Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Scary Poor Guy

“Lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores.”

On the grounds of St. Barnabas we have a statue that looks like a homeless man begging for money. It has recently been moved closer to the front entrance of the church. This, needless to say, has caused some anxiety. I’ve noticed as people walk by it. Especially if it is their first time seeing it, they are noticeably disturbed. I can see the repulsed look on their face, the questioning eyes, the tensing of their body and their body turning away with their head looking back over their shoulders literally walking as far away from it as possible. Sometimes people will even make big loops around the statue to avoid getting close. I’ve had a number of people ask me: “Father, what’s the deal with that statue? Why is there a scary poor guy there? It’s kind creepy, especially for the kids.” And then without any explanation I walk over to it, motion for them to come up close and bend down low. “Look close,” is all I say. And then momentarily, there is a wonderful moment of realization. They see the nail mark in his hand and begin to realize who it is. They get down lower and closer so they can see under the hood that it is the face of Christ. It’s very powerful.

I have to say at first glance I wasn’t sure about this statue either. But I think what makes it a work of art is that it is so effective in conveying the Gospel message and the reality of how we react to the poor. Clement Cody, who donated the statue, told me how the original sits on the steps of Ave Maria University, in Florida, near the Cleveland Clinic. Weekly the police would get a call about the bum on the stairs.

Think about the last time you saw a homeless person on the street, maybe you were going to the air show or an Indians game this summer or a Browns game more recently. How did you react when you saw a homeless person? What was your initial inclination? What did you feel? How did you respond?

I find that my natural reaction has been to avoid, to walk around them, even if need be to step over them.
That is why I think the statue is so effective. It has that same effect on us. It disturbs us. But, when we got over my initial fear, uneasiness, and avoidance and have the courage to approach the figure, stepping up close, we discover that not only is there nothing to be afraid of, but there’s actually something beautiful there. It is Christ disguised as the beggar.

I know that it’s always been very hard for me to approach the poor. I’ve been afraid of them, uncomfortable, and even disturbed by them at times. Wanting to avoid them, I’ve turned my face, stepped around them, and at times, even over them. But there have been people who have helped me to get over that fear and I have come to see the face of Christ right here in the poor of Cleveland.

The Labre project began when students from St. Ignatius High School set out in a van with some left over food and hot chocolate. They went into the streets of downtown Cleveland and gave the food away to the homeless people they saw who were often sleeping on the streets, alleys, and sidewalks. They discovered that they enjoyed the people they encountered on the streets so much so that they went out again the next Sunday; and continued to go out every Sunday after that. This has evolved into the Labre Project. http://www.jcu.edu/labre/ The name comes for Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, the patron saint of homeless people. It was brought to John Carroll University by a group of Ignatius alumni in 2004 and has continued to grow since then. Now Students from Walsh Jesuit have joined by also taking an evening to care for the poor and meet them personally.

I was able to go with some of the students form John Carroll during one of their winter breaks. These students showed me something I will never forget. They know personally the poor people of Cleveland by name. They know where they live: under bridges, down valleys, in the woods, by the rail road tracks, and in shacks and tents beyond the “road closed” signs. Their purpose is not just to give them something to eat and a blanket to warm them up, but also to warm their spirits. They spend some time talking to them, praying with them, taking down notes of anything they need, and asking them if they can help with any social services or personal favors.

One of the men we met lived under a bridge. It was the dead of winter with beautiful thick snow falling down inches in a matter of hours. As the students walked closer they called out his name. There he lay stretched out on a shopping cart, converted to a fold out bed, with mattress and sleeping bag. He opened up his hooded sweatshirt a little from around his face and a puff of fog came from his mouth. He was so grateful that these students came to see him. And you could tell that it was a regular occurrence. He smiled, his eyes began to tear up, and talked and joked with us. “Hard times, he said, but I’m doing all right, I’m actually really warm in here.” “Anything you need?” our guide asked who was a nineteen year old young lady, with long hair, an upbeat personality, and an extrovert, to say the least. “How ‘bout a blanket?” she asked. “No, I’m good” he said, “There’s probably someone else colder than I am. Save it for them.” This homeless man turned down an extra blanket for the chance of someone else needing it more than he did. He did take a fresh pair of socks and some hot soup though. As we talked, I noticed how gentle he was with the young students, and how concerned they were about him.

In a matter of a few hours, our van covered the east side, while the second van went to the near west side. On the west side, we probably saw a dozen people like that before finishing at one of the drop in centers that sheltered people overnight. Each homeless person kindly helping me see, “Christ is in the poor, do not be afraid to approach him.” These dedicated college students introduced me personally to the poor of Cleveland. Hopefully, I will never have to turn my head from them, walk around them, avoid them, or step over them again.

Today’s Gospel reading haunts me:

'My child, remember that you received
what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.'

How do we prevent this chasm from beginning in our lives? We prevent the chasm by eliminating the rift that exists between us and the poor in this life. When we see someone poor on the streets and turn our heads, we create the chasm. When we live very comfortable and elaborate lives failing to care for the poor and the needy, we are digging that chasm. When we encounter poor literally at our feet and fail to acknowledge them, stoop down to them, and see Christ in them, we are deepening the chasm.

Christ does come to us disguised as the poor beggar. We can only get over that fear if we come to know him. I know of no better way than meeting them personally. We, here in the Diocese of Cleveland, are blessed with many ways of doing this:

-The Labre program is one way to meet the poor. http://www.jcu.edu/labre/newsite/contact.htm

Read quotes from others experiences http://www2.ignatius.edu/faculty/skerl/labrelog.htm

-Another of my personal favorites is the West Side Catholic Center http://www.wsccenter.org/volunteer.html Here you can cook for the poor, give them clothing, register them, or just share a meal with them and learn their story.

-Cleveland Catholic Charities does just about everything that you can imagine for the poor and disadvantaged http://www.clevelandcatholiccharities.org/

-And, here locally at our parish (and likely at your own parish) is the St. Vincent de Paul Program (Call the main office 330.467.7959 and ask for Mike, from St. Vincent de Paul). There are poor right here in our parish and in our area who come to the doorsteps of the church.

If we avoid caring for the poor both personally and financially, we deepen the chasm between us and God in everlasting life. I know that meeting the poor helped me personally to get over the fear. Do you avoid the poor? Do you give to them on a regular basis? Are you willing to give up some comfort so that other’s may be comforted? If the answer is no, then maybe one of these programs will help you see in them the Body of Christ. And the next time you see “the poor lying at your door” you will not avoid them, but encounter them, comfort them, see the face of Christ in them, and help destroy the chasm that exists between us.

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