The stack of bananas I was hiding behind would do nothing to stop the shower of bullets that were whizzing through the air, but I prayed that they would keep me out of sight. I hunkered down next to the young man who had been assigned to protect me during my visit to Guatemala. The military and a group of revolutionaries kept up the firefight for about ten minutes. It seemed like an eternity as I watched a pool of blood ooze from beneath a young boy whose body lay just ten feet from the fruit stand that had suddenly become my hideout in a crowded public market.
Twenty-three years have passed, but I still think about that horrible day. I was in Guatemala City to produce the first in a series of promotional videos for a mission society. The two people who helped bring me there never knew each other and I doubt that either ever knew how great their influence had been in shaping my life. One was an Italian missionary priest, the other a White House television correspondent.
Bishop Constantino Luna lived as an orphan in Italy before becoming a Franciscan priest. Much of his life was spent in China, before the revolution. When the communists took over, Bishop Luna was imprisoned in China and sentence to death. Through what only could be seen as divine Providence, he was able to escape China and eventually became the first bishop of Zacapa, Guatemala. Fluent in seven languages, he spent his “retirement” years traveling the world, often with me at his side, to serve the poor, preach peace, and promote the mission society that he and I co-founded. He was my best friend.
Nancy Dickerson was my cousin, but during my formative years, she was more like a big sister. For a few years as a toddler, during her mother’s illness, my own mother was her caretaker. In 1990, Nancy was on the board of directors of a well-known charity, one that rescued teens from local and international sex trafficking. She was also a pioneer in broadcasting, paving the way for women in previously all-male world of radio and television news broadcasting. Her son, John, who himself became a White House correspondent, did a masterful job of writing her biography, On Her Trail, My Mother Nancy Dickerson, TV News’ First Woman Star (Simon and Schuster, 2006). John managed to tell her story with humor and without it becoming a puff piece, although he missed or glossed over a few significant details about her early life. For those who enjoy biographies, it’s a very good read.
Nancy used her influence to get her/me the rights to use some great network video footage, so I was visiting Bishop Luna in Guatemala to fill in the gaps in order to release a documentary about our project to rescue homeless children living in a Guatemala garbage dump.
Traveling with Bishop Luna was always a humbling experience. He flew with me from Europe to the United States and Central America, preached with me in California, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Jersey, and never carried any more luggage than a small gym bag containing an extra well-worn black cassock, some socks, underwear, and a supply of religious medals to hand out to children. At home, he slept on a simple cot next to a bookcase made from bricks and wooden slats.
After college, Nancy went to Washington, not with a background in journalism but with a college major in Portuguese. She attracted attention in Washington as soon as she arrived. I can remember a tabloid photo of her in Georgetown dating a pre-Jackie JFK, “Washington’s most eligible bachelor”. I believe she was still a Senate staffer at the time. With guidance from Edward R. Murrow, she began to produce radio, then television. It wasn’t easy for a woman to gain legitimacy in broadcasting back then and Nancy faced harassment, tolerated innuendo, and smiled graciously at JoAnne Worley’s suggestive comedic impersonations of her after it was rumored that Lyndon Johnson fancied her. She weathered it all and dared to prove that women could be taken seriously in news broadcasting. Eventually, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were calling her for advice. In 1989, she married former Deputy Secretary of State and Goldman Sachs Co-Chair John Whitehead.
Both Nancy and Bishop Luna taught me that professionalism in everything you do was important, that it was possible to be in solidarity with all kinds of people without exaggerating their virtues or focusing on their frailties, that prayer mattered, that truth mattered, that polarization and extremism are dangerous, and that both the most powerful and the most marginalized members of the human race need friendship and compassion.
It has been my privilege to know many interesting people during my life, but I would have to say that a TV correspondent who called me her “little brother: and a bishop who called me “friend” are the ones who did the most to teach me to just be myself with everyone, to dare to try new things, and to recognize the humanity and God’s face in everyone I meet.
T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on the need for compassion set in the historical context of 19th century New Orleans.http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710