By Denise Trull
I have an adopted, African American son named John Paul who is very near and dear to my heart. He is, in very truth, one of the kindest people I have ever met. He is hilarious, hard working, can fix anything, and has a way with crying children that is almost supernaturally gifted. A frantic toddler can hear his voice and see his face and the tears stop just like that! It’s truly and magically uncanny to watch. He has a great penchant for the elderly. He never talks down to them nor does he listen impatiently to their stories. He always gives them time. He never tries to hustle them along so he can move on to other things. He takes his cue from their slow pace and falls in naturally next to them. He really loves them -- everything about them. And they know it. They can enter a room all surly with aches or pains, or even become fearfully anxious they won’t be able to climb up those stairs, and there he suddenly appears holding their arm and laughing them up the steps before they know it. He truly enjoys their stories and commiserates with their sufferings -- all this with an ease and natural sweetness that is beautiful to experience. He has the precious gift of empathy in abundance.
He told me a story once that has stayed deeply stored in my heart ever since. John Paul is so very much a piece of my heart and that of our family’s that we don’t always realize the suffering he has endured when away from us or even the fear of prejudice that he has carried under that smiling, affable exterior. He had to take a trip to a basketball camp once and found himself passing through a small, predominantly white town. He told me he was afraid to get out of his car to pump his gas because he had no idea how he would be treated once he opened that door. But he did it. He pumped his gas and smiled back at the other people pumping their gas looking him over once or twice. As he approached the door to the Quick Mart to buy some snacks, a very old woman with a walker was valiantly trying to open and enter the door by herself. He saw her struggling and he immediately forgot his fear of the unknown and ran to help her with the door. Being bent over, she turned her surprised little face up to his and smiled like she was seeing the heavens open. “Thank you, young man. What a gentleman you are.” She patted his hand gently and then slowly clicked her way through the door and down the aisle. He went to the counter to pay.
On the other side of that counter was a massive, ex-marine type with tattoos everywhere and a rebel flag ball cap on his head. He was staring at John Paul with an odd look. John Paul told me his heart was starting to race, his eyes scanning for the exits. Suddenly, the burly cashier leaned across the counter, looked him right in the eye and said, “Ya know, man, I never met hardly any black people. But I guess I’ve been told plenty of lies about them, now that I just seen what I saw. You and that lady. I grew up with a lot of hate and prejudice all around me. It ain’t no excuse, man, but I hope you will forgive me from your heart.” He looked really troubled and his eyes started filling up. Now, John Paul can’t take sadness of any sort. He immediately tried to comfort it. “No worries, man. No worries.” was all he could say. He was too shocked to say anything more! The man gave him his snacks on the house and when John Paul turned to go, he slipped a hundred dollars into his hand. It was the only, awkward way he had to say he was sorry. John Paul had disarmed him completely by an act of kindness to a little old lady. John Paul told me this story in a kind of laughing wonder. I instinctively pulled him close and hugged him so tightly he had to say, “Mom! Mom! I am all right! It was a good thing!”
It made me cry when I was alone. First, that John Paul had to endure prejudice and to live in fear of it sometimes when I couldn’t be there to protect him or shield him from the hate as I could have done when he was a little boy. He had grown into a man that completely disarmed burly, marine types who had grown up knowing no better. He had grown up into a man who faced fear with a kindness and an openness that gave others a chance -- even when he wasn’t sure of the outcome. I have never been prouder of John Paul and that burly, Quick Mart, Marine Man. Both had struggled to reach beyond themselves and found understanding. I think of that story every time today’s feast rolls around in November. St Martin de Porres reminds me so much of my John Paul that it makes me smile.
Martin was born on December 9, 1579 in the city of Lima, Peru. He was the son of a Spanish grandee named Don Juan de Porras y de la Pena, who, like many of the Spanish conquistadors, arrogantly took what he wanted from this conquered land and did not give much back. In this case, he took Martin’s mother, Ana Velázquez. Ana was a freed slave of African and Peruvian descent who bore Don Juan two children: Martin and his sister Juana. It never occurred to Don Juan that he should actually marry someone of mixed or native birth, even if she had given him two beautiful children. Prejudice ran deep in his veins and his selfish dalliance with Ana ended in utter shame for her and her poor, illegitimate children. Don Juan simply abandoned her and the children after Martin’s sister was born.
Ana tried to support them by taking in laundry. It was simply not enough. Left in deep and miserable poverty, Ana had to send Martin away to a school where he would be fed and taken care of. He spent two years there, and then was apprenticed out to a barber/surgeon. He showed a real knack for medicine and for patiently taking care of the sick. He learned how to mix herbal remedies and tend to wounds. He had a particular love for little children and elderly people, always seeking them out and protecting them with his affable and gentle ways. They grew to love him.
Martin had learned to pray, no doubt from his mother, and during this time of apprenticeship he began to spend long nights in prayer after his work was done. He had a great attraction to the Order of St. Dominic and longed very much to become a brother. But under Spanish/Peruvian law, Africans and Native Americans were barred from becoming full members in religious orders. Instead of being filled with anger and resentment at this law like we might be, Martin cheerfully showed up at the door of the Holy Rosary Priory and talked them into accepting him as a ‘donado’ or volunteer who did all the distasteful, menial tasks for the monastery. He was allowed to wear the habit of St. Dominic, however, which filled him with joy. He continued to work among the poor and the rich, white or black or Indian as a barber/surgeon. People began to notice miracles of healing wherever he had visited the sick. They learned to love his gentle ways and his smiling presence as he walked throughout Lima’s streets. The Prior of Holy Rosary began to notice this holiness unfolding before him and he turned a blind eye to the law, permitting Martin to make his vows as a Third Order Dominican. Martin was to meet with much prejudice and fear among even the brothers of the priory, but he kept at his cheerful ways and served anyone and everyone who asked him for help. Eventually he was to be allowed to make vows as a lay brother in the order. He won over his Dominican naysayers by tending to their wounds or their sicknesses during the plagues that passed through Lima as their trusty infirmarian for many years. They grew to love and accept Martin, asking humble pardon for their prejudice.
Martin brought poor, dirty, sore ridden men off the streets and let them sleep in his own bed. Once he found a poor Indian man on the streets dying from a knife wound. He brought him back to the priory and let him have his cell in which to recover. The prior, when he heard this, reprimanded Martin for not obeying his order that no more sick people would be admitted into the priory from the outside. Martin replied humbly, “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” The prior was so moved by this reply that he lifted the rule and gave Martin help with the sick.
He also brought starving animals into the monastery and to his sister’s house in the country. He wouldn’t kill the mice in the monastery but fed them cheese and let them stay in his room. They always did what they were told, and he ended up with quite a menagerie. His brothers only laughed and carried on with their duties. They had learned that this was only Brother Martin and his cheerful, kindly ways. Lucky was the mouse that ended up squeezing under his door.
It was Martin’s affability, his open humility, his ability to ignore race, wealth, and poverty, his God given tenderness and fellow feeling for the old and the children that won hearts. All Martin ever saw were hurting human beings -- God’s little ones, all -- who needed his care and his love. Martin’s generous kindness and cheer broke through prejudice and fear and pre-conceived notions buried deeply in the Spanish hearts who had conquered this city. He began to be revered by everyone, but he never even seemed to notice. He was too busy tending the sick and cleaning the infirmary. He took to laughingly calling himself “Brother Broom” for he performed that task of sweeping so often.
When Martin died, he was carried to his grave by the bishops and noblemen of Peru who wanted to honor this humble, cheerful man who had made them think twice about the harm of prejudice and hatred. Perhaps they might have stopped him on the street, just like the burly Quick Mart man had leaned into my son John Paul one evening off of some highway and thanked him for his forgiveness and understanding. Perhaps like him, they went away different men, indeed. And I can hear St. Martin in my John Paul’s voice: “No worries, man. No worries.” Neither one could endure seeing someone unhappy.St. Martin de Porres, pray for