Tag Archives: Homeless

Listen and Ask Before You Give

Lawyers are taught to listen carefully to what our clients say and to ask questions, because a client might think that one issue presents the right course of action to take in court, but in reality a detail that may seem incidental to them could present a stronger case with a different line of argument.

Doctors too, should listen carefully when patients describe their symptoms, lest they misdiagnose them. My mother, a frequent migraine sufferer, was quite adamant that something had burst in her brain and it was a crushing pain unlike any she had endured before, but the GP insisted that it was probably just another migraine and she should just take some painkillers. Five days and many painkillers later, my mother underwent open head surgery for a brain aneurysm.

Sometimes, when we are approached for charity, it pays to listen and assess what the person really needs, lest we end up harming them more than helping.

A disheveled lady approached me outside a hostel in Adelaide, asking for $4 to take the bus home. It seemed strange to me that she needed $4, because the fare from the airport to the city had been cheaper than that. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt and handed over the change.

Later, I noticed her playing a poker machine in the basement, and I felt simultaneously incensed and sad. It appeared that I had just contributed to her gambling addiction. How could I have better handled the situation?

In Melbourne, I met a young homeless, nearly toothless girl on a tram, who was being booked for not paying the fare. I offered to pay for her, but the lady booking her paid. So I offered to bring her to lunch at an Italian restaurant… and the waiter paid! After we went for a stroll around the nearby university grounds, I decided to pay for her night’s lodging. After receiving $30, she said, “I forgot, on Wednesdays they raise the price, it’s $40 today.” I gave her more, and she departed. Later, I googled hostels in the area, and there was at least one with rooms for $26. I hoped that she would spend the extra money on food.

A few weeks later, she asked me for more money, saying she would pay it back. Soon enough, she was asking for even more. However, I was in the midst of moving back to Brisbane, and didn’t see her again.

Now, looking back, and having met more people who have struggled with drug addiction, I wonder if I had just been unwittingly feeding a drug habit. What could I have done better under the circumstances? How does one begin to help another person break free of the chains in their life?

J.J. Tissot, "Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus"
J.J. Tissot, Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman, and when He met Zacchaeus, He asked them for simple things — a sip of water, lodging for the night. In asking them for things they could give, He opened the way for what He could give them — forgiveness and freedom from their sins, their patterns of addiction to lust and greed.

Perhaps here is a model for charity. Those mired in sin and addiction often feel helpless, even useless. Once you acknowledge someone’s free will and locus of control, they can begin to transform from within, breaking free of self-absorption while realising what they can still give to others. Jesus didn’t ask Zacchaeus to make amends for his misdeeds, but Zacchaeus joyfully announced that he would give half his possessions to the poor, and if he had cheated anyone, he promised to repay it fourfold (Luke 19:8). Our Lord’s request for Zacchaeus’ hospitality unlocked the man’s heart. How may we help to unlock other hearts today? And do our own need unlocking too?

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Image: PD/US

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The Third Option

The other night, as I was leaving the St. Joseph Cathedral having attended the Chrism Mass, I saw a homeless woman sitting on the steps to the Cathedral’s parking lot. Everyone kept walking past her as if she didn’t exist, as if they didn’t see her. Everyone. We had all just celebrated the Mass and yet no one said a single word to this woman. Including me. Because it’s awkward to acknowledge someone in that state; because I didn’t have any money on me; because I was following the crowd.

As I was walking away, I felt a pit in my stomach, a nagging feeling. I could hear Jesus whispering “That’s Me, you’re walking away from Me.” I took a few more steps, coming up with more excuses…I missed my opportunity, it’s too late now, it would be weird to go back.

But then I thought of my sister, and what she had shared with me during a visit to NYC. I had told her how uncomfortable homeless people made me, and how I felt bad not wanting to give them money because I didn’t think it would help. “There’s another option,” she told me, “stop and acknowledge them. Acknowledge that they are a person, acknowledge that they have dignity. It’s not just give money or walk away, there’s a third option. In my opinion, it’s the best option. You never know what that edification of dignity could do for them.”

Remembering these wise words of my sister, I stopped walking. I looked back at the woman sitting on the steps, with everyone continuing to walk by her. I thought of how Pharisaical it all was, how Jesus would have been sitting on the steps with her. More importantly, I thought of how she is a child of God, made in the image and likeness of our Father.

So, I turned around, walked back to her and held her hand. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money,” I said, “but I will pray for you, I hope you stay safe tonight.” Her face lit up, she smiled, squeezed my hand and said: “Oh honey, thank you, thank you. But there are people in other parts of the world whose suffering is much greater than mine. Pray for them.”

