This is a story of shame.
Fortunately, I acted on my shamefulness and have committed to moving forward in faith.
But still, it’s a story of shame.
Last summer, I was extremely fortunate enough to be chosen to sing in the choir that would accompany the Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, celebrated by Pope Francis.
It was a deep honor, both as a musician and as a Roman Catholic, and I wrote about it here.
The rehearsal schedule to prep for this Mass was rigorous; each Monday evening for eight weeks or so, I left my office in King of Prussia and drove to the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. There, with dozens of other singers, I rehearsed my part.
The timing meant that I could not accommodate dinner, so I often swung through a nearby Wawa after rehearsal was over, grabbing something to eat and devouring it on the drive home.
As the date of the Papal Mass approached, our rehearsals switched to Verizon Hall, with accompaniment by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
One evening, I left rehearsal, blew through Wawa and walked to the garage where I had parked my car.
As I was about to get in, I looked up and saw him. A homeless man was standing about 20 feet in front of the hood of my car. His face was shrouded in darkness, as the sun had already set.
I heard him ask: “Can you give me something to eat?”
Cards on the table, I was fearful.
I fumbled for my keys, tossed my bag of food on the passenger seat and got in.
He continued to stand there.
I felt safer in the car; I knew it would be only a moment or two before he walked away.
Which he eventually did.
So I jammed the keys into the ignition and pointed my car for the safety of the western suburbs.
When traffic eased, I reached for my Wawa bag.
And a wash of guilt flooded me.
Here I was, preparing for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis – a pope whose personal embrace of the poor and needy was his hallmark. And I couldn’t see fit to share even a portion of my meal with a hungry stranger.
The hoagie stuck in my throat. The Tastykake tasted rancid. The iced tea became cloying.
I stuck the remains of dinner back in its bag and drove home.
The incident stayed with me. In fact, it’s still with me. I have prayed for that guy… perhaps to lift him up, perhaps to ease my guilt at ignoring him.
I was bothered on a number of levels:
- My absolute hypocrisy at participating in the Papal Mass while ignoring Christ’s message of care for the needy.
- My unfounded fear of this guy. So much for “Be Not Afraid.”
- My inability to see Christ in another person.
Fast-forward to this spring.
I was in Washington, D.C., at an awards luncheon, accepting recognition of our PR work at the office.
The meal was plentiful and was expertly presented, and at the finale, several boxes of cookies were presented to each table.
I was already full. I had had salad, entrée and a dessert. The cookies were an extra.
I took two and slid them into my briefcase. I figured I would release them from their cellophane packaging while commuting back to Philadelphia on the afternoon Amtrak train.
When I left the event, the weather was sunny, and D.C. was looking fine. I decided to walk back to Union Station, rather than cab it.
As I progressed, taking in the sights of the nation’s capital, I saw ahead of me a bus kiosk. And next to it was a woman sitting on the sidewalk with her possessions around her.
What to do?
Was she mentally ill? If I engaged with her, was I in any kind of danger? Should I just keep walking? I don’t know…
I was getting nearer and nearer to her. And struggling. “You need to see Christ in her,” I told myself. “And you need to be Christ for her.”
See Christ. Be Christ.
But still, a thread of fear was present.
As I passed, though, she cinched it: “Do you have change so I can get something to eat?” she called.
Moment of truth.
And then, I remembered my cookies. The cookies that I didn’t need. The cookies that would only have represented a level of gluttony at that point.
So in one, swift motion, I swung my bag atop a nearby news box and snapped it open. Reaching in, I said, “I have something that might be just as helpful.”
I dug around, grabbed the pair of cookies and handed them to her.
“Go ahead,” I said. “They’re still sealed. They’re okay.”
She took them and thanked me.
I closed my bag and walked on.
In retrospect now, I’m somewhat proud that I overcame my fear and reached out. Still, I reached out from my excess and not from my need. And that’s something I’m committing to working on.
Sacrifice isn’t sacrifice unless it represents a gift that’s meaningful, that’s given from the core, that maybe stings just a little.
But the takeway that stayed with me – and that I’m still trying to reflect – is the outlook that drove
See Christ in others. Be Christ for them.
I'm not publishing this story to demonstrate a moral high-ground. Or to witness to my status as a good Catholic. Or a good Christian, for that matter.
Maybe my point is the simplicity of it all: