“Uh, Mom?” my son said, motioning towards the window of our parked car.
Outside the window, uncomfortably close, stood a slight woman, her face lined with age. I rolled down the window.
With nary an introduction, the words starting pouring out. Decades ago, she had come from deep in the South. She had worked in the circus, had been a barn hand, a stage hand, a waitress, and a house cleaner. She wanted to know where the circus went. She was looking for a job.
I told her it had closed.
She asked what the city thought about the homeless people sleeping on the benches at the bus stops.
I told her I didn’t know.
She said, with a hint of condescension in her voice, “Well, do they kick them out?”
I said, “I’m sorry; I really don’t know.”
She asked where the soup kitchen was. I told her it was the next town over, but it wasn’t open this day. With a sparkle in her eye, she recounted how she had heard that they served three meals a day.
She wanted to know if I knew of any rooms that were open. She said all the homeless shelters were full. I said I didn’t.
I offered her money to buy a meal down the road. She refused the money. She looked at me earnestly and said, “Oh, I am just so sick of fast food. It gives me a stomachache. I just want a room with four walls and three solid meals a day.” She swiveled on her heel and walked away. She was worn, but she was strong.
I felt my responses were inadequate.
He stood in the middle of the shopping plaza parking lot. On this day, the usually silent plaza air was awash in the joyous sound of his bandoneon. People talked and swayed and smiled. Here was a real virtuoso, giving away his gift for free. His wife, who would occasionally tap the tambourine in rhythm, held a sign that said “Donations.”
I went into a store and came out a few minutes later. Silence. Where had the music gone?
I found the couple against a wall, bandoneon locked away in its case. Deep smile lines led to eyes that belied a certain vulnerability. Having traversed many borders to be standing here in this plaza, they appeared weary and hungry. I looked for the donations jar. She said they had to put it away because the plaza manager had asked them to stop playing. I offered a donation. Her husband ran to buy a sandwich.
Silenced. Unwanted. Their gifts became invisible. They became invisible.
Again, I felt my response was inadequate.
Two encounters in two days—hunger knocking on my door. Followers of St. Ignatius are called to be contemplatives in action. So I contemplated. I asked myself what my action would be. What was God calling me to do?
I remembered Pope Francis’s words:
This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us….in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. (Evangelii Gaudium 198)
In this context, we can understand Jesus’ command to his disciples: “You yourselves give them something to eat!” (Mk 6:37): it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. (EG 188)
Driving to church that evening, I prayed. “I’m just one person. These are huge, overwhelming, systemic problems. What is it that you want from me?”
As I pulled into the church lot, I read the marquee: “Soup kitchen needs Tuesday meal cooks.”
I got the message. My contribution won’t solve world hunger, but it’s a start.