By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Many winter mornings while waiting in downtown St. Paul outside a coffee shop for our city bus transfer, a woman we identified as a “bag lady” strolled past our group of high school students. We all attended the same Catholic high school but you might not have known it based on our reaction to the woman who appeared to be homeless. I, for one, felt a sense of superiority toward the woman and laughed at her mannerisms. What happened to the compassion I claimed to hold for people less fortunate than me?
Some years later, while running through downtown San Francisco on my first wedding anniversary, I came across disheveled men sleeping in doorways. Shocked at this scene, I ran as fast as possible in the other direction. I wanted nothing to do with these men. What happened to the compassion I claimed to hold for people less fortunate than me?
As my prayer life began to deepen after the San Francisco encounter, God held me accountable for my professed claim to compassion. “Your actions and behavior need to match your words,” I could sense God telling me. In the intervening years, I have been amazed at the number of opportunities God has placed before me to encounter people who are less fortunate, who behave outside of the norm or whose actions repel me.
It happened in Knoxville, Tennessee while I was attending a Catholic Press Association conference. While walking near Vanderbilt University, I saw a woman who appeared (at least in my mind) to be homeless. She looked down at the sidewalk. When I greeted her with a hello, she looked up, amazed that someone had acknowledged her.
Now, I strive to make eye contact and say hello to people whom I might be tempted to avoid or ignore. I ask to serve at the counter or in the dining room of a meal site where I volunteer on occasion, hoping to feel comfortable making conversation with our guests. Such encounters still require me to step outside my comfort zone but I can almost hear God (or maybe my mother) say, “Practice makes perfect!” A friend of mine from our parish relishes her interactions in the meal site’s dining room. Her encounters appear natural and comfortable. She converses with the meal site’s guests as if they were friends. I hope to reach that point. I’m not there quite yet!
Last summer, while walking toward downtown LeClaire, I saw a woman ahead of me who appeared disoriented. I could not tell whether she was talking or singing until we were within close range of each other. Then I heard her rambling monologue that made no sense. The look on her face left me feeling uneasy.
This troubled pedestrian clearly needed help. I walked to the LeClaire Police Department to report what I witnessed. The officer who took my call via intercom said he was aware of the pedestrian and she insisted she did not want help. However, he planned to send out an officer to extend another offer of help. The LeClaire encounter replays in my mind. I regretted not having said at least “hello” to the distressed woman.
Last weekend, I attended an ecumenical retreat on self-care. Among the many insights our presenter, mental health nurse practitioner Chris McCormick Pries, shared was to ensure that our actions and behavior match our words. Another nudge from God that no matter what another person is going through, I need to convey not a sense of unease or distaste but a smile, a greeting and if necessary, an offer to help.
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at email@example.com)