March 2, 2014
Therefore do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness… (1 Corinthians 4:4)
Homily delivered at St. Pius X Parish, Indianapolis:
St. Paul writes, Therefore do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness.
When I was going through formation to become a deacon, we were challenged to seek out some type of charitable work that we had never done before. Our formation directors were upfront about why they asked us to do that. If we had never worked with a particular population before, it was likely because the thought of working with those people made us uncomfortable. We had preconceived notions about who they were and what they must be like.
I have spent most of my adult life working with teenagers – a life I have chosen; but that’s me. The thought of spending time with teenagers made some of my fellow deacon candidates uncomfortable. In their minds, teenagers were the enemy. After all, teenagers listen to inappropriate music. They take drugs. They are lazy and unmotivated. They spend all of their time plotting against adults on Twitter, and planning an eventual takeover of the world with their iPads and Smart phones.
I am familiar with addiction. I have been around it and seen the impact of the disease. I know the people behind the disease, and know them to be loving people who are in a battle for their lives. The thought of working with addicts made some of the deacon candidates uncomfortable. Addicts are reckless, careless, thoughtless people. They are selfish, and destructive, and sinful. Why help those people at all? They will just return to that same selfish lifestyle once I’m gone.
Teenagers and addicts don’t make me uncomfortable because I understand them. I have experienced them as people, rather than looked at them from a distance as those people.
Ironically, the same deacon candidates who were uncomfortable with teenagers made weekly trips to prisons to counsel inmates. Just as they questioned how I could choose to spend time with teenagers, I wondered how they could be comfortable working with prisoners. How could they manage to spend time with these thugs and lowlifes? How could they shake the hands of these heartless men and women, who would still be preying on other human beings if they hadn’t been caught?
Some of the deacon candidates who were uncomfortable with the thought of working with addicts had no problem working with single mothers living off welfare. How could that not make them uncomfortable? After all, those people were a drain on taxpayers. They have no self-control and are using the system. They chose to live that type of life, so why do we need to bail them out?
The list of people who might make us uncomfortable is long…people we would be challenged to work with on a regular basis. Visiting patients on the Alzheimer’s unit. Counseling women who have had abortions. Working a suicide hotline. Assisting people with disabilities.
And the homeless! Talk about a group of people sponging off of society! Why don’t they clean themselves up and get a job? They need to suck it up and stop asking for handouts. No one is giving me any handouts.
So, when the directors of our deacon formation challenged us to seek out some type of charitable work that we had never done before, I took a deep breath and signed on with HOOP.
HOOP is an organization whose volunteers bring food, clothing, and toiletries to the “hidden homeless” – those living in alleys, under bridges, in the woods and along the river, living in plywood shacks or under tarps.
On my first night with HOOP, I rode with Steve, the crew leader, so he could fill me in on how things work. Twice in our conversation he said, “We don’t ask questions. Just give them what they need.”
Those words stuck with me, despite the fact I didn’t really understand what he meant. Was he telling me not to have conversations? Just give them their food and move them on?
One of our stops that evening was in a church parking lot. There were 5-6 men in line to get soup and a sandwich. A man drove into the parking lot, got out of what was a pretty nice car, and walked toward us. He was dressed in business casual. I assumed he was coming to us to complain about what we were doing.
An hour earlier, I was handing a cup of soup to a man lying on the sidewalk in 20-degree temperatures. As I did so, a couple came out of their apartment across the street. They said to me, pointing to the homeless man on the sidewalk, “You need to stop feeding these people. They’re like stray cats, they’ll just keep coming back looking for more.”
I assumed the man who had just pulled into the parking lot was going to have a similar complaint. He continued walking toward us, then stepped into the food line. When he got to the front of the line, I felt awkward. I was thinking, “This guy doesn’t need this food. What is he doing?”
I handed him some food, but it made me uncomfortable. This was stealing as far as I was concerned. Taking food from people who really needed it.
I shared my frustration with Steve. “Did you see that guy? Should I have refused to give him anything?”
He repeated his earlier words: “We don’t ask questions. Just give them what they need.” This time he added, “It’s not our place to judge. We don’t know their stories.”
He continued: “This is a good example. The man you just gave food to is Stan. He runs a small business down by the river. There is a homeless man living on his property. He brings him food every day. I told him if he ever saw our van he could stop by. It’s not our place to judge. We don’t know their stories.”
That is exactly what I had done. Because I did not know his story, I had judged this man to be a thief, stealing food from people who really needed it. Just the opposite turned out to be true.
By calling Stan a thief, I was no different than the couple that had referred to the homeless man as a “stray cat.”
The message learned that night was powerful and has carried into my daily life. When I see students act out at school, I don’t automatically assume the worst, because I don’t know their stories. Maybe there is a cause for what I’m seeing.
When the waitress is rude or a co-worker gets angry, I withhold judgment because I don’t know their stories.
When we stop thinking about people as stray cats, or thieves, or thugs, or drains on society, maybe then we can see them as human beings. Maybe then we can see them as children of God.
What if those people were just people?
Think of the possibilities if God were the only one standing in judgment.