I have felt such guilt. I am walking in our city and suburban streets, wrapped up in my coat and scarf in the winter, looking forward to going somewhere dry. I know that I can grab a warm meal or drink at any time to nourish my body. But I see them everywhere.
The homeless. The poor.
It is such a terrible shame in this wealthy nation – indeed a shame anywhere in the world – that anyone at all should be sleeping on the streets or begging for help, and their numbers seem to be increasing. What can one do? What specifically can we, as Catholics and Christians, do?
Certainly there are some who are soliciting for money and are taking advantage of the kindness of strangers, but how does one determine who is the ‘legitimately’ needy and who is being opportunistic?
It is a situation which forces one to think, and it stings the conscience:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:35)
A man is holding a cardboard sign on which he has written what seems to be his life story. Another person’s sign asks for accommodation – a safe place and a warm bed. Another has written ‘I am not dead yet’. Their faces look tired, worn, and embarrassed. Their mental condition deteriorates over time. A young girl, barely a teenager, used to sit with her cat, but now she has moved on. I used to speak with her and quietly worried for her – what if someone took advantage of her on the street, or kidnapped her?
A part of me shamefully wonders if the plight of these people is true and whether they are using others for money, while another part of me chastises my own thoughts and feels helpless. And so the guilt returns.
I have often sung hymns about Christ’s mercy and compassion, and yet when Sunday Mass is over and I go about my business in God’s world, I am regularly faced with opportunities to show mercy and compassion to these souls. What do I do? What am I doing? Am I too scared? What are we all, as a society, doing? What if it was Christ Himself there, on the footpath?
If sometimes our poor people have had to die of starvation, it is not that God didn’t care for them, but because you and I didn’t give, were not an instrument of love in the hands of God, to give them that bread, to give them that clothing; because we did not recognize him, when once more Christ came in distressing disguise, in the hungry man, in the lonely man, in the homeless child, and seeking for shelter.
– Saint Teresa of Calcutta
These people have found themselves in a position of want, whatever the reason is. It is not for us to judge them, but to picture ourselves in their shoes and imagine – for a moment – what we would do and how we would feel in their place. These very people on our streets were once babies. Perhaps born into a world of love and dearly wanted by their parents, or perhaps born into an environment of poverty, violence, mental illness, or addiction. We do not know, but God does, and He still loves them the same. So should we.
Perhaps these people on the streets once held jobs, or were part of a family, or suffered a mental breakdown because of the death of a loved one, or a medical condition, or a stable relationship went wrong, or they cannot find work. Perhaps they had beautiful dreams of a promising future filled with love and respect.
Bad things happen and people are often in the wrong place at the wrong time, or find themselves in situations out of their control. Lives are turned upside down. Our journey on earth has twists and turns which we sometimes cannot imagine or predict. We do not know the crosses that people are carrying when we pass them on the street.
Talking and being troubled about the situation and sight of homelessness is one thing. In many ways that is the ‘easy’ part. Thinking and praying about what to do is another. That is the difficult part. Christians must be doers. We are the hands and feet of Christ. Remember that faith without actions is dead (James 2:14-26). So then, what can we do in practical terms?
- First understand what homelessness is and why it happens. There are many stereotypes about homelessness and the people who are experiencing homelessness. Educating ourselves about what it feels like for others – and indeed how we could find ourselves in the same situation – enables empathy to grow.
- In our faith context, what does the Catholic Church say about homelessness? What has the Church experienced? You can start by reading these:
- Are you worried about giving money to the homeless because it could be spent inappropriately or ‘wasted’? I know that I have. Read this
- I love the way Pope Francis talks about homelessness but has also helped them in practical ways. As a Church community we can, and should, do more together.
- We can contemplate the life of Christ and realise that He was born into poverty and homelessness. When we are wondering whether we should help the homeless and poor, our decision for love should be swift because it is Jesus Himself whom we see before us.
- Find out about your local charities, homelessness services and voluntary organisations and pledge to support them with your time and/or money. Pray to the Lord to help you find a way to help alleviate the injustice of homelessness and poverty in our world, even in the smallest way. Pray that God will give us all the courage to act, advocate for change, be their voice, and make a difference.
I once saw a young man take a risk. He approached a homeless man sitting on the footpath – arm outstretched with cap in hand. The homeless man was young too, and his head was bent low, almost touching the ground. I have never forgotten what the young man did next. He approached and put some money into the cap, then lingered and took the time to hold the man’s hand, touching it tenderly.
Why did I call that act a ‘risk’? Because we never know how someone will react when we reach out to them in kindness. There is so much bad news in the world – so much fear. But the young man decided to connect with this other human being in a small gesture of love anyway. He never knew it, but he gave me hope that not all is lost with humanity.
Let us do likewise for our brothers and sisters in need, for they truly are Christ in disguise.