As I reflected on this moment this morning, I thought “This is the essence of Holy Week.” We are all called to be Simon of Cyrene, stepping out of the crowd and helping Jesus to bear His Cross. We are called to be Veronica, so moved by compassion, empathy and love for our Lord that we become unafraid of the crowd and wipe the face of Jesus. We are called to be Mary, remaining loyal to Jesus even when it is painful and uncomfortable to watch Him suffer. It’s not just a week. We are called to do this every day. May we all have the courage of our convictions and the willingness to see Jesus in every person we encounter. And next time you meet a homeless person, remember the third option, the best option: acknowledge their personhood.

 

IMG_7839Caitlin Sica is a 23-year-old resident of NH. She graduated from Plymouth State University with a B.A. in English with Secondary Education Certification. Currently, Caitlin is the coordinator of K-8 Faith Formation and high school youth minister for her parish. She loves her work and is passionate about the Catholic faith.

Look Him in the Eye

How often do you walk by someone who is homeless or in need, asking for change on the street? This is often more common in larger cities, but even where I live in a college town, there are many homeless men and women asking for aid on street corners.

I’ve even encountered homeless individuals in my hometown, an upper middle class area.

I remember coming out of my home parish with my family and seeing a mother with her young son standing in the church parking lot with a sign asking for help. The usual post-Mass chatter was hushed as the crowd passed her by, uncomfortable by their presence.

So, you may or may not see the homeless where you live. If you do, do you see the same people often?

Maybe you occasionally give them a buck or two…but when you don’t, do you avoid eye contact? Do you avoid them all together?

I know what it’s like for me. I have an inner desire to help others, but a societal attitude that’s been ingrained in me since childhood. Where does my responsibility to help begin and end? I feel guilty when I don’t or can’t help; is this warranted? Am I encouraging panhandling rather than work for a paycheck?

The above are just a few of the thoughts that have run through my head, many of which make me ashamed.

After all, I call myself a Christian. I follow and believe in a God who walked on the Earth simply to love those who society rejected and shamed. How can I sit comfortably in my spacious apartment, with nary a need unmet, and ignore those who are placed in my path on a regular basis?

But how can I help? What do I have to give?

Perhaps you’ve thought this as well. I won’t claim to have all of the answers, but I do know one thing: every human being needs and desires to be acknowledged and loved.

So maybe you can’t give a dollar to every homeless person you encounter, but maybe there’s something you have to give that means more than your pocket change.

Maybe try looking them in the eye and saying hello. How often are our brothers and sisters, struggling to survive on the streets, met with something other than a cold shoulder and downcast look? Imagine what it’s like to have someone you don’t know just smile at you and say “hi”. No matter who you are, or the struggles you’re facing, this shared humanity speaks volumes.

So I encourage you, look him in the eye. Acknowledge his existence. Say hello. Ask him how he’s doing today. If you have change to spare, do with it what you will. But at the very least, treat him like the child of God that he or she is.

Attempt to see He who died for your transgressions in every person you encounter, especially those who are rarely treated with any amount of genuine kindness.

Don’t do it because you’re a Christian, or because our Pope regularly preaches social justice.

Do it because they’re human and Jesus died for them, too. Love them as He has loved you.

Works of Mercy Part IV–Clothe the Naked and Bear Wrongs Willingly

This is part IV of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part Ipart II, and part III first.

Clothe the Naked and Bear Wrongs Willingly
A couple of years ago, there was a kerfuffle over the popular clothing maker Abercrombie and Fitch when some remarks made by their CEO in a then seven-year-old interview surfaced:

The article dredged up a seven-year-old interview with Mike Jeffries, the sixty-eight-year-old, eccentric C.E.O. of Abercrombie & Fitch, rehearsing the principles that made Abercrombie one of the most successful—and most hated—brands in retail history. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” Jeffries observed. “We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

One response to this interview was a campaign called “Fitch the Homeless,” in which a man searched second-hand stores for Abercrombie and Fitch clothes, bought them, and then videotaped himself distributing them to homeless people. Was the man behind the campaign acting mercifully by clothing the naked?

Clothing serves a practical purpose as well as a moral one. The practical purpose is the protection of the body from the immediate environment, which includes keeping the body warm in the cold of winter and keeping out the biting and stinging bugs of the summer. The moral purpose is to remind onlookers that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), and that it is the visible matter of the soul. Another moral purpose of clothing is that it further helps a person to act with modesty and decorum, though these things are both rooted in human dignity (of others and one’s own, respectively) which might be made visible with proper clothing.

