“Pope Ramps Up Charity Office to Be With Poor.” That was a headline in the November 29th St. Louis Post -Dispatch. Pope Francis is making headlines like this almost every week now. What a concept. He wants church members to use the instruction book written by people who knew or at least heard about a man named Jesus centuries ago. They call him the Christ and people who follow his vision Christians. From what I’ve read about this man they admire so much, he chose to help people in need rather than pursue an occupation that would have provided him with a comfortable lifestyle. He might even have been able to afford all the hallmarks of status like owning a sports team or building a chain of stores using tax credits and slave labor.
But he chose to do what Pope Francis is now telling his man at the Vatican who is in charge of charitable works. Go out and find the poor. The archbishop in charge of doing good for people is quoted in the PD article as saying: “The Holy Father told me at the beginning: ‘You can sell your desk. You won’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor.’”
Which made me think of some incredibly brave volunteers who venture into the streets and alleys of downtown St. Louis when it’s cold enough to freeze to death. A few years ago, a social worker organized these Winter Outreach volunteers when one of her clients froze to death in a bus stop shelter. I happen to know one of the volunteers and have been collecting blankets and other items for about four years, or, as they used to say in North Dakota before global warming, “four winters.” These are the true Christians although I’ve never asked them if they even go to church. It doesn’t really matter. They are “religious” in the best sense of the word.
I saw on the news the other night that the Red Cross was helping a family who lost their home in a fire. That got me to wondering who helps people who lost their homes to corporate greed and bank fraud? Who helps those people who lost their jobs because of the Great Recession? It’s nice that a family who lost a home to fire gets help, and the Red Cross is a wonderful organization. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they help people who need it. But there are hundreds of families without homes in St. Louis, and they survive by finding food at churches and sleeping behind dumpsters in alleys. The city authorities don’t want them spoiling the fun of visitors to downtown going to ball games or concerts. So they keep them out of sight. Keep moving them around. They close a park here and a park there. They make it illegal to feed folks outdoors with no place to live. But it’s okay to feed the pigeons.
Pope Francis made quite a stir last week when he claimed that “unfettered capitalism” kills not only our bodies but our souls. Wow. That’s one brave Pope. I wonder if the cardinals who elected him are having second thoughts? No one else at that level of authority dares to criticize the “free market.” I had never thought about “Thou shalt not kill” quite that way before, but he’s right. There are sins of commission and sins of omission. Shooting someone is an obvious crime. But what about when we let people freeze to death? What about the children living in cars or abandoned buildings? What kind of life will they have? What have we killed in their little hearts and minds?
Another story on the local news last week was about a middle aged man who had been brutally beaten by his mother when he was too small to defend himself. He found a “family” in a gang and did some terrible things to other human beings. After doing prison time, he now lives with damage to his body from gunshot wounds and years of drug abuse. That wouldn’t be much of a story for television, but he now spends his time urging young kids not to follow his path. And here’s the kicker. His story was going to air the next night right after “Survivor.” Really? Survivor? Am I the only one who sees the irony here?
When the weather forecasters tell us to bundle up because of freezing temperatures, I wonder what the people living outdoors do to “bundle up.” I’m thankful that there are so many organizations collecting coats, food and other necessities this holiday season. It really helps a lot. But I wonder why we separate ourselves from those in need? The vast majority of us are glad to share our bounty as long as we don’t have to actually mingle with the poor. This is what makes Pope Francis so newsworthy. He himself shared meals with the homeless when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. He sought out those who needed comforting.
John Lennon encouraged us to “Imagine.” That’s not easy for an old cynic like myself. But I’m going to imagine bishops and other leaders of faith communities going out on a freezing cold night with the St. Louis Homeless Winter Outreach volunteers. Their Facebook page tells when they will be heading out and where to meet. If you have a van, that would be nice. I wonder how many church vans sit idle on cold nights? I wonder how long before we decide as a society that every human being deserves food and shelter without having to beg for it. We are caught in a trap of our own making. We run each other down to get the lowest price on a flat screen television and call that “holiday shopping.” It’s going to take someone with a lot of clout to turn our attention back to what’s really important. That might just be the new Pope. Imagine that.