Continuing our daily Advent reflection series on the Feast of St. Lucy, Fr. Joe Nangle, OFM, writes about his relationship with a woman named Olga whose accepting friendship challenged him toward greater understanding of Christ in poverty.

My relationship with Olga was improbable. She was a desperately poor Peruvian indigenous woman while I was a comfortable North American priest. However, we came to know each other around a tragic event in Olga’s life. Her oldest child, a boy of nine, was killed in a hit and run accident, and I accompanied his mother during the agonizing four long days it took her to bury him.

Every door was slammed in her face until in desperation we buried the little fellow in a pauper’s grave (knowing that within a few days his coffin would be thrown into an open pit in the cemetery to make room for yet another poverty stricken family to “bury” one of their own).

During those four days I saw life through Olga’s eyes – a life lived in what Pope Paul VI once called “the vicious cycle of poverty”. She never had a chance at what we would call human dignity – simply because of the accident of her birth as a Third World female, a vivid example of another accurate phrase, “the feminization of poverty”.

Peruvian Andes

And yet, it was because of those days together that we became friends. Or rather, she accepted me as a friend and allowed me to be an up close witness to her desperate existence.

She had too many children because for women like Olga offspring seemed to promise a kind of security for parents as they aged. Tragically, however, every one of her several children died of tuberculosis, as she herself eventually did; her husband sank into alcoholic despair at not being able to support the family and one day just walked away; her second son, Vicente, died at age 20 and when Olga went to inquire about him, the nurse on duty said “ha muerto” (he’s dead) – nothing more.

Yet in a completely paradoxical way, Olga became and remains one of the great gifts of my life. Through her I caught a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he identified with people like her – “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick and in prison…”

After coming to know this woman, my entire theological and spiritual underpinnings were constantly challenged. It seems almost a blasphemy, but I do thank God for having placed me on her painful pathway. After coming to know her, I was never the same again.

Olga Valencia, presente!

Coming Tomorrow: “Bridge to Grace” by Bree Haler!

 Fr. Joe Nangle, OFM, is the former executive director and former board secretary/treasurer of Franciscan Mission Service. A member of the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province, he is currently serving as guardian of Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md.

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