Sunday, July 15, 2018

Living Letters

I love to receive letters. When I was a little boy, I lived on a straight street where I could see the mail truck coming from a long way off. After the mailman stopped in front of our house, I ran with hope in my heart down our front walkway, between our two giant maple trees and across the street to our mailbox. Would there be a letter for me? Was someone in the world thinking of me?

One day last year it was not the mailman, but a second-grader on the school playground, who handed a letter to me. I unfolded it.

Dear Mr. Barton,

hi it Odeth from 2th grade I miss you a lot I wanted to know about you so much I am being good I am in 4th grade Do you miss me. I live in __________ I go to school in __________ I hope you will come to my school…can you come visit me in school ask for my name…I am 10 year old I want you to come to my school. Your best student,


Ah, to be remembered by a student.

Odeth was in my very first class during my very first year as an elementary school teacher. I will always remember her big dimples, her contagious giggle, her deep brown eyes and her inquiring mind. Later that afternoon, when my classroom was calm and quiet again, I sat down at Odeth’s old desk and wrote a letter back to her.

Dear Odeth,

Hi! Your class will always be special to me. Do you remember the geometry lesson when you made that brilliant design of a yellow flower from the shapes I gave you? It was brilliant like you. I still have the picture we took of that flower. Do you remember how we talked about you becoming an architect and designing beautiful buildings? I wonder if you still enjoy designing things. Do you remember how you liked to talk and how I told you that you should think about being a lawyer? I hope you’re being the best you can be and doing the best you can do. I miss you, too!

Mr. Barton

Odeth and her family are first-generation immigrants from Guatemala who are trying to make a better life for themselves in South Carolina. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center report “Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South,” many Latinos in the South encounter widespread hostility, discrimination and exploitation. Here in South Carolina, there seems to be many people determined to use destructive, demagogic and dehumanizing language and political policies to harass and hurt families like Odeth’s.

Is America a place where she really can become an architect, a lawyer or anything she wants to become?

Odeth is a living letter to me and to you. Her life asks an essential question to us, - “Are you thinking of me?”

I hope the answer is, “Yes we are!”


I am a 4th grade teacher at a Title I elementary school in Greenville, South Carolina. The neighborhoods around my school are filled with families from Mexico, Central America and South America. The children of these families make their way each morning through the doors of my school, through the doors of my classroom, and through the door of my heart. At various times and from various people during the past election cycle, these Latino friends were described with demagogic, destructive and dehumanizing language. I know from my life with them that this language does not tell the real story, does not paint the true picture, of the committed, compassionate and creative people they are to me and to our community.

Let me tell you a story. There was a boy in my classroom. His name was Hilcias. He had the earth in his brown eyes, the sun in his smile, and was a flesh and blood, heart full and playful nine year old kid.

Sometimes he laughed until he cried, and sometimes he cried until he washed the sadness from his heart, but at all times he kept those eyes and that heart open to learn as much as he could from the people and the places around him.

He spoke Spanish mostly, and English a little, so at the beginning of the year we could barely communicate with each other. He learned more and more English words and phrases as the school weeks passed by, and I learned more and more Spanish words and phrases, so we got along just fine.

His English to Speakers of Other Languages teacher came to pick him up on the last day of school before Christmas break. “Bye Mr. Barton,” he said with a smile. “I will be back SOON.” He emphasized the word soon because we had just been talking about adverbs during our writer’s workshop. “Bye Hilcias,” I said with my own smile. “I can’t wait to see you AGAIN.” We giggled and he walked out into the hallway with other English language learners.

Soon he returned again. He walked to my table and placed a letter in front of me. “This is for you,” he said, and he walked back to his table to resume his writing project.

This is what his letter said -

“I am thankful for Mr. Barton. Here are some reasons why.

First you teach me how to do fiction or nonfiction stories.

Second you help me know how can I be good at writing.

Finally you make me happy when you pik me to be the student of the day.”

I lifted my eyes to Hilcias. I thought about his Mamí bringing him and his younger brother to the United States from Mexico, hoping to make a better life for them. I thought about how thankful I am to be his teacher, to work with him every day, to help him be all that he can be and do all that he can do in the world. I thought about how wonderful he is.

I picked up my pen and wrote a letter back to him. I walked over to his table and placed it in front of him. “This is for you,” I said, and I walked back to my table to resume my work.

