John 15:12 This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.
John 13:34-35 I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another. This is how I will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
God’s love is extremely powerful. It is so powerful that it has become a component of the Trinity. The Catechism tells us that to understand the Trinity we should see that Jesus is God’s thought of himself within the human existence, and that God’s love for Jesus is what we know as the Holy Spirit. Father Robert Barron has defined the Trinity in a simpler explanation of the same thing, “This means that God must be, in his own life, an interplay of lover (the Father), beloved (the Son) and shared love (the Holy Spirit).” Think about that for a moment. In understanding the Holy Spirit: God’s love for a person is so robust that it became a person in and of itself that allows we, as humble creatures, to sustain spiritual life in Him.
That one may take a moment of reflection. Go ahead and take one.
So in these terms – in understanding love on this level – how do we now understand what it means to be a follower of Christ? St. John’s verse above tells us that Christ will know his disciples by their love for one another. As followers of Christ, this by definition means that our faith is experiential, not cerebral. It’s easy in today’s too-much-information-world to think of our faith in terms of a mental exercise of what makes sense to us. We get herded into processing our faith as a consumer.
However, we as Catholics know that our faith is not about personal consumption. To us; it’s about a response. In James 2:18: Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you with my works. What does that mean on a personal level? It is in our response to Christ’s love that we are bound. It is in our response that we affect others. It is through love that we then have a relationship to Him. It is through love that we show we have a relationship to him.
So we as respondents, as Catholics, form what is known as the Christian Religion. Where does the word religion come from? Early 4th century Christian writer Lactantius tells us that religion comes from the Latin root religare, a verb meaning to fasten or to bind. As used to explain things placed into relationship with one another. St. Augustine espoused on this etymology message as well defining religion as; “re-eligere” or to “choose again,” whereby religion becomes the recovery of the link with God that sin has surrendered. Whereby we have become re-bound to Him.
Like God, Jesus, and the love between them (Spirit) binds them, and with the Holy Spirit being our gift Christ left with us at Pentecost; we then know that what binds us, or re-binds us in Augustine’s words is love. And as we are all one body, if we are bound to Christ in love we are bound to each other through Christ’s love as well.
So then how do we become re-bound if not through a consumerist choice? How is it that we, bound to Him, respond? In his book Love Unveiled (The Catholic Faith Explained), Edward Sri writes, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
That should not be hard to process. CRHP (and the faith at large) is littered with testimony upon testimony of those of us who became swallowed into the faith through an encounter or an event in our lives. Reading the lives of the saints tells many the same stories. The bible itself shares experience on experience of those meeting Christ – St. Paul one of the most notable.
Therefore we, as modern day Christians are blessed to read the New Testament, to have access in abundance to its analysis by theologians and its interpretations, and to read or hear in abundance the stories of grace poured forth into the hands of the lost, the prodigal sons, and sick. My heart sings when I read the Gospels and my soul comes alive in the word of God. But what about all of the stories and experiences of those people touched by Christ in his ministry then and now that have never been told? Is that something we should think about? Is that something we should factor in to the greatness that is God’s love?
Maybe we might just think about that for a moment.
Let’s start with the Lepers? The what? Yes, the Lepers. Leprosy takes a significant role in the Bible timeline. It’s a re-occurring theme in the Old and New Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus specifically heals Lepers time and again. Why?
Matthew Chapter 8 opens with: When Jesus came down from the Mountain, great crowds followed him. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
Who are lepers and why think about them? Maybe it’s because we don’t think about them. Are they those in society we have written off? Those in whom we place little hope? Those in whom we accept their abject disparity as so great we struggle to even comprehend how helping them is even possible?
Mathew 25:40 And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Why lepers? Because God loved the least of us – and continues to love the least of us. God loved the unlovable. God loved those with whom we struggle to comprehend even how to love.
How do you think they responded?
