Deeds Come First

Today’s blog post is by Mary van Balen

Peter Claver, a 16th century Spaniard, was canonized by the Roman Catholic church as a saint in 1888, but he is not well known. He was born in 1581 and entered the Jesuits there in 1601. In 1610 he went to the missions in America, landing in Cartagena, a port city in what is now Colombia, that was a major stop for slave ships. He was ordained in 1616 and spent his life serving the 10,000 enslaved Africans who arrived every year.

Claver considered himself a slave to the slaves and began ministering to them from the time the ships docked. He made his way into the hold, encountering people who had survived the most horrid conditions imaginable. (About one-third of them didn’t.)

The image I have of Peter Claver is one of a man moving among the people, providing food and water, medicine and care as he treated their physical wounds. “Deeds come first, then the words,” is a quote attributed to him. His life bears that out. It was attention to basic human needs that came first. Only later, using translators and sometimes pictures, would he try to communicate with the Africans some ideas of Christianity and God’s love for them.

Through his deeds and words, Claver treated people with respect, honoring the dignity due every human being. No exceptions. That’s the lesson of his life that stays with me today.

While 400 years have passed since the first slave ship arrived on our shores, the repercussions of slavery remain. Racism is deeply embedded in our country and continues to deny this most basic right to our African American sisters and brothers, challenging us to respond.

Dehumanizing people, marginalizing them is all too easy. The list of “reasons” is long: People look “different,” speak another language, embrace a faith different from our own. Fear of difference, threats to one’s way of life, ignorance—these are on the list, too.

As I thought of Peter Claver’s instinctive action to first alleviate human suffering, the plight of refugees at our Southern border came to mind. They come mostly from Central and South America, fleeing unspeakable violence, poverty, and fear for their lives. How are they met?

I spoke with Sister Barbara Kane, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace in Columbus, Ohio. She and others in her community have traveled to El Paso to serve as they could.

She spoke of refugees’ long waits in enclosed areas (some liken them to cages) until they have their Credible Fear Hearing (when the refugee states what has driven them to seek asylum). “The enclosures have concrete floors, are kept at 60 degrees, and are so small people are packed together, unable to lie down to sleep,” Sr. Barbara said. People receive little food. Yet, despite the great needs, no one is allowed inside to help.

After the Credible Fear Hearing, people are sent back to Mexican cities to wait again until their sponsors can be reached and background checks run. The cities are not equipped to house so many refugees whose stay can last for weeks or months.

Once sponsors are contacted and cleared, the asylum seekers come back to the U.S and are placed in hospitality houses. The Annunciation House is where Sr. Barbara served.

“That’s where volunteers finally meet the refugees and offer help. We provide a hot shower, clean clothes, food, and a bed to sleep in,” Sr. Barbara said. Eventually, volunteers drive the refugees to the airport or bus terminals as they begin the journey to their sponsors. With fewer people making it through to this point, volunteers may have time to listen to the refugees’ stories.

“I came away convinced that the vast majority of these parents just want their children to be safe and secure and to have a future,” Sr. Barbara added. “They’re not gaming the system. They’re not bad people. They’re good, loving parents.”

Stories like these make me aware of the need to follow Peter Calver’s example in our daily lives as well as in circumstances that transcend our ability to personally respond. How many people do we know who would appreciate a kind word, a listening ear, or an offer of help with an overwhelming task or life challenge? And what about the strangers in our midst?

How do we respond to them with respect, recognizing their dignity as fellow human beings? Recently, arriving home after a church service, I realized with chagrin, that while I had asked the names and listened to stories of some members of the congregation new to me, I hadn’t done the same with the homeless folks who had come in from the street to share food and fellowship.

There are many ways to support those beyond our immediate reach. We can send donations to organizations that support to those in need including refugees at the border or in our own cities; we can call or write government officials asking them to support the rights of marginalized groups; we can speak up when we hear people speak about “the other” in disparaging terms.

Peter Claver understood the profound effect of treating all people with reverence and respect. It transforms our world, one person at a time.

©2019 Mary van Balen

November 11, 2019 by Mary van Balen 2 Comments
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Rev Cathy Fanslau
Rev Cathy Fanslau
4 years ago

Thank you Mary.

4 years ago

You’re welcome, Cathy. Peter Claver’s example speaks eloquently today.


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