These Least Brothers of Mine…

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? — James 2:1-4 

Last night Jodi, Brendan, and I joined a friends of Brendan’s and his parents at Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis to celebrate their senior year, their acceptance into the college(s) of their choice, and a backlog of birthdays. Fogo is a carnivore’s paradise, with such an abundance and variety of fire-roasted meats that I kept thinking of Scripture’s forgiving father ordering the slaughter of the fatted calf to celebrate the prodigal son’s return. Server after server stopped by our table with skewer after skewer of beef, pork, chicken, and lamb, carving portions for us until we flipped our green coasters to red to signal, “No mas!” (or “não mais,” I supposed, in Portuguese).

We had a great time with the boys, and ate a delicious meal the likes of which we are unlikely to enjoy again any time soon, given the price. All the way home, however, and all through last night and today, I’ve been haunted by a man I do not know. I saw him only in passing as we looked for a place to park, but the impression he made is indelible.

We drove past the restaurant on Hennepin, and three or four blocks up, turned left to loop around and look for parking garage. As Jodi turned the corner, I saw what I thought was a youth seated on a skateboard, leaning against a building. As we drew nearer and went past, I beheld a man. In those brief seconds as we passed, this is how he appeared to me.

Ecce homo: Click to view full-size sketch.

He was legless, in a grubby t-shirt and dark pants cut short and sewn shut or folded under. His face was of no obvious age, but worn and creased with hard living, and his thin hair stood up in patches from his scalp. I saw that his left hand was on the sidewalk to stabilize and propel himself. His other arm was raised as though gesturing — it ended abruptly in a rounded, red stump several inches short of where his right hand should be.

Brendan saw him, too. We discussed briefly how hard it must be to live in the city, presumably on the streets, in such a condition. Then, determined not to spoil the boys’ celebration, I dropped the subject. We turned left again, backtracked a few blocks, parked, and went in to feast.

As we ate, surrounded by such abundance, I thought of him. As we paid for our decadent meal, I thought of him. As we left Minneapolis in a rush of cars, under the yellow glare of a thousand street lights, I thought of him.

Today it occurred to me that maybe some sense of injustice over the pleasures we enjoyed at dinner exaggerated his state in my memory — but I believe that was the Devil trying to lull me back to complacency. When I showed the sketch above to Brendan, he said it’s what he recalls, too. A few moments on Google turned up this brief newspaper article: apparently he’s been downtown at least since this spring.

Perhaps he is a homeless vet our country has forgotten. Perhaps he is a junkie. Regardless, no man deserves to live with their last good limb pressed to pavement, unable to see above the hoods of the stopped cars as he crosses the busy streets. How will he stand to move about the city in winter, when the salt and road grime stings his fingers and the wind bites his cheeks? Does he take the bus? Who helps him get aboard? How does he keep his skateboard with him, use the restroom, avoid those who would cause him harm? How will he survive?

Had we been walking past, not driving, I’m not sure what I would have done for him. How could I have helped? Given money? To what end? Traded shirts with him? Perhaps, on the feast day of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, I would have stopped, hunkered down, and acknowledged him, eye to eye, man to man.

Or perhaps I would have avoided eye contact and kept walking, then muttered a guilt-ridden Hail Mary under my breath.

On the way to church this morning, I urged the kids to try offing the Mass for someone in particular, to see if that helped them focus their prayers and remain present the entire time. I committed myself to offering the Mass for this man, whom we drove past and may never see again, but who has cracked my stony heart. I had not previewed the readings for this Sunday; now that I’ve heard them, I am convinced the Lord is working on me. While it is not sinful to enjoy in moderation the pleasures of earthly life — food and drink and friendship — we must not be blind or unkind to those who seem unlovable. If we prefer the company of others to the company of those in need, we fail to follow Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, you teach us, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Help me, Lord, to hear the cries of the poor and to show kindness and mercy in word and deed. Forgive those times I have failed to love those you love, and strengthen me to do the hard work of charity among these “least brothers” of yours. Help me to step outside my comfort zone and serve and comfort them in prayer, word, and deed. Amen.

Blessed Mother Teresa, pray for us.

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