The man in Matthew’s Gospel. We have no reason to believe the Leper didn’t march right down to the priest and present the gift as Moses had prescribed. But then what happened? We aren’t told. But as Sri just told us being a Christian is an encounter with a person which gives life a new horizon and a new direction. We know that Saul was the single greatest threat to the faith that existed in the dawning of the Church. Saul met Jesus Christ on a roadside and in response to that experience became one of single greatest voices for Christ’s ministry as St. Paul in the history of the world. Paul is the single greatest contributor to the New Testament by word volume alone. So what happened next in the life of the leper? Where did he go? Who did he love? How did his life change the world?
How many lepers are there out there? Why are lepers mentioned in the Bible? Because they, like us, are the untold story and the continuation of Christ’s ministry here on earth.
Are you a leper?
How have you responded to God’s love for you?
What being a Christian has taught me is that we so regularly underestimate the power of God’s love. Nor do we always understand where to find it. When I think about the leper in Matthew’s gospel I realize that Christ’s ministry here on earth was about affecting people, real everyday people, who become bound to him in love so they can affect more people. You can’t appreciate the love you receive until you love someone else. Because in loving another you understand what a gift love is to begin with. You experience what grace, forgiveness, charity, blessing, kindness, or whatever you want to call it when you exercise those same things for someone else. That is the power of God’s love. That is how the faith comes alive in all of us.
Especially when you do it for someone that represents to you someone you have written off, someone in whom you place little hope, or those in who you accept their abject disparity as being so great you struggle to even comprehend how to love them.
Want to hear a story about a leper? I know one. His name is Michael Bonderer. I have had the pleasure of knowing Michael through his brother Dan who is a longtime friend of mine and fellow Catholic. Dan has attended daily Mass longer than I have been alive. Dan has spent many mornings praying for his brother Michael. Michael was an alcoholic, a failed parent, verbally abusive to his family, and in general a pretty miserable human being. And then one day, in a hospital room, Michael met Jesus Christ. And Jesus loved him – an undeserving love. And in response to Christ after being told he was terminally ill and would likely not live another few months, Michael sold everything he owned, moved to El Salvador, and started loving those more full of despair than he was.
The following was written about Michael on February 6th, 2012:
Colorful character leads the building of a thriving community in El Salvador
Post Date February 06, 2012
Author Chris Johnson
Michael Bonderer both shatters molds and sets the bar. He never holds back, whether it’s serving his fellow man or speaking his mind. With a mix of inspiration, perspiration and consternation, he has turned the El Salvadoran community of San Luis Talpa into a shining example of transformation.
“I think some don’t like me,” said Bonderer, The Fuller Center’s director of operations in El Salvador. “But some do. It’s a mixed bag.”
Perhaps. But when it comes to Michael Bonderer, those who’ve worked with him are in unanimous agreement about him on two fronts: He’s a character, and he’s a character who gets things done.
“He’s a character, but a character in a good way,” said Allen Slabaugh, the director of The Fuller Center’s Student Builders and Bicycle Adventure, who made his first trip outside the United States in January when he built homes on a church trip to San Luis Talpa. “He’ll tell you like it is, but he really wants the best for people. He really cares about that little community.”
Caring about the community means more than just building houses. Bonderer is the glue in El Salvador between The Fuller Center for Housing and its Homes from the Heart partner in El Salvador. Working with the groups and other partners, he has managed to build homes, set up a daycare, bring in utilities and help attract a project called Many Miracles that helps train women to sew for a living.
Yet, it’s doubtful that the women can sew a tapestry nearly as colorful as a few words from Bonderer.
‘ONE HECK OF A GUY’
Among those who know Bonderer very well is Lindsay Long. The 23-year-old graduated from the University of Cincinnati in June with a bachelor’s degree in biology. During her undergraduate years, she was heavily involved with Serve Beyond Cincinnati, a service group that has sent many college-aged volunteers The Fuller Center’s way.
Long, who served as president of the campus group last year, led a dozen students on a work trip to El Salvador a few years ago and has stayed in contact with Bonderer ever since. After graduation, she wanted to do something longer than a weeklong service trip, and Bonderer suggested she come intern with him. She did just that for the last five months of 2011. She will return to school soon to work on her master’s degree but treasures the time she took away from school to work with Bonderer.
