Shannon LastSeptember 03, 2021
Afghan refugees ride aboard a bus taking them to a refugee processing center upon their arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., Aug. 25, 2021. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

As images of desperate Afghan refugees flooded the news last week, I felt overwhelmed by my own inadequacy. The director of Catholic Charities’ migrant and refugee services in my home diocese of Arlington posted an Amazon wish list of concrete needs that was daunting in its variety and expense: furniture, kitchenware, bedding, electronics. I shipped some flatware and sheets for their staff to distribute and immediately felt worse. What does a few hundred dollars do for tens of thousands of displaced people?

I suspected others felt equally helpless and wanted to do something more meaningful for our new neighbors. Then I remembered some advice my grandmother once gave me. And I logged on to Twitter.

•••

My granny, Mary Byrnes, had a treasury of wisdom so simple I’ve been unpacking it for decades. My favorite was this: “Spread your arms a little wider.”

She would say it joyfully as we sardined together for family photos. She would say it archly when we were not being as forbearing as we ought. She would say it prayerfully, reminding us to be open to God’s plan.

As images of desperate Afghan refugees flooded the news last week, I felt overwhelmed by my own inadequacy.

One afternoon she explained that the piles of yarn all over her sofa were for something her women’s club was making for people in need. “They need potholders?” I asked dubiously, glancing at a bright stack of cotton squares. “Each of us knits a bunch of squares,” she clarified, “and then Jean stitches them all together into an afghan.”

Granny patiently taught my 10-year-old fingers how to knit. She sensed my frustration as all my contributions came out as trapezoids. She said gently, “It doesn’t need to be perfect to keep someone warm.”

•••

On Twitter, I shared the Amazon wish list and asked if anyone would like to pool resources to purchase bigger-ticket items. By that evening, people from all over had sent me nearly $7,700.

It bought nine cribs, seven twin beds, four full beds and two queen beds, plus mattresses, sheets, pillows, blankets and comforters for all of them. There was enough for four dining sets, dishes, bath towels, diapers, personal products and school supply kits. I tearfully updated my Twitter feed and fell asleep with a thankful heart.

I awoke to discover the total had jumped to $11,321. I stood in my kitchen smashing the “submit order” button like Oprah giving away cars: More cribs and beds and sheets. More fluffy towels and floor lamps. More sweet soaps and soft blankets.

The Samaritans on Twitter were moved with compassion by this unfathomable tragedy and offered concrete help.

I meditate often on the hours leading up to the Nativity, the moment where light and love itself entered a place devoid of all such comforts. The Holy Family had only what they could carry. As time drew short, the guardians of God could not even find an inn. Not for the first time would his parents suffer the knowledge that they could not not alter his fate.

Mary did the only thing she could do: “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” In that moment, Christ needed nothing more than what she was able to offer. It was enough.

Walter Ciszek, S.J. explores this same idea in his spiritual memoir, He Leadeth Me. In his struggle to understand and carry out God’s will, Ciszek realizes how much energy can be wasted on the abstract mission of discernment.

“God does not expect a man single-handedly to change the world or overthrow all evil or cure all ill,” Father Ciszek reminds us. “God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me.”

God only asks that we help handle the “too big to handle” one act of love at a time, trusting it will add up.

Doing God’s will doesn’t require dramatics, heroism or even self-reflection. It means recognizing the needs in the people and situations God puts before us every hour of the day: Changing the next diaper. Preparing the next meal. Meeting the next deadline.

Or, today, responding to a post on social media. That’s “not real life,” we say, and pass by, like the priest and Levite in Luke 10.

The Samaritans on Twitter were moved with compassion by this unfathomable tragedy and offered concrete help. They Venmoed their coins into the void with the instruction, “Please put this toward whatever is urgently needed.” Most of them told me they wished they could do more. “It doesn’t need to be perfect to keep someone warm,” I heard my granny say.

God only asks that we help handle the “too big to handle” one act of love at a time, trusting it will add up. Last week, more than 100 real people sent real money to buy real home goods that went to real refugees who really arrived at Dulles Airport. We welcomed the stranger by providing comfortable beds and soft pillows on which to lay their anxious heads and crisp sheets and cozy blankets to receive their weary bodies.

Mary’s first gift to her Savior was to meet his first, most immediate need. It was her first gift to me, too, mediated through another faithful Mary, two millennia later.

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