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My encounter with Antonia
(Minh Nguyen)

“Would you buy my knitted jacket, please?” The woman prisoner in her late 60 looked at me begging while she continued knitting. Our eyes met. My curiosity urged me to find out more about why someone wanted to sell something she was still working on. I was the last visitor leaving the prison before it closed down for noon recess I felt rushed but I still followed my instinct.
“Why would you want to sell something that you didn’t even finish yet?” I asked. “Oh, no, I am almost done, see? …only one more line. Please buy it. I will sell it to you for $1.50 less. It’s only $10. Buy it, please” she replied.
I looked at the jacket. It was white and beautifully done. I just preferred it in a different color. “I will do whatever color you choose later but buy this one please” she begged. “Why?” I asked. “Because I haven’t eaten in two days and this type of jacket takes me 3 days to finish. I need to sell this …I need money to buy food …I am hungry.” Her answer left me speechless. Here I was heading home for lunch and this woman would go one more day without food if no one bought her jacket. No more question or bargain. I found myself paying her and took the unfinished jacket home.
It’s worth it to know a bit about the prison system here in Bolivia and what led to our encounter. Besides separated men and women prisons, some prisons have mixed men, women and family with children under 6 years old. The prisoners are free inside of the restricted, constricted compound; they learn new skills, work and sell things to meet their ends. The government doesn’t feed them. Each prisoner receives under $1.00 per day to survive on and a normal lunch would cost $1.50. To worsen the case many times the government is late to send the money from one month to three months. They would starve inside without working or getting support from their family outside.
The “San Sebastian Women prison” is one of two prisons where I teach hairdressing and this is how I met Antonia. From this first strange encounter, we later became friends. She told me her life stories and taught me knitting. As our friendship grew, I finally finished the last line of that unfinished jacket to give to my sister in law.
To me it’s life giving when we are both giving and receiving. By offering my presence and letting Antonia know that I care and that she has much to offer, I raise her self-esteem as she passes on her life experiences and wisdom on to me. By mingling with the marginalized, God becomes more visible and real to me in everyone I meet, in their struggles and their sufferings. What I have learned is that God is already there with them and waits for me. How superior and arrogant I would be to think that I bring God to them. God of humility – I live and learn.

Erik Cambier
Erik Cambier served as Maryknoll lay missioner for 25 years, in Tanzania, the United States, Venezuela and El Salvador.