During the first week of Lent a homeless gentleman was brought to my office by a concerned person in our community. No one else on the Catholic Charities staff was available to see him so I spoke with him. I found him cold, tired, discouraged with no real place to go. For reasons that don’t really matter, he felt lost and betrayed by many.
When offered a place in the homeless shelter he very soundly but respectfully said no, I can’t go through “this” another night. The “this” he spoke of was more than being cold and tired. It was also the fact that he felt he was being judged by many whom he was hoping could help him. I asked him if he didn’t want to access the homeless shelter, what did he want to do? He said, “I just want to go home.” I asked where home was and he said, “Georgia.” I said, “Okay, let’s get you home.”
As I gave the gentleman a ride to the bus station to arrange for his journey home, he asked me, “Why are you doing this for me?” Although I responded simply with, “Because you asked and you want to get home,” his question has stuck with me. I have found myself thinking about why we choose to help others. And, I guess on the flip side, why are there times when others do not receive help?
As Catholics we know the three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. And we know that during Lent we are asked to focus more purposely and intently on these practices. Almsgiving, which typically references donating money or goods to the poor and giving of ourselves and performing other acts of charity, is “a witness to fraternal charity” and “a work of justice pleasing to God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2462). Giving is part of our relationship with God and the Father sees our acts and receives it with love. Through almsgiving, we can love our neighbor because God loves us. His love for us is unconditional and without end. This is the love we all long for.
Lenten reflection and meeting this homeless man causes me to think hard regarding the power of unconditional love the Father has for us, because, sadly we as humans far too often judge each other and place conditions on our love and the charity we extend to those in need of it most. We often find ourselves lost in the trap of judging the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. We often blame the needy for their situation when quite frankly, none of us is immune from the stumbles or tragedies and pains that may enter our life and cause us to have to reach out. We must all realize that we are all just one decision away from finding ourselves in dire need of help and that decision may not be our own.
Christ calls us to make the needs of our brothers and sisters our own. And, such needs are all around us: children and the elderly, the sick and the suffering, families and individuals, neighbors, friends, and family members, people near and far, and people in lands with names that many of us cannot even pronounce. We must choose to help others and offer charity without barriers or conditions that pass judgment. Our hearts must be open and our love unconditional as it is who we are called to be as Catholics … as a Christian people.
One of the wonders of growing older and a true gift from God is that you are able to view life in a panoramic way that sees the past and the present in a single glance. You see the good and the bad, the pain and joy, the fear and triumphs, all at the same time. I thank God every day for each of these experiences as it helps me understand life and God’s plan more fully. My meeting this homeless man is another gift from the Father for which I am thankful.
As I parted ways with the homeless man, I wondered why God gave me the opportunity to meet him. I asked myself, what can I learn from him: a man that many are afraid of, that many turn their back to and that many judge without care for the circumstances of his life? As I reflect on the recent words of Pope Francis, I think that I found the answer to this question when he says, “In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ.”
Phernetton is director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Green Bay.