Now and At the Hour of Our Death
Twenty-nine year old Father Lester was strolling through the streets of Santander, Columbia, observing the destruction of the latest natural disaster to hit the country in the past century and a half: a lahar. He was here as a new missionary when he found himself running for his life with the locals in the confusion and chaos. Twenty-five hours into his new position and he had battled with Mother Nature.
Looking down, Father Lester noticed that one of his sandals was already missing and his foot was squishing in the mud. Mentally, he talked to God,
Thank you, gracious God that you have saved my life on the first night I am to begin your work here. However, God, if it’s not too much to ask, please give me better warning and better shoes. Amen.
People rushed to-and-fro while others wailed over their loved ones no longer with them, whether they be deceased or missing from the excitement. Checking his waterproof watch, the time read that it was ten in the morning. Looking up from the ground, Father Lester gazed up at the ominous sky before heading in what he thought was the direction of the little school run by the nuns. The streets were no longer recognizable given what had happened. Buildings had fallen over or been swept away. The once decent streets were now rivers or pocketed with puddles.
Along the way, some of the families – who spoke moderate English that worked or had learned at the school – beckoned him over asking if he would pray with them for a moment. He casually made small talk with each family asking if they were missing anyone or if they had passed on into God’s hands. Amazing as God is, all families were not at a loss other than that of material possessions, but they knew of others who were not as fortunate.
Father Lester continued on his journey to the little school, where there were bookshelves close to empty and worn vintage school desks that an American school had generously donated. He wondered if their only statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was still there, it was worth more than what little books the school had.
‘You can teach the knowledge you know without a book, but how can you explain faith to children or other people if they do not believe? A statue allows us to make that connection between Earth and heaven. And right now, people need hope that things will get better.’
As Father Lester turned to go down another street in search of the little school, one of the little school boys called to him.
“Father!” The little boy said running and slipping in the mud. “Father!”
Father Lester jogged lightly to meet the boy half way and caught him in his arms.
“Father Lester, you got to come quick!” The boy, no more than ten, said out of breath.
“What’s happened? What’s the matter? Is it the school?”
“No, the school is fine just a little flooded but-”
“Is the Blessed Mother still there?” Father Lester pushed.
“Yes, she is still there. But Father, you have to come quickly. It’s Omayra. She’s trapped in the mud and water from the lahar! They just found her. ”
Omayra was one of the older girls who attended the little Catholic school. Father Lester had met her and the other children after just arriving in Columbia. He remembered the little girl because she stood out with her beautiful brown eyes and perfect curly black hair.
“Alright, show me the way.” Father Lester told the young boy. The boy took his hand and the boy began to drag him over a few streets. In doing so, Father Lester lost his other sandal and stepped on broken glass, cutting his foot. He didn’t pay any attention to the pain because he would offer it up to God, and he had also read in a medical article that mud helps seal out infection. However, he reconsidered that this might not be the best mud considering the water around here needed to be boiled before consuming it. Again, he offered it up and that if it was God’s will, he would die for it; but so help him, he would help the little girl.
The boy led Father Lester to a crowded alley where people were shouting, and the little boy shoved people out of the way so they could both pass.
“Excuse me, I’m a priest. Let me through!” He had to shout in Spanish over the crowd.
Slowly, the crowd parted like Moses and the Red Sea for him. When he had reached the front, there was a group of locals who were removing debris and chucking it to the side to get at the hand that was poking through an opening. Without even thinking, Father Lester ran straight for the debris and removed a concrete block that was half covering over the hand. It was heavy and slippery, and the block scratched his hands, but with the help of two other men they successfully removed the block revealing the curly haired girl. She was bent in an unnatural position due to the debris covering her.
“Father Lester! Help me!” Omayra held her hand out to him.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Father Lester said, carefully screening where he should place his feet in order to reach her hand.
