The Rich Man and Lazarus

The Rich Man and Lazarus

If you don’t often feel uncomfortable when reading the Gospel, you might be reading it wrong.

Between a Monday evening Bible Study and Friday classes, I have the great gift of looking at the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel at least six times during a typical week. Sometimes, I’m a little dense, though. It took until Friday afternoon or Saturday before I genuinely started applying it to me.

This past Sunday the Gospel was about the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel. It is clearly a rebuke of the rich man’s lack of compassion for the suffering of Lazarus. Also, it emphasized the finality of death and the subsequent judgement.

At first glance, I felt pretty comfortable. I do not look at the suffering of my fellow man with zero compassion. Yet I was prompted to wonder: perhaps the rich man did see Lazarus, did see his suffering, did feel moved–just not enough. Maybe the idea of reaching out made him feel uncomfortable. Or he didn’t know what to do. Or he was nervous that the suffering of Lazarus would be too disturbing to experience up close.

The Gospel suddenly became something I could apply to my life as I remembered a situation where I saw someone suffering, felt bad for them, and then did nothing. There were about three times when I had witnessed a man sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the sidewalk, well past a time when he should have been home or in a shelter. It was an arresting scene: the sun had set, it was a bit blustery, and there he sat in a wheelchair on the sidewalk with a blanket stretched over his entire body, from his feet to over his head. I saw it and I kept driving, every single time.

Continue reading “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

The Gift of Too Many Homes and Good Health

The Gift of Too Many Homes and Good Health

While personal difficulties can be genuine, regardless of their large-scale importance, sometimes it is helpful to put them in perspective. The Lord cares about what I care about and so I try to be careful to not dismiss hurt feelings, stress, or joy simply because it isn’t life altering. Yet when I do feel overwhelmed or a bit shaken, it can help to focus on the aspects for which I can be grateful.

There are two recent examples that come to mind. The first is my living situation. Currently, I am in the process of moving into a new house, but I am not quite moved in yet. Over the past couple weeks, I have stayed mostly at my parents’ house in the country and sometimes with friends who live in town. It isn’t that difficult of a life, but the slight upheaval of transitional homes adds a bit of extra stress to the day-to-day life.

Yet when I was sharing this stress with a few different people over the last couple of days, I was struck by the fact that I am not homeless. In fact, it is the opposite. I have an abundance of homes–there is the home I am working to move into, my parents’ home where I have my own bedroom when I stay there, and friends who generously offer a room to me when needed. The added stress I feel is real, but the things I can be grateful for far surpass the inconvenience.

Continue reading “The Gift of Too Many Homes and Good Health”

What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need

What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need

The first homeless man I truly met was Tony.

It was cold and we were all bundled up, but I made a concentrated effort to not mention the coldness.  I had only been outside for a few moments and this man had no home to seek refuge in against the frigid weather.  My perspective of the cold was altered in the presence of a man who stood before me after successive days on the streets.

Tony was tall and kind.  In situations where he easily could have been bitter, he chose to not be.  I was with a group of pro-life university students and he never once made me feel privileged or self-indulged.  One Saturday, a student bought Tony a coffee and I watched him graciously accept it, even as his cold hands shakily caused the coffee to spill on his fingers.  My face was etched with the concern and sadness I felt as I watched the scene unfold, but Tony sought to comfort me in this situation.  He told me to not be sad because even in his difficult situation he was still happy.  That momentary exchange made such a significant impression on me.

In a couple of hours, I would return to my dorm room after a filling breakfast and Tony didn’t attempt to guilt me for the luxuries I had in life.  Rather, he came to the cold streets of Pittsburgh to spend time with us.  He accepted money or coffees when offered, but he said he didn’t like to look homeless.  We wouldn’t see him pushing a cart around or laden down with luggage.  Dressed in the warm clothes appropriate for the cold, he didn’t want to accept extra things that he would have to carry with him during the day.

Tony was the first human face I saw of homeless in a personal way.  I heard him talk about how fearful he had been early one morning when the intense cold made it difficult for him to get out of the chair in an abandoned house that he had accidentally fallen asleep in.  The reality of not being able to move for a couple of hours shook him as he faced the reality that he might die alone in the cold someday.  Yet he was also very happy and enjoyed being around a bunch of young college students.  He wasn’t near us because we always gave him things or because we were popular in the area.  Tony enjoyed being with us and some of the students became his friends. Continue reading “What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need”

A Moment of Encounter

Yesterday, I got out of school and brushed the half foot of snow off my car.  I went home and helped my housemate finish up shoveling the driveway and sidewalk.  Last night, after taking out the trash, I paused under the awning and took in the winter portrait that was painted before me.  It was cool, but without our customary wind, it was nice out.  An icy finger had touched the world, leaving trees outlined in silver and the streets glistening with custom-designed flakes.

Winter, I thought, is quite beautiful.

Then I took a few steps and entered my house, where I could view the frozen art from the ease of a comfortable chair.  In those few steps, though, a thought came to me.

It doesn’t feel that cold because I have a home, right here, that I can step into.  I don’t mind the cold today because I’ve spent very little time in it.  If I were homeless, that wouldn’t be the case.

For yet another time in the past week, I considered again difficulties of homelessness.

