall. Yet, I’d like you to think about the fact that in today’s world, a mother in Iraq who is forced by poverty to choose which one of her six kids to send to school, or a 29-year displaced man who, along with his family, fled the inter-communal violence in Myanmar, or a farmer from Mexico who crossed the US-Mexican border because of threats from local gangs, is no less than a neighbor to us.

These people’s lives, filled with violence, poverty, and uncertainty are deeply interconnected to our own. Regardless of whether they’re considered refugees or undocumented immigrants, like us, they each long for safety and opportunity – things that we regularly take for granted. It is their courage and determination to overcome insurmountable odds that moves them closer toward these things and away from oppression and fear.

It is also the welcome and love mirrored in the work you’re doing here at the Diocese of Camden that brings them even closer.

This type of welcome is necessary because we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. There are an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world who have been forced from their home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

In the United States alone, there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom who have also fled violence, racism, and poverty.

As Pope Francis pointed out: “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant the migration of thousands of people. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”

Given this crisis, I’d like to suggest that we live in a world that is in desperate need of good neighbors – not only to those who live next door, but especially to those whom we might regard as stranger.

Although social media can connect us to those who are seemingly distant, it is only through encounter that we can truly move from stranger to friend. No one knows the importance of this better than all of us gathered here today. But praying for and learning about compelling stories of refugees and undocumented immigrants gives us only a small glimpse into their world. Today, we are challenged to move forward in a new, powerful way that’s exemplified extraordinarily in the story of the Good Samaritan.

In an article published last summer, my friend, Mike Laskey, challenged Catholics to develop a more robust “theology of encounter.” He called for “professional theologians to think and write about encounter, for ordained and lay ministers to create and share pastoral initiatives around encounter, and for the rest of us faithful to talk about and practice encounter in our daily lives.”

Since then, I’ve been thinking about his challenge, determined to make sense of this “theology” in the scriptures, but most importantly, to practice it in my daily life.

Today, woven in my own personal immigration story, I’d like to suggest that this theology of encounter is not just a brainy explanation, but an engaging, dynamic practice comprised of three movements: contact, connection, and care.

Let’s explore each of these ideas.

First, contact.

Allow me to share a story that illustrates the power and force of contact as told by Poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Here’s what she says:

“Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: ‘If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.” I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.” We called her son; I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.

Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions.

She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar.

And smiling.

There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too.

And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves.

Such an old country tradition.

Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, this is the world I want to live in.

The shared world.

Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”

This is the product of drawing near. We are, each day, invited to move across an invisible threshold: from one space to the next.

To make contact with someone who’s in distress.

More next week…

widian-nicolaAs a qualitative researcher, Dr. Widian Nicola is interested in individual narratives of the lived human experience. As such, she created, produced, and published the Lived Experience Project, a narrative social work podcast show that explores unique and evocative stories rarely heard in mainstream media. As a social justice educator, Dr. Nicola offers numerous professional and academic presentations on issues surrounding poverty and immigration. She supervises, advises, and provides oversight to students and organizations on a wide range of social justice programming. She maintains an interest in social policy, particularly immigration reform, and serves on the NASW-NJ Legislative Action and Social Advocacy committee, as well as maintains a small private practice.

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