September 17, 2009

Do You Have a Prayer?

i stepped into the cape town tobacconist's shop and immediately got an earful from the owner.

Perched on a stool just inside the door, he looked as if he hadn't moved in about 10 years. With a cell phone clamped to his ear he let loose on some government official who—I gathered as I studied the selection in this narrow, old store—wasn't able to locate his son.

None of my business, of course, but when angry words fill the room you're in, you can't help but follow the narrative.

A clerk assisted me in picking out several cigars. As she rang up my purchase, the owner finally flipped his phone shut and sighed.

"My ex-wife," he said directly to me, as if we were on a first-name basis. "She took my son, right from the caretaker's, just walked off with him. And these people won't go and get him from her."

I nodded, then shook my head, the international gesture for Bureaucrats: What good are they?

"I pay taxes on everything I do," he continued, "and this woman, this drug addict, she laughs at me, steals my son, and nobody will do anything."

Something clicked in my mind about then. In all his ranting, there was no mention of the boy's welfare. It was all about this fellow, the father, and how he'd been inconvenienced and insulted. I gathered my receipt and bag, and paused to address him.

"What's your name?"

So I prayed for Grissly, in case he's as stubborn as I am …

He suddenly looked me in the eye, as if a veil had fallen from between us.

"My name?"

"Your first name," I clarified, motioning to the clerk for a pen and paper.


I leaned forward and wrote that on a scrap of paper, then tucked it into my pocket.

"I'm going to pray for you, Grissly," I announced, "and your son."

He seemed about to scoff, then caught himself. An uncomfortable moment passed. Then he spoke, very calmly.

"One of my school friends, he became a priest," he said. "He says he prays for me. I don't know."

"That makes two of us, Grissly. I wish you well."

He took my proffered hand and shook it. I returned to the busy sidewalks of Cape Town.

so i prayed for grissly, promptly and repeatedly.

But I didn't just pray for his son's return. I prayed for his wife, his son, and for Grissly. The latter, I think, needed prayer most of all, because (from what I heard), Grissly seemed to be obsessing on himself. It was his honor, his inability to get results, that consumed him. I saw little evidence of what should have been his focus: the boy's welfare. Of course, I wasn't there for very long, so I can't be certain Grissly didn't come to realize his state of mind, and walk it back, or that there wasn't more to the story. But in case he's as stubborn as I am....

the phone rang just as i was vesting for the 10 o'clock mass. I'm not a priest, of course, just a helper, swinging incense, holding books, or toting the crucifix as needed. There's a phone in the sacristy, and I always answer it because it could be someone needing directions. Not this time.

She asked for the priest, and I said he wasn't around, but could I help? This triggered her pitiful recount of how her rent was due at noon and she was about to get kicked out onto the street and nobody could help her and she just found out her father, who's in another state, has been diagnosed with lung cancer, and then her voice dissolved into sobs.

Somewhere, maybe in the Handbook for Clergymen, there's a procedure for this. I had no idea what it was, so I thought fast.

"I don't have a way to help you with that right now. Will you pray with me?"

The sobbing ended rather abruptly.

"When will the priest be available?"

"Probably in an hour."

"Will you have him call me?"

"I don't have a pen. How about you call back later?"

She hung up.

A few minutes later, as the other ministers assembled, I began to tell our priest about the call. He nodded. He'd dealt with her many times before. She's dialing the phone book, running a scam.

I still prayed for her. Because if your situation is so bad that you'll lie to a phone book full of people just to get what you need, you certainly need prayers.

i buy shrimp, limes, and beer at Fiesta even though it feels like visiting a foreign country, or maybe because it does.

One Friday I stood with my goods on the conveyor, enjoying the ambience with the piñatas and conjunto music and all the little kids running around. Behind me, a young man leaned over his cart, his tank top straining around a mass of tattoos and well-developed muscles. Overall, he looked to be consciously imitating one of those Homies figurines, except for the little boy seated in his cart, whom I took to be his son. But it wasn't their appearance that caught my attention. It was what came out of the man's mouth.

True hatred isn't manifest in anger, but in dismissal

"See that guy?" he pointed to the recently deceased Michael Jackson on the cover of a tabloid, "He's a faggot."

I hadn't heard that word since high school. My head snapped around.

"He needs somebody to kick his ass."

His volume told me he didn't care who heard him, and he never looked up at me, instead focusing on the picture and his boy.

"He looks like a girl. Do I look like a girl? Do you look like a girl? He's a faggot."

In that instant I remembered my thoughts on Mel Gibson's liquor-lubricated meltdown. And here I stood, witnessing another child being poisoned by his own father.

I wanted to act. To say something, do something, to get this man's evil hands off his little boy's future. Direct confrontation didn't look promising; the best I could hope for is not remembering what, exactly, had put me on the floor.

I wish I could say that I stepped between the carts and looked at the same tabloid, then turned to the fellow and said I didn't want to kick Michael Jackson's ass, but I did want to pray for his soul.

Perhaps this would have occurred to me if I'd said a prayer before acting. Instead, I sheepishly paid for my groceries and left.

in prayer, timing may be the most important part. I don't think we should pray only "as a last resort," or because we can't think of anything else to do. That puts prayer on the same level as worry, or wishing—something the faithless do when they have no other means of influence. It also assigns God the role of custodian, which doesn't seem very reverent.

We should pray first, then act if we are guided to do so.

In any case, prayer is certainly better than ignoring another's plight. True hatred isn't manifest in anger, but in dismissal. To be angry is to care at least enough to focus negative energy toward someone in the hope that he will change. To ignore is to condemn. 

Posted by: Michael Rittenhouse at 08:48 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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