A God who makes all people welcome


Old books

“It seems that no one has come back to give praise to God, except this foreigner.”

When the Falklands war started, I was about 18 and we happened to be living next door to the Argentinean naval attaché. My mother heard the news on the radio and (being that kind of woman) immediately went next door to ask him what it was all about – and what in particular the Argentinians wanted with what she thought were some semi-detached bits of Scotland. He was horrified at the news, “Oh no!” he said, “That wasn’t supposed to be until next year!” He broke down in tears and refused to be consoled. Probably he was the only man in Britain who really knew what was going to happen next.

The Falklands War was, like most wars, a tragic waste of human life and suffering which could have been avoided. Many people on both sides suffered grievously. But the only one affected by it that I knew personally was this Argentinean naval attaché. He and his entire family had spent their whole career saving up and looking forward to their foreign posting. They had loved being in Britain. And they had spent all their money on European furniture and goods to take back to their home in Argentina. Now, in a tiny moment, his entire little world had collapsed. Their countries were at war - always something of a failure in the life of any professional diplomat. He had been given seven days to leave the country - his bank account had been frozen. He had a house full of furniture; his family distraught; no money and just seven days to get everything together to leave. He had to borrow money from my father to get food for his family. Whatever his country may have done to ours, to be forced to beg for food for his family is punishment enough for any man.

Compared with others who lost their lives, their limbs or their loved ones in the war, his was only a small tragedy, but it was the only one that touched us personally. So my parents helped him and gave him the money needed to arrange his departure and put their possessions into storage. The night before they were due to leave, they came to our house to say thank you and they gave my parents fabulous gifts of cases of Argentinean wines and perfumes. We had nothing prepared to give to them. My father asked if there was anything - anything at all - that we could give them in return. The diplomat graciously refused saying no we had already done enough to earn their undying gratitude and they would never forget how they had been helped even when they were strangers and enemies in a foreign land.
But even as he spoke, his eldest son was tugging at his elbow.
He said: “Yes, Juan, what is it?”
“Whisper, whisper.”
“No, Juan, we can’t possibly....”
“Oh, all right then, I’ll ask.”
He turned back to us a little pink with embarrassment and said:
“My son, while he has been in Britain has grown to love one of your English writers, errm...” (he consulted again) “Geraldo Durrell. You wouldn’t by any chance happen to have any of his books?”
There was a longish pause during which I discovered a close interest in the cracks in the floor boards.
“Paul!” said my mother with a quiet grey steel in her voice.
She knew as well as I did that my proudest possession was a complete set of all of Gerald Durrell’s books, none of which I had read less than ten times.
My interest in the floor boards became such a fascination that I was oblivious to everything else.
“PAUL !!!” Said my mother.
The steel had hardened to blue.
“Don’t you have some books by Gerald Durrell?”
I was obliged to admit that it was just possible that I might have one or two old ones lying about somewhere.
“Good,” said my mother, “well go and see if you can find them and bring them ALL.”

My feet felt so heavy that I could hardly climb the stairs to my room. And I felt that my mother’s emphasis on the last word of the sentence had been quite uncalled for. Reverently, for the last time, I took my collection from its proud spot in the little shrine I had made specially and set on the top shelf of the book case and pondered one or two wild stratagems - like claiming they had all been eaten by rats, badgers, duck-billed platypuses, whatever. Nothing really plausible came to mind. There was nothing for it but to wrench my face into a passable smile, walk back down the stairs and present the lot to young Juan.
His eyes lit up with joy when he saw the aged, ragged, dog-eared pile of paperbacks. I placed the sacred scriptures in front of him. He reached out a hand with a cautious joy to touch them. I felt so much in common with him that I could have strangled him. But, more diplomatically, I wished him joy of them in a strange voice that came from deep in the back of my throat. My jaw felt very stiff. Suddenly, I knew exactly how Maggie felt about the Falklands.

When professional diplomats promise you undying gratitude, you don’t really believe them. But, after the war, the day after normal banking relationships were resumed, every penny my father had lent was repaid in full. And for years after, my parents had more Argentinean wines and perfumes than they knew what to do with. Having been a foreigner in other people’s countries for most of my life, I know what it is both to be welcome and to be unwelcome. So let us pray this Sunday for the grace of welcoming strangers and foreigners, even when they take our proudest possessions, not just because we may like Argentinean wines or perfumes, or because they will contribute to our economy or for anything else that we can get from them, but because it is right. It is what Jesus did.

Let us continue to proclaim our faith in God who makes all people welcome, however foreign, however strange.

Paul O'Reilly SJ