(Bear witness. Show love for God and neighbor while trusting what science teaches us. Stay safe and help others remain safe. Add your face to the gallery: https://www.youwillseeme.org/create.)
A story rises up in me tonight, needing to be told. I am not sure why but I must follow the inner prompting.
Late last week, I was heading into Walgreen’s to pick up a prescription when I met him. I had just left church, my heart still warmed by Eucharist.
It had been a while since I had encountered anyone on my way into the pharmacy and I had wondered if they were cracking down on the panhandlers. Part of me secretly hoped they were. Another part (a better part, I hope) wondered where the poor were going during the pandemic.
Are there no places left to beg?
In any event, on this cool evening, I saw a young man lingering by the door. I braced myself, both knowing and not knowing what was to come.
As I reached the entrance, he apologized for stopping me and said that he wasn’t going to ask me for money. “Could you just buy me something to eat? I’m so hungry. I already have a dollar.”
“My name is Earl.”
This last part surprised me. Usually I am the one to initiate the introductions.
When I didn’t immediately say no, he continued, “I’ll wait until you take care of your business inside. I don’t care how long it takes.” Looking over his shoulder, he added, “I shouldn’t be standing here.”
Apparently they were cracking down. Undoubtedly people had complained at regularly being accosted by the poor.
Having agreed to help him, I was not surprised to find him waiting when I emerged ten minutes later.
Part of me just wanted to give him some money and be on my way. But I knew that was not what I was called to do. It would be easier – but not right.
It was not quite dark and the street was well lit. Normally it is a busy street but for many weeks it has been largely torn up in perpetual construction. I assessed the risks.
He chose a carry out pizza place within view and we set off walking, giving us an opportunity to talk.
“Pull up your face mask,” I repeatedly chided him, though clearly the mask had seen better days. “For your protection.”
He grumbled and complied.
I asked him how he came to be asking strangers to buy him food.
“My mother won’t have me anymore,” he replied without rancor. “I’m on probation.”
The charge had been assault. He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask him to. When I asked his age, I was surprised to learn that he was 27. I would have believed him if he had said 17.
He appeared so young, so thin, so lost.
His eyes were bloodshot. From drugs? Or perhaps from the exhaustion of living on the street? It didn’t really matter. He was hungry.
He didn’t have much body to hold up his pants and he tugged at them as they slipped.
“I don’t have a gun,” he assured me. “My pants just won’t stay up.”
We arrived at the shop where pizzas were basking under warming lights, waiting for someone to claim them.
Earl asked for a small cheese pizza. The worker, who also needed to pull his mask up, produced the pizza and looked a bit puzzled when it was time for money to be produced.
“I’m buying,” I filled the awkward moment, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Earl momentarily looked alarmed when tax was added, thinking perhaps it was going to cost more than I would pay. I assured him and paid it. (Probably a “tip” for the worker given that carryout food is not taxable in Ohio.)
Sniffing and caressing the box, Earl seemed to relax for a moment, anticipating relief.
As we left the pizza place, Earl paused. Inwardly sighing, I sensed what was coming next.
“Could I have $3 to pay this guy so I can stay at his house tonight? It’s going to be cold tonight.”
He was right. The temperature was predicted to drop into the 40’s. His clothes were thin. Two or three dollars seems to be the going rate for a night on someone’s couch.
I thought of how many things I buy that I don’t really need.
I gave him ten and we parted ways.
But he lingers in my memory. How will he ever survive?
I know I’m a fool. You don’t have to tell me.
All the things that could have happened to me.
How he probably used the money for drugs or alcohol.
That I’m reinforcing panhandling.
Yes, I know.
But, having just received Christ our Savior into my heart, could I possibly have said no? Can I claim communion with the Lord but ignore His lost child?
I cannot help but call to mind the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, often cited as “evidence” that there is a hell, a place of eternal damnation.
Whether one accepts this notion or the more merciful universalism I have previously defended, the utter gravity of the Lord’s warning cannot be ignored.
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.
Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.St. Matthew (25: 31-45)
I cannot fail to note that our Savior only issues this dire warning once in all of Scripture. He does not address this warning to those who have abortions or are homosexual, much less those who lie or steal or covet or murder.
It is not that He condones these disordered behaviors.
Rather, He is making it abundantly clear that we cannot claim righteousness before Him by simply keeping the Law.
In the end, it is not the Law that truly matters. We are broken and it is not the Law that saves us.
We are saved only by the love that pours forth from the heart of Christ – a love that not only keeps the Law but fulfills it in self-emptying sacrifice.
We who believe know that Jesus was not merely a wise man who lived 2000+ years ago. He is the anointed One, the eternal Son of the Father.
In His eternity, He is not gone from our midst.
He walks the streets. He is hungry. He is sick. He is naked. He is in prison.
Indeed, I am a fool. I do not write this to justify myself but to condemn myself.
I did not do nearly enough.
Forgive me, Earl.
May God in His mercy walk with you and guide you and protect you.
I have wrestled with whether to write this piece. I do not want to seem to be using my blog, a place that I have considered a sacred space, as a political tool. I begin writing now with the prayer of discernment that I often offer at such times: speak through me – or make it not work out so that I will know that it is not Your will.
I have chosen to write because I consider these highly dangerous times. Those of you who know me know that I am anything but a conspiracy theorist. Hence, I do not sound the alarm casually. However, when I see disaster on the horizon, I cannot not remain silent. It is not that I believe my voice has any real power in the world but I still must make it clear which side I am on when the battle gets fierce.
There are many dangerous things going on in our world today. There is a pandemic that is resulting in suffering and death for hundreds of thousands around the world. There are signs of great disturbances in the health of our planet, as each year we see not only increasingly devastating hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires, but we receive dire reports of habitats permanently changing as a result of human activity.
