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Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft tries to balance her traditional Mexican-American cultural heritage and Catholic identity, personified by her grandmother La Lupe, with her roles as a young wife and mother.

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January 10th, 2012

The “Other” In Our Midst

 
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A homeless man eats lunch in St. Vincent DePaul Community Center in Oakland, California (CNS photo/Greg Tarczynski)

For the past 18 months, I have seen a man pass our house in his wheelchair every week. He has long, dirty hair, lots of bags, and a bandaged foot. The first time we saw him was startling. If you remember, I previously wrote about how we moved into a suburban-ish area. We were unpacking boxes when we saw him move slowly past our window. He stood out. He wasn’t a twenty-something jogger listening to an iPod, he wasn’t two moms pushing their strollers and chatting, he wasn’t our neighbor walking his dog, he was a sick, slow moving man who, very likely, did not have a home. We stopped what we were doing and peered through our window until he was out of sight.

As time progressed, we figured out his schedule. He spends his time doing laps around our community. In the mornings I see him making his way along the running trails, in the afternoons I’ve seen him parked over by the lake, watching the waterfalls, and in the evenings he makes his way past our house. I never gave him too much thought. And if I did think about him, it was more out of curiosity wanting to know why he just goes in circles all day.

One day as I was driving to work I saw him and I remembered something my friend used to always say in college. She was always becoming friends with random people by using the line, “You know, I see you so often, I feel like we should be friends.” If she was going to run into the same people over and over again, then they were part of her community and she should get to know them. I saw that man for the 60th time and I thought, I see you so often, I feel like we should be friends.

And then I started to think of what would happen if I actually engaged this man in conversation. What if he was dangerous? What if he was armed? What if he was crazy? What if he truly needs help, then I’d have to do something? What if he didn’t have a place to stay? Am I going to have to let him sleep in our home? What if it was too late for him to get to a shelter? Would I have to shelter him? For how long?

And I have wimped out over and over again since that day. Every time I see him, I come up with an excuse: I don’t want to talk to him right in front of our house, then he’ll know where we live; I’m alone, I better wait until a time when Brandon is with me just in case. Excuse after excuse.

I’ve tried to convince myself that surely other people have offered him help. There are hundreds of other families that live in the area that see him every week, too. Surely they have made sure he is taken care of. Surely they have offered him a kind word. Surely they have shown him love and compassion.

But what if they haven’t? What if they are like me and think about it but never do it? What if everyone thinks that someone else is taking care of him but no one is?

I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about him. I’ve been stewing in guilt for not reaching out to him. A vital part of Jesus’ story was how he was rejected over and over again by people who thought he was dangerous, different. They did not open themselves up to his love, they only saw a stranger.

I know better. I know Jesus told us when we help the least among us we help Him. So how can I continue to shut the door in Jesus’ face? I don’t even have to go out to find the least among us to help. He literally passes our doorstep most days.

After Mass on Sunday I finally got the impetus to stop thinking about this man and actually meet him. It was midday so we drove around the waterfall area. Not there. We drove his usual route. Not a trace. Then we thought, maybe he went to get some food, so we drove around that area. No dice.

The new year is a time to take stock of how we are doing. We need to let ourselves be wrapped in the mystery of the Incarnation, not just at Christmastime, but throughout the whole year. God became man not so that our lives would be convenient. Not so that we would only have to do things that made us comfortable. But so that we could have the chance to lift the veil of darkness and see God the way we are supposed to see God — everywhere, in everyone.

Jesus entered into our humanity to proclaim our salvation through love and compassion, not sometimes but always. To the beggar, to the outcasts, to the migrants, to sinners, to people of power, to people everyone hated, to the poor, to the dirty, to the sick. He didn’t come so that we could live nicely packaged little lives. He came to show me that if I truly love Jesus then I must truly love this man. Not on my terms but on God’s terms.

So here’s wishing you a new year full of love — both the uncomfortable and comfortable kind.

 
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The Author : Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft
Vanessa, a Notre Dame grad, loves the Catholic Worker Movement, Catholic education, and overbearing Mexican mothers, which she may or may not be. She lives in Austin with her husband and three daughters and is a freelance writer. You can find Vanessa at v.kraft.im or follow Vanessa on Twitter @laluped.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Denny Banister

    Many years ago I was heading into WalMart to try to figure out what I could buy my parents for Christmas. They already had everything they needed, which made the shopping experience very difficult.

