I was seventeen. She was at least seventy-five.
I was a Nazarene pastor’s kid. She was a devout Catholic.
I had an easy life. Her scars sang of a life of toil and pain.
She knew Jesus. I’d never really met Him.
Growing up in the Nazarene church (much like other churches, I assume), spring break mission trips were the norm. Raise some money, take a week, fly somewhere impoverished, and make people’s lives better by building something, painting something, or putting on some sort of church program.
These things are all fine and good. I think exposing teenagers to other cultures and a life of simplicity, rather than their life of excess and opulence, is a healthy thing. It does a lot of good for a lot of people.
I went because it was spring break, it was Mexico, a few friends were going, and I was the pastor’s kid. It all seemed like a no brainer.
For a week, we built church classrooms, hung out with kids, poured concrete, you name it. It was great, hard, sweaty work. We felt accomplished though, like we had done something incredible for the Kingdom. And honestly, I still believe that we did, we just didn’t understand it at the time.
As cliché as it sounds, that trip changed my life–just not in the way I’d expected.
Towards the end of the trip, we had an off day. Some of the local pastors decided to take us to see one of the more “touristy” attractions in Oaxaca, La Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzman, better known as “the church of gold.”
This former monastery and Catholic Church has been fully restored, and the interior consists of over sixty thousand sheets of gold.
I remember when we were there, the sun was pouring in through the oversized windows, causing the interior of the church to glow, literally.
We walked around, snapped a couple of photos, bought a postcard, and were ready to go, congregating in the courtyard of the church
Then I saw her.
At first, I didn’t know what she was doing. Begging maybe? Asking for money, maybe food?
She was draped in a thin, almost see-through dress, if you could even call it that. Rags, really. She was on her hands and knees, clutching something, and her knees were bloody, leaving little stains on the cobblestone courtyard.
Then it hit me.
She was crawling towards the church, clutching her rosary beads in her frail fists, mumbling to herself. Little prayers, audible only to her, offered up in reverence.
I asked one of the pastors with us about her, and what he said will be with me for the rest of my life.
“She lives on the outskirts of town, and once a week she comes. She crawls here on her hands and knees, clutching those beads, to pray, and to confess.”
I have never to this day, known or seen devotion to anything, like that little frail old lady showed me.
I complain if I have to park too far away from church. I complain if the coffee isn’t brewed the right way. I complain when the music isn’t right, or a visiting pastor is teaching on something I don’t like or don’t agree with.
I’m a millennial, and sometimes we get an undeserved reputation. We’re flaky, flighty, unreliable, etc. And there is certainly some truth to those stereotypes on occasion, specifically when it comes to faith
At the ripe age of thirty-one, I have more access to faith than any other generation in the history of the world. I can fill all 32 gigabytes of memory on my phone with sermons, bible studies, and apps that allow me to dive into the scriptures and things of God in a way that has never before been available. It’s amazing.
We have dozens of TV channels of programming dedicated to all things faith (although they’re mostly awful). Sermons, music videos, etc.
I drive past at least a half a dozen churches on my way to church. Beautiful buildings with parking lots full of cars, huge windows, air conditioning, artisan coffee, and row after row of people taking their faith seriously, soaking up every ounce of Jesus they can get their hands on. Incredible, right? We should be the most righteous, Jesus-following generation in history.
Except that we’re not.
If I’m honest with myself, the constant saturation of faith can cause callouses to develop on my soul. I have the ability to read the bible on my phone, but I don’t. I can listen to just about any Bible teacher I want, from any church in America. But I don’t. I can use things like Social Media to build others up, but I don’t. I become jaded and cynical. Sometimes I think about what older generations must think about how my generation has become some of the most jaded, cynical people on earth.
She had no options. She didn’t get to decide where she was going to go. She didn’t scroll through thousands of worship songs on her iPhone, or dozens of church podcasts that she had never actually listened to. She didn’t think “It’s not a big deal if I miss church today, I’ll just catch the podcast.”
She was hungry. She was desperate. She was dying of thirst, and there was only one place for it to be quenched.
She crawled on her hands and knees across filthy streets, across God-knows-what, and up the cobblestone courtyard, to offer her prayers to her Creator. She was frail, old, weathered, and absolutely beat up. Her knees were bloody scabs, probably just healing by the time she left the following week for the church.
I learned more about Jesus in that moment than I ever had before, or ever have since. I learned what devotion looks like. I learned what sacrifice looks like. I learned just how fickle and feeble my faith is.
I don’t know her name. I don’t know anything about her. But I know she loved her God.
Maybe some day I’ll love my God like that.