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The Deacon's Bench

My friend, the Trappist monk and writer Fr. James Stephen Behrens, sent this along the other day. It’s too good not to share:

No one likes getting lost as a result of a wrong turn off any real or figurative road. The feeling of being in unknown territory without a map can be very unsettling. Most of us do what we can to get back to a familiar path and breathe a sigh of relief when the comfort of the known is beneath our feet once again, or in our hearts.

Some wrong turns place us in the direction of what it is we were really looking for – or Who was looking for us.

I recently read about a woman who, many years ago, was driving through the city of Newark, New Jersey. She took a wrong turn and soon was lost on a strange street, with no sense of direction to get back to where she was. She had driven, unknowingly, into one of the poorest and most squalid sections of Newark – the Central Ward. Her name is Helen Stummer. What she saw all about her that day struck a deeply responsive chord in her. Amidst the streets lined with broken bottles, broken windows, old buildings and countless shattered dreams, she saw children playing. She also saw “street memorials” to those young people killed in gang violence, or who had died from drug overdoses.

Driven by a need to document what she saw through writing and photography, she never really left the place of that wrong turn. She returned again and again, gradually getting to know the people, writing down their stories, taking their pictures, bringing them the warmth of her friendship and needed items, such as clothing, Christmas gifts, food, money. Those who have come to know her in the neighborhood call her the “guardian angel with the camera.” Her work has been published in several books, including “No Easy Walk: Newark, 1908-1993 (Temple University Press, 1994). It is a collection of her black and white photographs, some of which will break one’s heart, for they are of people who glance back at us from a place that exists only through the worst turns in life. Many whom she photographed never found a way out and live on streets of no easy walk.

I was moved to write to Ms. Stummer, and it was not too long before a letter arrived here at the monastery, addressed to me. I did not at first recognize the penmanship, but then when I saw the return address, I remembered. It was a letter from Ms. Stummer. She thanked me for writing, and by way of a closing to the letter, she wrote, “Isn’t it a blessing when we find our passion, our purpose in life.”
I have thought about those words a lot. I kept the letter. I had mentioned to her in my letter that I was a Trappist monk and perhaps she was referring to my “religious” calling. Or, maybe she was referring to herself and her long and loving work of love and service to people on the rough streets of life.

I suppose we consider it a blessing when our roads are so clear and straight that we will always find our way home, with the feeling that God is right with us in the front seat. But we all know wrong turns, or know people who have made them – some of whom may have found their way back, while others never did. It is the latter whose presence is almost invisible to those of us who found our way along better roads of life.

God is wherever there are those who are lost. We must do what we can to remember them. If it takes a wrong turn on our part to find them, it is a wrong turn with lasting blessings. It is a turn that may teach us that there is no place where God is “not” and that the only way we may risk missing him is to stick too closely to the familiar and comfortable.

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