Some days ago I received an unexpected call from Lima, Peru. A brother Franciscan there told me that Olga Valencia had died and, knowing of my friendship with her, he had attended the funeral. The news brought a flood of memories.
It's hard to pinpoint my first encounter with Olga. Surely it had to do with some request of hers for help—work, food, a handout. For she was the quintessential Third World mother, continually asking, begging, cajoling those of us in positions of privilege for charity on her own behalf and that of her numerous offspring. I must confess that in those early years she struck me as a whining, bothersome, pestering person, whom I tended to dispatch as quickly as possible.
One day her oldest child, 9-year-old Jose, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. It took Olga four days to bury him, and I walked alongside her during those terrible hours. From a halting investigation of the accident, to a still more halting autopsy in the city morgue, to a funeral director who wanted his money up front, to dealing with the accused driver—everything stood in the way of Olga's burying little Jose with dignity.
In the end, out of desperate necessity (no embalming in Peru) this mother, her husband, and I took Jose's body to the paupers' graveyard and buried him there. Then I drove them home, sat with them for a while, and left them to pick up once again the threads of their miserable existence. That day forever changed my relationship with Olga, and in some ways forever changed me.
Perhaps for the first time I really saw what life is like for the poor—for that two-thirds of humanity who live as Olga lived, who bury their children as she did. My previous judgment about Olga gave way in embarrassment to a far more compassionate understanding. She had allowed me, invited me, welcomed me into the deepest recesses of her being, as she wept over her first-born and strove to give him a decent burial. She even thanked me for walking through those days with her, as if I had done anything more than serve as a witness to her pain.
From then on, and increasingly, Olga Valencia came to represent for me the literally billions of people, especially women, whose lives can hardly be called human. When I wanted to put a name and a face on "the poor," it was invariably Olga's name and Olga's face.
On my return from Peru to the United States some years later, Olga continued to communicate with me. That meant she had to find someone who could read and write, then dictate a letter to this priest, Joseph Nangle, who lived in a place called Washington, D.C., United States.
Once she "wrote" to tell me that her second son, Vicente, had reached the age of 20 and was a real help to her and the rest of her several children. But one day, her letter recounted, Vicente went to the hospital, and when Olga visited him the next day, his bed was empty. "Ha muerto" ("he died") was the only explanation she got.
Some years later on a visit to Peru, I learned from her that the father of her children had gradually sunk into alcoholic despair, and one day simply walked away. Olga was left to care for herself and the children.
Her last communication came at Christmastime. The homemade card said: "May peace and harmony reign this year in all of humanity."
NOW MY FRIEND OLGA has gone to God. I think of her as the embodiment of Jesus' words, quoted in Luke's gospel, "Blessed are you poor; the Reign of God is yours" (Luke 6:21). She lived an entire lifetime in utter poverty, but she persevered, she never gave up. Olga demonstrated what the Reign of God ought to look like, what the rest of us should struggle for, which is a chance at life for such as she.
The readers of this column may wonder what this tribute to Olga has to do with "Life in Community." Well, nothing and everything. Reflecting on the life of this woman does not, I suppose, fit into our ordinary categories of community. However, in a much larger sense, Olga Valencia epitomizes one extremely important portion of the human community: the Lazaruses of this world who sit at our gates.
What is more, this reflection has much to do with the very nature of God, as Parent, Begotten, and Spirit, three in one, a community of love and truth. That revelation of God as relationship serves as a model and goal for all human communities. When such a significant number of God's daughters and sons live as Olga lived, then the divine trinity is violated, and we who believe in the trinitarian God have an enormous and theological task at hand.
A final and very personal note. I have it all planned. When I have to give an accounting of my life, I shall say to God: "I knew Olga." I think that will be enough. For Jesus said that he had come to preach the good news to the poor, and for a brief moment I received the great gift of walking with one of those poor, and through her heard Jesus' message in an entirely new way.
Olga Valencia. PRESENTE!
Joe Nangle, OFM, was executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.