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Arts & Life

Welcoming the stranger at your door, and everyday angels

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This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

This week I’ve been thinking about Jason Ravnsborg, of course. His impeachment by the South Dakota House was big news.

But there was other news for me to consider, brought by the Archangel Gabriel.

Or at least by a man who said that’s who he was. Is, I guess.

I met him last Friday evening as the low sun-filled one window after the other of St. Theresa Hall in Highmore with a reddish-orange glow.

It was a fetching environment, the kind of place and situation you might imagine that an archangel could appear, if you’re open to such imagining.

If we can find God in the seemingly ordinary people we meet in everyday life, as I think we can, why couldn’t we find the Archangel Gabriel here among us, too?

And the Archangel Rafael and the Archangel Michael, too. More on them in a moment.

For now, consider again St. Theresa Hall, a charming old wooden structure that once was the main Catholic church in Highmore. Now it serves as the parish hall for the newer brick St. Mary’s Catholic Church across the street.

At St. Mary’s late last Friday afternoon, a small group had gathered for Stations of the Cross. Mary and I and Mary’s brother Bret were among them. So too were a couple of strangers, who were taking naps in the back pews of the church during the service.

When Father Paul Josten finished the Stations, one of the strangers in the back — a native, we would learn later, of South Sudan — stood up to shake our hands and proclaim “God bless you” as each worshipper left the sanctuary. Eventually the other man did, too.

It was both charming and unsettling, as the appearance of sleepy, perhaps slightly intoxicated strangers might be in a small-town church in the middle of the state, where such appearances don’t happen every day.

Father Josten wasn’t unsettled at all, however. He greeted the men warmly and eventually led them across the street to St. Theresa Hall, where members of the Knights of Columbus were holding a Friday evening fish fry.

Well, I call it a fish fry, because that tends to be the lenten tradition. But it was really a fish bake. The substantial pollock fillets, however, tasted as fine as any fried fish with a crispy crust and juicy center. I loved those fillets. And so did the two strangers, judging by the amount they were given, and consumed.

There was plenty of mashed potatoes and salad and buns for all to enjoy. And the fish seemed to multiply in an almost-biblical way.

The dessert? It was strawberries, whipped cream and, of course, angel-food cake. What else?

It was at about the time he was finishing his piece of angel-food cake that the man who called himself Gabriel identified himself as an archangel. He said his companion was the Archangel Rafael and that a third companion, the Archangel Michael, was sleeping out in their vehicle.

Such an introduction in itself can be unsettling. But whatever their names and their state of cognition at the time, we are called to welcome the strangers at our door. And that’s especially true when strangers are in need, as these two men, and likely their companion, certainly seemed to be.

Father Paul and the Knights did a fine job of welcoming the strangers Friday. And the strangers clearly appreciated the food and fellowship.

The one called Gabriel said he hadn’t slept for many hours, which is why — he said apologetically — he fell asleep in church. And they both ate like such substantial meals don’t come regularly.

After the men had eaten, our friend Nick Nemec, one of the Knights crew serving the meal, offered to make a take-out meal for the third man out in the car. Gabriel said that wasn’t necessary. But he said they could use some gas money.

Nick gave him a $20 bill, which inspired Gabriel to pronounce that those who help archangels shall be rewarded “a thousandfold,” which is a pretty good payback when you consider it. He asked us to pray with him. And a group of us stood or sat, held hands in a circle and prayed.

It was very nice. A little strange, but very nice. It was also a time to consider that many need help of one kind or the other — food, shelter, physical and psychiatric treatment, job training — in a society with a social net that has far too many gaping holes.

Whatever the exact details of the lives being led by the strangers who found themselves in our midst last Friday, they surely included hardship. They needed much more than some good food, some friendship and some gas money.

But what they got was given sincerely, and had meaning. Acts of kindness always do. And the visitors were clearly grateful.

Then they were off with Father Paul, out of the church hall and presumably from there on their way to wherever archangels on earth might travel on a Friday during Lent.

As you might know, Gabriel is an archangel of particular significance in Sacred Scripture. Now the patron saint of messengers, communications workers and postal workers, Gabriel is given credit for many announcements, most notably bringing the news to Mary that she would bear a son who would be conceived of the Holy Spirit and come to be known as Christ the savior.

Which is, you know, pretty big news even for an archangel to bring.

And the man who called himself Gabriel may have indeed been a messenger, reminding us of the many in need who pass through our lives every day, and our obligation to help in one way or another.

So while I wasn’t really convinced that the man who called himself Gabriel actually was an archangel, I wasn’t completely ruling it out, either.

After all, Easter is just a few days away, so many things seem possible. Miraculous things.

Maybe someday they will include better lives for all the archangels here on earth.