Yesterday, I had a conversation with a schoolmate of our fifth grader, a conversation that reminded me how blessed we are that God is always with us.
This boy, let's call him Michael, lives with his mother and brother in a small apartment in our neighborhood. When I pick my son and his pals up from school I usually give Michael a lift home, too. At first, I felt funny about giving him a ride home. I never had met or talked to his mother. But Michael reassured me that his mother had told him he could catch rides with any friends' parents. Plus, I felt he was safer with us in my van than walking two miles home alone. Yesterday I learned how very loved this child is.
Michael's mother works until about 8 p.m. Michael and his brother fend for themselves when they come home from school. The situation, far from ideal, is not unusual. When I worked one year as a teacher at an urban Catholic elementary school, most of my students were latch-key kids.
On Wednesday, after picking the boys up from school, I asked Michael if it was okay if we stopped by the Dunkin' Donuts for a snack. He said "Oh, I don't have a problem with that," with a big smile. I took the boys to the drive-through for a box of Munchkins and some hot cocoa. Michael said he had never seen Munchkins. He sipped some of the cocoa and said he would save the rest for his mom. "I know my mom would like this cocoa," he said. "Definitely."
As we headed from the Dunkin' Donuts toward his home, Michael started talking about his home country, a war-torn place in the midst of a civil war. (The drawing above is by a child caught in the war in Chechnya, not Michael's home country.) He told me that his mom divorced his dad because his dad had had a problem with drinking and with choking his mother. "Sometimes, people do get addicted to alcohol, honey," I told him. "And sometimes that can make them do mean things." He said he hadn't seen his dad since he was four years old: "We don't even know where he lives."
I wasn't sure what to say. It was quiet in the car for a few minutes. Then Michael told me that three of his five uncles had been killed in that war. Among the dead was his favorite uncle, who had been killed in a roadside ambush for no apparent reason. "I'm so sorry," I told him. "Oh, it's okay," he answered. "I have had five years to get over it and I am fine now."
Michael is 10. When I first met him, I imagined him to be a sad and lost child, walking home alone after school, waiting for his older brother and then his mother to return. But I have come to see that he is a sunny boy, who feels safe in his new suburban neighborhood and with his school chums. He is bright and reads voraciously. He always says "Thank you" and "See you tomorrow!" when I drop him off.
At the start of the school year, the difficult details of Michael's life might have made me cry once I got home. Yesterday, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm when he was talking to me. This is because I have come to understand that God is present with Michael at every moment. And that my job is to keep taking him home.
As St. Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.