What am I supposed to do when I see a panhandler?

keep-the-change1

“Could you buy me a cup of coffee? And a donut?”

A man named Wayne stopped me outside a Starbucks in Milwaukee early one morning recently, where my family and I were visiting for the ordination of our friend Michael to the priesthood. I had just left the shop with a couple of coffees and pastries in hand, which I was bringing back to the college dorm where we were staying.

“Sure,” I said, and we walked in together.

“Thank you for doubling back,” Wayne replied.

I ordered the coffee and Wayne pointed toward the donut he wanted in the glass display case. The barista gave me a perturbed look. “You know, you don’t have to buy him anything,” he said. He had certainly met Wayne before. Surprised and embarrassed, I mumbled something back and paid.

Wayne and I shook hands, and he sat down at a table to eat and drink. I left the shop for the second time in five minutes, and started asking myself questions the moment I hit the sidewalk. Did I do the right thing? Did I do anything to stop the cycle of poverty, or did I perpetuate it by encouraging dependency? Was the barista upset because Wayne frequently takes advantage of the generosity of college students who are usually around? He hadn’t asked for money, after all, but for something tangible and inexpensive. Was he a little too practiced? What will I do if I see him again tomorrow? I felt resentment growing in me. Moments later, I walked past a city-sponsored sign posted on a store window: “Keep the change. Don’t support panhandling.”

This encounter reminded me of one of the most common questions I get asked when I give talks at parishes and schools around the diocese: What should I do when I see someone panhandling on the street? I usually outline arguments on either side. Pope Francis, however, was more direct when asked the question in an interview this past February.

“There are many arguments to justify oneself when you do not give alms. ‘But what, I give money and then he spends it on a glass of wine?’ If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that is fine,” the Holy Father said. “Instead, ask yourself what you do secretly. What ‘happiness’ do you seek in private? […] Help is always right.”

Pope Francis’ responses echoes the sentiment of Servant of God Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” If we, like Jesus, strive to see the dignity in every person, then it’s not smart to spend time trying to judge the worthiness of a particular person we meet. Of course, it is also good to support organizations that fight poverty in more systemic ways, and some situations might not feel safe enough to give. But it is never bad to be compassionate in the moment. Who knows if Wayne was “deserving” or not? Only God.

The Holy Father said more about these sorts of encounters, emphasizing the human dimension of the interaction. “Certainly, it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins at the poor. The gesture is important, helping those who ask, looking them in the eyes and touching their hands,” he said. “Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian.” This is a key point: The spirit of our response is just as important as the tangible support we offer. Do we see the person asking as a beloved Child of God? Or do we see him or her as an annoying inconvenience, or as a vehicle for helping us to feel good about ourselves for doing something nice? I went through the motions of shaking Wayne’s hand and looking him in the eye, but I was silently judging him and sizing him up the whole time.

The people I know who are most genuinely compassionate and nonjudgmental in their accompanying those living on the margins of society probably didn’t get that way overnight. Instead, it took them years of practice: hundreds of encounters, over and over again, with individuals and families who live in poverty. Jesus did the same in the Scriptures. His time spent with the poor and the hurting wasn’t haphazard or fleeting. He made his home on the peripheries. He built relationships with the suffering. Encounters, over time, became kinship.

This summer, when time commitments become a bit less overwhelming for us, maybe we can make it a priority to connect with an organization that accompanies the poor and spend some time there. There are dozens of great organizations and agencies across the diocese and beyond. Connect with your parish if you’re looking for an idea, or email me directly (michael.laskey@camdendiocese.org). Our compassion muscles will only strengthen if we use them.

Advertisements

Welcoming Refugees is the Lord’s Work

refugees

Have you ever had a moment when you just knew the Holy Spirit was at work right in front of you? When your spine tingles and your eyes grow wide? I experienced one of those sacred encounters in a Catholic school basement in Cherry Hill last year, and I’ll never forget it.

I was moderating a panel of folks who work for our Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program. They welcome individuals and families who are fleeing violence and persecution around the world and help them adjust to their new lives here in South Jersey. Two of the panelists were former refugees themselves who now work for the program, including a lovely man named Francis, who is originally from Burma (now called Myanmar).

At the start of the program, I told the crowd that the refugees who move here are living and working and going to school right alongside us, whether we knew it or not. The panel’s goal was to help raise awareness of the work Catholic Charities is doing and share with attendees how they could get involved. How might we all be good neighbors to these newly arriving members of our community?

