My recent trip to Italy was a blessing for many reasons. Aside from being amidst some of the most amazing architecture, art, food and culture in the world, I also had the opportunity to reflect and contemplate my place and purpose here in the world. One of the things that struck me the most on my travels was multiple encounters with the Italian beggar. Most of these beggars stand outside of churches quietly asking the passerby for alms. Many are lame or deformed as was one woman who had no nose and another who had a very severe facial birthmark and yet another who had no use of her legs and scooted around on a makeshift dolly. None were obtrusive, just simply asking for compassion from those passing by. Most people including Howie and me often simply walked past them into the grandeur of the churches we were seeking to visit. Occasionally someone would stop and place a coin in the plastic cup held by the appreciative hand there to receive it. On some occasions, I too placed a coin in these cups. The lady who had no nose inspired great compassion in me, not because of her deformity, but simply because I felt she saw herself as undesirable. I wanted to give her that coin so that I could look at her in the eyes to let her know that I did see her and that she was beautiful as God's own child. Another person of whom I wanted to eagerly give a coin and to look into her eyes with love was an older woman standing outside of a church who looked to me like the Tomie DePaola character Strega Nona. I wondered about her, where her family was, why she needed to beg for alms.
Since returning from Italy, I have continued to think about the Italian beggars and why they made such an impression on me. Just as important I have thought about why it is that the beggars I encounter here in the United States have become almost invisible to me. When I lived in Austin, Texas, I use to have great compassion for those who were on the streets. I would give a dollar or two to anyone whom I encountered on the side of the road. I bought the Austin Advocate newspaper from those who sold it at the stoplights. I hurt for those who were less fortunate than me and I wanted so badly to help in any way that I could. I was told that I shouldn't help by giving money to those beggars, that they only spend it on alcohol or drugs. I didn't want to believe, but soon I stopped giving, and turned my head upon passing by those who held signs. Why did I lose my ability to have compassion for these people? After returning to Knoxville, the amount of homeless people that I encountered decreased significantly. It has only been in recent years that I have had the opportunity to witness actual street homelessness in downtown Knoxville as it has been revitalized and I have the desire to frequent it more often. I have also had the opportunity to encounter homelessness within my own church walls with opportunities to serve homeless families through Family Promise. With each opportunity to be in the presence of those in need, I feel the walls I had built up crumble a little more as well as a renewed feeling of compassion and desire to help.
This week at the start of Holy Week, my thoughts on compassion have turned not only to those who are homeless but also towards those whom I encounter every day; my family, my friends, my coworkers, they lady at the local store. How is it that I show compassion to everyone that I encounter? In my thoughts I could not help but think of the sixth station of the cross when Veronica steps out of the crowd and with compassion in her heart wipes the face of Christ with her veil. What a simple act, but what an amazing act of love and courage! In my everyday encounters with each person I meet, I want to step beyond the border of the crowd and reach out in love and courage to offer a simple act of real compassion when and every time it is needed. The risk is to take on the pain of another, but what I have found is that my heart grows bigger with love and I truly feel alive with God's Spirit. Simply put, we are all in need of compassion. May we all have the courage to act in compassion for another as well as receive it's gift when we need it.
Matthew 25: 37-40
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’