This is what my letter said -

“I am thankful for Hilcias. Here are some reasons why.

First you teach me how to be a better teacher because you are a great student.

Second you told me you want to become a doctor and there is a kindness in your heart and a sharpness in your mind that will make you great at anything you choose to do.

Finally you make me happy. You make me happy you are my student. You make me happy you are you.”

Whenever you hear the words “immigrant,” “illegal,” or “wall,” I hope you see the hopeful, thoughtful face and hear the kind, soft voice of Hilcias, as I do. Let’s be Statues of Liberty that say, “Send these…to me,” instead of angry faces that scream, “Send these…away.”

I send Hilcias to you.

Let him walk through the doors of your hearts.

Ave Maria

As an elementary school teacher and a writer, often I recognize my students as the shape of God’s heart and write about them through tears of wonder.

One of those students is Maria, a 7-year-old second-grader. Her parents fled the after effects of a brutal civil war in El Salvador and found a new life on the farms and in the fields of South Carolina.

She is like those farms and fields, with dark skin the color of the ground and a garden of a heart that produces love and joy as if they were tomatoes and beans.

I have seen her hold the hand of a frightened kindergartner in the cafeteria lunch line during early morning breakfast and offer her shoulder to a crying friend who scraped her knee on the blacktop during recess. She is a beautiful child.

I can see her smile from all the way down at the end of the hall from the front office.

Sometimes, I can hear her steps from there, too, because on special days she wears tiny high-heeled shoes with her flowery dresses, and I can hear the click, click, click as she makes her way toward me over the tiled floor. This always makes me stop and smile.

One day, I realized I forgot to send my money through the mail to the water company to pay my bill. I stopped by the office to make my payment in person after school.

Apparently, three-fourths of the residents of Greenville County forgot to send in their payments, too, because the place was full of people.

In the middle of all of that humanity, I heard a click, click, click. I looked up and coming around a desk was Maria!

She was pushing a stroller with a tiny baby inside of it. I could barely see her over the handles of the stroller. She was leading her mother, who was holding a toddler in her arms.

She saw me. Her face lit up with her Maria smile. She let go of the stroller for just a moment, wrapped her arms around me and said, “Oh, Mr. Barton! Buenos tardes! I am always so glad to see you!”

She took hold of the stroller again and I lost her among the faces of the people around me.

But I heard her voice, her sincere, serious voice, rise above the noise. “Excuse me,” she said, “but could you help us pay our bill?”

And there was Maria, 7 years old, translating for her mother, helping her family, sharing her life with our world.


As a public school teacher, I work hard to listen to the stories of my students’ lives.

Geraldine was one of those students. Small in stature, she was big in heart and mind. I can still see her pushing her baby sister in a stroller walking with her Mom beside our school in the late afternoon. Her hands were above her head as she pushed, because she was smaller than the stroller! But if you could have seen the grit and determination on her face as she pushed that stroller up the hill, then you would know what kind of person she is.

One day, she was reading a wonderful book called “Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.”

“Oh, Mr. Barton,” she said with a giggle, “I’m just like Ophelia in the story because she’s a curious kind of kid and I’m a curious kind of kid because I want to know everything about everything!”

Suddenly, though, she became serious.

“But she’s a nervous kind of kid, too, because she’s had a hard life and I’ve kind of had a hard life, too.”

I looked into her earthy brown eyes and thought about the land and waters from which she came, for she came from the farms and fields of Mexico with her family.

For the first time I noticed the faintest of dark circles around her eyes, the slightest of a downward turn at the corners of her mouth, and a hint of sadness that shouldn’t often be on a 10-year-olds face.

“What is your life like, Geraldine?” I asked.

And she told me her story.

“I share a room with my brother and sister and two younger cousins,” she began. “My Mamí works very, very hard.”

As she talked with me about the book and about her life, a tiny tear appeared in the corner of her eye.

I wondered if it came from giggles or from sadness.

I caught the tear in my hand as it rolled off her cheek.

“I’m here to hear,” I said.

“I’m here.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Missionary Teacher

I am a missionary. I am a teacher. I am a missionary teacher.

Whether I am on an inner-city street, or a remote village, or in a Title I public school classroom, I try to live out my life as Gustavo Gutierrez describes life among the poor in his book A Theology of Liberation.

