I was in New Orleans for six days in July.
New Orleans was a shock.
I was somewhat saddened by what seemed misguided – if not sometimes sordid.
I saw many people walking around, or standing outside, drinking. I was surprised by the number of people with tattoos all over their bodies. I was surprised seeing the palm readers and zodiac advisors just outside the cathedral.
I don’t consider myself a prude. I enjoy a beer or a glass or two of wine. But something didn’t seem right. I did see same-sex couples holding hands, but that didn’t bother me at all. (I know a number of such couples.)
But what most saddened me was the large number of people on the streets either passed out or sleeping. A good number of people were also sitting on the sidewalks with hand-written signs asking for a dollar.
What to do?
I gave to one or two. I tried to have eye contact with others. But as the week went on I found myself pausing and bowing when I saw someone asleep or passed out on a sidewalk.
Just as I bow before the altar at Mass and genuflect before the Eucharist, I found myself moved to reverence God present in the least of these.
I’m not sure that it changed my way of responding to their requests. I’m a little too hard-hearted and cheap. But I’m beginning to recognize that the Lord is present and I need to respond to them as I would to the Lord.
That’s not going to be easy.
There is the story of the experience of Thomas Merton at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, that can help me. As he wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream….
There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….
That’s almost what I wanted to do during the last two days in New Orleans. That’s what I need to learn and practice every day.