Stranger in a Strange Land

by Paulette Curran

When I was a young staff worker, every once in a while our foundress Catherine would talk about “fools for Christ.”

It was one of the Russian traditions she passed on to us. Taking the vocation of a pilgrim a step further, these people would dress in rags, pretend they were mentally ill, and roam across Russia as beggars. In short, they would act in such a way that others would treat them as fools.

I saw this as heroic but also as, well, foolish, but mainly I saw it as exotic, not quite real, something out of a legend or fairy tale.

I once asked if we ever had fools for Christ in the West and was told, yes, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Benedict Joseph Labré. The person I asked could only think of two! In hundreds of years! Pretty rare, I figured.

But recently I have been discovering that there are other much simpler ways of being a fool for Christ and that even a few people I know could, in some way, be called this.

And it has come to me more and more very recently, as Lupe was dying, in fact, that, in her own way, Lupe was a fool for Christ.

Lupe was a cultured, sophisticated woman who loved the arts, classical music, clothes, dancing, and beautiful things. But even those of us who lived with her only caught glimpses of this side of her from time to time.

Take the way she dressed, for example. Plain, simple, even a bit dowdy. But once when she was in Carriacou in the West Indies, she took her holidays with her sister who was living in Central America and arrived back in a dress her sister had bought for her.

It was lovely, simple but elegant, and it completely suited Lupe. We all raved about it. Lupe wore it maybe three or four times, and then it disappeared. She probably gave it to one of the poor women she visited.

Lupe loved the poor and was passionate about living in poverty herself.

Actually, she probably didn’t have to work too hard at appearing poor. Lupe was somewhat eccentric and thus “different,” and that fact that she was an immigrant who remained very Spanish made her appear even more so.

Moreover, she was never able to learn to speak English well. Until the end of her life, her English was heavily accented, limited, and sometimes hard to understand, especially when she got excited and spoke quickly.

This made it hard for her to explain herself or anything else, and it handicapped her in conversations. Perhaps worst of all, to some degree this isolated her, even within the Madonna House community.

Hers was the pain of the immigrant, and in some ways she was in a more difficult situation than most.

For most immigrants, at least in the beginning, live among their own, eat their food, speak their language at home and among friends, and surround themselves with reminders of their country. But Lupe had none of those things that give comfort and a sense of home to immigrants.

Missionaries, like immigrants, of course, also suffer from the loss of their culture, but most missionaries, including those from Madonna House, live within their own community with those from their own culture. Lupe did not.

No one else from Spain ever joined Madonna House; and offhand I can only remember one working guest from Spain, and he may have been here when she was in the missions.

So she had no one who understood the deep Spanish part of her and with whom she could share those things that you can only share with people from your own culture.

Except for the short times she visited her family in Spain, Lupe was always in a foreign culture. She must have been very homesick and lonely.

What happened inside of her through all this, I have no knowledge of, but I suspect that the stripping away of so much led her deeply into God.

When I got to know Lupe in our house in Carriacou, she was in her early fifties. She was skilled with a sewing machine and did all sorts of sewing jobs—mending, making covers for typewriters and other odds and ends—and she kept busy with a variety of other jobs such as cleaning and helping with cooking and laundry, and occasionally she did some nursing. She was also very good with people and did lots of home visiting.

Looking back now, the thing that strikes me is that Lupe almost never defended herself against the criticisms, misunderstandings, and teasing that sometimes goes too far, that occur in any family or community. In fact, she would play along, sometimes making herself look foolish.

But she could get angry and scold, even harshly, if she saw one of us staff saying anything unkind to another.

After one such incident, she told me (who generally defended myself), that I should defend others, not myself.

So what kind of person would you have met if you had met Lupe at that time? Someone free to be herself, someone joyful, full of fun, playful, someone who brought a light-hearted spirit into a community.

The poor loved her, and so did we. We all knew that her love of us was unconditional.

Where did this joy and freedom come from?

I don’t know, but I have a theory. Lupe didn’t go and live on the streets like the Russian “fools for Christ,” but I think she accepted being different, being a stranger in a strange land and all the misunderstanding, lack of understanding, and loneliness this brings.

I imagine this took time, but I don’t know. I didn’t know Lupe when she was young.

I think that when someone stops fighting against the situation in life that God has given, whatever it is, and embraces it, something very profound happens. The cross remains, but in a way that defies human understanding, that person becomes free and joyful.

I think that’s what happened to Lupe.