The National Catholic Review
Nancy Needham
A Nativity encounter in the Deep South
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There we were, two inexperienced yet very determined lay missionaries, driving down a narrow highway in rural Alabama with someone we barely knew to a place that appeared as the smallest of locations on the well-used map we kept under the seat. Nonetheless, our guide was quite adamant about the urgent need for us to see this place and meet these people. We submitted to her entreaties and set out on a journey unlike any other.

Our guide, Angelica, was a not-so-very-young divorced mother of two. A Mexican immigrant herself, she was among other things a self-appointed social service emissary for hundreds of disenfranchised Hispanic immigrants who live in remote, rural areas of southern Alabama. Over the course of several months, she had waged a determined campaign of visits to Catholic churches to petition prayers and aid to meet the needs of immigrants less fortunate than she. In the end, help did not come in the way she expected, nor in a way we might have anticipated.

Our journey actually began a few days prior to meeting Angelica. We had received a phone call from some faithful friends in a nearby Georgia town who wanted to donate used beds and clothing to our ministry. The challenge was, as always, transportation. On several occasions in the past, these friends had formed a convoy of vans and trucks to bring us donations. This time, though, they asked us to come and pick up the offerings so we could meet the donors and their families. Grateful for all the aid God sent, we set off.

In the midst of loading up the donations, we received a phone message that someone had a slightly used baby bed to contribute. Since we had learned early in our missionary experience never to say no to a donation, we humbly accepted the bed without knowing how or for whom we would use it. On the way home, we marveled at the goodness of so many people to two missionary neophytes, and the amazing way everything they had donated fit perfectly inside our little truck.

Two days after returning from this journey of generosity and providence, we met Angelica for the first time at a Sunday Mass. She told us about an urgent need to help a Guatemalan family and their newborn son. “There is something very special about these people,” she declared earnestly. “Please come as soon as possible. I will guide you.”

A Hidden Grotto

With the blessing of our pastor, we agreed to go; and we set off early the next morning. The route to this place was a long, winding road, an old two-lane highway that curved and climbed around the hills of southern Alabama without rhyme or reason. Through sparsely settled, nameless towns and old, abandoned whistle-stops, we made our way through what seemed another time and place to meet these people.

The place was on the outskirts of a very small town in an old, abandoned schoolhouse. Its two wings of classrooms had been converted into tiny one-window apartments. Our first glimpse was blocked by three large Dumpsters. With their lids carelessly thrown open, they were overflowing with trash and surrounded by scattered empty bottles, crushed cans and torn papers.

As we peered over the Dumpsters, we spotted two ominous-looking buildings that fit the description we had been given of an old school converted into apartment buildings. These apartments were the opposite of elegant. Their decoration was peeling paint and broken windows. We had reached our destination.

First, we had to determine how to approach the building, because at the edge of the road there was a steep drop-off to a treacherous clay ravine. It was disfigured by deep holes and uneven tire ruts created by years of uncontrolled erosion and countless cars driving over wet, slippery clay. Slowly and cautiously, we inched our way off the asphalt one tire at a time, thankful for four-wheel drive.

Vigilant for unfamiliar perils, we disembarked from the safety of our truck, saying a brief prayer for protection to St. Michael as we tiptoed through the litter to enter the first building on our left through a shadowy tunnel of dust and doors. It was as if we had entered another world. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we were attracted to the source of a strange noise, like that of an oversized cricket. There, outside the third door on our right, was a small wooden cagelike box. Approaching it with more curiosity than caution, we discovered it held hostage a scrawny golden-brown chicken. A proud hen, she had just deposited two brown speckled eggs in the center of her cage. We chuckled at our surprise encounter, the hen clucked blissfully at her accomplishment, and we continued cautiously down the hall of doors.

This time we followed a new sound past a dozen firmly closed, well-used doors. It was a rhythmic drumming: ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk. The somewhat familiar cadence led us to the end of the hall where half a dozen washers and dryers in use churned and clanked. Yet this was not a typical laundry room.

In the midst of a tangled weave of strings of multicolored, blinking Christmas lights, a large poster of Our Lady of Guadalupe smiled at us. It was the centerpiece of this humble, homemade grotto. Under the Virgin’s feet was the warm glow of about 50 candles in tall glass jars, haphazardly arranged on a rickety wooden table. The jars wore labels with the faces of many different saints offering their intercessory prayers, including St. Jude, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Michael and the Guardian Angels. Each candle burned at a different level, giving undeniable testimony that many faithful pilgrims routinely placed their petitions on this makeshift altar. Before we left this remarkable sight, we prayed a Hail Mary in hope that the Mother of God would hear and answer the ardent prayers of these pilgrim people. “Ka-thunk, amen,” the dryers confidently concluded our prayers.