“Michael is one heck of a guy,” Long said. “He has character — I will say that. He’s passionate about the mission, and I don’t think he ever loses sight of why he’s there. The whole point is to give people better housing. People who are in poverty don’t want to be there, and he’s there to help them. He never loses sight of that.”
“One of the things I really appreciate about what Mike has been doing there is he’s building houses, but he’s also addressing other community needs with the daycare, working so hard to get electrical power and helping provide jobs for people down there,” said Ryan Iafigliola, The Fuller Center’s Director of International Field Operations, who recently returned from a Central America swing, on which he visited San Luis Talpa for the first time. “He’s really looking at it as building a community, rather than a certain number of houses.
“He doesn’t mind who gets the credit,” Iafigliola added. “When I was down there, in his own words he said, ‘When I die, I hope people don’t say, “He built X number of houses.” I hope they say, “He left behind wonderful communities.” ‘ And that’s just his approach. He’s just down there plugging away and taking care of every aspect he can and trying to get other partners involved.”
Bonderer once had no intention of becoming a builder of decent communities in Central America. Around the turn of the millennium, when he was in the elevator business in Kansas City, his life took a turn.
“I was sick,” the Marine Corps veteran said. “I had an illness, and I became a victim of Google. I kept looking up my condition, and it looked so bad that I figured I’d better do something good before I croaked.”
Thinking he didn’t have long before he “croaked,” he packed up his truck and tools (and his dog) and drove from Kansas City to Guatemala in 2001.
“The experience of trying to get a truck loaded with equipment into Mexico is a book in and of itself,” Bonderer said with a laugh.
“Fortunately, we knew a Catholic priest who knew who to bribe to get through to Mexico.”
While in Central America, something else happened to further change the course of his life.
“I met Millard Fuller,” Bonderer said of the founder of The Fuller Center for Housing. “He was totally different from me, but he was fascinating to me.”
Fuller would go on to describe Bonderer in much the same way as others: “He is quite the character.”
‘SAINT AND SINNER’
Others who find Bonderer “quite the character” include Ronnie McBrayer, an author, speaker and pastor who writes the nationally syndicated “Keeping the Faith” newspaper column. McBrayer wrote about Bonderer in his newspaper column in April of 2011:
I found Michael to be more than just a colorful character. He is the stunning paradox of saint and sinner. At once, he is a nicotine-addicted, four-letter-word-dropping, endless-coffee-drinking, recovering alcoholic; and he is a wise sage, a deeply committed follower of Jesus, a spiritual practitioner who lives to put roofs over the heads of the poor and forgotten.
Michael is aged, fragile and weak, and yet after cancer, a heart attack, a quadruple-bypass surgery, a stroke and two packs a day, he’s still not dead. He doesn’t even feel bad! And in true enigmatic form, he says he has very little faith, sometimes not at all; yet the trajectory of his life says otherwise.
McBrayer used the colorful Bonderer to call people of faith into service. Though a gifted writer himself, McBrayer used Bonderer’s own words to hammer home his message.
After a week with him in Central America mixing concrete and building houses, I asked him what his work there needed, outside of money, to keep building homes. He flicked ashes into a coconut ashtray and passionately replied, “People in the church feel like they need permission to do anything good, or they feel they need to be experts.
“But you don’t have to know anything about anything to change the world. The people who just show up are the game changers. That’s what we need: People ready and willing to serve, who will just show up.”
POPULAR DESTINATION FOR MANY REASONS
But Bonderer’s ability to get things done is not the only reason El Salvador is one of the most popular stops for Fuller Center volunteer teams. They also come for the exotic scenery, the beachside lodging, and exciting excursions such as zooming along zip-lines, hiking to the rim of a volcano and taking surfing lessons.
“It’s an easy trip to make, a short trip and a beautiful country to visit,” Iafigliola said. “You stay right on the beach in a beautiful beach house. It’s an affordable trip and just a fun country to be in.”
But it’s the people of El Salvador who not only drive Bonderer to keep working but also drive volunteers to return and encourage others to follow.
“You will be hard-pressed to find happier, more open-hearted people than those who live in the rural villages of El Salvador,” McBrayer said. “They welcome you in like an old friend.”
