The homeless man sat, cross-legged on the sidewalk, his head slumped forward, dozing as the snow continued to fall, leaning over the small cardboard sign that read "Please Help". Getting out of my car to go into the store, I walked over, greeted politely and waited for him to respond. He awoke at my second greeting - and I held out some money, asking gently, "Would this help you?" The head snapped up, and I was shocked to see he had a very angry-red-purple recent black eye. Someone had been beating him up - my heart sank in compassion. Blessing me, he shot me a toothless grin and took the money, continuing to call out his thanks as I turned away. He was gone when I looked out the store window a few minutes later. I, however, was haunted for hours by the memory of the black eye and the sense that unlike him, no matter how challenging my life might be, was incredibly lucky to have food, ready cash, and a warm home to go back to. I felt regret that I had not talked to him longer or given him more.
As a catechist and trainer of catechists, I have for a long time felt that my ministry is less-directly to the poor and those suffering injustice, and more toward teaching those who teach others about the poor.
Recently, I heard Sr. Helen Prejean tell about her life, how as a well-off child and later as a teacher-sister in Louisiana, she was sheltered from direct experience with poor people. It was not until she was asked to be a pen-pal with someone on death row that she encountered the life of the less-fortunate, and, as she put it, was drawn "into the fire". Like Sr. Helen, although I normally give to several charities and am reasonably generous when appeals are presented to me, I have had little direct contact with the poor. The encounter yesterday was surprisingly moving. Truly a catechetical moment for me. I will be reflecting on how this should change me for some time to come.
This underlines the importance of direct service projects for youth - but more than that - for adults in the Church. If we sit in our comfortable pews and toss money into the basket when asked to contribute to a direct appeal, I think we run the risk of being too insulated from the poor. The church needs to find more ways to provide wake-up-call moments of direct contact. Better yet, the poor need to know they are always welcome in our churches.