Armand Mathew

Father Armand made it to his ninetieth birthday. He was dapper, fit, and passionately alive.  He could have retired to any pleasant spot in the country, but he stayed in the Rio Grande Valley, embracing its heat and its challenges.

For years, each month, a group of us would eat lunch together.  After settling into the booth, he would order a Budweiser remarking each time that he had no office that he had to get off to after lunch (thus the beer) and that there was no place he would rather be, than here with friends (thus, again, the beer).

The other two of us did have offices to get back to, and so we would order water and iced tea, and then sit back and drink in the goodness of someone who had lived a long life well.

Invariably, Armand would offer his clear opinions on the sad moral state of the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers, and, most recently, the Miami Heat. “Watching sports is therapeutic for me, you know?” he would say.

But those were games, and he knew them to be such. His real passion was the struggle for justice, and he had little patience for the folly of politics—and the foolishness of people who couldn’t be bothered with reading the signs of the times.

As a priest, he had offered many a blessing, amongst them, at least ten years’ worth of blessings that took the form of a campaign to teach children the power of the vote. As with the best blessings, he offered much more than words, as he pushed, cajoled, begged, played the clown and shared with the community his own sense of the urgent need to engage citizens in the forming of the future.

His blessing for these children was a constant invitation to share in his belief in the inevitability of a just society. Armand would not put aside his conviction that the best place to plant the seed of that hope was with children.

Fr. Armand went to sleep last night, still annoyed that the Spurs had lost to the Heat (I got an email laying that out to me). I am pretty sure that as he settled in for the night, his passions for justice and goodness had him reviewing the news of the day. He would not have been happy with the Senate’s plan to arm the border to the teeth even as they dithered with the futures of eleven million of our undocumented neighbors. He would not have been happy with the idea of yet another war in the Middle East.

I am also sure that he closed his eyes with the peaceful smile of someone who has fought the good fight—and knows that he has God on his side.

And, surely, God rested peacefully as well, knowing that God has Armand on God’s side.

Que descanse en paz, amigo mio.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Last Sunday afternoon, while I was fooling around in the side yard of our westside Brownsville home, a thin young man walked up the driveway. He peered out at me from beneath a Georgia Bulldogs cap, and then quietly said, “¿Habrá algún trabajito por acá?”

He looked down at the ground for a moment,  but then looked up and said, “I don’t really need a job, I need some help. My wife and my cousin and I just crossed over from Mexico and we don’t know where to go next. Could you give me some advice?”

We spoke for a while. He told me that his name was José, that he was from Ciudad Mante , but that he had worked for about ten years in Atlanta before being caught and deported. There was no work in Mante, so he had decided to try and get back to Atlanta. That morning, a group of about thirty immigrants had crossed the river,  climbed the border wall and then had been chased by the Border Patrol. “Our group scattered, but my wife and my cousin and I were lucky; we got away, and we managed to stay together. But now we don’t know what to do. I left them to see if I could figure something out.”
We drove to the apartment complex where he had left his wife and his cousin. To his consternation, they weren’t to be found. A neighbor told him that they had gotten nervous and had gone looking for José. We searched the neighborhood for a while, but there was no sign of them.
I took him back to the apartment complex and encouraged him to wait for them there. I gave him a little bit of money and told him that if they did show up, that the three of them should take a taxi to a shelter on the other side of town. “There you will find a lot of people who will know what options you might have,” I said, shaking his hand, and wishing him well.
Later on, the same day, we had a small party at our home with some people from up the Valley. A couple of the men hadn’t been to this part of Brownsville and wondered what it was like to live so close to the river. “Does the border wall really work?” one of them asked me, and I told him that there were few barriers that stopped hungry people from searching for food. One of them gave me the, “Oh, so now we are going to get a sermon” look, so I obliged.
“A young fellow came up to the house just this afternoon,” I told them, “He and his wife and a cousin had just crossed over.”
The men leaned in, and one of them asked me, “So what did you do?”
“Well,” I said, “I gave him a ride and some money.”
The three men  then stepped back from me. I felt like I was in some kind of country line dance routine.
“Isn’t that illegal? Couldn’t you get your car impounded for giving a ride to aliens?”
I told him that I didn’t think that anyone would want to impound my poor car, but that in any case I was more annoyed that I couldn’t have been more help for the guy.
“Imagine coming all this way, somehow getting past the narco gangs, escaping the border patrol—and then losing your wife?”
The subject was abruptly changed, the men focusing in on whether or not Mexico would release water into the Texas reservoirs. One of the men’s wives came up to me. She said quietly, “I hope that he finds his family.”
I thanked her, squeezing her hand because I couldn’t speak the thought that was crushing my heart, that he had in fact lost his family.

Damn.