It was just after 10:00pm, and my wife and I were watching eagerly as our gelato was piled onto cones, two or three scoops high. We had just finished an incredible dinner in Rome, Italy, and were capping off the night with some of the best of this Italian dessert. As we headed for the door, I looked out the window, where I could see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica only a couple of blocks away.
I was feeling proud to be a Christian. It was only a few days before that I stood just outside of St. Peter’s and met Pope Francis, shaking his hand, sharing a smile, and promising to pray for him. He’s a hero of mine, and that’s probably because he reminds me of Jesus. I also knew he’d want me to enjoy this gelato, so I quickly turned my attention back to that.
As I stepped out onto the sidewalk, there was a man hurriedly digging around in his pocket. Before I could turn and head down the street, he pulled out a small paper cup, which was crinkled as though it was something he used quite often. He smiled, but not with confidence or eye contact – he stared down at the ground shamefully, said a few words in Italian, and extended the cup towards me. I knew he was asking for money, but I said “No, I’m sorry” and kept walking.
I truly didn’t have any change, as I had left the last of it in the tip jar at the gelato shop. Still… as I continued down the street, I couldn’t shake the image of him frantically searching for the cup, hoping to get it out of his pocket before we passed him by.
And I had done just that. I passed him by.
Let’s just be honest for a second. It was late at night in a foreign country. We were on a back street, with very few people around. I was on edge, and it’s totally understandable to not stop and talk to a stranger, isn’t it? Besides, we all know you shouldn’t give people who are experiencing homelessness any money, right? After all, there have been so many stories of them using it for bad habits. Also, my wife was with me, and it’s not always safe or comfortable for women in that situation. All of these things raced through my head so quickly that my response was the only thing I could think to do: Keep moving and basically pretend he didn’t exist.
While, for some, it is the comfortable thing to do, this isn’t the Christian thing to do. It isn’t the human thing to do. This continued to eat away at me for days. I had woken up at 5am and stood in line for three hours just to have the chance of meeting Pope Francis, but I couldn’t be bothered for 20 seconds to interact with a fellow brother on the street? This isn’t the way Pope Francis would want it. It isn’t the way Jesus would want it.
Now, I don’t know where you stand on the proper etiquette of how/if to interact with people who have fallen on hard times and are living in the streets. There are many valid reasons to exercise caution, and I’m not judging anyone who wouldn’t have felt comfortable inviting this man to dinner or handing him a wad of cash, especially if it may be an unsafe setting. Many of us struggle with this but have no clue what the solution is. It seems that regardless of religion or social class, everyone has different opinions on how to handle a situation like that. I’m not an expert, but there’s one thing I know for certain. To ignore him was to ignore Jesus (Matthew 25:34-45).
Though interacting with people in extreme poverty can be uncomfortable, I believe when we are living in the Holy Spirit, to ignore them would be unbearable. This isn’t about avoiding guilt, it’s about being pro-life and recognizing the God-given dignity of each and every person. If you feel this ache the same way I do, I’d like to offer a few alternatives to simply passing them by.
1.) For starters, feel free to make eye contact. We don’t do that enough anymore. It’s how you let another person know you notice them. When talking to my dog at home, I make eye contact. What possible excuse could I have for withholding that from a person? If you’d like to do more than just make eye contact and smile, start a conversation by asking their name. They’ve likely been called many other names in recent times, including “bum,” but there’s one name they’ve answered to ever since they were a child. It was a part of who they are long before “homeless” was. It will help you see them as who they are – a real person, not just a shadowy shape sitting against a wall. Find out what it is and use it.
2.) Let them know you’re a Christian and offer to pray with them. In Acts 5, Peter’s shadow healed people. I was standing about 200 yards from where Peter’s bones are buried, and I didn’t allow myself to be a vessel of grace like he did. As Christians, we are to bear the light and love of Jesus to everyone, but especially the downtrodden. It might have been a while since they’ve heard the voice of God, and that might be why it’s you encountering them today and not someone else. If they don’t want to be prayed with, promise to pray for them – and actually do it.
3.) Of course, you can also just have a normal conversation with them. Ask them where they’re from, talk to them about the latest in sports or culture – they may have read a newspaper or seen a TV in a public place lately, and be more up-to-date than you might think! They always need prayer, but they might also need a small talk. Small talk can have a big impact on someone’s outlook on life, and make them feel like they’re an actual part of society.
1.) If you don’t carry cash, or feel comfortable giving money to people experiencing homelessness, try instead bringing them something to eat or drink. If it’s something non-perishable, they can keep it for later if they aren’t hungry right then. If you carry around a few fast food gift cards, you’ll always have something to hand them that you can trust they’ll spend on food. Another option would be to adopt a system my wife Sarah and I have been using for a few years, and that is to carry “blessing bags” with you. We keep one or two in the car at all times. We just take a large, sturdy ziploc bag and fill it with toiletries, granola bars, feminine products, some quarters for laundry, wet wipes, and anything else you think might bless them or lighten their load for a bit.
2.) Maybe you don’t have a stash of these things on you, but you’re running errands or heading into a store. Ask them if they need anything, and tell them you’d gladly pick it up for them and bring it out. A coffee, new socks, or some granola bars would be a small expense, and a huge blessing for them.
3.) If you’re really serious, familiarize yourself with some local homeless shelters. Have their addresses or phone numbers handy. There are several apps that can help you find the nearest food pantries or homeless shelters – if you’re traveling to a new city, get one of those on your phone so you can always point someone in the right direction.
The Follow Up
1.) You may not be able to follow up with the specific man or woman you encountered on the streets, but helping those who experience homelessness doesn’t need to end once you walk away from them. You can give your time or money to a local food pantry or homeless shelter. There are several organizations who are helping these people full-time, and your support would be invaluable. You can be a part of the movement in more ways than one.
2.) Spread the word about some of your encounters. This isn’t to show everyone how holy you are, but to encourage them to look compassionately upon those experiencing homelessness and not be afraid to simply have a conversation with them. You may not be able to reach all of the homeless in your city, but between all of your family, friends, and Church family, I bet you can reach most of them. All that’s missing is a little inspiration – it comes from the Holy Spirit, and it can flow through you.
I hope that the next time you find yourself in a situation like mine, you don’t feel that your only option is to look straight and keep walking. As the successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis said, “We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them.”