When you give a banquet, invite the poor.
When I was working in campus ministry and social ministry in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, Iowa, one of our ministries was to bring meals on Fridays to the local homeless shelter. Parishioners and students would go to cook meals at the shelter and I would join them a few times a year.
In the 1990s we began a student service and justice team to lead various service activities in Ames and nearby communities. They met each week to prepare upcoming activities, but also to reflect on their experiences in the light of their faith. It was probably the closest I’ve ever come to a base community in the US – combining prayer, reflection of scripture, fellowship, and service to the poor.
Many of them loved to lead the groups of students preparing meals at the shelter. Some of them began activities with the kids at the shelter. They were extraordinary young people – and they are now extraordinary adults.
I insisted that they went to eat with the poor, not merely prepare food for them. They would meet at the student center, decide on a menu, go to buy what was needed at a grocery store, and then go to the shelter and prepare it in the kitchen. Then they would sit down and eat with the residents
I am convinced that this changed the lives of many of them, as they sat around the table with the men, mostly homeless wanderers, and shared stories.
One of our service and justice team members, Maria Lux, painted her memory of one of those meals. The painting hangs at the Emergency Resident Project in Ames.
What strikes me is that these students had an opportunity to meet the homeless as real persons, with stories of joys and sorrows, of success and failure. The poor were not a group; they were Joe, Harry, Marty. Eating beside these men, the students could recognize the bonds between them.
So many people I know are very generous – but from a distance. A few people I know are advocates of the poor – but from a distance. Very few, but many from groups like the Catholic Workers, know the poor by name and sit down with them at table. They know that we are one.
This is a hard message for me, and for many of us. We prefer a disembodied charity and an advocacy of justice from above. Getting our hands dirty with the poor, eating and speaking with them are hard. But I think this is what God wants.
I write this on Saturday, August 31, the anniversary of the death of John Leary in 1982 at age 24. I met John a few times at Haley House, the Catholic Worker House in Boston. He came to Boston to study at Harvard, but he found himself working with the poor, sometimes sharing his room with them. He was an advocate for peace, protesting and being arrested two times at a Boston weapons lab. He lived the seamless garment, also being arrested once at an abortion clinic. He worked at the Pax Christi Center for Conscience and War with Gordon Zahn. He embodied the love of the poor, the advocacy of a seamless garment of life, and a nonviolent life. But he was also a man of God. One of his prayer was praying the Jesus prayer as he jogged. He died, jogging home from the Pax Christi Center to Haley House – probably with the words of the Jesus prayer on his lips.
He had given his life, as a banquet for the poor.
May we find ways to eat at the table with the poor, making ourselves friends with the poor. As Paul wrote to the Romans (12:16):
“do not be haughty but associate with the lowly”