Effie Caldarola

When my daughter and I paid a visit to a college campus, we took some local advice and visited a popular pizza place. It proved a good recommendation. As we walked back to our hotel, we carried a box with the remains of a great meal.

Ahead of us, an old man sat on the sidewalk, leaning up against a building. Disheveled and roughly bearded, he was obviously familiar with the street. We looked at our pizza; honestly, when would we get a chance to eat it? So as we walked by, we smiled, proffered our pizza and asked the man if he wanted it. As we walked on, we glanced back to see him eagerly devouring a slice.

I’ve written about this little incident before, not in a sense of self-congratulation. Far from it. The episode sticks in my mind because I wonder why we didn’t, on a safe block on a busy street, take the time to offer a little conversation with our meager gift? Was the man a real person to us or was he an object of our paltry charity?

This question persists because I think it lies at the heart of Lent. If Lent doesn’t challenge us to embrace the poor, to connect, then we’re missing the mark.

Lent starts with Isaiah 58:5-6 telling us how God disparages our sackcloth and ashes ideas about fasting. Instead, he says, “Is this not … the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke?”

And when Christ starts dividing the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25, he bases it on how we treated the “least” of these, not on how strenuously we kept our faith a private matter. This Christianity is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who don’t reach out.

In an Omaha World Herald story, columnist Erin Grace tells of a man who decided on his 50th birthday to do something radical. He’s giving $50 away each week of his 50th year.

We’re not talking about writing 52 checks and patting himself on the back. No, he’s personally handing $50 to mostly strangers whom he happens to encounter. He gives each person his business card with an email and his blog address. He’s getting acquainted with the people he meets and blogging about his encounters.

Here are just a few examples of the people he’s shared his money with, according to Grace: two homeless vets panhandling; a street corner musician; a waitress; a clerk; a college freshman; an immigrant woman sorting through a bin at Goodwill Industries; a guy who couldn’t pay his tab at a restaurant — that one resulted in a two-hour conversation.

All along the way, this man established relationships and discovered things about people’s lives. He connected.

In other words, he did what Christ did countless times in the Gospel. He shared of himself. He went beyond our pizza give-away. And imagine how radically the year will change his life?

Lent is not over. There are many ways to connect. Find out how you might help your local Catholic Charities up close and personal, if just for a day. Join your parish social justice committee and find out how they are advocating for and journeying with the poor. Tip someone generously. Notice the poor around you. Step out of your comfort zone.

Our Catholic Church has a preferential option for the poor, part of our social teaching. It can’t be an academic thing for us or just another place to write a check. We must connect. And Lent is the ideal place to begin.