These purposes of clothing should make clear a few points about clothing the naked:

  • The clothing should be in decent condition. “Hand-me-downs” are of course perfectly acceptable, provided that they are in good condition: they are little different from clothing obtained at a second hand store like Goodwill or the Salvation Army or Savers, all of which often sport some very dignified garments.
  • The clothing should be modest and decorous. This means again that it is in good shape, but also that it fits well and is “presentable.” A part of being presentable is that it it is not overly flashy nor overly big on images etc. Modest means more than just “being covered,” and decorum often goes out the window when the shirt says something offensive or lewd.
  • Actually, more often that not designer t-shirts lack modesty, decorum, or both; so, for that matter, do the ever-popular jeans with holes torn in them. These may be expensive clothing, but they are not performing the moral (and, for the matter, many of the practical) functions of clothing.
  • There is a sense in which clothing is also shelter. This is especially true to the survivalist, who will often note that clothing choice is among the most important decisions to make when preparing for a disaster. Providing a nice rain-coat or a warm blanket straddles the line between clothing the naked and harboring the harborless.

Among other things, it should be clear from this list that the “Fitching the Homeless” campaign was not exactly merciful to the homeless. Instead, it was about using the poor to score publicity points against Abercrombie and Fitch. It hinged on the idea that the poor were somehow less dignified, that the clothing “brand” would suffer by being seen on homeless folks—which to be fair was a problem with the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch more so than with the fellow undertaking the campaign. In short, it accepted the premise of the CEO that the poor are somehow “lesser” than the rest of us. As one commentator at the time put it,

“This stunt is based on the exact same premise offered by Jeffries: that some people are ‘unworthy’ to wear A&F clothes. The hipster doofus handing out A&F clothing to people on the street is doing it because he accepts the notion that they’re somehow lesser than “the rest of us.” His stunt has no bite without this assumption.

And the guy in the video is just passing out clothes to random people, without any sense of whether or not the clothes are wanted or even fit. He gives something to a decidedly plus-sized woman when we already know A&F doesn’t make plus sized clothing. These people are just being used as props.”

While this stunt involved giving clothing to the poor, it left them in truth more naked than before.

An often-misunderstood passage—and there are unfortunately all too-many of these—has our LORD telling us, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well” (Luke 6:28-29). Here we see a link between clothing the naked and bearing wrongs patiently.

And many sins are of a nature as to leave the sinner “spiritually naked,” they may be an embarrassment to him, may impair his sense of decorum or may be against modesty. A drunkard feels ashamed that he gets drunk as often as he does: so he remedies this shame by getting drunk. Bearing wrongs willingly means being patient with someone whose sins are often as frustrating to them as they are to you. Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that

“In respect of the result of the inordinate act, on account of which the sinner is an annoyance to those who live with him, even beside his intention; in which case the remedy is applied by ‘bearing with him,’ especially with regard to those who sin out of weakness, according to Romans 15:1: ‘We that are stronger, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak,’ and not only as regards their being infirm and consequently troublesome on account of their unruly actions, but also by bearing any other burdens of theirs with them, according to Galatians 6:2: ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens.'”

To bear another’s wrongs patiently is to develop a sympathy for them: that is, a sympathy for the person suffering, for the person who experiences temptations to sin. We are all tempted by something, after all, whether that something obviously and directly hurts others or whether the harm is more hidden and secretive. There are, in the final scheme of things, no merely “private” sins and no harmless evils, since every sin damages our relationship to God and to His Church.

“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well” (Luke 6:28-29). These are not merely passive measures of nonviolence being counseled by the good shepherd. As one commentator has noted, these are in fact rater “edgy” statements given the time and place they were made:

In Roman Palestine, incidentally, a person of superior rank who slapped you in the face would expect you to respond by crawling in the dust and grovelling before him. (Or, her.) To remain standing, instead, and turn the other cheek, was a little more edgy than we may nowadays appreciate. Similarly, a Roman soldier could lawfully require you to carry his gear for one Roman mile, but not farther. This was a tax in kind, a short-term enslavement. By carrying it for two miles, you were turning the tables. You were now portering in friendship as a free man — and showing him how to do his job. This, too, was edgy. Similarly with him that commandeered thy cloak: give him the coat also, as the charitable act of a free man. Jesus was not counselling passivity, let alone gestures that are “holier than thou.” He was proposing quite practical — and edgy — stratagems for the slave to free himself from the bondage of this world.

In bearing wrongs willingly, we neither retaliate nor grovel, but instead show forth our own sense of dignity, acting with a sense of modesty and decorum: we may in turn inspire others to do the same. There is a certain bondage which comes from holding a grudge: by bearing others wrongs willingly, we free ourselves from that bondage, at least in part. We throw off the shackles of this world, and in return may inspire those who wrong us to do the same. We then take a few faltering steps as free men, as people who are more able to cooperate with God’s grace to overcome our own sins, or perhaps to inspire or help others to overcome theirs.

In acting with decorum and modesty, we become momentary windows for a world which has forgotten what these things are. Perhaps as such we will inspire them to act in accordance with their own dignity as men bearing the image and likeness of God. We need more men of virtue, more women of grace–but we must first become such people.

 

Continue to Part V.