Our encounter began as I was leaving a rather nice restaurant in New Orleans. Since it had begun to rain, my husband dashed to get the car and I stepped out onto the sidewalk under the covering. I was holding a plastic bag filled with to-go boxes of food. That is when a relatively young man approached me and called to me: "Mommy!" He did not speak English, and asked me if I spoke Spanish, to which I indicating that I did not. I truly thought he was asking me for a handout of cash because I thought he had said, "Money" rather than "Mommy." And admittedly I was not sure I should open my wallet, not knowing how safe it was to do so.
But when he called to me the second time, he said, "Mommy. Food." I stopped in my tracks. I realized he was not asking for money, but that he was addressing me as Mommy. I was confused, since I did not know why he would call me that. He looked desperate, and it was clear to me that he was hungry. I gave him what I was holding, wishing I had a plastic fork or something, but he took it gratefully, saying ‘thank you’ as best he could. It was then that our gaze met. There was such gratitude in his eyes, but we did not speak the same language so it remained unspoken. However, the message was loud and clear. I was so moved that I smiled and touched his shoulder, and he also smiled, though more with his eyes than his mouth, because he was already beginning to eat. I know that not everyone likes to be touched, but sometimes touch bridges a gap like nothing else can. At that moment, there was a sense of communion. The touch joined us somehow.
Many years ago when I was living in another city, I had a similar encounter with a homeless woman whose left arm ended just above the elbow. I would see her in the streets quite often, along with a group of homeless people who would go to a nearby fast food restaurant where they were welcomed. They would pool their scant money and share among themselves whatever food they could afford. It was an amazing community of men and women. One day I saw the one-armed woman at a church across town. She told me she had a daughter in that area and was visiting! When next I saw her it was some months later, back in our neighborhood. When I saw her, I went over to greet her and she smiled, delighted that I remembered her. As we were speaking I put my hand on her disfigured arm without really thinking. Her face lit up as if I had given her gold. It clearly meant so much to her that I touched her as if we were longtime friends. I never forgot that. Reaching out and touching someone can be a greater gift than money. In that touch was communion.
Since my recent experience I have come to find out that what the man in New Orleans said to me was not Mommy, but Mami which is a colloquialism in Spanish, sometimes used as an address to a woman such as we might address someone as "Lady.” Whereas Señora would have been formal, such as ‘Madam’ might be, he used the more informal Mami. Why he did so, I do not know, but at the end of the brief encounter we both had tears in our eyes.
While giving money to the poor is a good thing in many situations, what people also need is love and to be seen as a person with dignity, not as someone of no importance. In this case, it was not only the food that made the connection between the man and me. It was a meeting of two people who had something to give each other. He initiated it by calling me Mami. As in the other situation mentioned here, it was touch and the communion of hearts which made the difference. I realized that the man is a child of God, beautifully made, loved just as I am loved.
The choices of St. Benedict Joseph Labre may seem a bit extreme, but he touched many throughout his short lifetime. He taught others both in word and in deed; his extreme humility was noted by everyone. He was embarrassed by his clothing and dirtiness, but he felt that by sharing what he had with the poor he could share the love of God. Therefore he spent his entire life worshiping God, whom he loved so very much, giving Him glory by his selfless care for those who were also poor. What a remarkable life!
We can learn something from someone like St. Benedict Joseph Labre, even if we are not attracted to his chosen extreme poverty. His way may seem strange to us, but each of us has a unique way of expressing our call to holiness. We are all called to have hearts for the poor in whatever way is appropriate for us. To be Christian is to be loving and caring of others no matter who they are or what they look like. We do not have to give money to every beggar we see, but we do have to try to do what is within our capability. Some of us have more than we need, and some of us are in need ourselves, but the fact remains that even if we cannot give monetarily there are other ways we can give of our love and our presence. What counts most is communion and that we have loved as best we can in every circumstance. In Matthew 25 Jesus makes it clear that we will be judged on the quality of our love, not on what we have or what we know. Jesus says that whatever we have done for the least of our brothers and sisters we have done for Him. We cannot judge who are the greatest or the least, but we can reach out to one another to give and receive in communion. It is in that solidarity, in letting others give to us as well as in our giving to them, that the deepest communion and love truly takes place. Communion comes in many forms and it does not have to be material to be a shared gift. What counts is that it is from the heart.
May we reach out to those in our communities and families who are in need in any way! May we be generous with our love and give from the heart! May we have hearts attuned to those who are lost, hungry, marginalized, or alienated, no matter whom they are or what their circumstances may be! And may we ask to love with the Heart of Jesus, who loves us beyond our imagining! Let us continue to be in communion with one another in the Heart of our Savior, Jesus! Peace!
The photo at the top is mine and was taken in Avila, Spain in the older part of the city.
The icon is St. Benedict Joseph Labre Patron of Homeless & Lost by Rev. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=154