The Person in Front of You

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Tom Eggleston ’12 M.Div.

I lived in Santiago, Chile for a time, serving as a lay missionary for the Holy Cross Associates. I moved to Chile with some other young, idealistic do-gooders directly after we graduated from college. I lived in Santiago for two years collaborating with the sisters, brothers, and priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross. While there, my community-mates and I served schools, parishes, soup kitchens, and children in foster care. The work was challenging and steeped with the sort of unjaded idealism of youth that I can only muster now through a combination of nostalgia and grace.

About six months into my tenure in Chile the realities set in of just how long a two-year contract can be. The freshness of that initial energy of mission gave way to the (literal and figurative) gray clouds of a rainy, smoggy winter in Santiago. The reality hit hard: I was not going to change the tragic realities of abandoned children nor provide food security for the homeless. In fact, I could only barely conjugate verbs correctly in Spanish. I had come to Chile to conquer injustice but struggled to muster the courage to chat with grannies over tea. The great ache of reconciling a holy idealism with the everyday reality of my own human limitations felt like hitting an invisible wall—painful and surprising. ¡Plop! As they say in Chile.

I was working one afternoon with a seminarian at one of the soup kitchens run by Holy Cross. He was cheerful and courteous, and as we ladled soup, we joked and laughed with our friends, indigent and drunk though they were. Afterward the seminarian and I cleaned up together, and he invited me to eat lunch with the Holy Cross community. I obliged. After lunch, he invited me to play ping pong out back. Again, I obliged. After several games, he asked me if I wanted to go watch TV. It was that moment—in between serves—that I realized he was lonely.

I hadn’t noticed his pain before. But suddenly, and shockingly, he revealed it to me through his series of invitations. It surprised me that the cheerful and churchy seminarian needed something. It surprised me even more that what he needed was something I could provide: companionship, conversation, empathy.

The depth of the moment startled me. In that instant, I perceived his tender vulnerability alongside God’s subtle directive to give him company. I realized then, rather suddenly, that the people we’re sent to serve are the people in front of us—whoever they are in that moment. The person I’m meant to accompany is the person I am with. It surprised me then as it still does: we can collaborate with God’s grace anywhere and at any time.

That was a moment in which the nature of discipleship became apparent and personal to me. I was taught that day that service and mission mostly are not giant acts of charity. To tap into the flow of God’s grace, generally, one needs only openness. God’s persistent invitation is simply to pay attention. God’s grace is present now, and right now is a moment situated within the breadth of eternity; yet eternity itself can grab you in a single instant, between serves.

The person in front of you—however cheerful, churchy, lonely, or grumpy—is the person you are called to serve. The simplicity of everyday discipleship, however mundane and ordinary, is marked by a shocking depth of grace, profound and eternal.