Cafe con Leche and Chesed

At age eighteen, I didn’t drink coffee. I was a tea drinker, specifically Earl Gray. But that changed in Puerto Rico one summer when I lived with a family who invited me to stay with them while I worked at their church’s Vacation Bible School. They’d given me the only private room in their small house. I’d have been happy with a cot in the corner, but they insisted otherwise.

We tried to make conversation the next morning, and it was awkward. My Spanish was mediocre, and they didn’t speak English. But then the coffee appeared: roasty-toasty coffee made on the stovetop using a thin white sock filled with coffee, sugar and spices. I swear there was joy in our cups. We drank it together, including the family’s little ones. Later I would learn that cafe con leche—coffee with milk—is a staple of Puerto Rican life.

One summer led to another. I came to know the Island as a place of joy and beauty, and the Episcopal Church there as an instrument of God’s peace. I stayed with the Sisters of the Transfiguration in Ponce, working with them in inner-city youth recreational halls, kneeling on their cold-stone floors, and (generally) losing to them in hard-fought evening canasta games. They were tougher than I was, getting up in the middle of the night to pray and to care for whoever came knocking at their door.

The Hebrew Bible uses the word chesed to describe such a state of being. Translation: Sacred kindness. It’s that same courage Ruth showed to her mother-in-law, Naomi, as she accompanied her through the wilderness, helping Naomi get home to Bethlehem before she died. It’s the same hospitality that Mary and Martha of Bethany so willingly shared with Jesus. It’s the same compassion showed by the witch of Endor to Saul as she called Samuel back from the dead to meet with the mentally disabled king.

The scope of disaster in Puerto Rico is deep and wide. Some have described the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as “apocalyptic.” I am sure that residents are demonstrating valiant acts of chesed with each other now, in what must be terrible suffering without food, water, fuel or electricity. Let us  join them on that road to recovery, for it will be slow.

Please keep Puerto Rico in your prayers for healing. Send a donation if you are able to any number of charities, including the American Red Cross, the Hispanic Federation, or the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund. And join this great effort by Forward Movement to to send “a hurricane of love” via notes of encouragement to Puerto Rico.

Most of the residents there have always known God’s peace. May such peace and chesed not leave them now in this terrible time of suffering—and may all of us respond as God would have us do.

Len Freeman Photo

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