Written by Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., the Roman Catholic Chaplain at Georgetown University. This article originally appeared on March 31st, 2017, in the Hoya and can be found online here. “As This Jesuit Sees It” appears every other Tuesday in the Hoya.
Artistic works rendering the process of conversion and transformation are often externally dramatic – be it Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul or Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation.
While such depictions capture the power of human transformation, they also might sway one to believe that a conversion – in belief, attitude, way of thinking or acting – must necessarily entail an intense external rupture in one’s life.
Quite often, these moments are quieter, more subtle and sublime, but nonetheless equally life-changing. Sometimes it occurs by something so simple, so seemingly mundane, as ordering ice cream.
We had the great privilege to speak with Mike Wilson, a tribal member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, on this year’s MAGIS spring break immersion trip to the Arizona-Mexico border.
Mike has spent years putting out water across the Nation’s lands for migrants crossing the desert, as well as housing migrant families in his home with his wife. Yet Mike’s journey to becoming a social justice activist is a winding one.
In the 1980s, Mike served as an advisor for the U.S. Special Forces in El Salvador during the country’s civil war. How is it that a Green Beret with his own security detail makes the dramatic shift to becoming an active promoter of human rights? Such a journey, in Mike’s words, involves openness, humility and a revolution of the heart.
Mike had been in San Salvador for quite some time when he was invited to dinner by the woman who sold him pupusas every day on his way to work. Later that Friday afternoon, Mike decided to indulge himself by stopping off at the ice cream shop for a banana split. When it came time to pay, he realized that he was overcharged for the dessert. Though Mike said nothing, he seethed over this perceived injustice.
He arrived that evening at the humble family home of his hosts. His host informed him that her husband – a bus driver out in the rural areas far outside the city – was not yet home.
When he returned, long after dinner was over, he sat down with them at the dinner table. His wife brought out his late dinner and a beer. As they sat, the husband counted his wages for his 14-hour day, placing the centavos into small stacks.
As Mike watched, he had a jarring realization – the husband’s wages for driving a bus for the past 14 hours did not amount to as much as Mike’s overpriced banana split. As Mike tells it, in that low-lit room around a dinner table in San Salvador, everything changed. He was, in his words, not merely humbled, but also humiliated – he recognized his entitlement, his privilege and prestige, and all that he took for granted.
As Mike tells it, it was in that moment that everything shifted for him on a heart level. He would return home to Arizona still as Mike Wilson, but a transformed Mike Wilson. His eyes were opened to the needs of immigrants without documentation crossing the desert of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
He would begin his mission of placing water throughout the desert. He embraced his own prophetic vocation to reach out to those on the painful and life-threatening margins. Such transformation allows Mike to continue to do so, even when his actions went against the wishes of his tribe and church. So it is with a revolution of the heart.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that “there is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Such is the path to personal transformation and conversion.
This journey indeed consists in humility; a humility that necessarily entails a willingness to allow one’s attitudes and perceptions to be radically altered – altered by not simply concepts and theories, but by experiences and relationships.
A radical transformation demands radical openness — openness to the seemingly minute and seemingly inconsequential events of our day to day lives – events like ordering a banana split, or sitting quietly at a dinner table. Only then are the possibilities of an authentic revolution of the heart to be realized.