“Excuse me, Ma’am, I don’t have quite enough—could you spare a dollar for a cup of coffee?” Out of the corner of my eye I had seen a figure weaving through the crowded tables in my favorite local coffeehouse, but I was quite surprised to see that person standing now just inches from my side. I glanced across the table to my younger sister who sat wide eyed as she took in the woman—seemingly homeless, stringy grey hair emerging from a too-bright-blue stocking cap, and layers of winter clothing. “Of course,” I mumbled, fumbling for my wallet. I reached in and handed her three dollars. She would need more than that for a coffee here—and, if the management only knew she was panhandling customers! cycled through my head.
We were out for my sister’s birthday lunch at the hip-and-happening downtown coffee shop which I had proudly discovered only a few weeks before. We had already exchanged greetings with a fellow diner—an acquaintance of ours, and I fondly remembered being ‘spotted’ by someone on my previous visit as we enjoyed gourmet cupcakes at neighboring tables: “I’ve seen you in plays, you’re a really good actress,” she had said. I sat a little taller in my chair. My sister and I made our way to a back table with our $4 coffees and lunch to share. Engrossed in conversation and people watching—“Hey—isn’t that the director of children’s theatre?”—I am now surprised that I didn’t notice the homeless woman sooner. A stark contrast in the eclectic surroundings, unannounced due to the buzz around us, she seemed strangely drawn to our table. I handed her the money with a hesitant smile and a “Well … God bless you.” As she walked away, my sister and I shared a look and sigh, now noticing the glances of those at neighboring tables. Later we would debate why she ‘chose us’. There were two girls behind us, and two women to the side of us, two men (“that was the director of children’s theatre, right?”) next to us—but her eyes only made contact with mine. I felt somehow honored by that, even as I uncomfortably shifted in my chair. The last time I saw her she was shuffling to a table in the corner with a bowl of soup (organic chicken noodle, no doubt) and a cup of coffee. I felt her eyes as we walked out of the door after our lunch was enjoyed and for a split second I was almost worried that she would follow.
As we walked in the front door of our suburban home, my sister was quick to relate our lunch adventure and her own nervousness. My parents interjected that the coffee shop didn’t have the safest of locations, agreed that instances such as that should not occur inside a restaurant—in fact, that it was against the law—but that it was kind of us to give what we could. The conversation carried over to the dinner table that evening. Other encounters with the homeless and panhandlers throughout the years were told; the time a friend and I were stopped leaving a restaurant by someone seeking money to buy his own dinner. Neither of us had cash to give, but we offered our take-out boxes to his “I ain’t eating your leftovers” sneer in response. My family lingered around the table and my sister and I moved to clear the dishes while, almost as an afterthought, my father began his story about Harold; a story we could not remember hearing before.
When he worked downtown in the capital city, before I was born, my father would walk to a local church to spend time in adoration on his lunch hour. There were so many homeless people along his walk that he would be badgered for money many times daily. Things were tight financially, so he would make an extra sandwich to take along to offer to those he encountered, in place of money. Most did not accept his generosity, but one day, out in front of the church, a man, Harold, did. My father told Harold that he was going inside the church and offered to pray with Harold. As my father offered his words to the Lord, Harold began to weep. My father continued to pray. Finally “I didn’t mean to kill them—my wife and kids,” escaped Harold’s lips. “I had too much to drink and we crashed!” My father prayed for healing, but the man only sobbed and said he couldn’t forgive himself.
My father vaguely remembers other details of those few moments, but he never saw Harold again and has no idea of what eventually became of the man suffering on that street. The story left us all speechless and gave me and my sister an even better perspective on the earlier events of the day.
Brought down by trauma, crime, abandonment, abuse, instability, unemployment, economic failure, exploitation, sinful addictions and depravity—who can say for sure why a person is homeless? It is true that not all panhandlers are homeless, just as it is true that not all homeless and panhandlers are addicts. But I realized more clearly that day that they are all suffering in some way—or running, even from help. We raise our eyebrows and shift in our chairs, uncomfortable at the sight or the thought of those in need, including the addicted. Some of us forget, in our caution, to care. Are we concerned for the well-being of those less fortunate? Do we support our local shelters and food banks with our time and our tithe if we prefer not to give a handout? Are we kind to and, just as importantly, do we pray for those that we encounter on the streets? We are all called to exercise Christian charity in each of these regards—by giving a monetary handout on a street corner, a food or clothing donation to a shelter, or a smile and a ‘God bless you’ to a stranger. If we think that the needs of the poor, homeless and addicted are being met without our help, we are mistaken.
Bishop Robert Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham, (my bishop!) is a noble witness to our Christian duty to help the least fortunate. As he spoke to our young adult group recently, I learned of his personal call and ministry to the homeless and addicted. Bishop Baker spoke of his years as a priest in Florida, beginning by handing out peanut butter sandwiches to those who begged at the rectory door later working to open a shelter for the homeless. Listening to him brought me back to my own kitchen table, hanging on the words of my father and his story. Bishop Baker saw a deep need for healing among those he met and realized the necessity of providing for their spiritual needs along with their pressing material concerns. He sent us each home with a handout (appropriately) detailing his eventual outreach through Comunita Cenacolo to homeless young men and women suffering from harmful addictions. The ‘school of life’ taught by the community at their nearly 60 houses—including a home for men within my own diocese of Birmingham—is one of prayer, work, and sacrifice. “Everyone in desperation is searching for authentic love,” the community’s website states. To arrive at this, the men commit to live together to learn the importance of physical labor, the Catholic faith, stability of life and trust in God’s providence as their characters are rebuilt and lives changed in a very dramatic way. It was inspiring to hear what can be and has been accomplished through such a way of life, despite the humble beginnings of the ministry; it’s foundress, Mother Elvira Petrozzi; and my Bishop’s dream to reach those in darkness.
I want to take the cue from my own father and from the spiritual father of my diocese to care about my community, the materially poor, the panhandler on my own streets, and the spiritually poor around me daily. My heart aches for those I see: a man shuffling down the street pushing the shopping cart of all he owns under the threat of Alabama’s snowy skies. A woman with stringy grey hair and a too-bright-blue cap approaching the counter with my three dollars in hand. The challenge lies in turning the ache into action.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. – C.S. Lewis