I would love you to meet Sherry. I’m not sure how she spells her name, but she told me her name was Sherry. I see her often, sitting outside the Royal Bank at the corner of King and Jarvis in Toronto. She sits there listening to her small red radio. Sometimes I give her change. Sometimes we just chat for a bit. She told me she’s from Guyana. I don’t know how old she is. I don’t know where she stays at night.
When I stop to say hello I can’t help but notice all the people who walk by. But not everyone walks by. Some people do throw some change in her cup.
A while ago I decided that people who sit and ask for change are not that scary and that even if I don’t give them any change (I can’t give change to all of them) I should at least acknowledge them, smile and wish them a good day. Sometimes I ask where they are staying and chit chat about the weather. When you’re homeless, the weather is important. In Toronto, in the winter, knowing when it’s going to be a cold night is important. Come to think of it, it’s always a cold night in Toronto in the winter.
And that’s how I came to know Sherry: I said hello. Next thing I know we are having a bit of a conversation. She tells me where she’s from. She tells me she’s staying in a room somewhere. She tells me she likes any kind of coffee... actually, “coke”, she says, “I’d like a coke.”
A few weeks ago I noticed something different. I noticed that when I stopped to say hello to Sherry, less people were inclined to just walk by and look the other way. Because I was speaking with Sherry, people were looking at us. People were looking at her. And people were throwing change in her cup. Then a man shouted from across the street. He was driving a van and was stopped at the light. He yelled that he had two turkey sandwiches and did we want them. I said, “sure” and he put on his hazards and lept across the street (through traffic – didn’t wait for the light to change) in order to hand me the two sandwiches, which I promptly passed on to Sherry. That small act changed my day. Actually, it changed my week. I hope it changed Sherry’s.
A few days ago I saw Sherry again. It’s starting to get chilly in Toronto, but it was a sunny morning and she’s found a particularly sunny spot that morning. I did not have any change, but still I knelt down to say hello. As we were speaking I noticed from the corner of my eye a young woman who walked by and stopped to wait to cross the street. As Sherry and I continued to speak (when she told me that she liked coffee and coke) this young woman came back and she put a bill in Sherry’s cup. We don’t have dollar bills in Canada, so it must’ve been at least a $5 bill. I must say, that made my day. I hope it made Sherry’s.
I don’t know where she stays or whether she has the know-how to call the number to the shelter I gave her. I hope she has a warm and safe place to sleep. I pray for her every night. I don’t know what more I can do to help – but I know now that every time I stop to say hello, not only am I treating her with dignity and recognizing her as a sister, a daughter of God, but I am a witness to all those passersby. My small action is a sign to them to not be afraid. To recognize that they too can do something small that can make a huge difference.
It is also a reminder to me of how we are all called to be poor.
When the Cardinals were in Conclave three years ago, the story goes that when the cardinal from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had the majority of votes, his Brazilian friend, Cardinal Claudio Hummes leaned over and whispered to him, “remember the poor.” Pope Francis, says that up to that point everything was a bit of a blur, but at that moment he thought of St. Francis of Assisi, Il poverello, “the poor one” and knew that would be his name, “Francis.” It’s pretty clear today that his papacy has put, not just the poor at the front, but all who are marginalised, the people he calls, “the throways.” But I’ve always wondered why Cardinal Hummes said that. Why ‘remember the poor’? Had the Church been neglecting the poor? I don’t think so.
If anyone has been caring for the poor, it’s been the Catholic Church. You can’t be Catholic if you don’t “prefer the poor.” In fact, the “preferential option for the poor” is one of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching. It only takes a quick glance through Scripture to notice that not only the Church has a preferential option for the poor, but it seems God also has a preference for the poor. James 2:5 says that “God has chosen the poor” and the Old Testament if filled with passages that say that God cares for widows and orphans. God cares for the poor and the lowly. God cares for the blind and the deaf and the lame and for refugees and slaves. Jesus said that if we want to get into Heaven we have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25:31-46) and that it’s very difficult for a rich person to enter Heaven (Matthew 19:24), and St. Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus Christ became poor for our sake (2 Cor 8:9). Yes, Jesus was born in a stable, he was poor; he loved the poor and God loves the poor; so does the Church.
We’re lucky in Canada that we have such a sophisticated social system for people who need help, but it wasn’t always like that. And we wouldn’t have any of that if it wasn’t for Christianity and the Church. If you go to any country in the world, who will you find caring for the sick and feeding the homeless? The Church. In the United States you can’t go to the hospital if you don’t have insurance, so what do people who don’t have insurance do? They go to a Catholic hospital. If our governments ever stopped providing welfare and other types of help for the poor and the needy, you know who would continue helping them no matter what? The Church. Because that’s who we are. There are 1 billion people in this planet who survive on less than 1 dollar a day. That means they have no access to enough food, to clean water, to education or healthcare. It is estimated that around the world, every day, some 25,000 people die of malnutrition. Who cares for all these people? The Church.
So why did Cardinal Hummes tell Cardinal Bergoglio to remember the poor? I think we’re doing a pretty good job. Or are we? Come back next week and learn what I’ve found.
CNS photo/CJ Gunther, EPA
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching:firstname.lastname@example.org