Marco and I just returned from a 2 week-visit with family in Italy, and it was wonderful as you may suspect. Both his daughters were with us, and we even had the occasion to visit with some cousins Marco hadn’t seen in over 20 years, Giovanna and Gianluigi. They are teachers in Milan, and they and their wonderful 6 – year old son, Francesco, met us for dinner in the Navigli district of Milan. Navigli is a historical neighborhood named for the system of interconnected canals that run through this section of Milan. Leonardo DaVinci arrived in Milan in 1482 to redesign these canals, and then just ‘happened’ to paint the Last Supper while he was there. This has nothing to do the point of my article; I just love a fun piece of history.
Anyway, after dinner we all were walking along the canal, which is lined with shanty shopkeepers and booths. The congestion and noise is noteworthy. Suddenly, as we passed, vendors began throwing their items - sunglasses and purses and jewelry and more -- hastily off their tables and into large carry-all bags. Knocking over their selling tables with a swift kick, they threw their large bags over their shoulders, jumped on their bikes, and pedaled off frantically – all in a matter of seconds. Others were sprinting through the crowd dropping pieces of jewelry and fake designer bags as they ran. “What’s going on?” I asked Gianluigi. He said the police were coming. The vendors were set up illegally. As we crossed the bridge to the other side of the canal, we came upon two groups of people screaming at each other. Knowing the temperature of the world these days, we exercised caution and understandably walked the other direction. It was then we saw it: hundreds of silver rings, earrings, and necklaces scattered on the cobblestone pavement. Porcelain figurines were shattered and sunglasses crushed. The vendor was on the ground, picking up pieces of what was left over and throwing what he could onto a large cloth to likely take home, or wherever he was sleeping that night. The altercation we saw was a crowd screaming at the group of policeman, who instead of writing a ticket, destroyed the man’s table and everything on it. We all exchanged anxious looks and kept walking. And then, we saw the other thing.
It was Francesco. He had stayed behind, chatting in Italian with the vendor saying, “it will be okay Signore I’ll help you.” And there he was, his little 6-year-old self helping the vendor pick up what was left of the rings and glasses and porcelain bits. And then his Mama Giovanna went and helped. And then Daddy Gianluigi started picking up the trinkets. And then my brother-in-law, Fillipo. And then his wife, Antoinetta. And then Marco looked at me in such a way that said, “So are you gonna be the priest that passes by on the other side of the road pretending you don’t see this?” (Luke 10: 31-32) And I looked back at him with my own gaze that said, “Oh crap, am I really going to have to do this?” But I did. It was the Gospel moment. So there we all were, on our hands and knees, picking up bits and pieces of a stranger’s life off of the Navigli, thanks to Little Francesco.
This Sunday’s story is the story of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, being cast out onto the ‘streets’ if you will. Not once, but twice – and the second time, Ishmael gets it as well (Genesis 16, Genesis 21). They are left for dead, but it is God who picks up the pieces for Hagar and Ishmael, reminding both them and Abraham that God’s plan is to bless all families of the earth. I think this is what Scripture means when it says, “and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6) Because little Francesco didn’t understand what a business permit was. Francesco didn’t see the difference between an Italian and a non-Italian (illegal); he only saw a person that had been hurt, and this made his heart hurt. I think this is how God feels for all of us, whether Arab or Jew, sinner or Saint, Gypsy or legal merchant.