“Forgive us for looking the other way,” Pope Francis said to an audience of homeless people. I took his words to heart, and stopped ignoring people in need.
I saw the young woman on the corner as I pulled up to a busy intersection one evening. I was hoping that the light wouldn’t turn red, leaving me and her on the corner alone. She looked to be my age, standing there clutching a small cardboard sign that read: “Anything will help.” I avoided her eyes as I fumbled with the radio dial, trying to drown out the voice in my head.
Just look at her.
I wanted the light to turn green so that I could pretend that I was at the intersection by myself, nodding my head to the music. I wanted to speed away from the situation and from the uncomfortable nudging I felt in my heart.
Look into her eyes.
Most of my adult life, I’ve encountered people struggling with homelessness or poverty and I’ve looked straight through them. I tell myself that I’m busy. I’m a college student, after all. I have places to be. I don’t have anything to give them, I don’t carry cash with me. So if I just don’t look them in the eye, I can pretend that they aren’t there.
Respecting the dignity of the homeless
Yesterday, Pope Francis looked into the faces of the homeless of Rome and asked for their forgiveness. He said, “I ask your forgiveness for all the times that we Christians stand before a poor person or a situation of poverty and look the other way.”
I have been guilty of looking the other way when it comes to those who struggle with poverty or homelessness. I’d rather help them in clean, sterile ways like donating money to local organizations or shopping at Goodwill. But this is at odds with what I know in my deepest heart: that I was called to get into the trenches with those that were struggling to offer them hope and recognize their dignity. Too often, homeless people in our communities are reduced to statistics and referred to as public nuisances.
But we’re in need of a people-first approach to seeing Christ in the face of those who are without homes. We need to see Christ in them.
Pope Francis’ remarks are challenging me to see Christ in the eyes of those in my own community struggling with homelessness. He said, “All men and women from any religion must see in the poor the message of God who comes close to us and made himself poor to accompany us in life.” Christ himself became poor for the salvation of my soul. He gave up the glory of Heaven and the praise rightly due to him to become a poor baby whose first bed was a manger made for animals. Surely, I can began to see Christ in the face of the impoverished in my own town.
|He bent down to the man, and began to talk to him—but more importantly, he began to listen.|
I am blessed with beautiful examples in my life of how to treat those who struggle with poverty with the human dignity they deserve. Growing up, I remember how my Dad always made sure to ask the people on the corners of the street what their story was. Sure, it was easy to just hand someone a little bit of cash or a gift certificate. But looking into their eyes and asking them about their day? That took time, empathy and love. One day, I remember Dad walking up to a man who was sitting on the corner in the pouring rain. He bent down to the man, and began to talk to him—but more importantly, he began to listen. Dad asked the man his story, what he was struggling with, and how he could help him.
It wasn’t the money that made the difference that day. The beauty of that encounter was Dad taking time out of his day and listening to the story of another human being. It was seeing the man on the corner and finding commonality with him instead of emphasizing the differences of their stories. The smile on the man’s face didn’t come from the dollar bills in his hand, but the fact that someone that day recognized his dignity.
Pope Francis has called this past year a Jubilee Year of Mercy. The year of mercy isn’t supposed to just exist in our churches or in our prayers—Pope Francis is calling us out of our comfort zone and into the merciful love that Christ offers us.
That evening at the red light, I rolled down my window. I said “Hi there!” with a smile and I looked that girl in the eyes. After asking her how her day was going, I gave her a gift certificate that I had in my wallet to a nearby restaurant, apologizing for it not being much. She thanked me for stopping and smiled back.
While I was able to see her as a beautiful human being, I saw so much more reflected in her eyes that night. I saw Christ in her, standing on the corner and offering me an opportunity to show mercy. And I am not going to look through her or anyone else again.
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