·      Real poverty is an evil – something God does not want. I struggle against it and attempt to end it in the world around me. As I live among people who are seeking food, shelter, clothing, work, healthcare and education but who are not finding these basic needs, I see they are wounded in a way that breaks their hearts and breaks the heart of God, too. I see they don’t want to be poor, but that poverty is a part of certain broken systems that can be repaired if we put our hearts and minds, our commitments, to fixing them. I see I can work side by side with my neighbors around me, especially with my poor neighbors around me, to make the world a better, more human place for everybody.
·      Spiritual poverty is a good – something God does want. It is the sense of having a readiness to do God’s will. When I live among my neighbors, we listen together to life around us and work and play and hear God’s voice in the quiet places among the quiet people where we are. “You have two ears and only one mouth,” my Grandpa used to say to me, “So you better listen twice as much as you speak.” I do ‘lots of listening. I do ‘lots of doing. That is my mantra every day.
·      Solidarity with the poor, and protesting against the conditions under which they suffer, is the way to live. I am not where I am to treat people like objects, like things. No, I am where I am to treat people as they are –human beings with infinite worth.

Here is a small story of how I tried to live out a theology of liberation when I was in Mali.

On that morning, Madu walked the mile from his village to our house at the mission station just outside of the town of Kenieba. He is married to Sirima and they have two children – four-year-old Sira, who they call Bonnie, and two-year-old Musa, who they call Papa. Madu is a farmer, a teacher, and more than anything else, a friend.

“Papa burned his hand this morning,” he said with a worried look in his eyes and a soft tremble in his voice. “The pot of sauce spilled on him when we were taking it off of the fire. Do you have any medicine we could use to put on the burn?”

I turned to the section on the treatment of burns in our trusty book Where There Is No Doctor.

“Did the burn cause blisters?” I asked with a combination of broken Malinke and hand gestures.

“Yes,” Madu answered in his broken English and a nod of his head. “It’s really bad.”

“Let’s take some soap, sterile gauze, scissors and antibiotic ointment and see if we can help him,” I said.

“I man to tu,” he responded, which is the Malinke way to say, “You have done enough,” the way to say, “Thank you.”

When we arrived at his village, the people greeted us and we greeted them. The Malinke people have a long list of greetings and blessings they give to each other when they pass each other along the road and in the village. They know the person who is standing before them is more important than anywhere they have to go or anything they have to do in the day. I was learning the greetings and the blessings, learning this very human way of living life.

“Hera sita?” I asked. In English, this means, “Is there peace here today?”

“Hera dorong,” they answered. “Peace only.”

This is kind of like the way we greet each other all across the United States.

“How are you doing?” someone will ask.

“Fine,” we will answer, even when things are not fine.

Of course, there was no peace in the village that morning. Everything was not fine. I could hear it in the strained voices of the people, and I could see it in the tired looks on their faces.

Sirima was working, preparing the food for lunch. She had Papa tied around her back in the traditional way of African baby carrying.

With large, sad eyes Papa pressed his cheek against Sirima’s back and hung his injured hand loosely at his side. I greeted Sirima and looked at Papa’s hand. Most of the skin had been burned off of his wrist and lower arm. Some skin was hanging from the wound. I could see raw, charred flesh on his little arm, wrist and hand.

Sirima held Papa tight and tenderly as we cleaned the wound. I washed his hand and wrist with soap and water. Madu cut away the dangling skin with the scissors. I coated the gauze with the antibiotic ointment. Madu gently placed it over the burn and wrapped an Ace bandage around the gauze.

Together, we helped Papa through his pain and tears.

We were afraid but we worked together.

As we worked, I prayed this prayer silently to myself:

Thank you for being here with us.
Thank you for caring for us.
We trust Papa into your hands through our hands.
He is hurting.
Please bring healing.
He is afraid.
Please bring comfort.
We trust ourselves into your hands, too.
We trust you.

As we were washing, cutting, coating and bandaging Papa’s wound, as he was screaming and crying out in pain, I was acutely aware that I am not a doctor. I am only a person who wants to help the world. I was acutely aware that I was planted in a field of suffering where many people were hurting every day and the only thing I could offer to alleviate that suffering and help that hurting were my frail hands and my humble heart.

Five days later, two beautifully dressed elderly women came to my door at the mission. Madu’s mother, Sira, and his “Na n’ding,” his father’s second wife and so-called “little mother” in Malinke culture, Fenda, were standing before me.

Sira is the matriarch of the family. She still plants, works and harvests a field of peanuts every year. She is in the advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease so her hands tremble and her work is hard.

One time, I passed by Fenda’s peanut field. Sweat was glistening off the muscles of her arms and back and a humble kindness was in her smile and her eyes. She is strong and kind.

“Good morning, Bakary,” they said to me. “We brought you a gift for helping Papa.”

They held out a large bowl of peanuts, peanuts that Sira had grown in her field, peanuts that Fenda had harvested, peanuts that they prepared for me with their own kind and calloused hands.

“Wow!” I said. “Thank you so much. How is Papa today? Is he better?”

“Oh yes,” they answered, “He’s much better. No infection came. He’s going to be okay.”

“That’s good,” I marveled. “That’s very good.”

The peanuts were a symbol of my Malinke friends. When you plant a peanut in the rocky soil, it grows out of the ground as a deep green plant with bright yellow flowers on top to tell the farmer that the fruit is in the earth and is ready to be pulled out.

There stood Sira and Fenda, two deep, bright African women who nurture their family and friends with love and endurance in the depths of the third world.

There was Papa, a deep, bright African child, alive and growing in his village, a beautiful person with a chance to do something beautiful in the world.

As I shared my peanuts with everyone around me, I realized that I was there, offering myself in the midst of the suffering and joy, and that maybe God was using me to help the world. I knew God was using my Malinke friends to help the world in me.

This is one of the ways of being a missionary teacher.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I Be Here

I Be Here By Trevor Scott Barton Ordinary Time 2018 “Po lidda fella,” said the old, weathered woman with skin as dark and wrinkled as bark and arms as thin and knobby as the farthest reaches of the branches of the inland’s ancient oak trees. She spoke with the accent of her Gullah ancestors, who had created a new language in the lowcountry of South Carolina by mixing their west African heart words with the English words they were forced to learn when they were stolen away from their own people and lands and brought here to America. She lived a holey floored, crack walled, Duck taped windowed shotgun style shack on John’s Island left over from the days of slavery and Jim Crow. She fished along the inlet and the shoreline each morning trying to catch red fish, sea trout and flounder to go with the fruits and vegetables out of her garden. She wove baskets out of sweet grass from the late mornings to the early evenings.

“Jus sits dere,” she continued, “Eva monin’ as de sun rises ova de ocean an sits on de wada like a ripe tomata. Neva says one word. Jus sits dere a’watchin de wada and a’list’nin to de waves.”
One day she walked over to him and stood beside him. The sun cast her shadow over him as to protect him from the brightness of the new day. “Wha’s yo name?” she asked kindly. “My name’s Mattie. Could you tell me yo name?”

He turned his earthy brown eyes to her. He didn’t say one thing. She figured he didn’t understand her. His Mami and Abuelo were migrant workers picking peaches and tomatoes in the lowcountry summer until they were reasy to move down with the fall and winter to the coasts of Georgia and Florida. She thought maybe he only spoke Spanish, since his family had made it to South Carolina from the farms and fields of El Salvador in Central America.
Suddenly, he whistled! It astonished her, and she almost fell over into the sand. The sound was unlike any whistle she had ever heard before. A usual whistle as two notes and a high pitch, but this was an unusual whistle. It’s sound had all kinds of notes in it, and the pitch went high and low, low and high and all kinds of places in between. It was as if the great composers had written his whistle at the height of their compositional powers.

“Ya know, it was like he was a’tryin to say somepin to me in a be-yoo-tee-ful way,” she explained, “But I din’ hab no idée whad id was.”

He looked back over the water and at the sky again, and was very still and quiet. She felt a wide compassion for him in the deepest part of her heart.

