Serving “the Least” Among Us

begging handsMy office is located in the Central West End area of St. Louis City. Every day I travel Highway 40 to the Kingshighway exit and usually have to stop on the exit ramp, waiting for the light to change. Many days, while I am waiting for the light, I see a man or woman, presumably a transient or homeless person, standing by the road, begging for assistance.

This typical scene played out for me in a different way a couple of weeks ago. I exited the highway, stopped at the traffic light and saw a young man holding a cardboard sign on which he had printed in neat, black letters: “No job. Need help. God bless.”

I had experienced this situation so many times over the years that my mind was numb to the man’s plea and my brain went into auto-pilot with doubt and judgment:

  • I avoided eye contact with the person (because if you can’t see them, they can’t see you – any two-year old will back me up on that one).
  • I thought about the stash of coins in my car’s console and the dollar bills in my wallet (but questioned if my contribution would help the person, or just feed an addiction).
  • I questioned whether the person was legit. (Is this for real, or a scam?)

I questioned … I judged … I did nothing.

Then I saw the window roll down on the vehicle next to me and a young, high-school age girl reached out and handed the man a couple of dollars. The man accepted the simple donation with a grateful nod and the young girl responded with a look of great joy and happiness. The light changed and the vehicle next to me left. And so did I …

An Image of Christ the King

In today’s Gospel (MT 25:31-46), Matthew introduces us to an image of Christ the King as one who will judge us for our actions. In the story, Jesus divides all of the nations into two groups: those who lived an acceptable life; and those who did not.

We learn from this story that:

  • Those judged positively will be invited to inherit the kingdom God has promised us.
  • Those judged negatively will be cast into eternal fire prepared for the devil.

Today’s Gospel encourages us to live our lives for others and teaches us the corporal acts of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, hospitality to a stranger, clothing to the naked, caring for the ill, visiting those in prison). Today’s story is about two things: Doing and Being.

  • Doing the work of Christ to help those in need
  • Being and living like Christ with a giving and joyful heart

How We Can Serve Like Christ

So, how do we live like Christ, especially when dealing with “the least” in our lives? I conducted an informal survey this week using social media. I posted a question to my Facebook friends and asked them:

  • How do you react to beggars you encounter on the street?
  • How do you address their request for money and other support?

What I learned is that there are many different ways to face this issue.

  • Some were very comfortable giving money directly to those in need. They didn’t judge the person and his or her intentions. They simply saw this as a way of answering God’s call to be charitable.
  • Other’s didn’t feel comfortable giving money directly. They chose to give them other things, like gift cards to restaurants or the lunch they had packed for themselves.
  • One person commented about how she keeps protein bars in her car to give to those who are hungry. Another commented on sharing a spare coat with someone in need.
  • Some were quite bold and took the hungry person to dinner.
  • Still, others preferred to make donations to support those organizations that assist those in need.

Their varied responses reminded me of the old Chinese saying (slightly modified): Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. Send the man fishing with Fr. Santen (my pastor) and all he’ll want to do is fish every day!

The common theme in all of these responses was: 1) they all did something; and 2) they did it with a joyful heart.

It’s easy to see a poor, homeless person begging for money as one of “the least” in our world. But, for the most part, we don’t encounter a lot of beggars in our parish community. But we do have many people in need and (fortunately) we have many great ways to help them.

Our St. Vincent de Paul Society is one great example of a local resource for those in need. They do great work in a spirit of service and outreach. I encourage you to read their information in the Bulletin and on the St. Joe Website. You can make a monthly donation to this organization, using your parish donation envelopes, and you can place money in the “Poor Boxes” near the doors in church to help support their work.

You can also help the St. Vincent de Paul Society this Thursday at the Thanksgiving Mass. Each person is invited to bring an offering to support their work in the form of non-perishable food or a monetary offering.

A Call to Action

This week, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us reflect on who are “the least” in our world and how we might answer Jesus’ call to serve them. Let us continue to pray for peace and justice in our world, and let us pray for joyful hearts that lead us to take action.

And as we approach the altar today to receive God’s grace in the Eucharist, let us be open to the power of God’s spirit working in and through us, calling us to a life of service to others.


One thought on “Serving “the Least” Among Us

  1. Vandy Nies

    Once again, Dan . . . excellent! This topic is near and dear to my heart because I was married to a man who had incredible compassion for the less fortunate people in our world. I wrote this piece that ran in Catholic Digest in February 1992: Several hundred people, mostly clustered in groups making uneasy small talk, filled the “Williamsburg Room at the funeral home. Many faces were familiar to me, though it was sometimes difficult to attach a name to them. Some I had never seen before.
    My husband Jerry had had a way of making friends wherever he went, often with people who were forgotten by the rest of the world, and sometimes with company executives or people of success by worldly standards. Jerry said they all fulfilled a mission to bring the Lord into his life. He saw Christ in them all. It was not uncommon for someone to approach me and explain a unique circumstance under which my husband had encouraged a relationship. Jerry had frequently commented that he learned invaluable lessons through people.
    Occasionally, I would wonder how some of those people could possibly make a difference in his life, or he in theirs. Sometimes my patience got a little frayed when I thought one of his friends usurped too much of his time, made him late for dinner, or took advantage of him. “Why do you let that happen?” I would question. That evening at the funeral home, God gave me an answer.
    While attempting to welcome visitors and well-wishers, concern for our five young children and the gnawing emptiness of losing Jerry contributed to my sense of oblivion. I was unaware of much of what was happening around me. One older woman, who remained in the back of the room continued to draw my attention, however. She wasn’t someone I knew. She appeared lost in the sea of people.
    A well of tears in her eyes and her drawn face bespoke the personal loss she was experiencing at the death of my husband. Since she made no attempt to move toward me or the casket in which Jerry’s body rested, I approached her.
    Her manner of dress was plain and somewhat “old-fashioned,” and her hair was pulled to one side and fastened randomly by several bobby pins. As our eyes met, I smiled. She did not return the smile, but held out her very cold hand. She said, “I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry!”
    As I introduced myself, I caught a glimpse of a canvas tote bag, a larger valise, and a shopping bag from a local department store. They were filled, I am sure, with all the worldly belongings of the woman who stood before me. My heart sank as she once again said, “I’m sorry!” Her tears began to flow freely.
    She apologized for her “lack of control” as I hugged her. Then she said, “You might think I’m selfish, Mrs. Nies. But, you see, all these people still love you. You husband was the only person who ever loved me!”
    Just then a member of the funeral home staff called me to the phone. When I returned, the nameless woman had gone. But not before she changed my life. I’m not surprised anymore at how one person touches the heart of another. Jerry was right: God frequently walks into our lives in the shoes of other people. And aren’t we blessed when He does!


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