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God’s Surprises

 Photographed DECEMBER4, 2011 in ARLINGTON, VA.
Commissioning service at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church for Franciscan Mission Service volunteers.  (Photo by Gerald Martineau/For FMS)

Editor’s Note: The following is part of our daily holiday series celebrating “The Shared World.”

I know now that the squeals were not the finish line.

I recently brought flowers to a woman in a nursing home that I visit regularly, and they were received with squeals of delight. I’d met Gladys* the week before at a monthly Mass celebrated there. It had been her first time coming to one of the Masses, and she confided later that she’d been unsure of whether or not she was “really welcome” since she is Baptist.

I honestly had no idea that she was not Catholic, nor that this was going on inside her when I chose randomly to sit next to her, introduced myself, and asked if she would like to proclaim the first reading. She’d timidly agreed: “Uhh… if you’re sure that’s ok… I’m Baptist.”

“As long as you’re comfortable,” I said, “that’s fine. It’s great to have you with us! I can even help you if you get stuck on any words, ‘cause I know the print is small.”

We struck up a great conversation before the celebration, and continued it afterwards over sugar-free cookies and punch at the reception. I smiled as Gladys sang the praises of “this Pope Francis character” that she sees often in the news, who always seems to be welcoming the stranger. She expressed her gladness that his spirit was spreading even into the far corners of a nursing home in Washington, D.C.

Natalie and Gladys

Natalie and Gladys

During that conversation she mentioned that keeping her room colorful with flowers and cards helps keep her spirits up, so I looked forward to surprising her with a bouquet the following week—especially because she didn’t believe me when I said I’d come back to see her.

Gladys squealed and giggled and clapped her hands with the freedom of a child when she saw me walk through the door, then wheeled herself over to practically tackle me with a hug. What a reception! (Pun intended).

I thought my deed was done when I handed them to her, but boy was I wrong. Upon receiving the flowers, Gladys proceeded to divide them up and then lead me around her floor in her wheelchair to give them to those who were bed-ridden. She knew each one’s name and introduced me to them all. Words can’t describe how moved I was.

What struck me most that afternoon was her relationship with her own roommate, who has had a stroke and can no longer speak, and only understands Spanish.

Though Gladys only speaks English, she seamlessly communicates love and care to Maria* through her eyes, her touch, her voice—and is able to see and understand Maria’s wants and needs in a way that transcends typical human communication. Their ability to connect with one another in the face of all the perceived barriers is a small miracle to witness.

I’d had no idea that my little act of openness to Gladys at Mass the week before would hold such profound meaning for her. In the same way, I don’t think she had any idea what effect she was having on me with her simple acts of kindness to those around her.

She broke open the barriers of my limited (even if good) vision and expectations for how love would be shared that afternoon. She reminded me that, as J.B. Phillips writes, “[My] God is too small.”

Gladys continues to show me that we never know how God is discreetly and surprisingly working through any of us to break down barriers and share love. Our God needs only a tiny crack in the dam to achieve a flood. If we open the door just a sliver, if we meekly whisper a ‘yes’, if we just show up, God will surprise us by taking our five loaves and two fish to feed a crowd—us included.

Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us (Ephesians 3:20).

*Names changed for privacy.

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Natalie is the former programs manager. Before coming to Washington, D.C., she spent a year-and-a-half in Bangkok, Thailand, with Heart’s Home offering friendship as a sign of hope to those experiencing isolation and desperation. She found this call to the “charism of compassion” and friendship for those who are suffering while bringing communion to the sick and homebound through Nativity Catholic Church in Indianapolis. As an apprentice of University of Notre Dame’s Echo program, Natalie received her master’s in theology while working in different parish ministries at Nativity including RCIA, children’s sacramental prep, and high school formation and youth group.