By Paul Turner
[This article first appeared in Christian Initiation 34 (February/March 1999), p. 8]
Marta was not the volunteering type, so it even surprised her that Enrique was pulling his aging legs into the roomy passenger seat of her car.
"You sure look handsome today," she said before slamming his door. She dashed to the other side, checked her watch, threw herself behind the wheel, and helped Enrique fasten the seatbelt over his three-piece suit.
"Today I am a citizen," the old man said.
"No," Marta corrected him. "You became a citizen two months ago. Today you’re voting like a citizen."
"For the first time," he responded softly. Even Marta, not the patriotic type, couldn’t help feeling proud of her country as she pulled into traffic, past the parish church, and steered toward the local library.
Enrique had been living across the street ever since Marta moved into the neighborhood. For years they were friendly, but not really friends. They waved a lot. She’d seen him at church. But Marta didn’t even know that Enrique had applied for citizenship until he appeared at her front door one morning.
"Tomorrow I will take the oath. You will come," he said plainly. "Bring your children."
Marta suspected Enrique had no family here and few friends. Her son’s soccer game the next day had just been canceled, and she realized she didn’t have a good excuse to avoid Enrique’s ceremony.
"OK," she said slowly, as if stretching those two syllables could give her extra time to think of a good reason not to go. In the end she took the kids, who grumbled all the way there about never having any fun. But the event stirred their souls. Marta thought afterwards it wasn’t so bad after all.
Until the next day. Enrique called. "What do you think of Sheridan?" "Sheridan?" she asked.
"We’ve never had a woman mayor in this town. I think it’s time. But she will not help the people on welfare."
Enrique was already preparing for the elections. Marta, not the political type, suddenly found herself defending her preference for Sheridan’s candidacy. It was the first of many conversations about candidates, taxes, immigration policies, and highway bonds. They also talked about the mechanics of voting -- how you know where to go, where to find a sample ballot beforehand, what identification to bring, and how to punch a card. Behind those conversations lay the great political philosophy of freedom upon which their country was built. Marta talked with Enrique several times a week during the two months between his oath of citizenship and his first trip to the polls.
So as she careened through the city streets on her way to the voting booth, she reflected on this new old relationship. She knew where they agreed and where they disagreed. She knew her own opinions better and felt new pride in her right to vote. How did this happen?
She thought back over the past few months. If someone had asked her to volunteer some time to help a new citizen get accustomed to voting, she would have declined. Even at church she constantly ignored those time and talent surveys. Her life was full. She had no time to study the issues, form opinions, listen to someone’s point of view, and give directions without forcing her own way of thinking. But it all turned out differently. She did have time. She just had to open her heart to another person. Once she gave her care it was easy to give her time.
She sponsored someone in the simplest of ways. They talked and shared ideas. She didn’t have to know everything. She just had to be herself and share herself, a woman approaching 40 with more experience on voting than an immigrant twice her age.
They pulled up to the polls and Marta walked around the car. She opened the door and extended her hands to help Enrique to his feet. As his weight came forward, she took a short step back. She almost lost her balance, but he steadied himself and grasped her hand.
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