Finding Christ in the beggar at the church door

by Deacon Don Weigel
Fri, Aug 9th 2019 01:50 pm

We are right in the middle of the "dog days" of summer - those steamy, humid summer days when we really feel the oppression of the heat. Most of us are lucky enough to retreat to our air-conditioned homes or offices or cars for relief from the heat.

Imagine being in such stifling heat, crossing a desert, without any escape, and coming upon a jug of water that keeps you from total dehydration and possible death. Now imagine that the people who placed the water there have been convicted of interfering with the "pristine condition" of the area.

This was exactly what happened to four volunteers of a group called No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes) who had placed containers of water and food along a route known to be taken by immigrants crossing the border. The four convicted women argued that they were motivated by their religious beliefs, and the government claimed that it was merely enforcing the law. One of those convicted remarked, "If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?"

Regardless of the underlying question of immigration, there is an issue of human decency and humanitarian concern that ought to override everything else. Catholic Social Teaching has long held that regardless of their circumstances, all human beings are entitled to basic needs like food, water, health care and shelter. 

This is why the Church's organizations like Caritas Internationalis, the international aid organization for the Catholic Church, and Catholic Relief Services signed onto something called the Code of Conduct for disaster relief organizations. The first principle of that code says: "The humanitarian imperative comes first. The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it, is a fundamental humanitarian principle which should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries."

But there is a growing trend to cause difficulties for, or even criminalize, humanitarian assistance and efforts to help the marginalized. You might remember the efforts of Fort Lauderdale a few years ago to charge those who were feeding the homeless with a misdemeanor of not having a permit. And just last year the same thing happened in El Cajon, Calif. And the reality is that dozens of cities across the U.S. have similar policies that ban food-sharing in public places.

Worse yet, there is a trend in urban design called "hostile architecture" - public spaces that are constructed or altered to discourage people from using them in a way not intended by the owner. It is most typically associated with "anti-homeless spikes" - studs embedded in flat surfaces to make sleeping rough, uncomfortable and impractical. Other measures include sloped window sills to stop people from sitting, benches with armrests positioned to stop people from lying on them, and water sprinklers that intermittently come on but aren't really watering anything.

The worst example of the misuse of sprinklers is probably St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco that installed a watering system a few years ago in its doorways to intentionally deter the homeless from sleeping there. They have since removed the sprinklers.
St. John Chrysostom once said, "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice."

Certainly issues of immigration, homelessness and hunger are complicated and frustrating. But regardless of how we choose to approach those large social ills, we must defend the dignity of the migrant, the homeless, the hungry, and also defend the right of those who provide humanitarian aid to them.

Deacon Don is the Diocesan Director of Catholic Relief Services and can be reached at   

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