From a distance, the cloth patch on my shirt—vaunting the Lone Star of Texas—looks like a badge. The two-way radio on my belt commands respect. Mounted on my steed with a Stetson pulled low over my brow, I’m tempted to introduce myself as Fr. Walker, Texas Ranger.
Actually, the uniform is only that of a safety volunteer at a local state park and today is my first patrol. My duties include scouting rugged canyons for persons in distress, delivering water to dehydrated hikers and riding fences to ensure that the park’s bison herd stays off county roads and neighboring ranches.
Braggadocio, aside, I’m honored to serve in this role. I also value the way it reinforces an image that I carry of priests as spiritual first responders, professionals trained to bandage the snakebite of sin and lower gurneys down chasms of despair. Call it romantic, but I admire paramedics the way I emulate the saints.
Today, the temperature on the canyon floor exceeds 110 degrees. My mare moves slowly, picking her way around boulders, yucca and patches of prickly pear. Thorns scratch her hide and prick my skin.
Due to the heat, the public trails are empty, save for wily lizards that skim the surface of the red sand, their tracks like the swirls of a child’s crayon.
I picture the face of a little girl and pull my horse to a stop in the shade of a juniper tree. Surrounded by jagged rock in a deep canyon, I think of friends and families I’ve known who were compelled to steal across the border to flee henchmen worse than those of Herod.
Their courage moves me. Their love for their children inspires me. And their faith in God convicts me to the point that, from time to time, I consider traveling south to assist immigrants seeking asylum. Today, in this fierce and lonely landscape, I wonder if handing bottles of water to thirsty hikers is but a prelude to hiding jugs of water along trails in the southern desert.
A young man, Francisco Cantu, wrote a book about working as a border guard in Arizona. When asked why he signed on, he responded: “I wanted to serve and protect.” When asked if he succeeded, he replied. “You can’t witness suffering without being transformed by it.”
In a similar way, Blessed Stanley Rother, priest and martyr, served the poor in Guatemala. When war broke out and his bishop called him home, he responded, “A shepherd doesn’t run at the first sign of danger.”
Adventure seeking? No.
Political posturing? Never.
Priestly duty? Yes.
At the end of my shift, I load the horse in my trailer and climb into the cab of my truck. I reach for the air-conditioning, but my hand remains suspended in the air. I roll down the window and trace the Sign of the Cross across my chest.
For a moment, my fingers linger on the patch above my pocket. Its embroidered star now a reminder of a heavenly one, the star of Bethlehem, that led desert travelers to a dugout stable to kneel and behold the holy Mother cradling our King.