A New Nativity

Retracing our steps past the contented hen, we negotiated the opening between the two buildings and entered the second hall. It too was dark, with a dozen doors filling each wall. There were no chickens here. On the contrary, a delicious aroma of spicy food filled the air. We saw a familiar glow at the end of the hallway: another grotto to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

We could not help but recall the Virgin’s message in her miraculous appearance to St. Juan Diego on Mount Tepeyac in Mexico City: “Tell the bishop to build a church in this place.” Here, in the midst of a small, quiet Southern town with no Catholic church, we had found the perpetual burning of lamps in a different kind of parish, a place where the humblest of all people made known their hopes through faith in the intercession of the Mother of God. We wondered, “Just who are these people our guide brought us to meet, and how did they get such faith?”

There was insufficient time to ponder the question, because Angelica motioned for us to follow her to the smudged, handprint-stained door of apartment 7C. We knocked, loudly declaring a sweet “Buenos dias” to the occupants, hoping they would not be afraid to open to us. “Soy Angelica con las hermanas de la iglesia Católica,” our guide declared through the door. “It’s Angelica. I’ve come with the ladies from the Catholic church.”

A murmur of voices in a Mayan dialect followed her announcement and slowly, cautiously, the door opened to us. “Pásense.” “Come in.” Angelica entered first, greeting three tiny women with long, flowing black hair with a kiss on the cheek and shaking the hands of their husbands as they wiped the sleep from their eyes. They had recently finished working all night at a nearby factory. Behind the women five very young children hid in fear, holding bottles of juice in one hand and gripping their mothers’ dresses with the other. Angelica introduced us to each person in turn.

After greeting the adults and offering candy and smiles to the children, we were escorted to a tiny bedroom. We entered the darkened room holding our breath in anticipation. We could hardly believe our eyes. It was as if we had been transported through time and space to Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. There, on the cement floor, a mother humbly lay with her newborn baby boy. Instead of a manger, they were sleeping on a flattened cardboard box. There were no blankets or swaddling clothes for the child of this holy family.

We did not breathe for what seemed like a full minute as we took in the sight. I could not help wondering which of the candles in the makeshift grottos had been lit by this mother. As we caught our breath, we whispered a quiet greeting to the mother so as not to wake the baby and asked if she would like to have a bed for her son. When she nodded affirmatively, we excused ourselves, saying we had one outside in our truck—the very bed that had been donated to us only a few days earlier. Happily, we also had blankets, food, toys, mattresses and rosaries enough for everyone living in this humble apartment.

These people were indeed special. Living between two makeshift grottos to Our Lady of Guadalupe, they found their prayers heard and answered by God. But God was not finished with them. Not only did they receive a few comfort items, but within three years of the birth of this child, missionary priests were sent to the area and began to offer the Mass in Spanish in a makeshift church, which continues there today.

Spiritual Network

How did this encounter make a difference in our lives? First, we actually saw God move step by step through various agents to answer a mother’s and father’s prayers for the needs of their newborn child. Angelica, our friends in Georgia, two women and a truck—all these formed a spiritual network for God to use in a special way.

We also witnessed a unique place of prayer: not a beautiful cathedral on a hill in a grand city, but two humble wooden altars covered with candles in laundry rooms. Furthermore, we can testify that the intercessor for those prayers was none other than the Mother of God herself, Our Lady of Guadalupe; so we cannot doubt the merits of her mantle of support.

Our encounter with these people put us face-to-face with the poor and their prayers. They had journeyed to Alabama because the economy of their homeland had no room for them. Like the shepherds, we had the privilege of going to “Bethlehem” to see what had taken place. There we saw the baby sleeping on the cardboard “manger” and delivered a real bed to him. God had visited his people.

In his book, Let God’s Light Shine Forth, Robert Moynihan quotes one of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI: “God speaks quietly. But he gives us all kinds of signs. In retrospect, especially, we can see that he has given us a little nudge through a friend, through a book, or through what we see as a failure—even through accidents. Life is actually full of these silent indications. If I remain alert, then slowly…I begin to feel how God is guiding me.”

We are invited to widen our lives, our ways of thinking, our prayers and our beliefs to include the possibility that God may wish to use us as a part of the network of faith to answer prayer. It starts, of course, with just a mustard seed of faith that God answers prayer: we must ask. God uses all of us as instruments, so just say yes. Believe. If not for yourself, believe for others, especially when you encounter the flames from their candles of faith.

From the archives, the story behind "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Nancy Needham is a student at the Institute for Pastoral Ministries, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, working toward a master of arts degree in pastoral ministry.

Comments

Edison Woods | 12/16/2008 - 9:21pm
This article is proof if it were needed that God is drawn to humility not pride. The people of Mexico hold out a candle of humility to God and the people of the United States would do well to do the same.
RAFAEL AVILES | 12/15/2008 - 10:49am
Having traveled much through the State of Alabama, I can identify with the challenges of being both Hispanic and Catholic in Alabama. I have found that Catholics there are very dedicated and truly care for their faith and those in need. The article is wonderful in descrbing the plight of Hispanic immigrants in Alabama and maybe throughout our country. The only slight failure is the translation of the term hermanas de la Iglesia Catolica. It is translated as "ladies of the Catholic Church", rather than using a more literal and meaningful translation, "sisters of the Catholic Church." The word sister shows a much greater connection and emanates the aura of caring.