Inside there's the temptation to turn away, to pretend I don't see her eyeing him up as she peruses the red bell peppers and bags of precut squash.
There's no time today. In and out of the store. Get the job done. Like a machine. I make a good one. There's no room for the questions or the pleasantries or the smalltalk that could prove awkward here. I'm a busy mom, you know. There's a dinner to be made and schoolwork to take care of and, after all, he needs to get home for his nap soon. Besides, I tell myself, everyone else is busy, too. They're not looking to be bothered and certainly aren't at the store for small talk. Get in, get the stuff, get out. Above all, don't make eye contact.
But He stops me. Again. He pulls me out of myself and reminds me of the gift that he is. Not just to me but to the world. I angle my body so that she can get a better look at the little boy strapped to my chest. I stroke his cheek and whisper in his ear so that he'll give one of his famous big grins. She inches over. "I had six children." And the conversation begins. An encounter is made.
It's easy to see the big evangelists. The preachers, the ministers, the sisters, the missionaries. It's even easy to see how we normal folk have a role to play in the Body and how our work and actions can be a part of His work in the world. Volunteering, praying, sacrificing, evangelizing. The little ones, though. We often think of them as the recipients. The baby is to receive, to be cared for, to be taught and tended. They are the little ones upon whom Christ begs our compassion. Yes. But how very often I forget that this little one has a Kingdom part to play, too.
The baby in the mall, in the church, in the park, in the checkout line pulls us in.
People who would never have anything in common on the surface find themselves having a conversation. The baby draws the shy/busy/self-absorbed/suspicious mom (or stranger) out of herself and initiates a conversation and sparks a new awe at the majesty of His work. The baby begs to be noticed, unconsciously giving us a glimmer of hope, a reminder that God is in charge, that God loves, that He hasn't forgotten us. The baby loves indiscriminately smiling at the stranger or staring blatantly and without apology - noticing. They don't pretend to not see that other person and rather stare unashamed, noticing their existence, acknowledging the presence of another soul, another image of Him. Their cry in the grocery store demands our response and calls us outside of ourselves to compassion when we'd rather just get the job done and do it without distraction or remembering the other in our midst.
Our babies have been such a lesson to us in openness to the people around us. They prompt the conversations that I would never otherwise have begun. They give me a natural segue into a conversation that I would like to start. They give me courage to approach the stranger or even see the stranger to begin with.
Their ministry goes farther still. Their mere existence brings joy to the sorrowing, comfort to the suffering, acknowledgement to the depressed and forgotten. They minister to the hurting. They bring His love and hope better than I probably ever have as an adult striving to do the same. They minister unaware because it is so much a part of who they are. Even those who are annoyed by their presence are offered in that presence the opportunity to love, to make a choice, or even take a glimpse into the mirror that God offers them in that moment - facing the reality of their own cynicism towards innocence and life.
I remember once as a college age girl searching, hurting, trying to find where He was speaking to me. The mission in the inner city where I often attended Mass was filled with little children. One little boy reached out. He wanted me to hold him during the Mass. The love he shared, just holding that sweet little frame against mine, healed. It brought grounding and a spot of healing in a time of confusion and hurt. And though he probably would've been happy in anyone's arms, he had chosen mine. He ministered God's love and healing to me.
I must let my little ones do the same. I must let them bring that joy and love and offer of a hope they don't even know they possess to the people around us. I must let them draw me out of myself and be present to others. I have been given a gift. In a time of life when my time and energy and ability to minister to the world seems woefully short, I have been entrusted with a gift better than any I could muster up in a structured program, outreach, blog post, or classroom. He has entrusted them to me and shame on me if I keep them all to myself. Prudence, protection, and their needs met first, of course, but allowing them to be the gift that they are to the world is a true ministry indeed.