I had lived in Baltimore for only a few months when some friends came to town. They insisted we see the Inner Harbor, and so off we went, adventuring on foot.
I’ll be very honest: having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I was still getting used to the number of individuals on the streets asking for money. My instincts always screamed: KEEP WALKING; DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT; YOU HAVE NO MONEY TO GIVE. And usually by the time my inner voices settled down, I was a block or two past the questioner.
But when my friends and I decided on crepes for lunch, I found myself unable to keep walking past the homeless man who was hunkered down directly in front of the door to our intended restaurant. In my mind, of course, it became a game of lowered eyes, mumbled replies and a quick grab for the doorknob.
Not so, for my friends. While I was shuffling past the man and his quiet request for help, my two friends stopped, asked his name, and shook his hand. “I’ll tell you what, buddy,” my one friend replied. “I don’t carry any cash. But why don’t I buy you a crepe?” The gentleman thought that would be just fine, and so in we all went to place our orders.
I don’t remember that man’s name, what we discussed, or what kind of crepe he got. But I do know that my comfortable, ready-made response to those I encountered on the streets asking for money suddenly became embarrassingly out-of-touch and morally questionable. What’s more, I was awestruck by the knee-jerk reaction of my two friends: where I cast my eyes down, they looked another human being in the face and smiled.
If you hear anything about Catholic Social Teaching, you often hear that it’s the Church’s best kept secret. Why is that? Because we sometimes don’t realize that popes, theologians, saints and everyday Catholics have been thinking, praying, and writing about issues of hunger, war, poverty, and injustice for a very long time. And, as a result, we have a pretty elaborate, intellectually rigorous and philosophically challenging framework within which to address the most pressing issues of our day.
So often, those who are in on this best kept secret are often intimidated because they think they need a degree just to wrap their minds around Catholic Social Teaching. Not so. Certainly don’t miss out on the chance to study these teachings, but prayer is what helps us get at the heart of the matter.
I spent a lot of time over the following weeks reflecting on that encounter between me, my friends, and that man outside the crepe shop. Why was I so struck, so inspired? Could this have been what the disciples saw in Jesus, why they were so attracted to him? Did they see an individual who met the gaze of those in need with a smile and an outstretched hand?
Let us take the person of Jesus—God, who we meet in prayer and life’s daily joys and struggles—and go from there. That’s the heart of Catholic Social Teaching.
We realize that every person we come across in our day—those we intend to meet, and those who stop us for money—are lived expressions of God in our world, opportunities to meet Christ. It becomes a lot harder to ignore them. What’s more, we begin to see that as we encounter Christ in others, we find ourselves drawn deeper into the plight of those most in need. We ask ourselves, “how can such injustice be allowed to exist?” And God responds, “Well, then do something.”
That’s now what I find myself forced to grapple with when I encounter individuals on the street, in the news, wherever. Because if I admit that we are all part of God’s family, that my existence here and your existence there are less about what we’re doing and more about what God’s doing, my perspective has to change. I have a responsibility to act, to live my life in a more intentional way.
At Catholic Relief Services, we throw the word solidarity around like it’s a Frisbee on the beach. But that doesn’t make it any less important. It is, after all, a key element of Catholic Social Teaching. And it calls us to live beyond ourselves, to recognize God in all things and all people and to work for a world that is just and peaceful for all.
And sometimes, that work begins with the guy you passed on the street outside the crepe shop who’s asking for some change.
Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching? Check out these resources: