It had become almost a habit. I would see a street person asking for money, roll down the car window, and hand him or her a couple of dollars. Then I would drive away, feeling good about myself as the words of Jesus played in my head: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink.” As I handed my meager donation to the person in need, I would often imagine Jesus standing in place of the person. After all, it was Jesus who said, “What you do for the least of my brothers you do for me.” However, it was only after a close family member, Gary, fell on hard times and became homeless that I began to see street people in a whole new light. Witnessing firsthand the downward spiral of the life of someone I knew and loved opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of the words of Jesus.
When Jesus traveled the roads among the people of Galilee, he proclaimed that the reign of God was in their midst, but he also said it was coming. I understood this to mean that every time we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger, the reign of God is made visible in a tangible way. I began to understand this reciprocal dimension of servanthood when Gary eventually came to live with us. With each passing day, the reign of God was revealed to me in unexpected ways.
Gary had gone from sleeping in homeless shelters to having a room of his own and access to a fully stocked kitchen in our home. His gratitude was palpable, but gradually I realized there is more to the reign of God than basking in the glow of being a “good Samaritan.”
The reign of God is also present in the day-to-day challenges and tensions that accompany family life. It is present when we work through disagreements, choose to overlook a thoughtless remark, or extend an olive branch after a disagreement. When I felt impatient, was tempted to judge, or gave in to discouragement, I saw Jesus in Gary—Jesus the teacher challenging me to rethink my need to fix and control rather than discover the hidden grace within the challenges that are part of life.
Daily I witnessed the reign of God being released as Gary appeared more confident of our love and concern. As his invisible wounds continued to heal, Gary was able to initiate simple acts of kindness, preparing meals for us, even surprising us with tokens of appreciation.
This was the reciprocal dimension that comes with giving, which may explain why so many homeless individuals express their gratitude for whatever they receive by saying, “God bless you.”
Hidden within every act of giving and receiving is a type of divine energy that is released. It raises up those who have been cast down and awakens in the giver a deeper appreciation for the goodness of the other. And so both are blessed by God. The experience may be fleeting, and they may not even recognize it, but in that moment when the worth of the afflicted person is acknowledged, he or she is empowered to bless the other.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the words “God bless you” flow with ease from the lips of the poor. Such blessings are an outward expression from one who has been lifted from the shadows.
When we treat someone with the respect he or she deserves, the reign of God is revealed and hearts are transformed. And through the act of giving, both the giver and receiver are changed. In fact, it might be difficult to distinguish who is gifted more through the experience.
The encounter is not simply about the few dollars that have been placed in the palm of another’s hand, but about a sense of solidarity that is established between the giver and the receiver. A few dollars will do little to change the status or temporal well-being of a poor person, but with each gift, he or she is reminded that life matters and that he or she deserves a better life.
Each time we give, we unleash the power of God, since every act of kindness done in the name of God reminds the giver, the receiver, and any bystanders that we have been called to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Perhaps few people understood this better than Saint Francis of Assisi. When SaintFrancis embraced the leper at the crossroads of his life, both Francis and the leper were changed.
Perhaps for the first time since the disease invaded his body, the leper experienced the power of love through the gentle touch of another human being. The act became a defining moment for both the saint and the leper. God had chosen an outcast of society to be a conduit of grace that would transform a conflicted young man into one of the greatest saints in the Catholic Church.
The reign of God was made present, and in that moment both lives were touched by God. From then on, Francis was drawn to lepers because each encounter became an encounter with Christ and an opportunity for Francis to be Christ. As he went about tenderly anointing their disfigured bodies with the chrism of love, Francis became another Christ for the lepers.
And so it was that the power of divine love was unleashed in the hills of Assisi, just as it had been when Jesus of Nazareth traveled the dusty roads of Galilee. That same power is being released today on street corners, in homeless shelters, and around kitchen tables, as it was in our home.
Just as Jesus showed us what the reign of God looked like when he reached out and shared his love with the least and the lowly, so he invites us to be agents of change by continuing the mission he began. It was not a one-and-done event, but is evolving, and all who follow in his footsteps are part of the process.
When Gary came to live with us, God was using Gary’s presence in our home to awaken in me the need to examine old ways of thinking. Early on, Gary voiced certain dietary preferences, and I admit to feeling indignant. I thought that he should be grateful for whatever we set before him. But as I prayed about my resistance, I began to realize that such thoughts were rooted in a sense of superiority that had no place in Christian charity. After all, why should I be allowed certain preferences while denying someone who is my brother in Christ the same?
It was an awakening that not only manifested itself in my thoughts, but also led to Gary and me working together side by side in the kitchen, trying new recipes, and exchanging shopping tips. It became the ground for personal transformation and in the process, our dinner hour was transformed from being strained to enjoyable—a reality I can only attribute to the grace that is unleashed whenever the reign of God is present.
I learned so much from being in the company of those who are homeless. Whether listening to their stories in a soup kitchen, observing Gary being lifted from the shadows of society, or teaching a class in a homeless shelter, there were times when I felt as if I were sitting at the feet of Jesus, learning firsthand about patience and humility.
Being around homeless individuals has called me to question the importance I place on material possessions and has challenged me to strive for a deeper trust in God. In serving others, I am learning that the reign of God is not stagnant, but ongoing and a life-giving reality that is present when we are open to both giving and receiving.
I also came to realize that charity is not about replacing the face of the homeless with the face of Jesus. Charity is about actually seeing the face of the homeless. It is about looking into the eyes of the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized and treating them with the kind of love that Jesus afforded them.
It is no longer enough to see Jesus in the face of people in need; I am being called to be Jesus for them. And then—O blessed irony of ironies—they become Jesus for me, wearing not the face of the one being served, but the one who is serving.
Such discoveries are ongoing and we grow into them slowly, not so different from the way Francis, the Poverello (“poor man”) of Assisi, grew into understanding his role in the Church. When Francis heard the voice of Jesus speak to him from the cross at San Damiano, telling him to rebuild his church because it was falling to ruin, he began by repairing churches, stone by stone, until he discovered that the Lord was asking more of him.
Like Saint Francis, we may begin building the kingdom of God by performing small acts of kindness toward family and friends. But gradually, and in God’s time, as our understanding of the reign of God deepens and we are open to setting aside old ways of thinking, we, too, will become aware of opportunities for greater service. And when we embrace them in the name of God, our hearts will overflow with perfect joy. Like Francis, we will discover the irony of perfect joy: that it is in giving that we receive.