Churches are sometimes havens of last resort for people in need, whether that need is spiritual, emotional or physical. This is often true for churches in impoverished areas. We belonged to one such parish some years ago.
One Sunday after weekend Masses, we were almost ready to close the doors when we noticed a disheveled man talking to a bewildered parishioner. Knowing we might not be able to do more than lend some words of encouragement, we offered to help.
The visitor told us his story. He had traveled from a distant place and had a job, but no transportation and no shelter. Without transportation or shelter, the likelihood he could maintain a job was doubtful.
Our parish had connections in the community and so we were able to offer him some options. We did not tell him we would pray for him though, of course, we did pray. For people in dire circumstances, words about prayer sometimes ring hollow. The 25th chapter of Matthew reminds us that living our prayer means more than offering words.
This man's story had much in common with many of the invisible poor who walk our streets. The absence of shelter, transportation and work make it almost impossible to gain a toehold in society. Our parish did have an active food pantry and St. Vincent de Paul Society. Still, encountering individuals often reminded us of how little we were able to offer as long-term solutions.
The truth is, every time we meet someone in desperate straits, they teach us a little more about who we are and who we are not. We have learned we can't solve other people's problems. The greater the problem, the less likely we are to have the solution.
Sometimes the best we can do is to offer to help them build little bridges between the empty "now" and a more hopeful tomorrow. Humility comes with admitting we don't have all the answers.
As we approach the season of food baskets and longer soup kitchen lines, it is good to encourage those who work on behalf of others. We recall St. Paul pouring out his life like a libation, running his race to the end.
We, too, are to pour ourselves out, remembering that St. Paul often found himself in jail, fought with at least one of his companions, saw trouble in the churches he had built and was, at least once, chased out of town.
Before the birth of Christ, long before the telescope revealed the span of galaxies, the writer of the Book of Wisdom spoke of the universe as being no more before the Lord than a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew.
We can't solve all of the problems we encounter on this little piece of grain we call home. But, our perseverance does make a difference, not only in other people's lives, but also in who we are becoming in Christ.