It may seem like an odd pairing, but for this 68-year-old retired man who grew up and lived most of his life in the San Gabriel Valley, it makes perfect sense. These two icons represent the strength that’s accompanied him on a journey of faith, dignity and acceptance --- a journey that took him from the depths of personal pain to new highs of friendship and love.

It all started with a stroke he suffered last May when he was living in Mexicali. An extremely active man who championed the Mexican children in his parish there, the stroke was devastating and life changing.

“Even though my father was born and raised in California [a graduate of Nativity Elementary and Bishop Amat High School and one of 16 children], he did not want to forget his Mother Country and, he often visited orphanages there, brought clothing food and hope to the children,” says daughter Carmen Gray who lives in Northern California (son Christopher lives in Monrovia). “He’s been doing that as long as I can remember.”

Describing the landscape of her father’s Mexican house as a “God’s forsaken land,” Carmen says her dad loves the people and the culture of the area; he teaches catechism and confirmation classes, wanting these children to learn, as he did as a youth, a faith that will last a lifetime.

When Carmen got word last Memorial Day weekend that her father had a stroke and needed a place in the U.S. to recuperate, she quickly and randomly picked a location near where her family was raised --- the San Gabriel Valley Convalescent Center in Rosemead. Little did she realize that the center was heavily populated by Chinese Americans, a culture mostly foreign to Michael.

“When I later visited him at the center, I felt like I was entering a Buddhist Temple because of the decorations and emphasis,” says Carmen. “Their faith is very prevalent and I wasn’t sure how my dad would take that.”

But before that bridge could be crossed, there was the matter of Michael regaining his strength, determination and will to live. For Michael, those days were hazy and full of anger.

“The last thing I remembered was [being in Mexicali] picking up a broken bougainvillea branch and feeling dizzy and shaky,” he says. “When I woke up, I was here. They tell me that I was out for about a week. But I honestly don’t remember those early weeks or months.”

Michael was not a model patient. Confined to a bed, he didn’t want to talk to anyone; he refused to eat for two weeks. Finally, the friendly and loving persistence of the staff wore him down.

“One of the nurses looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I like you and I don’t want you to die,’” he recalls. “Well, that did it. I got hungry.”

Thus began the first of many new friendships for Michael. He remembers feeling sorry for himself, asking, “Why me, God?” And even though he ate, he ignored others, despite his success at therapy which helped him recover his speech and partial mobility to use a wheelchair (his left side is still weak).

“I remember praying asking God, ‘Well, what do you want me to do? I can’t do as much as I did before.’ I couldn’t talk to the Chinese patients who only spoke Chinese,” explains Michael who remembers those dark nights.

But his mood and attitude slowly changed when he saw how the staff, nurses and caregivers attended to not just him, but to all the patients at the center. “Part of the healing process for them was to make us feel good about ourselves, to give us hope,” he says. “I was one of the night owls, since most of the others here would be asleep by 7 p.m. I started going out and talking with the staff, meeting them and being friendly.”

Reading Scripture daily, Michael recalls a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans which says “Look at how these Christians love each other.” That message hit home.

“That’s what we are called to do,” he says. “Love and take care of each other.”

Knowing his limitations, Michael decided he would reach out as much as he could to those around him --- a “transformative moment,” says daughter Carmen.

Michael started discussions with the staff, joked with his fellow patients and, even though he couldn’t speak the language, found ways to communicate. He would blow kisses to them, he grinned at them, he gave a 104-year-old resident his very own crucifix for her room. He regularly sang Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love,” to his next door neighbor every night. “If I could make you laugh and smile, then I am doing my job,” he smiles.

Michael’s affection and enthusiasm surpassed his earlier darkness --- and his faith became his calling card. “He’s taught me so much and has encouraged me to examine my Catholic faith more,” says activity director Lupe Ramirez. “He is so humble, but he shines.”

Fueled by a desire to introduce his new friends to his faith --- and to remind others of their Catholic roots --- Michael recently set out to have a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist at the center. “There are lots of religions here that have services, the Lutherans, the Buddhists, I’ve been to all of them and I have learned to respect and love them all,” he says. “But even though a priest came here regularly to distribute Communion, I wanted a Mass.”

And not just a simple Mass. “My father is always shooting for the stars,” Carmen says. “And this time he got the moon.”

As it happened, daughter Carmen was an old school friend of Sister of Social Service Gail Young, program coordinator in the Office of Justice and Peace. Once Carmen got wind of her father’s request, she and Sister Gail set about to fulfill it, and that led to San Gabriel Region Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala coming to celebrate Mass at the center.

As the momentous day neared, Michael’s doctors gave him extremely good news: Even though he was still using a wheelchair, he had healed enough and was ready to go home. Rehabilitated! Back to Mexico and his students! The Mass he was helping to organize would take place the week he would be released.

On that special day, a beautiful altar was created, folding chairs arranged and members of the local Knights of Columbus (with help from Michael’s nephew Gilbert) arranged a sound system in the center’s activity room. Joining the staff and patients were some of Michael’s brothers, sisters and other relatives.

Michael took a place of honor near the altar and was attentive and prayerful during the Mass, listening especially intently to Bishop Zavala’s homily on when humans struggle and ask God, “Why me?”

“Well, the truth is that we don’t know why,” continued the bishop. “But one thing we do know that every day when we face struggles, these moments make us pause and reflect on who we are. Every day is an opportunity to be in God’s presence and to proclaim who he is and make Jesus known to each other. We can’t say, no, there’s nothing I can do anymore. Because even in our suffering, we are united with Christ. The God who heals us, listens to us, stays with us and lifts us up.”

“I love these people here,” Michael said afterward. “I will miss most being in the activity room with everyone. I will miss my Chinese friends and the staff who took such good care of me. I have promised them that I will walk again and come back and dance with each of them. I am glad I was given this time to learn how to love.”

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