When I first came to the U.S. thirty-one years ago, my friends warned me about many things. They kept insisting that I should always resist the temptation to pick up hitchhikers on the highway. About twenty-four years ago, one winter morning I was driving on an undivided highway south of Champaign, IL, and did not heed their wise counsel and my better judgment. As I was driving back to the university after celebrating Sunday Mass at a little country church, I saw someone walking by the side of the road. It was cold. I kept telling myself that it would take the guy at least four hours of walking to get to Champaign. I slowed down hesitantly as I wanted to help the person. The voices in my head urged me to speed up and escape… The young hitchhiker had already taken a look at me and he had seen my white collar. At that point, I had no choice but to stop.
After I picked up the young man, we sat there in silence for a few moments. Then he spoke up, “Thank you for picking me up. I have been wandering around the last couple of days. I just got out of prison last week and I have nowhere to go.” I felt as if someone had punched me in the pit of my stomach. Then he continued, “I was put in prison for some minor crime and stayed there for almost three years. All that time, no one in my family ever came to visit me.” My heart went out to him. He went on, “They gave me a couple of hundred dollars as I left the prison. The money was all gone in a few days. I can’t get an apartment because I don’t have enough money. No one wants to hire me because of my background. The jobs that I can get don’t pay me enough to be able to afford a place to live.” I was shocked by the face of poverty that I had encountered. Growing up in India I had always imagined that the streets in America were paved with gold. Here was a young man, white and in his twenties, and he was poor and alone.
The previous two nights he had slept near the railroad tracks. It must have been very cold out there. I asked him whether he had eaten anything. He was hungry. I stopped by a McDonald’s and gave him some money. He accepted my small gift gratefully but asked me to drive him to the bus station. He had some friends in Chicago who would help him. I dropped him off at the bus station. That was the last time I saw him. Often I wonder where he is right now. To this day I feel regret that I should have done more.
I hope when I come to the doors of heaven the Lord won’t chide me for not welcoming that young man enough. Maybe I should have gone more out of my way to help him. Almost daily we receive individuals who knock at the rectory door asking for help. It is our policy not to give out money but we do help them in tangible ways. We direct them to our Social Services Ministry that will assist them to the maximum extent.
From time to time you read in our bulletin how our Social Services Ministry is helping so many people in our community. Last Saturday we had a “Date Night” wherein Sr Alicia, the winner of “Chopped” cooked for the couples. All the sisters from Our Lady of the Angels were present and Fr. Lombardo publicly said, “Without the help of St Paul of the Cross Parish, we could not exist.” Over the last several years I have personally witnessed how generous our parishioners are towards the poor and the needy. Many guilds undertake individual projects to come to the aid of different groups. The birth of the Servants of St. Francis has significantly enhanced our outreach. In addition to giving of our financial resources, we are now getting our hands dirty feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless. Our teens and college students embarked on three service trips which engaged almost 100 young people and adult chaperons. Let us hope that, through all these efforts, we become the parish community that is committed to serve the poor in evangelical compassion.
St. Vincent de Paul whose feast we celebrated on September 27 dedicated his life to the poor in Paris. He reached out to his rich friends and with their help took care of numerous needy people. He always insisted that our love must be “effective.” In other words, if we do not love the neighbor we can see, we cannot claim to love the God we cannot see. He wrote, “We must love God… but let it be in the work of our bodies, in the sweat of our brows. For very often many acts of love for God, of kindness, of good will, and other similar inclinations and interior practices of a tender heart, although good and very desirable, are yet very suspect when they do not lead to the practice of effective love.” He summarized his own life thus: “I am for God and the poor.”
This year as we read from the Gospel of Luke every Sunday, we will encounter St. Vincent’s message over and over again. We are challenged to take care of the poor and the needy, the stranger and the refugee, the sick and the homeless. Let our love for God be effective!
Born in India to deeply-committed Catholic parents, Fr Britto is one of seven children. He joined the Salesians of Don Bosco as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1981.
After he completed his priestly formation and his early education in India, he came to the US for his graduate degree in Journalism at...Read more...