The road from the countryside of El Salvador to the lowcountry of South Carolina is long and hard. If you take the time and make the effort to ask the migrants along that road, “Why are you trying to make it to the United States?” they will answer, “I’m trying to find una vida major, a better life. The journey along this road is fraught with danger and heartbreak. Listen to these words from journalist Oscar Martines, who embedded himself with migrants on the migratory trail from Central America to the Mexican – United States border and wrote about the people he met in his book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. "We walk on, telling ourselves that if we get attacked, we get attacked. There’s nothing we can do. The suffering that the migrants endure on the trail doesn’t heal quickly. Migrants don’t just die, they’re not just maimed or shot or hacked to death. The scars of their journey don’t only mark their bodies. They run deeper than that. Living in such fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their heads over and over. It takes at least a month of travel to reach Mexico’s northern border…Who takes care of them? Who works to heal their wounds?" Before The Beast was translated into English, it was titled Los Migrantes Que No Importan, The Migrants Who Don’t Matter.
It is important to remember that people do not leave their family, their land unless they have to. If your children are threatened by violence, disease or famine you migrate and look for una vida major for them. If your house is bombed and your land is stolen from you, you migrate and look for una vida major. If you open your cupboard, and there is nothing there but dust, and you reach into your pockets to find money to buy food, and there is nothing there but dust, and there is no sustaining work for you to do to support your family, but only dust, you migrate and look for una vida major.

No, no one wants to leave their family, their land unless they have to. No one wants to take on the danger and heartbreak of migration unless they have to. But some people have to. And here in the United States, there are seeds that need to be planted, tended and harvested, and there are farmers willing to pay a wage for someone to do it. Here in the United States, there are motel rooms that need to be cleaned, and there are businesses willing to pay a wage for someone to do it. Here in the United States, there are houses that need to be built, and there are builders willing to pay a wage for someone to do it. Here in the United States, there is work that needs to be done that could provide una vida major for the worker. There is a way for the migrant to find food, shelter, clothing, meaningful work, medical care, and education where there was none before. There is a way unless we block that way for them, unless we think they don’t matter.
“Poor baby,” said the labor and delivery nurse as she held the new baby in her soft, supple hands at Mercy Hospital in Miami, Florida. “Born at a time like this. And his family has no papers. Who will take care of him and his family? Who will work to heal their wounds?”
His name was Hilcias. His Mami and Abuelo had just crossed over into the United States. They had ridden The Beast all the way from the scorched earth of El Salvador to the dark, inner-city streets of Miami.
His Mami was pregnant with him and the time had come for her to deliver him. A car had stopped in front of St. Mary’s Church in the middle of the city. The silent driver made the sign of the cross over her and his Abuelo and put them out on the street with nothing but the tattered clothes on their backs. The old man shoes were as battered and wrinkled as his skin. Her sandals had fallen apart many miles ago so she had no shoes at all.
His Abuelo lifted the iron knocker on the old wooden oak door and let it fall back onto it’s tarnished iron plate. He did this again and again until a nun cracked open a door to the night.
The nun had worked in the city for many years and had seen many things. But never had she seen the suffering and beauty she saw in the faces of Maria and Josef at the church door that night.
Their eyes were alight with beauty – the beauty of being in a new land without war, without violence – the beauty of bringing a new life into the world.
Their bodies were heavy with suffering. They were covered with the dirt and sweat of thousands of miles of migration along the migratory road.
Their shoulders sagged under the weight of months of homelessness. The only homes they had found along the migrant road were the small spaces of simple kindness that people had shown them along the way.
They were still and quiet.
They didn’t make a sound.
The old nun wrapped her armes around Maria and Josef.

“I’m here,” she whispered.

“I’m here.”
The old Gullah woman wrapped her arm around Hilcias as the tide rolled in and out in the dawn. She placed her warm, calloused hand on his cheek.

“I be here,” she whispered.

“I be here.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

In Our Country

In our country

Our feet are the feet of the people.

Our fists are the fists of the people.

Our voices are the songs of the people.

Our words are the words of the people.

The poor people in our country.

We are the tear on the hungry child's cheek.

We are the callous on the old farmer's hand.

We are the wrinkle around the worried mother's eye.

We are the blister on the campesino's foot. 

We are the yearning in the peoples hearts.

And yet...

We are the cloth that wipes away the tear.

We are the hand that joins the work.

We are the word that brings courage.

We are the feet that walk beside the poor.

We are the heart of the people.

In our country.

We are the freedom song.

We are the fist.

We are the feet.

We are.

We are their feet.

We are their fist. 

We are their voice. 

We are their song. 

We are their words.

We are them, and they are us.

In our country. 

- Trevor Scott Barton, Advent, 2017