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You never know who might be sitting a table away in an El Savadorian/Mexican food restaurant in East Boston.

Friday night, Chrissy and I stopped for some dinner before going to a movie (we saw Happy Feet, which was entertaining). Walking in, we weren’t sure whether we were to seat ourselves or wait for the server to seat us, so we asked a middle-aged Hispanic man who was working on a laptop. He said we should seat ourselves, and pointed to the booth next to his table. He was alone.

We ordered our food (steak quesadilla for me, monstrocious burrito for the wife), received it at the table, and he began to ask us about what we ordered. Finally, the question came: “What are you two doing here?” This question was not surprising, nor was it the first time it had been asked of us. We’re a “young, well-educated, white couple” living in a low-income, primarily immigrant neighborhood. We explained that we lived just a few blocks down the street, and that we moved to East Boston because we loved the neighborhood.

We began to ask Martin about his life, and he was happy to tell us. Originally from El Salvador, he had been sent to Boston two months earlier by the E.S. government to get an education in public policy or its equivalent at any of the 100 universities in town. He already has a master’s degree in finance, and he was looking into Ph.D programs at MIT and Harvard (where he’d already been accepted), along with a few other Boston schools.

He said he’s doing what he’s doing because he “believes in justice,” and because he has seen too many politicians rise to power promising great things for the poor but letting the prestige rule the day instead. He talked about his grandmother, who raised him and his siblings, and her passion for justice. Despite their living in poverty, she wanted all of her children and grandchildren to have access to an education — an American education, at that — so that they might be about the work of bringing justice in their country and the world. So far, all of Martin’s siblings have received degrees from American universities.

Martin’s passion reminded me of Chapter 1 of N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, in which he describes humanity’s longing for justice as an “echo of the voice” of God. Basically, whether he knows it or not, we saw qualities of our Creator in Martin. Maybe we’ll get to tell him that some day.

Martin’s family — wife and two sons — is back in El Salvador while he gets his degree. Martin teaches ESL to young immigrant mothers at a local school. One of his students is an 18-year-old single mother who just entered the 2nd grade. He said he wishes he’d been doing this long before now, because the work is so rewarding. We could see in his eyes and hear in his voice that he believes what he was saying.

Martin also told us that he was going to be moving on Saturday (yesterday). We asked if he would need any help, but he said he wouldn’t because he was living out of three duffle bags and his box of books. His studio apartment didn’t even have a bed; he just slept on the floor.

We hated to leave the conversation with Martin to go see a silly penguin movie, but that’s what we did. We left our contact information in case he needed anything at all. We hope we hear from him, because in many ways, his vision is our own vision. He could teach us a lot about how to live a “just life.” We could teach him where to shop for groceries (or any number of other skills he’d like to know as a new resident of our country).

You never know who might be sitting a table away in an El Savadorian/Mexican food restaurant in East Boston. Stories like Martin’s are all around us.


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