I found my camera in the bag beneath Hermana Leon’s bed. I thought about shaking her awake…shaking her until her head eyes rolled back in her head and her teeth rattled out of her mouth, but instead I chose a lesser sin. I stripped off my missionary plain skirt and white blouse. I left my garments and bra on the floor and put on my running clothes.
My conscience and my belly rolled as I ran down the near empty street. Over the past six months I had grown used to my empty belly. I knew Hermana Hernandez, the elderly momacita from our ward we hired to prepare our meals used only a fraction of the money we gave her to feed us and kept the rest for her own family. The mission president had warned me of this. He had also warned me of staying with my companion twenty four hours a day; leaving my companion was a clear and flagrant disregard of the mission rules. And stupid.
But I ignored my aching conscience and the niggling warning in my head, tucked my blonde hair under my hat, and headed for the canyon. Christmas morning and the town slept. A dog the color of mud loped beside me for half a block, but abandoned me at the butcher shop. The bright paper and tin holiday decorations flew in the hot Argentine sky.
Briefly, I thought of home and the shining lights reflecting off the snow. I thought of caroling with my family in the neighborhood where I had always lived…until now. Looking at Trujillo’s worn and dusty buildings and cracked sidewalks I compared the school where Hermana Leon and I taught to Lincoln Elementary, where I had gone to school. Lincoln had murals of nursery rhymes painted on the walls and always smelled of ammonia mixed with whatever the cafeteria happened to be serving that day—pizza, spaghetti, or a concoction of corn chips and cheese the staff called strawhats. The Trujillo school where I taught with Sister Leon smelled of urine, hundreds of unwashed bodies and shit.
Church bells tolled over the town square and my pricking conscience led me inside the churchl. I sat on the back row, my long lanky body, pale skin and fair hair as out of place as my sneakers, shorts and tank top. I took off my hat and let the choir’s music carry me away. Closing my eyes I imagined myself at home. I saw my brothers and sisters opening presents. Cameras, iPods, the latest video games. I tried to focus on past holidays because I knew that just as this Christmas was for me unlike any other every, the holidays going forward would also be different.
My sister Ashley had married last May, splintering our family and adding a brother-in-law. I had attended her wedding weeks before entering the Missionary training center. “It’s so exciting that we’re both starting a new adventure,” she had said. I didn’t say it, but I knew that her mission would last for eternity, while mine was only 18 months. Last week Ashley had sent me the pictures of her new home. Five thousand square feet. An English tudor standing in the hot California desert, rafter to rafter with a Taj Mahal fright on one side and a brick colonial on the other.
A young man carrying a backpack slipped onto the pew across the aisle as the choir settled into their seats and the priest took the podium.
“Let us consider the Lord’s parable of the rich fool taken from Saint Luke 12:16-21,” the priest said.
No. We should be reading the account of the Savior’s birth found in Luke. Why consider the rich fool?
But the priest continued, “‘The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.
Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’
“A reoccurring theme of our Lord and Savior is not only the admonition against greed and covetousness. His warning is sound, ‘Take heed and beware, for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.’ To covet is to desire what belongs to another.”
Covet, the sin immediately following lying. I shifted on the pew.
“In this parable, the rich fool takes pleasure and pride in hoarding his own property,” the priest explained. “He expands and multiplies, these are his solutions, the answers to his excess.”
I thought of our bishop at home. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to all world’s problems, he had said. And I had believed him. As complex as the nightmares of the world’s ills, the answer is simple as the golden rule. If every single person treated others as they would wish to be treated, the world would live in peace. No wars. No hunger.
My belly rolled.
“Who is to say what is enough?” the priest asked. “When are our needs met? Surely each of us struggle with our own expectations and temptations. God will not condemn us for our industry, for improving upon our talents, magnifying our gifts. Although, he will hold us accountable for our generosity, or lack thereof.”
His message seemed incongruent to the holiday. Disappointed, I thought of leaving. Not just the chapel, but Argentina. I wouldn’t be missed. Another sister could take my place at the school. The work would continue. I wasn’t needed. My camera and most of my money had already been taken.
A stained glass window depicted the Lord and a following of His sheep. Beyond the glass I saw the filthy streets. I knew the gangs of unemployed and bored youth that wandered these streets, looking for a fight and something to steal. Before I started wearing hats, they would call, “Rubia! Rubia!” whenever I passed too close. I feared them, but I didn’t blame them for their anger. For an Argentine youth a bright future was as promising as the Santa piñatas hanging by threads from the electrical poles.
“The Lord tells us our days are numbered,” the priest droned. “If we pass through this life in merriment there will surely come a time when sacred matters, once ignored and procrastinated will confront us. The questions how have I spent my life, how have I used my gifts, and is the world a kinder place because of my service will be asked. Our Savior has gone to prepare your mansion, are you deserving of the mansion waiting for you?”
My sister and her new husband had bought what anyone would call a mansion. Were they more deserving than Argentinians in this chapel? I glanced at the young man across the aisle. Tears streamed down his face. Why? Was he finding this sermon spiritually uplifting, because I wasn’t. Why wasn’t the priest talking about the holy family? What about the shepherds? What about the guiding heavenly star?
I stood and slipped out the wide doors. After shoving my hair back under my hat, I started running. I missed my iPod. I missed my dog. I wanted my mom.
Soon, I was at the edge of town where the roads turned to dirt and streams filled with sewage and litter cut through the field. Houses built of lumber scraps and twisted wire baked in the early sun. The light glinted off the tin roofs. I knew families of five, seven and even ten lived in the hovels smaller than my sister’s new master bedroom.
I ran harder, imagining myself running all the way to Washington. The grass slapped at my legs as I pushed myself. In the distance I saw three deer. They wandered directly parallel to my path. I ran further and they matched my pace, keeping beside me, like guardians.
I’m going home now, I told the deer, not sure of what home meant. My parent’s house? My school dorm? The room I shared with Sister Leon? The deer didn’t look my way, they seemed to take no notice of me at all, but when I turned back to town, they followed. They kept me company for some time before turning and running directly across my path so closely if I had reached out my hand I would have touched them. If I hadn’t stopped, they would have trampled me. I watched them leave, their white tails disappearing into the distant woods.
A scripture came to mind. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
When I got home, l glanced at Sister Leon still sleeping on her bed. Her long dark hair fell over her acne pocked face. I wondered where her life would take her and what lessons she would learn.
I wondered what lesson I had learned. I felt as if the deer had something more to say to me, so I sat down on my bed, picked up my bible and looked for scripture and found it in Psalms 23:6 “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Slowly I stripped off my running clothes, picked up my discarded missionary clothes and put them back on, knowing that as long as I walked close to God, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy would follow me where ever I happened to be. Where ever I happened to live. Whatever I chose to do.