On a recent trip to New Orleans, I was walking down a street in the French Quarter early in the morning aiming for Café du Monde to get a taste of their famous beignets and café au lait. The night time revelers had abandoned the now quiet passages to homeless people curled up in doorways, and the only music was from street cleaning machines and delivery trucks preparing for a new onslaught of tourists. As I strolled along enjoying the architecture and the silence, a thin young man with a teardrop tattoo under one eye approached me and asked for money for breakfast. He said it was his birthday and we then had a pleasant conversation about famous people born on that day in history. I asked where he was planning on eating and how far away it was. He mentioned a cheap chain restaurant up on Canal Street and said he hoped to make some money on the way there. So I said I would be happy to pay for his breakfast if I could buy it for him there and if I could join him. He declined the offer and we wished each other a good day continuing our separate paths.
How often do we encounter people who beg something of us and in a split second we decide either to give them something, to refuse them, or not even look at them? I know that I am not consistent in my response, even after all my years in the work of charity and social services. That morning I had time to engage in a conversation. I was conscious that this young man was someone’s son, perhaps someone’s brother. Given his speech and behavior, he may have been struggling with mental illness or addiction. He clearly needed money, but was desperate for something more than breakfast. Yet he was still a human being with dignity and purpose. Reflecting on that encounter, I felt as if I had met Jesus. I left feeling I could have done something more, but that giving him money would have made me feel good, but not necessarily have been a solution for him. What was more important was the recognition of his humanity. I was the one blessed by that encounter.
At Catholic Charities, we welcome people every day who struggle with mental illness and addiction. They come through our doors, not to beg for a handout, but seeking healing and recovery. I am grateful for those we are able to help, and pray for those who are not yet ready to seek help.
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