I come from a very large, tight-knit, Latino family. My parents are both the youngest of 9 siblings, so growing up family was everything to us. Aside from my parents, but grandparents, aunts and uncle and even some of my older cousins were my caretakers. My younger cousins and second cousins were my first friends and everything in my life revolved around the idea of home and “la familia,” the family. Our family vacations were just going to spend the week at Tía so-and-so house, or a few weeks with my grandparents in the valley. My sister is not only my best friend, but my sounding board, inspiration, pilalar of strength and soul mate. My family was the church choir and going to church every Saturday night was like going to a family reunion. Whether we were worshipping, celebrating a birthday, fighting, of grieving, we did it together.
My second family I found in my group of friends. There are 16 of us and I have known some of them for over 20 years and we still gather and talk on a regular basis. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I became really involved with my local parish community and through that community of worship, I found my third family. You might ask, what does this have to do with the theme apart? Well, my families are all in San José, CA.
In 2016, I applied and entered the Franciscan Order. A religious fraternity of men who, though imperfect and flawed, try to live the gospel values of hope, charity, and love. Yet, in order to become a part of this fourth family, I had to say goodbye to my other three. You see, the Franciscan Order is a mendicant order, meaning we are not called to live or minister in one designated area, but to travel to edges of society and accompany the poor and marginalized, the broken and forgotten; our brother and sister whom we have looked over for one reason or another.
I could feel the calling to enter religious life, but the decision to join the order was not easy. I had to make the difficult decision to leave my family, my friends, my people and begin a journey that is very counter-cultural, contentious, and even discouraged from. I remember when I when I received my acceptance letter from the friars and doubting my decision and speaking with my spiritual director if it would be okay to delay or defer my acceptance for a year and he asked me, “Are you wanting to delay because you actually have something you need to finish before you give your life to the church or do you need the year to come up with excuses not to join?”
Joining the order, leaving my comfort zone, stepping into the unknown and putting my faith in God is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but has also been the most rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, religious life is hard, and there are days I question my decision, but at the end of the day, sharing a meal, a story, or just a knowing look with someone, letting them know, “I see you.” Many people look at my life and see the vows I have professed: the vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity, as restrictive or as a sacrifice. But for me, they are freeing. I have not left my family behind, but like the shepherd who left this 99 sheep to look for the lost one, I am able to enter into the world and embrace everyone as my brother or sister, my mother or father.
As a kid, I remember my mom always having a picture of some decoration with the story of the Footprints in the Sand, the person dreaming of the set of footprints appearing in the sand that correlated to moments in their life. However, the individual notices that in the difficult time there is only one set of footprints and they angrily confront God saying, “Why did you abandon me when I needed you most?” God replies, “When you saw only one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you.” This pandemic has been such a difficult and uncertain time, our global and local families are grieving and crying out for help. Many feel lost or alone, isolated and anxious. For them there is only one set of footprints in the sand right now. The question is, are you being carried, or are you carrying someone? Either is okay, but we need to be able to honestly speak to our feelings. My journey as a Franciscan friar has taught me that, although we are apart, we have to remember that we are still a part of this family.