by Msgr. Steven Ferrari
“Hurt, Hungry, Homeless. Need Food, Money, LOVE” (followed by a large heart drawn in bold marker) read the cardboard sign flat on the sidewalk. A dirty, disheveled man of indeterminate age lay next to the sign as the sun was setting on Mercer St. near Washington Square on a recent cold evening.
I bent down as I drew an apple out of my carry-all. “Sir…sir…mister,” I said. No response. Not dead, I reasoned, just sleeping or passed out. Unable to awaken him, without touching him I placed the juicy apple on the cardboard sign, hoping that when he roused, the apple would still be there.
The problem of homelessness in our fair city has reached terrible depths. Traveling into Manhattan by subway a few times a week, I cannot help but notice the down-and-out, mostly young, sometimes female, and frequently very passively sitting on the hard, cold sidewalk next to a cardboard sign.
Beginning a few winters ago, I started bringing along with me on my way to the theater, dinner with friends or a museum, a piece of fruit, a scarf, a knit cap, a pair of gloves, a ‘doggie bag’ from my restaurant dinner, whatever. Rarely has what I offered been rejected. I don’t give money. I guess ingrained in me is the fearful hesitation that it may be spent on other than healthy commodities.
If I preach on Sundays, and truly believe in my heart that we are all sisters and brothers, indeed that this person on the sidewalk before me is Jesus the Christ, then how can I just look away and walk on by? As the motto of Pope Francis states so succinctly “miserando atque eligiendo,” that is, “by having mercy and choosing.”
Earlier this month, the pope gathered thousands of homeless in the Vatican and apologized to them: “I apologize for all the times that Christians, when in front of a poor person or when a poor person is near, look the other way. I am sorry.”
I know that I cannot solve this fine city’s homelessness or hunger or mental illness all by myself. But I can have mercy and choose to do my little bit.
My favorite 19th-century American poet, Emily Dickinson, penned these words that I hold dear:
“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”
I do admit that in writing this article I feel a bit uncomfortable. I am not seeking praise. I am no better than anyone else. There but for the grace of God, go I. It is only by way of suggestion that I encourage those who may read this to consider, on their next subway or bus ride into Manhattan – or any of our city’s boroughs – carrying a piece of fruit, or warm gloves, to gently offer a sister or brother in need.
“Food, Money, Love….but the greatest of these is Love.”
Msgr. Ferrari is the pastor of St. Teresa’s parish, Woodside.