When Peter was young and still exploring his vocation and studying at university in Spain in the early 17th century, when actual ministry was still a distant thought, when the stench of the Middle Passage was still a rumor to most: Peter, reflecting on the goodness of God in his life, wrote these words: "I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave."
According to legend, while Peter was still studying, a mentor of his who believed he had the gift of prophecy envisioned Peter in New Spain (present-day Colombia). At first Peter resisted – he felt the suffering of those in the New World was unimaginable, and God already had called others to do the works of love and faith. But out of obedience Peter decided to go. When he got there he couldn’t take his eyes off of the slave ships that, day after day, unloaded their cargo of black bodies.
While the other Jesuits ministered to slaves and freedmen, Peter couldn’t take his mind off of the port and the bodies, both living and dead, that he had seen. He was given leave to focus his life’s work on welcoming these ships, doing acts of mercy for the living, and doing what was left to be done for the dead.
Peter spent a lifetime as a slave to the slaves, and his service is rightly honored in the Church.
I work in higher education, and I have been heartened in the past year by the energy I see in young people on campus. They carry a yearning for justice and a refusal to be placated. In higher education, curriculum is shifting from such energies, and heads of departments are rolling, metaphorically. But I sense that much of this is motivated either by optimism that change is near at hand, or from a sense that change is singularly dependent on human power. If my sense is right, then I fear we will see most of this energy dissipate long before it accomplishes its goal. Optimism fades when the long arc of the moral universe is too long, and faith in human effort will lag when humans inevitably fail along the way. Rather than bearing the fruit of love it may harden into indigestible bitterness or cynicism.
I wonder where the Peter Clavers are in the midst of the current moment. Studying away in a quiet corner of the campus, listening silently as the voice of God whispers, “I am enough for you,” and “Follow me, I will give you rest,” and asking gently “Who is your neighbor?” Perhaps some student of mine is doodling right now in response to God’s call to service, “I am like a slave...” on a binder in the library, little knowing where such doodles may lead.
And in listening, where are these students whose lives are being transformed into images of God’s love? Images larger than 140 characters and lasting longer than the longest street protests, and lodged in our memory in ways that we dare not shake. If it takes over a hundred years for justice to come, the student who works for justice listening to God’s voice will be the one who still working towards it when the day comes. The justice Peter dreamed of came to Columbia 1757 when they abolished the slave trade in the very ports he worked in, but it came more than a century after he died.
Peter Claver knew evil. He saw it and stepped past it, on his way to visit the dying, suffering bodies beyond – bodies crushed and bent by the weight of evil that we can’t ignore. Bodies that he loved. He bent down on his hands and knees to squeeze tart juice from lemons and pour cold water into their parched mouths to prevent scurvy from setting in. He lived in the slave quarters for 44 years, leaving early every morning because the work of justice wasn’t finished yet. Another slave ship had come into port last night and he needed to be there to minister to his brothers and sisters in the holds, buried in their own excrement and unable to get out. God had called him to be a slave to the slaves, and he intended to obey.