We took a short break in the middle of the event, and I made small talk with Francis.

“So, where do you live?” I asked.

He told me.

“Wait, where?” I replied. My spine tingled and my eyes grew wide.

It turned out Francis and his family lived right around the corner from me. They were my literal neighbors. I drive past their place every day. I had no idea.

Read the rest of this column at the Catholic Star Herald.

Social Justice Lessons of Christmas

 

holy-family-refugees
Every Christmas morning, my friend Sean’s parents would load their three sons into the family car and head to a local soup kitchen. Sean and his brothers would help out by putting napkins and flatware on the tables, then a hot meal would be served and gifts distributed to the patrons. Sean’s dad sometimes dressed up as Santa Claus.

On the first day back from Christmas break one year during middle school, Sean’s teacher asked the class what they had done over the holidays. “We served a meal at the soup kitchen in the morning and then we came home and celebrated,” Sean told his class. An awkward silence followed. Sean could tell that kids around the room were staring at him.

“That was the first time it occurred to me that this was not the way most of my friends spent their Christmases,” Sean remembers. “One of my favorite parts about serving was that it wasn’t a big deal. My parents really did a good job of integrating it into our holiday traditions. It was just something we did.”

For many of us, the Advent and Christmas seasons are times when we feel an especially strong pull to reach out toward those who are in need. Why? Maybe one reason is that while Christmas is supposed to be full of joy and togetherness, we realize that there are so many people in the world who are hurting and lonely, and we feel called to close that gap. Sean’s family surely responded to this call in a powerful way.

One thing I love about the Christmas stories found in the Gospels is that they so clearly affirm the season’s tradition of compassion. The stories are chock-full of love, justice, and God’s special concern for those who are poor and vulnerable.  Let’s explore these themes by focusing on a few of the Christmas season’s central characters: Mary and Joseph; the Christ-child; and the shepherds and Magi.

Mary and Joseph

It’s impossible to imagine. The Virgin Mary – a devout teenager, not yet married to Joseph – is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she will bear the Son of God. At first, she is “greatly troubled” by this unexpected news. Mary, after all, knows the punishment other unwed mothers have faced in her community: execution by stoning.

But, drawing on the deepest well of faith ever known, Mary says yes to God’s plan. She says yes to life.

This time of year, I spend a lot of time thinking about other mothers who are facing unexpected pregnancies, and wonder about the trepidation many of them must be feeling. I pray that our communities of faith can be places of welcome where all parents – single and married, well-off and struggling – feel supported in their choice for life.

Mary found this sort of radical hospitality in Joseph. When he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, his first instinct was to divorce her quietly, protecting her from shame and violence. Then, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him not to fear, but to care for Mary and her unborn child, he took Mary into his home.

Their journey together took them to Bethlehem and then, in the Gospel of Matthew’s account, into Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. This must not be forgotten: The Holy Family was a refugee family. How relevant and painful it is to reflect on that fact against the backdrop of the world’s current refugee crisis.

On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I went to a prayer service for migrants and refugees at Catholic Charities’ headquarters in Camden. The room was filled with Catholic Charities staff members and recently resettled refugees who had just finished an English class. Some of the refugees have arrived here in the past few months from Syria, welcomed by Catholic Charities and working to build a new life in South Jersey. During the general intercessions, prayers for refugees were read by a handful of the refugees themselves who have become confident English speakers. I have had very few, if any, more powerful experiences of prayer in my life. How might the world be different if every Christian around the world consciously saw the Holy Family in each refugee family?

refugee-prayer-service

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, hosted a prayer service for migrants and refugees on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (PHOTO: Mary McCusker)

The Christ-child

What can we learn about God from our belief that he came into the world as a baby boy?

God could’ve come to Earth wielding the power of a superhero, but he didn’t. Instead, he came to Earth as the Christ-child, incarnating “transparency, vulnerability, defenselessness,” as the great spiritual writer Fr. Ronald Rolheiser puts it. “Ultimately though that power, helplessness and vulnerability, is the greatest power of all because it, and it alone, can transform hearts,” Rolheiser writes. “You don’t soften hearts by overpowering them. You transform hearts through another kind of persuasion.”

There has been a collective, societal obsession with on political and military power this year – even more than usual, perhaps. Christmas is a reminder that God transforms the world (and invites us to join in the work) with gentleness.

