|By Fr. Brendan McGuire
Pastor of Holy Spirit Parish, San Jose and Vicar General for special projects, Diocese of San Jose. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harden Not Your Heart
Some time ago, I attended the inauguration of the President of the University of Portland. It was two days of festivities and we finished early on Friday night. I was staying at a hotel in downtown Portland and when I arrived back at the hotel I was thirsty. However, I did not want to pay the price of that bottled water at the hotel, a thimble of water for $5! There was a Rite Aid store around the corner so off I go. As I was walking into the store a beautiful dog caught my attention. She was lying on the ground with all legs in the air being scratched by her owner, a homeless man sitting on the ground beside her.
As I shopped, I thought to myself that I should buy another bottle of water and some extra food just in case I decided that on the way out I would talk to this homeless man and his dog.
As I came out, I knelt down and petted the dog, starting a conversation, “What’s your dog’s name?” He said, “Spooky.” I said, “Spooky. That is an unusual name for a dog. Why did you call him Spooky?” He said, “Because the streets are spooky!”
He was a 25-year-old man named Michael. He had been on the streets over six years. In the ensuing half hour conversation, as I was sitting beside him petting his dog, we had a profound encounter that changed my life. I asked how he ended up this way; there was no apparent reason, no alcohol, no drug abuse, no apparent mental illness. I asked, “Michael. What’s your story? Why are you on the streets at such a young age?”
He said, “My mother died when I was young and my father beat me so I decided it was safer out of the house. I left.” I said, “Didn’t you have any relatives to go to?” He responded, “Yeah. I went to my grandparents and I lived with them for a while until both of them died. I had nowhere else to go so I went to the streets. That was six years ago when I was 18.”
After lots of conversation, I asked, “What can I do for you, Michael?” He replied, “Can you give me a job?” I replied, “I don’t live here. I live in San Jose.” He retorted, “Can you give me a job in San Jose?” I wasn’t expecting that one! I said, “If you make your way to San Jose, I can probably get you a job.” But then I asked him, “What can I do for you tonight?” And he said, “Nothing. You have already done it. You’ve done something that nobody has done for me in months. You’ve talked to me; you’ve treated me like a human being. I haven’t felt this good in months!”
I pressed further, “But is there anything else I can do for you tonight?” He said, “Could you buy me a warm meal?” I said, “Sure. Where do you want to go?” He quickly added, “There is a street merchant over there that sells meals for $5.” I inquired, “If I give you that money, will you really buy a meal. You won’t use it for drugs or alcohol?” He smiled and added, “No. I don’t drink or do drugs.” After giving him money for more than a few good meals, I asked “Is there anything else I can do for you?” “Can I have your phone number?” he quickly asked. I pushed back, “Yeah, I can give you my phone number but what will that do for you?” He thought for a moment and added, “In a couple of weeks or months, when I don’t feel good about myself maybe I will call you and talk to you? And feel good just for a few more moments. It was sure nice talking to someone!”
When I left him, and went back to my hotel with my bottle of water, I wasn’t able to sleep. I paced my room to figure out the injustice of our world; how it happens that a 25-year-old has become so hopeless, so desperate that he lives on the streets begging.
The sadness for me was I didn’t actually see him. I saw his dog and then I saw him. How pathetic is it that I don’t even see the human being first. I was ashamed of myself. As scripture says in the responsorial psalm, MY heart was hardened!
I do not have the solution for why homelessness happens. I am not going to judge why Michael is on the streets or how he got there. I do know this; there is not a lot of difference between him and me! Whether it was my good fortune and his bad fortune; my apparent good choices and his apparent bad choices. He ends up in a place where he needs help. I am in a place where I can give help. So, I helped him but I still feel helpless!
In today’s Scripture, Jesus is telling the Pharisees and scribes that these gifts have been given to the people to share. Sometimes our mistake is that we think the gifts we have been given are for us. Jesus, in today’s Scripture, is saying, “It is given to all and you must produce the fruit.”
I know we get messengers in our own life who help us break open the presence of God. In this case, it was a homeless man, Michael and his dog, Spooky. Are we willing to hear the messengers that God puts in our lives to wake us up to reality?
This week the Lord asks us not to harden our hearts. He asks us to produce good fruit with what we have been given. We are asked to listen to the messengers in our life and to allow our heart to be softened; to hear the message of God in our life. Now that may be a homeless man for you; maybe it might be your spouse; it might be a child or a parent or a perfect stranger. Harden not our hearts; may we open our hearts and hear the call of God.