“I can’t feel my feet.” Omayra cried. Her face was stoic like she was perfectly fine, that being stuck in the mud was a habit of hers, but her voice revealed that she was very frightened.
“It’s okay, Omayra. I’m here.” Father Lester said finally, taking a leap of faith and walking the few steps toward her. He wasn’t as knowledgeable about lahars and their aftermath, so he resembled that of a pink flamingo in walking toward her. When he was within reach, he squatted down and took hold of her lukewarm hand. “It’s okay. There are many people here to help you get out.”
It was well into the night and villagers had grabbed candles and other illuminating devices to provide light to those working to clear the debris. While the men were working, Father Lester told Omayra jokes and even sang songs to her to keep her entertained and smiling. On more than one occasion, she sang the songs with him but in Spanish while he sang in English. Their voices blended beautifully. Omayra’s mother came to her daughter and Father Lester with blankets from a fellow villager to provide some comfort to the two. Omayra asked her mother to stay with her, and so the three of them sat in the mud holding hands.
At around five in the morning, his thirty-seventh hour of being in Columbia, government relief and a medical teams arrived on the scene. By seven, there was a decent perimeter around Omayra thanks to the additional hands and she could finally stand up properly. With enough room, the elite medical team went forward to assess the situation. A few of the medical responders tried to lighten the mood by making a few jokes here and there causing Omayra to smile. By ten, publicity had arrived and began to crowd the perimeter making it harder for the medical team. A few of the reporters tried pulling her from the mud without authorization, which only proved to be a mistake.
Water quickly flowed in around her, but she didn’t budge. Then the medical responders thought she might be slowly breaking free from the mud. So, they continued in their efforts by attempting to pull her out. When the water was around her chest, they stopped and decided to reassess the problem. In the meantime, they placed a makeshift flotation device around her.
“Father, the water is really cold.” Omayra said shivering.
“Don’t worry, Omayra. You shall be free soon.” Father Lester said, checking his watch again. Eleven. The poor girl had been trapped for close to fifty hours.
“Alright, Omayra, we have some food here for you. Are you hungry?” A short and pudgy Latino reporter said coming over with a plate of food. He handed the plate to Father Lester when she nodded. Patiently, Father Lester fed Omayra the rice and peppers on the plate. Photographers greedily took pictures and reporters rambled in the jargon barely understandable to Father Lester.
Again, Father Lester tried to entertain Omayra to distract her from her predicament while the paramedics tried to figure out a plan of action. They stuck cameras down into the murky water and mud to see below her. Omayra’s eyes began to lose hope as it went on her fifty-fifth hour in captivity. Father Lester looked over to the camera screen that the paramedics had. At first it was hard to see, but when they strobed their light on the camera, it was a grisly picture. Omayra was standing on a body who paralyzed in death with fear, and her legs nearly crushed by bricks. Father Lester saw that there may possibly be no hope for the icy hand attached to the innocent girl.
Father Lester checked his watch, it was close to sixty hours, and poor Omayra was close to God.
“Father?” She slowly breathed out.
“Will you pray with me?”
“Of course,” Father Lester cleared his tightly closing throat. “What would you like to pray?”
“Dios te salve, Maria,” She began.
“Fully of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Father Lester said with her in English.
“Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.”
“Amen.” Father Lester and Omayra concluded together.
“Thank you, Father.” She said looking right up to the heavens. And as if God were watching, he opened the clouds and light came down over her. “I see her,” Omayra whispered. “I see our Blessed Lady.” And with that she breathed her last.
Father Lester paced about the one room school that still managed to have walls standing and all the furniture included. The books that had been on the bookshelves were waterlogged and ruined. That didn’t matter. Looking at the statue of the Blessed Virgin, Father Lester aggressively shoved a group of desks away and fell to his knees on the muddy, wet floor.
“Why?” He screamed at the statue through tears. “Why did you have to take her? She was innocent!” His body racking in sobs. “My God, my God: why have you forsaken me?”