Shepherds and Magi

Both of our Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth include visitors to the manger: shepherds in Luke and Magi in Matthew. Why?

Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that shepherds in first-century Palestine were “among the lowest-esteemed laborers.” That they are Jesus’s very first companions in Luke’s Gospel sets the stage for Christ’s later ministry, during which he consistently accompanied those who were poor and marginalized. As disciples, the way Jesus spent time is a model for how we might spend time; his priorities should be our priorities.

While the Magi aren’t poor or vulnerable the same way the shepherds are, they come from outside the Jewish community, and reveal how the love of God made flesh in Christ embraces all people. The boundaries we build up to separate groups based on race, religion, class, age, ability, and more are not of God. Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, cuts to the heart of this idea in his book Tattoos on the Heart. “No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it,” he writes. “Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”

If our Christmas season in 2016 is filled with radical hospitality, respect for the dignity of life at every stage, and kinship with the marginalized, our celebration will surely look a lot like the very first Christmas. Or, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” May every heart prepare Him room! Merry Christmas!

book-quotes-about-christmas-gk-chesterton

 

“Fill in the Blank” with Widian Nicola, DSW

When she was eight years old, Widian Nicola moved to the United States from Israel with her Palestinian-Catholic family. She has an incredible, inspiring story of facing the challenges of life as an immigrant in this country with faith, hope, and love. She’ll share parts of her story with us at our annual Life & Justice gathering, which is set for Saturday, October 22 at St. Charles Borromeo in Sicklerville. The theme for the day is From Stranger to Friend: Called to Welcome. Learn more and register at camdendiocese.org/mercyministry

In anticipation of her visit, she played a fun round of “Fill in the Blank.”

Name: Widian Nicola

Hometown: Mi’ilya, Palestine and Vancouver, WA (Currently Titusville, NJ)

One thing I love to do is: listen to podcasts!

One person who inspires me is: my spiritual director, Sharon Browning, who has undoubtedly helped me to grow in my faith more than anyone.

My favorite place is: my home. I have several plants on every window ledge and lots of space to rest and relax.

Job: Assistant Professor of Social Work and Licensed Clinical Social Worker

I’m a social worker because: I’m inspired to connect with and love those who are most vulnerable; there seems to be no clearer path to the Divine.

One cool fact about me is: When I arrived to the USA at eight years old, I knew only the numbers 1-10 and “yes” and “no.”

If I had a meeting with Pope Francis, I’d tell him: Thank you for your faith and for representing our community with such great love.

Catholic parishes could more effectively be agents of welcome for migrants and refugees by: creating opportunities for intentional dialogue to foster connection. Why not host a multi-cultural event or potluck? Or perhaps an “adopt-a-family” program? Invite newcomers to holiday gatherings at your home and ask if they wouldn’t mind sharing a dish from their native country, offer tutoring to help your new neighbors learn English, or create a community pamphlet that lists all the stores where a family might get all their household supplies. In all things, to welcome means to be intentional and extend oneself for the sake of the other.

Register for From Stranger to Friend: Called to Welcome at camdendiocese.org/mercyministry.

Celebrate Mother Teresa with a Day of Service

Anjezë (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Albania in 1910. Growing up, she was fascinated by the stories of Catholic missionaries, and thought she very well might enter religious life herself. When she was 18, Agnes entered the Sisters of Loreto, taking the name Sister Teresa in honor of St. Therese of Lisieux.

Eventually, Sister Teresa ended up teaching at a convent school in Kolkata, India (formerly known as Calcutta), where she served for nearly 20 years. While she enjoyed the work, Teresa became increasingly troubled by the poverty, hunger, and violence that surrounded her in the city.

Traveling by train to a retreat on September 10, 1946, Teresa experienced what she would later refer to as “the call within the call.”

“I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order,” she said. “To fail would have been to break the faith.”

She shifted her ministry to begin working with the poorest of the poor in Kolkata, and started a new religious order called the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Without knowing it, she had changed from Sister Teresa to Mother Teresa, and the rest is history: She built up a community of sisters that accompanies thousands of the most poor and vulnerable people around the world, extending the compassion and care of Jesus to those who are so often ignored or forgotten.

mother-teresa-biography

On Sunday, September 4, Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa at a ceremony at the Vatican, giving her yet another name change: Saint Teresa of Kolkata.