Beginning in our country, we see widespread outrage over racial inequalities and brutality against people who are different by race, gender, orientation, status, etc. While the protests were triggered by a brutal act by police in Minnesota, around the world there are too many outrageous acts to keep track of. I just read yesterday how a woman of lower caste in India died after being gang raped by men of a (so-called) higher caste.
I could go on. But the danger I wish to write about rests not so much in these events but in the spiritual warfare that underlies them. I have written about spiritual warfare before and there is nothing new about the fierce battle between good and evil that plagues our planet. But I sense that we are on the brink of something different, a turning point in the battle from which, if we ignore it, there may be no turning back. That our nation, indeed our world, is so polarized is but a sign that we are reaching a critical juncture.
I am not about to claim that one political party in the upcoming election is good and the other is evil. We are all corrupted by evil, even when we believe we are behind the “right” cause. But I must say that I see many signs that Donald Trump is a dangerous man. While this sounds like it cannot be anything but a political comment, please bear with me. Please know that I regularly pray for his redemption. I do not hate him – but I believe that, knowingly or not, he has become a tool of the evil one.
While many people may have voted for him in 2016 because they believed he would represent conservative values or defend the right to life of the unborn, he brought with him considerable spiritual baggage that should have been alarming to people of faith. It is not my place to list or judge his sins – the media has done that job thoroughly. But it is very concerning that he has developed what seems to be a cult-like following of people who say they will support him no matter what he does. Indeed, he has even bragged of this – that he could shoot someone point blank in public and not lose a voter.
This is dangerous. He speaks of himself in superlatives, while denying all of the dangers around us – denying the seriousness of the pandemic, of climate change, of racial oppression. Publicly given a direct invitation, he failed to distance himself from white supremacists who support him. A good many of his supporters speak of him as though he were the messiah, sent by God to preserve Christianity in our nation. It seems to not matter that so much of his personal and political behavior stands in direct opposition to Christian values. Need I point out that it has been said that the antichrist will present himself in this way?
I am not suggesting that Mr. Trump is THE antichrist. I would have no way of knowing who that is or when that figure will appear. But it is not hard, looking at the evidence, to hypothesize whose side he fights for. It is not the Lord’s.
But many will argue: but what about abortion? Of all of the prominent politicians (i.e. those who have a chance of winning an election), he has taken the strongest stance against this evil. Because the respect for life is such a core value among many Christians, this value seems to supersede all others. Some feel they have no choice but to vote for Mr. Trump because of this issue, despite the many warning signs of deep corruption in his soul.
And respect for life should be our core value. Life is God’s gift to us and when we stop respecting it, we separate ourselves from the God who is the source of all Life and Love.
So what are we do to?
First, we must consider what it means to respect life. Simply being opposed to legal abortion does not mean a person respects life. Case in point: under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, abortion was outlawed in the Soviet Union after having been legal, with Stalin proclaiming that “giving birth was a great and honorable duty” and “not a private affair but one of great social importance.” Yet I cannot imagine anyone looking back on Stalin’s regime claiming that he respected life, given that he was responsible for 6 million noncombatant deaths, many his own countrymen.
So clearly respecting life is a more complex matter than simply opposing abortion.
A second point to consider: can sin save us from sin? Certainly not. Obviously, anyone we elect to public office is going to be a sinner. But there is a difference between one who arrogantly flaunts their sinfulness and one who attempts repentance, even if imperfectly. In just one example, Mr. Trump bragged about how he could grab women’s genitals because he was famous. I use this example, not because it is the most egregious of his misdeeds, but because he publicly bragged about this sinful behavior. One who publicly brags of their sins and lies day after day with no expression of regret cannot be trusted to do the Lord’s work. One does not hire an enemy to lead the battle against the enemy.
Having made these points, I recognize that some cannot bring themselves to vote for a candidate who is tolerant of legal abortion. I myself find it distasteful, even if that candidate shows more respect for life on virtually every other social issue. Some may argue that I am doing the very thing that I argue against: proposing to vote for a sinner – one who publicly accepts legal abortion, while personally opposing it – a stance unacceptable to the Church. Am I not also engaging the enemy to do the Lord’s work?
Mr. Trump’s most prominent opponent is a Catholic by faith and by baptism. He has suffered many tragedies in his life and he has publicly spoken of how important his faith has been to him. Yet he is regarded by some as “not in good standing” because of his political stance on abortion – and that is a valid point. He too is a sinner and, based on his public platform, it could be argued that he is not a fully repentant one either. He is compromising his spiritual values, very likely because of political pressure.
Must I vote? Must I choose one sinner over another?
We are at war. I cannot stand by and do nothing.
If Stalin were running for president, would I do nothing, say nothing, refuse to vote in an attempt to defeat him?
God forbid that I say nothing.
And so I speak out, here and now, against evil. Abortion is evil and it stems from a deeper evil festering in the post-modern soul. Capital punishment is evil, depriving a sinner of the opportunity to repent. Turning away the homeless and hungry who flee from violence is evil, as is separating families and putting children in cages. Destroying the environment, recklessly removing efforts to protect it, endangering all generations to come is a grave evil. Lying to the people about a deadly virus, pretending it is harmless while knowing that it is not, discouraging people from protecting themselves from this scourge – this too is a great evil.
I eschew it all.
But in the end, I must vote. I must take a stand.
Will I choose the arrogant and dangerous sinner with messianic fantasies and little regard for the suffering of others? Or will I choose the weak sinner who compromises his values in hopes of still accomplishing some good?
I will vote for the sinner who is most like me – the one who is weak, who compromises, but who still speaks out against injustice and has compassion for the poor and suffering.
May God have mercy on us all.