Yet Another Bethlehem
From Greece to Florida to New York City to Ukraine, Desa discovers the surprise of Christianity
In the summer of 2017, I was touring beautiful archaeological sites throughout Greece when I received an email from an Italian woman I didn't know who was asking me if I was willing to visit a death-row inmate in Starke, Florida, 40 minutes from my home. She had been corresponding with him following the invitation of a friend at her parish, Francesca, who was looking for someone with whom Paul, the man on death-row, could have something to talk about. Paul paints, and the lady who contacted me, Letizia, is a painter. Letizia is in Communion and Liberation. Francesca belongs to the Community of the Sons of God founded by Divo Barsotti. The CL office provided the connection that landed that email in my inbox.
This whimsical beginning swelled in my mind along with embarrassing tears when Bryan Stevenson “broke protocol” on the New York Encounter stage to salute the Joseph House and Joe Sullivan. We were all sitting in the first row: Joe, Fr. Dustin, Pre, myself, and Chad. My brothers.
Following that first contact in beautiful Greece, I came back to Florida and wrote my first letter to Paul. That year Francesca came to visit him for Thanksgiving. In her late 70s at the time, I met her under the sign of the Red Carpet Inn, a motel in Starke, Florida. I still recall her minute figure waiting for me under the run-down, half-lit red letters on a muggy Florida night as I pulled up in the parking lot. We said hello to each other trying to overcome the roaring 18-wheelers speeding by on US 301. She took us to Dunkin' Donuts and we became friends.
A week later, she came for dinner at our house with the friend who had accompanied her. As I was taking her back to yet another motel, this time in Gainesville, she took the night lights of the city in and mused: "Starke is not that different from what must have been Bethlehem.” Advent had just started in the Ambrosian rite of Milan, and she must have been thinking about that season of waiting. A few hours earlier, at dinner, she had confessed that many friends had objected to her trip. It seemed like a waste of time and money. If she wanted to do good, she could have been more efficient in managing her “time and treasures.” "But I have met this man, not the ones I could help with my money. And this is Christianity: a person encountering another person.”
Francesca came back another time with another friend. We visited Paul together. Then she invited us for dinner in a cabin in the woods. We sang songs around a fire under a beautiful starry night. She came back again, with her daughter, a few months ago. This time she stayed at our house and we visited Paul again. Her pensive yet decisive steps, her smile, and her eyes carry the wisdom of a long life that does not require many words. Just the wonder of a child before the unfolding of an unexpected but now familiar history of grace.
My life took a turn after that initial email. I discovered Bryan's work, I changed my research plan, I met Fr. Dustin and Joe and the others. But more than a turn it has been and still is the surprise that Gainesville is not that different from Bethlehem after all, that Florida is not that different from Bethlehem after all, that New York is not that different from Bethlehem after all.
On Tuesday after the New York Encounter, we celebrated for the first time in Gainesville the Mass for the anniversary of Fr. Giussani's death. Friends from the community displayed an exhibit of Giussani in America made by our friends in New York. They added a poster: “The Gainesville Chapter.” Yet another Bethlehem.
I thought about the few times I met Fr. Giussani, accidentally, in the parking lot of the CL headquarters in Milan. His eyes, which I saw swelling with tears in a famous interview, overlapped with the eyes of so many people I saw at the New York Encounter, old and new: the brisk enthusiasm of Tere, the fiery passion of Angelo, the voices full of gratitude of my friends of the Bay Ridge Band, the puzzled and happy face of Abigail, and so many others. All one person encountering another person.
Then I woke up this morning to the news of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities under the barrage of the Russian military. Years ago, I rode from the capital to Ostroh, in the West, in the back of a minivan whose driver had installed a handle on the wheel to be able to steer quickly in order to avoid the countless holes in the asphalt. Next to an Anglican theologian and two newly-met friends from the Movement, I was heading to a conference to give a talk on Fr. Giussani's view on education. I gave my presentation in my back-then broken English, translated in Ukrainian by Lidiya to a mixed Ukrainian and Russian audience, a handful of people sitting in a college classroom. I keep thinking of them: Filonenko, Simona, Lidiya, Alex. They too are one thread of the fabric that is my life and the life of the Church.
I don't know what to make of what is happening. I know that I would gladly dwell on those tears that flowed down my eyes when Bryan Stevenson stepped down the stage to embrace Joe. Instead, I am immediately pulled back into the thick of things. "Where are you bringing me? Where do you lead?" I sang so many times. My heart is full, full of pain and full of gratitude.
Desa, Gainesville, FL