Long said the country truly became home during her internship there.
“The people were really receptive of me,” she said. “I wasn’t fluent in Spanish by any means, but people were very friendly, and I found it very easy to get along with everyone there. I felt like it was my community.”
The steady flow of volunteer teams has had an impact beyond helping Bonderer and his team near completion of the project in San Luis Talpa and begin to look for new opportunities to help families; it also has kept fresh ideas and perspective coming.
“We’ve had a lot of real positive experiences with Serve Beyond Cincinnati and the other groups,” Bonderer said. “It’s been a real boost to me and my family. Having those young kids is truly special. It kinda keeps me in tune with what’s going on. They’ve been exposed to a lot of new ideas and ways of doing things, and that’s good for us.”
That’s a transaction that works both ways, Long said.
“I learned a lot from him while I was there,” she said of Bonderer. “He has such a unique perspective on ways to handle things or ways to work with groups. I think it’s always refreshing to see a unique perspective and see how someone else thinks. And especially with Michael, it’s a side I haven’t seen before.”
Bonderer’s summation of working with the young intern was more succinct: “Lindsay’s a trip.”
Others view Bonderer as “a trip,” and Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell believes his unique personality helps the El Salvador operation thrive and remain a drawing card for volunteers.
“There is a common misconception that charitable volunteers are a bunch of goody-two-shoes types who might not fit in well at a really fun event,” said Fuller Center President David Snell. “A stop at any Fuller Center project will show how faulty this perception is, especially if that project is in El Salvador. Our man on the ground there, Michael Bonderer, is a study in contrasts. He wraps his deep spirituality and sense of mission in a very human package, making him not only an inspirational leader but also an approachable friend.”
SETTING THE BAR
When Iafigliola visited San Luis Talpa, he did so with a group that plans to start a second Fuller Center covenant partner in El Salvador’s westernmost city, Ahuachapan. There, the plan has been to do what is known as “in-fill housing,” where the covenant partner would build houses in various locations where needy families own their own land.
But when the group saw the community that Bonderer’s team, residents and Fuller Center volunteers have managed to build in San Luis Talpa, the plan became subject to change.
“It’s like their whole mind-set changed,” Iafigliola said. “They were inspired. They said, ‘This is what we need to do where we’re at!’ They’re still going to start with in-fill, but now they kind of have this new vision and goal for down there in their part of the country.”
San Luis Talpa is evidence that a community is much more than “X number of houses,” as Bonderer said. It takes the dedication of people like Bonderer and the steady stream of good-hearted volunteers.
“Anyone can join a mission team, get on a plane, spend a few American dollars or pour concrete,” McBrayer said. “Building a house is easy. But we don’t build houses. We build communities. And that is much more challenging work; it is work that requires an investment of time, heart and good will. But it is worth it.”
Bonderer sees his success in El Salvador in much simpler terms, through the eyes of a man who 11 years ago simply decided to do some good before he croaked.
“The bottom line is that I came down here and didn’t die,” he said.
Maybe we don’t hear about the Leper’s stories because they aren’t as polished and don’t preach as well as others. Maybe it’s because we are meant to discover such aspects of our faith through our own suffering and personal experiences. But after meeting Jesus I’ll bet my savings they went out and changed someone’s life. They were given the opportunity to understand what love is and how to use it. They stepped forth in a new direction and re-dedicated their lives to extending Christ’s ministry on this earth. They loved someone new.
My friend Michael Bonderer now lies in a hospital room at KU Med center continuing to defy the doctors and is living on under hospice care. The people of his village miss him, his El Salvadoran wife is beyond grief, and his soul needs your prayers.
My prayer is that in you reading this the scope of Michael’s response to Christ continues to grow even now, and that we all come to see God’s love for its purpose and the potential it has in our own lives.
Please join me in prayer:
Help me to spread Thy Fragrance everywhere I go. Flood my soul with Thy spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life only be a radiance of Thine. Shine through me, and be in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Thee O Lord! Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shines; so to shine as to be a light to others. (John Henry Cardinal Newman)
St. Teresa of Calcutta pray for us.