Lola and Jesus
Her name was Eudocia T. Pulido, but my four siblings and I called her Lola, which means “grandma” in our native tongue (Tagalog). Lola died suddenly and unexpectedly last November. I continue to feel the void and probably always will to some degree, because she was so much more than “grandma.” She was certainly a relative—the first cousin of my grandfather on my mother’s side—so “grandma” was not a totally inaccurate designation. But my journalist brother’s eulogy captures best what Lola was for us when he wrote, “While our parents went to school and worked their whole lives, Lola stayed at home and acted as mother, father, teacher, disciplinarian, protector, caregiver, comforter, confidante, friend.” My siblings and I are who we are today largely because of Lola. Since her death, we all feel a little off-center. Nothing feels right. Something is wrong with the universe. Anyone who has lost a parent can relate to this, I’m sure.
Each of us is dealing with the loss in our own way. Part of my own grief process as a minister has been mulling over a question: Why didn’t I ever talk to Lola about Jesus? I talk to everybody else about the most important Person in my life; why didn’t I with Lola? I considered several answers, including just a gross oversight on my part, and thus deserving of Ezekiel’s hammer (Ezek. 33). My evangelical faith has produced this tension, and that’s fine. But as much as it wants to lead me further down the unhelpful (and untimely) discussion about Lola’s eternal destiny, I choose to keep my meditation this-worldly.
I do wonder why I didn’t share the gospel with Lola—at least not in any conventional, 4-Spiritual Laws, Romans Road kind of way. Perhaps it was because there was nothing conventional about Lola. Born to subsistence farmers in provincial Philippines, she worked the land instead of working the books; she was forced to quit school after the third grade in order to help out on the farm. And then, beginning at age 18, she became a katulong (live-in helper) in my mother’s childhood home. Mom was 12 when Lola came into her life, and when mom married and had children Lola filled the same role with our family. Where we went, she went, including when my family immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s. Lola was there from day one of my life and the life of each of my siblings. In the end, Lola served as the primary caregiver for three generations of my family. And she did so with love, diligence, and excellence.
I’m aware of the tendency to canonize the dearly departed, and Lola, who would be the first to point out her faults, would also be the first to laugh heartily at any of our attempts to sanctify her. She was born into the Filipino equivalent of the Episcopal Church, and she went to Catholic mass semi-regularly, so she certainly wasn’t ignorant of the things of God. My brother’s words say it best though: “She was not religious, but she was the saintliest person we knew.”
In this light, for me to have attempted to lead her to Christ in some formulaic way, as I was taught to do early on in my Christian life, would have violated the beautiful complexity of our relationship. I mean, talk about seeing Jesus in someone. If anything, it was Lola who led me to Christ with the demonstration of her unconditional and sacrificial love.
Lola witnessed the sea-change in me when I became a Christian and just rode the waves, while others mocked (a relative, for example, bet me money that my newfound faith wouldn’t last six months). Lola didn’t question my decision to go to a Christian college, though no one in the family had ever done that before. She cried when I embraced the life of a missionary and took my young family back to the Philippines, not only because she was going to miss us, but also because she was proud of us. She also cried with pride at my graduation when I was awarded a PhD. Whenever she was in town, she would sit through my Sunday sermons at church and join in on the community of people that formed in our house. One day, during what was to be her last visit with me, I took her to my office. She walked over to my wall-to-wall bookshelves and said in her heavy Tagalog accent, “Oy, too many books.” And then she laughed and put her arm around me, as if to say, “You’re brilliant, eho (son). I’m proud of you.” In all of these important events in my life, Lola’s presence served as a quiet affirmation of the life and vocation that I have chosen.
Is it possible that I shared the gospel with my Lola in the same quiet, nonverbal, steady way that she shared grace and love with me all of my life? Such pondering testifies to the uniqueness of each and every relationship and therefore the necessity for discernment in the way that we share the gospel with others. It also questions the expectation upon the faithful to witness to people in a certain way. Pre-packaged evangelism be gone!
But . . . no doctrinal statements about evangelism from me today; just thoughts from a grieving minister, who misses his Lola, the second biggest shaper of his life.