“From August 2002 to June 2003, I lived and walked among the faceless people of the streets. I say ‘faceless’ because when you are homeless, the rest of the world does its very best to look past you” (The Word Among Us, November 2014, p.56). This article got my attention as I was leaving from an hour of adoration in the Blessed Sacrament. It felt like Jesus was speaking right at me and challenging me to put my faith into action. Is that me, Lord? My heart was never unsettled about homeless people since my family had often fed the two or three homeless individuals in our hometown. But this article made me take the time to reflect on my own behavior as I walk by a homeless person. Can I see Jesus in the person without food or shelter this Christmas? And even more profoundly, the bigger challenge is, “What is the Lord calling me to do about it?” At this moment my call is to share this article and maybe entice you to reflect on your own attitude towards the “faceless” people you have walked past. I understand the need to protect ourselves, and by no means desire anyone to risk their safety as they reach out to others. But there are ways to contribute to our Christian call to take care of the poor while at the same time being prudent about our actions.
So many of us are happy and excited about the holidays because we are going home or going to see relatives who live in other states. In the excitement of our blessings, let’s not forget those who do not have a place to call home. It is so easy to judge the homeless person in the streets because we do not understand how they ended up in that situation. In the article “Listening from the Last Pew” by Lorraine Gardner, she explains her circumstances: “My life began spiraling downward after a very turbulent divorce. Very quickly, I suffered one loss after another: my marriage, home, jobs, income, and even my health, as I experienced debilitating epileptic seizures. I did have one place where I could stay, but since I did not always feel safe there, I went to the streets” (November 2014, p.56).
This remarkable woman took refuge from the climate in the public library, where she began to read about the saints and the Bible stories she loved during her childhood. She felt called by God to come back to the Catholic Church as the spiritual home that she once had. In the Spring of 2003 she began to sit in the last pew with a deep understanding that the church is for the poor. Yet Lorraine felt uncomfortable and realized that her presence in the last pew made other parishioners uncomfortable too. Still the truth of God’s love brought the message that she was his child and He created her in His image and likeness. Are not these circumstances describing some of the key principles of catholic social teaching that we are supposed to address?
Our Catholic Church calls us to believe in the dignity of the human person which includes the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Catholic social teaching also calls us to take care of the poor and marginalized by creating healthy communities. The need of homeless people calls us into action and Jesus has called us into having compassionate hearts.
It was the compassionate heart of one man who spoke to Lorraine during the sign of peace which gave her the perseverance to come back every Sunday and sit in the last pew. Following the pastor’s advice, Lorraine sat and quietly listened as Christ spoke to her through the Mass. Even though many parishioners were still not sure about her presence and did their best to look past her, she continued to sit in the last pew and allowed God to increase her faith. Eventually other parishioners followed the example of the pastor and gradually she was able to establish a home address and got a job.
As pastoral counselors we have an opportunity to reach out to the person sitting in the last pew who comes in and out of the church without communication to other parishioners. We can also create awareness in our parish communities about the needs of homeless people, or even the single mom in the parish struggling to put food on the table this Christmas season. We can pray for them, we can lead an effort for food baskets all year round, or we can create our own baskets with family members. This is a great teachable moment for families to instill their faith in the younger generation by creating a basket that includes little Bible story books and taking a ride to drop them off at a shelter. Community is built by small, consistent loving actions following the example of Jesus.
St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church parishioners were led by their pastor to assist Lorraine to find her way back home to the church and to participate in the economic and cultural life of society. Lorraine Gardner received a Master’s degree in Theology and later studied Clinical Pastoral Counseling at the Mayo Clinic.