I walked out of Easter Mass with my wife and three kids, relieved we’d made it all the way through. We were excited for a big family dinner and trying to make it to the car with three kids under 6 on a sugar rush.
Approaching the parking lot, we were stunned by a silent middle-aged man holding a cardboard sign. The sign explained he had lost his job and needed rent money for his family. It was clear he did not speak English. His son was standing next to him, translating his plea.
I was thrown. My job, all week, is to help people in situations like this, to welcome them into our community, strike up conversation, and help them out with food and resources. But at that moment, I kind of just wanted to get my kids into their car seats.
My wife, who spends most of her time with three high-energy little kids, had a knee-jerk reaction of love and attention. Her willingness to shift out of kid mobilization mode, to try to help, was all at once attractive and frustrating to me. It was only frustrating because I had to get these kids into the car, and she wanted to find our business cards from Catholic Social Services, where we both work, and learn this guy’s story.
We recounted the situation with one another on the drive to my mother-in-law’s for dinner. I was unsettled by my lack of interest. Had the fatigue of managing a couple of kids through Mass deadened my care for a fellow breadwinner, who was in a situation we are all only a disaster or two away from? What was wrong with me? I realized, sadly, that I simply wasn’t ready to be confronted with a neighbor’s pain on Easter morning.
This encounter was too much of a symbol of our times not to share. Living the Gospel in our day requires many things. But one thing I know the call of God demands of us is to be at one with the brokenness of the world, and to let it break our hearts a bit, not in a sympathetic way, but in a way that yanks us out of our shells.
Poverty doesn’t exist in a convenient bubble only when we are comfortable to engage it. The violence and injustice of poverty is a cancer that grows daily. It is a social and spiritual smack in the face that we should be prepared to answer with the love of God when called upon. And we are called upon each day that we participate in this world that gives so many of us such abundance.
What can shake us out of second-to-second logistics to become sensitive to our call to love our neighbor? It has to be personal. When Notre Dame burned, the identity of so many was burned too. That was personal. Many of us met that crisis with an immediate response.
If we try, we could all imagine ourselves in the position of that brave father, setting aside his pride in a last-ditch attempt to take care of an emergency situation. The sad reality is that for so many of our brothers and sisters, poverty is not a sudden emergency. It is a daily reality.
Working three jobs might keep someone from needing an emergency Easter miracle. But it won’t keep them from needing to use a food pantry for dinner, an emergency room for basic medical care, or a diaper bank to help with baby supplies.
The fact that these services exist keeps families away from disaster, but people working 40 to 70 hours a week ought not require such extraordinary measures to maintain basic needs.
The good news is that we are all in a position to respond to both situational and chronic poverty with our personal care and attention. We are all capable of forming relationships with people, and letting those relationships inform our understanding of what it means to love all our brothers and sisters the way God intended.
We have in our hands what it takes to heal the fear and isolation that brought us to where we are today.
This makes me feel like I can do better than I did Easter morning. And that’s all it takes, to do better than we did last week, and we can begin to heal a whole lot of hurting.
Patrick Walsh is the manager of Martha’s Choice, a choice food pantry and emergency food market located at archdiocesan Catholic Social Services’ Montgomery County Family Service Center.
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