I love that image of a “call within a call.” Teresa’s religious vocation did not end, but its contours changed. I try to listen for those calls in my own life. My primary vocation is as husband and father, but how might God be calling me to live out those vocations more deeply and faithfully as an employee, neighbor, or friend? Do I have the trust that Teresa had to try something new that’s worthwhile but risky? Mother Teresa’s witness is compelling, but so very challenging.

At the annual Romero Lecture sponsored by Camden’s Romero Center Ministries a few years ago, social ministry expert and founder of JustFaith Ministries Jack Jezreel led the audience through a thought experiment. “If you can imagine Mother Teresa standing in front of the room, I picture most of us looking admiringly at her, applauding,” he said. “Meanwhile, we’re looking out of the corner of our eye for the exit, backing up slowly, so as not to be too noticeable – all the while applauding. We admire her, but we want no part of her.”

Mother Teresa’s ministry makes us uncomfortable, Jack said. She and her sisters worked with the desperately poor and dying. She did not a run a back-to-work program; there were no traditional success stories. To most of the world, how she spent her life makes no sense. Why would we want to be a part of that?

Some people, Jack said, are able to pass up society’s version of “the good life,” cross over the boundary and enter into the reality of Teresa, the experience of universal caring that embraces the needs of all. “If somehow we can cross the boundary and engage in the mystery of faith and love, what opens up is a whole new world, a whole new vocabulary, a whole new set of touchstones for life’s living,” he said. “Once people make it across that boundary for the first time or the second time, they do not want to go back to the old ways.”

A move might like this might seem overwhelming or just flat-out impossible. We’re busy with all sorts of obligations and activities. But sometimes, taking just a small step in the direction of compassion can provide the spark the Holy Spirit needs to transform us into disciples who are empowered to live as Mother Teresa lived.

On Saturday, September 10, you’re invited to take a small step together with Catholics from all over the diocese as we spend a day in service to the community to celebrate Mother Teresa’s canonization. We’ll gather for opening Mass in Collingswood and Atlantic City, and then head out to serve with community groups like Catholic Charities and local nursing homes, food banks, and shelters. Disciples of all ages are encouraged to attend; visit www.camdendiocese.org/motherteresa to learn more and to register.

The date of the service day just so happens to be the 70th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s hearing her “call within a call.” What a fantastic occasion to participate in her legacy of love in action. And who knows – maybe you’ll hear a call that day, too.

Questions about the event? Email michael.laskey@camdendiocese.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pascasie from CRS Rwanda is coming to Camden (And she sent an awesome video greeting to us)

Pascasie Musabyemungu works for Catholic Relief Services in Rwanda, her native country. She’s visiting the United States this Lent to share her story and talk about the work of CRS, and she’ll be stopping by the Diocese of Camden on Wednesday, March 9, at 2:30 pm.

Download a flyer for the event here.

She’s so excited for her visit to South Jersey she recorded a special video greeting just for us! Check it out:

Event Details:

Pascasie Musabyemungu (CRS Rwanda) Special Event
Wednesday, March 9, 2016 | 2:30 — 3:30 pm
Diocese of Camden Pastoral Center (3rd Floor)
15 N. 7th Street, Camden, NJ 08102
Free admission
Registration required:
Email michael.laskey@camdendiocese.org to RSVP.

A bit about Pascasie:

Pascasie Musabyemungu has a mission: to work for peaceful, healthy communities in her home country of Rwanda.

Pascasie, who has worked with Catholic Relief Services for more than 15 years, will share stories of people whose lives have improved dramatically since they began participating in CRS programs.

Pascasie works with the hungry, people living with HIV, orphans, vulnerable youth, the elderly and people traumatized by a region rife with conflict and social division. The Women Building Peace Project Across Borders brings together 60 women traders to promote peace. The women serve as critical conduits of information, breaking down harmful stereotypes and preconceptions.

Pascasie was born and raised in the eastern region of Rwanda. When she was a child, her family provided food and essential living supplies to patients in need at a clinic near their home. Additionally, she and her siblings spent two afternoons each week caring for an elderly couple.

In 1994, Pascasie and her family lived through the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. These experiences profoundly influenced her decision to work for CRS and help others in her community.

Pascasie resides in Kigali with Laurent Twahirwa, her husband of more than 30 years. They have four daughters—Josianne, Carine, Christelle and Samantha—and four grandchildren.

img_2014