I, too, often get the “you are a saint” comment.
Pere Tom worked for years in Cite Soleil, what is hands down Haiti’s poorest and probably most dangerous neighborhood. When all of the other NGOs (mine included) pulled out of Cite Soleil because of uncontrollable gang violence, Pere Tom continued to run his schools, build shelters and distribute food. He has not had an easy time in Haiti – he has seen his staff members murdered on their way back from the bank, has been threatened at gunpoint, he has buried many colleagues and he lost a dear friend in the towers on 9/11. As far as I know, he is still here – running Hands Together and saying daily mass for the Missionaries of Charity.
He used to be the Chaplain at Princeton University. He also used to say mass with his dog, who would process down the aisle with him. I loved him immediately when I heard this. I guess I have a Fr. Tom story of my own. We once spent a most memorable four hours in the swanky American Airlines executive lounge at JFK airport together as we returned to the United States from Haiti. This would have been no big deal – as I have spent endless hours eating free mixed nuts in lounges such as this. However, I had my dog, Buddy, a Haitian Cocker Spaniel, with me. Fr. Tom, with his good natured humor and “we can all bend the rules a little bit” joie de vivre, somehow convinced the guy at the welcome desk to let me in with Buddy. Of course, Buddy had to stay in his crate, but the guy (Pere Tom) was a veritable negotiating rock star.
We talked about a lot of things in those four hours: our respective lives in Haiti, our lives before Haiti, our families, our dogs of course – it is a amazing where conversations can go when you have nothing to do but wait for a flight in a comfortable captain’s lounge.
He told me once about a homily he gave – it had to do with people who would tell him what a saint he was because of his work in Haiti. I think this is pretty common that people think you are somehow special because you are doing some kind of exotic work – serving with Mother Theresa in India, representing criminals on death row, living in a homeless shelter….. these works will always receive the “you are a saint” comment.
When he would get these comments, however, he would take the listeners back to his family’s little plot of land in Ireland. He would talk about his ancestors and how they were only about trying to make their little corner of the world a better place – to raise good kids, to love each other, to improve the land, to “create a little bit of heaven here on earth.”
This is what we are about – not doing huge, nobel peace prize worthy deeds – but little loving bits of kindness – spending time with children, loving our partner, writing letters to our grandparents, planting bulbs in the fall, creating a beautiful painting or just making a really good pot of homemade vegetable soup. Yes – we really are just creating little bits of heaven here on earth.