Homelessness is never something I have seriously feared.  In fact, it was within the past couple years that I realized that I’ve never even considered it to be a fear I could have.  I live in a rented house shared with other young women and I have a job that pays the bills and loans I’ve accumulated.  Yet I’ve always known that even if I lost everything I own, I could always move back home.  Through the years, as my siblings and I have grown up, we have found it necessary or best to sometimes move home for a while.  We’ve all taken advantage of it, for varying lengths of time.  So if I got sick, lost my job, was in an accident, or something devastating happened, I know I would be able to seek the refuge of my parents’ house.

At the time that I was having this not-profound realization, I thought about how others don’t have that support system.  What if I was all I truly had?  What if I didn’t have parents that were able or willing to help me through rough times?  What if I had no siblings or extended family that would let me crash on their couch or put me up for a while as I sorted through my life?  The result of these thoughts was immediate anxiety and fear.

In the summer of 2014, I walked the Camino de Santiago.  It was 500 miles across northern Spain and I carried all my possessions on my back for just over a month.  While it was a beautiful experience, I was sometimes frustrated to always be packing up my things and moving to some place new.  I didn’t have a home and I found myself wanting to spend two nights in the same place.  Over half way through the walk, it happened when we stayed at a Benedictine pilgrim house.  What a joy it was to leave our packs in our room and roam the town, knowing we would be sleeping in the same place that night and didn’t have to carry our packs that day.

Homelessness is not like that experience.  It often doesn’t include a bed or a mat to sleep on.  You aren’t stopping for a mid-morning cafe con leche or a sit-down lunch on a leisurely day.  There is no communal cooking with lots of wine flowing into the evening.  There isn’t the knowledge that if something goes wrong, you can use your VISA or ATM card to pull you through the dilemma.

In a minuscule way, I understood the struggle of not having a place of one’s own.  I felt a desire to have roots, to remain in one place with a familiar system and order.  I understood not having the luxury of a car and using only my feet to get everywhere, even after a long day of walking.

But, in all reality, I have no idea what it would mean to be homeless.

Last week, I went to help decorate a homeless shelter.  I had little concerns and fears as I walked in, but mostly I found myself frustrated for feeling so awkward.  It is far easier to write a check and donate to an organization rather than to encounter the homeless in the flesh.

“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of Jesus.”     -Pope Francis

I was embarrassed to feel out of sorts and out of place.  Instead, I wanted to just interact with the guests as though they were ordinary people.  Mentally, I couldn’t help but note the disparity between our lives.  My inconvenience of a cool basement bedroom was utterly ridiculous in the face of the cold outdoors as a bedroom.

And I did a laughably small thing: I decorated the kitchen and helped bend the branches of a fake Christmas tree.

There was a man washing dishes in the kitchen.  He noticed my arrival and would look over at me every now and then, making a little small talk as I worked.  Internally, I was kicking myself for not being able to think of any good questions to ask him.  I would comment on how many trips he made to get dirty soup bowls and he would comment on me struggling to, once again, find the end of the roll of tape.

Finally, I was stringing up the last bit of garland and he said, “You should have brought your boyfriend to help you.”  I laughed, probably blushed a bit, and said, “Well, if I had one, I would have brought him.”  He said he was surprised “a pretty girl like you” didn’t have a boyfriend.  I laughed and said, “I’m still young, though, right?”  (My one semi-consolation.)  He said I was, but that he was alone, too.

Then, he did it.  He opened a bit of his heart up to me, someone he didn’t even know.

“My wife died.  It was three years ago.  She died three days after Christmas.”

And, suddenly, this wasn’t a man doing dishes at a homeless shelter, but he was a man with real struggles and pain.  He wasn’t looking for sympathy and he didn’t elaborate with a story.  I didn’t ask him to, either.  Instead, I told him I was sorry and said it must be very difficult.  In a warm kitchen with crumbs on the counters and the heavy aroma of chili, I met a stranger concretely in a brief sharing of the heart.

After leaving the kitchen, I went to the entry way to help finish setting up the trees.  Guests from the shelter kept walking by and I wanted to be certain to greet them with a smile, if I could.  Because it would have been too easy to just ignore their presence.  Excuse me, please.  Carry along.  We are setting up these trees for you, but we don’t want to actually interact with you.  So I would smile as they walked past or move out of the way if they were trying to pass by.  In many ways, it was easier to focus on the task at hand (setting up Christmas decorations) than to remember the underlying reason for all of it (the homeless who would be staying there).  I tried to force myself to remember this central reason, rather than obsess over the exact angle of the ribbon on the tree.

Once again, I felt a smallness.  Yet, once again, I felt a desire to do more.  What if I did more than set up a tree?  What if I volunteered far more of my time?  Not to the idealized homeless person in my mind, but to the actual homeless people that I would encounter.  In the midst of their hardship, I want to bestow upon them all kinds of virtues that aren’t necessarily there.  I expect gratitude and humility and kindness.  But why would I expect it more from them than from my students or co-workers?  Rather than set them on a pedestal, I want to concretely encounter them.  In the midst of their brokenness, their chaos, their efforts, and their failures.  Because that is humanity.  They have stories and lives and I choose not to romanticize them because they are real people.

I don’t know how these desires will be lived out, but I want to pursue them.  It is not enough to feel sorry for the idea or concept of homelessness.  Each of these people staying at the shelter and each person I encounter daily, has the face of Christ, if I have the grace to see it.  We are all on the quest for a true home, walking toward the Heavenly kingdom much like I made the trek to Santiago de Compostela: day by day, carrying only what is necessary, walking even if we don’t want to, and journeying to a place that will justify all our suffering and wipe away every tear.

What other homeless pilgrim will you meet on the way today?  Whose face will they have?