San Antonio in January shouldn’t be below freezing with biting winds, but as I stepped out of my hotel and started my four-block trek back to the convention center for a conference called SEEK, my one thought was to just get back into a building with heat. I gripped my guitar, pulled my hood down over my head and marched as quickly as I could toward my destination amidst groups of other young Catholics and locals who all had faces like flint pressing ahead. Emerging from a side street I noticed an older African American man slowly moving with his cane in one hand, a peppered grey beard, a genuine smile and eyes that welcomed me in his city.
“Good morning. How are you today?” I said, but moving only slow enough to not seem in a rush and hear him respond, “Good morning to you too! I see you’re a musician.”
Now at this point I was a half-step ahead of him already and conscious that I was running late to Mass. It was only a split second, but something inside told me to slow down and talk to this man. This time I listened to that voice and slowed to the moseying pace of this older man and we began to talk about music and he shared about his own life and all the different instruments he’s played over the years – keys, trombone, guitar, drums and singing.
“It’s all the same notes, just different instruments. You know the notes, you know music,” he told me as we discussed the variety of his musical skills. As he said this I was amazed at the beauty of this man and the joy that filled my heart as we walked and talked, eventually arriving at the bus top where he was headed. The conversation and his presence had grabbed my attention such that I stayed there talking to him. He told me his name was Ishmael and he’d lived most all his life in San Antonio. Before leaving I asked if we could pray together.
As a religious I’m accustomed to people waiting for me to start the prayer when I do this, but Ishmael just busted right into a prayer to the Father and began thanking Him for me saying, “Father I thank you for this man who you sent to me to talk to this morning. I thank you that in all these people walking all around – look around and see em all- that he said hello and spoke to me today. He didn’t have to, but he stopped to talk to me. Bless him Father on his way Lord.”
I just looked at Ishmael, overcome, and began praying the same prayer to God in thanksgiving for him! For the next two blocks I kept thanking God for Ishmael and brought him into Mass in my prayers and continued to “give thanks” for him.
Though it wasn’t some extraordinary act of charity on my part to stop and talk to this old-timer on the streets of San Antonio, I realized that God had done something extraordinary with that ordinary encounter that began with a simple hello and smile. His life, his world, were completely different from mine, but God used Ishmael to show me that even though the “instruments” of our lives looked different, we both knew the notes of God’s love and so we were gifted by God with something of an improv moment when we both experienced the beauty of the Lord’s presence in someone who before had been a stranger. Now we both know the truth, that we were in fact brothers playing the same song on different instruments.
+ Br. Malachy Napier, CFR
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