Last Sunday after church I was driving home when I saw a homeless invalid, a local beggar that I used to walk or drive past, most of the time, without giving a second look.
I mean, I was acquainted with him and used to give him something to eat or some money in passing, and always tried to be intentional about looking him in the eye and acknowledging his personhood by greeting him as I walked on by.
But he might as well have been invisible to me and the many motorists and pedestrians who were passing by him as he sat in his wheelchair on a corner sidewalk at one of the busiest intersections in town Sunday.
Driving by him this time, I noticed how despondent he looked. I stopped and parked my truck and walked back and introduced myself, which I had done before but a long time ago. I asked him if he was having a hard time and he said yes.
That’s how I’ve come to know the beggar Francisco more up-close and personal, in authentic friendship.
Here’s his story in brief:
Francisco, now age fifty, used to make a good living selling spices at communities and markets all over the far Western Belize area. Then one day four years ago, he stepped off a bus and was promptly knocked off his feet by a reckless man on a big motorcycle. The biker suffered some injuries and recovered in fine fashion while Francisco spent twenty-two weeks suffering from medical complications before surgeons had to amputate his legs.
Francisco lives out of his four-door Toyota sedan, parked under a shed in the parking lot of an auto-parts store.
The ravages of diabetes are beginning, in his own words, to “eat me up.”
“I’m fifty, too young to die,” he nonchalantly told me.
A lot of local folks and churches know Francisco and help him out when and if they can, giving him rides or slipping him some money or food. But the biker who torpedoed Francisco’s life has never given him a ride in his car, never offered him money, food or so much as an apology. Adding insult to Francisco’s terrible injuries, the biker owns a thriving, popular bar in town; he’s a long way from beggar status.
This is Belize, a Third World nation where medical care is free but mostly of bad to horrible quality and difficult for most people to access except for services like child vaccinations. There’s a reason that Belize’s Prime Minister went to Los Angeles for back surgery and the First Lady moved to Miami for the cancer treatments that saved her life–a reason why most Belizeans of any means move to, or build or rent second homes in, Guatemala City or Merida, Mexico, near Cancun, if they need something like, say, kidney dialysis. It and so many other treatments are rare and cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of Belizeans.
So Francisco lives in the kind of poverty that causes so much premature death in the world.
Francisco is “too young to die,” but knows he’s probably not long for this world and is preparing to meet his maker in the next, he says.
* * * *
In spite of whatever spotty help and support he gets in his reliance on the kindness of local folks, Francisco spends most of his time in the poverties of utter isolation and loneliness. When I finally snapped and took real notice of his existence Sunday, I observed that he had his head down and his face buried in one hand, with the other hand grasping the bright-red, plastic beggar’s cup that is one of his few possessions. He looked to all the world—-including all the motorists and pedestrians passing by him at that busy intersection as if he were invisible—-as if his loneliness had a stranglehold on him.
Francisco’s story brings to mind the words of the famous Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby,” with its refrain that goes “I look at all the lonely people,” and these words as well:
“All the lonely people, where do they all come from.”
“All the lonely people, where do they all belong.”
The answer, of course, is that they belong to us and with us, the people of a Christian tradition in which the first Christians simply wouldn’t have allowed a homeless beggar with no legs to suffer loneliness.
The great Quaker writer Richard Foster has pointed out that during and beyond the Apostolic Age, “there was an exuberant caring and sharing on the part of Christians that was unique in antiquity. Julian the apostate, an enemy of Christianity, admitted that ‘the godless Galileans fed not only their (poor) but ours also.’ Tertullian wrote that the Christians’ deeds of love were so noble that the pagan world confessed in astonishment, ‘See how they love one another.’”
At some point Christians started being more like the Priest and the Levite in the famous parable Jesus told about The Good Samaritan. They passed by, acting as if they didn’t even see the whipped-down victim by the side of the road. In doing so, they miss the opportunity to act in such a way as to fulfill God’s will for mercy, justice and doing unto others.
Francisco has not been beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, but he and so many others suffering in poverty still get whipped down by the hardest of knocks in life every day, hardly noticed if noticed at all by we Christians who pass by the opportunities to see them, listen to them, know them.
If we don’t pass by, we pass the buck to government or some cash-starved ministry or non-profit agency to take care of them.
And, preferably, we want them taken care of somewhere out of sight, out of mind, so that we don’t have to see them, much less get to know them and care enough about them to care for them.
Belize, my home away from home, has very few social agencies, homeless shelters or outreach centers like soup kitchens for the poor. But back in America, it’s easy enough for us to pass by the homeless beggars—-or pass the buck—-by rationalizing that, well, that homeless or hungry beggar can always go to some kind of social agency. Peter Maurin, the French Christian philosopher who inspired Dorothy Day to found the Catholic Worker movement, addressed this in one of his concise little “Easy Essays” called “Feeding the Poor at a Sacrifice”:
1. In the first centuries
the hungry were fed
at a personal sacrifice,
the naked were clothed
at a personal sacrifice,
the homeless were sheltered
at personal sacrifice.
2. And because the poor
were fed, clothed and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice,
the pagans used to say
about the Christians
“See how they love each other.”
3. In our own day
the poor are no longer
fed, clothed, sheltered
at a personal sacrifice,
but at the expense
of the taxpayers.
4. And because the poor
are no longer
fed, clothed and sheltered
the pagans say about the Christians
“See how they pass the buck.”
We can be the Priest and the Levite and pass by a Francisco, or we can take a bit of time to be Good Samaritans to those who may not be bloodied and beaten up on the outside, but are dying on the inside from the poverty of loneliness and suffering.
We can’t rescue everybody in the world or save everybody in the world, but we can make a little difference that might go a long way in rendering relief to someone like Francisco, who yearns for someone to treat him a human as much as he hungers for his daily bread.
St. Therese of Lesieux once said, “A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul.”
Knowing that people are praying for you can inject a little fresh life as well, so I’ll provide Francisco a good, healthy meal sometimes if you’ll provide him with the prayers that he would appreciate from you.
The story of The Good Samaritan from Luke 10:
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’