Lunch hour, downtown El Paso.

The business is thick and quick.

I squeeze in at the diner counter next to a tall, strikingly handsome man. He is eating the stew of the day with a delight that invites conversation and so I fall right into the trap.

We exchange pleasantries, “My name is Melchizedek, like one of the kings of the Bible!” he exclaimed.

“And I am Michael, like one of the Archangels of Heaven,” I responded.

He considers that for a moment and then laughs like hell.

“Where you from, oh king?” I asked him, and he told me, with another huge smile, “The African country of Somalia.”

I asked him what he did in Somalia, and, after chewing on his bread, responded, “I dug graves for the government.”

I chose that as a good moment to chew on my own bread for a while.

After a bit, he told me that he also raised cattle on the side, “For the meat, not the milk,” he assured me, man to man.

His most recent history spilled out over the next half hour. He had fled Somalia after escaping assassination attempts and had made it to New York City, where he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. For some strange, impractical, and cruel reason, the government decided to detain him (incarcerate him) in a prison outside of El Paso, far from anywhere.

“But there are angels everywhere,” he assured me, “Most especially in desert places like this.” An attorney working overtime as an angel took his asylum case, and Melchizedek was now freed from his cell, owning what he carried on his back and a few dollars in his pocket. He was patiently awaiting the means to get to Minnesota, where he has distant relatives, “too many to count.”

We head outside, and part ways. As the king headed jauntily headed down the street, I recalled an old Jesuit once remarking, “What if a person were so oriented that the loss of no material thing could cause disorganization in his spirit, in his way of being? In my mind, that person would be truly free.”

I turned and watched Melchizedek move out of sight, feeling a bit lighter myself, for it seems in the end that sort of freedom is indeed contagious.


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