    While I was walking across the parking lot on this very cold and snowy night, a young boy – 7 or 8 – walked past me with a huge smile on his face and said, “It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas.” He was dirty and wearing very worn cloths and had no coat on this cold night. The thought crossed my mind to take him in the store and buy him a coat, but then I wouldn’t have had the money for my parent’s gift. I hesitate, and as they say ‘He who hesitates is lost.’ The little boy was gone.

    I don’t remember what I ended up buying for my folks that Christmas, but I’ll never be able to foreget what I didn’t buy for that child. I am ashamed and feel I have disappointed God. I know I certainly disappointed myself, and my paraents would probably have been overjoyed if I had spent their Christmas gift money in the way I should have with the opportunity God gave me.

  • Bat

    Having been on both sides, I think I can answer this. When someone looked me in the eye and gave the nod of acknowledgement, I was uplifted. I felt human. Acts of kindness were monumental as they always seemed to come when I contemplated harming someone (I was that hungry). That was 35 years ago—before the word homeless was coined. I rarely give money directly to the homeless, but I do (and more) when the Spirit moves me. I sincerely believe that God loves a cheerful giver. I trust the voice inside as an angel whispering, needing to work through me as many had listened to their angel and helped me.

  • Cath

    Good, honest piece. As ae the comments. What a great place to exp.ore these issues and feelings and questions. I think those questions are the holy spirit leading you Vanessa, and you are (as we all do sometimes) talking yourself out of it. Your college friend had a great line, and if you don’t feel comfortable using it, try a variation like “I see you so often in feel we should meet/know each other” (perhaps we should be friends is strong in this situation)…. Let us know what comes next in this story!!

  • Catholic

    Thank you for sharing this, Vanessa. You’re not alone in the struggle between deep longings to connect and anxious hesitations.

    A few months ago, I was walking behind a very stylish woman who was about my age. For the next block or so I started wondering things like “I wonder where she works…what she does for a living…she’s so tall…” and so on. Then she stopped, right in front of a convenient store where a homeless man was sitting out front. “I’m going in; can I get you anything? Something to eat or drink?” she said. I was dumbstruck.

    I can hear her voice right now; her tone was warm, clear and without a hint of pity. She said in the way one would use with a friend. I’ll never forget that.

    Her charity showed me that there really *are* selfless people in this huge city, willing to show love to strangers…even in broad daylight. And something so simple and tender as asking someone if they wanted a drink taught me a lesson I so sorely needed.

  • Jan

    I one day decided that i would not just hand out money anymore; i would engage. now i make certain to say something, to reach out and touch a shoulder or an arm, to look the person in the eye, to tell them to take care of themselves and to let them know that just for a moment, they really mattered to someone. i do what i can, not what i can’t. respect and caring are something that everyone can do. (my friends also think i’m nuts…but oh well…smiles…)

  • AnitaH

    Dezzie- you ask a good question. Ultimately, I think the most important thing you can do for them is treat them like another human being. As you and I both mentioned, years of working downtown have given us “tunnel vision” as I like to call it. To treat anyone with dignity and respect goes a long way in helping them. Lots of people throw a buck or two at them and never look twice. How many people actually make them feel like a person again?

  • dezzie

    I see the same 3-5 homeless people several times a day on my block where I work in DC. I see them more than I see some friends and family. And I know they recognize me because they make eye contact with me and don’t even ask me for money anymore, after months of me Walking Quickly and Looking Straight Ahead.

    Your piece has inspired me to get over my fear of saying hello to them–but what does one do after that? Lots of people don’t seem to reflect past the idea of this being just another item to check off a list of Good Deeds. When you introduce yourself to someone you see often, you have started a relationship with them, in this case someone who leads a very different life. And then what? Does this mean you’ve implicitly signed up to give them change or food everyday? And if you don’t, that you’re cheap or just looking to boost your own ego?

    I guess part of my hesitation is not just that I’m afraid of them, but that I don’t want to alienate them even more.

  • AnitaH

    Last year I took a running class and many times we ran in or around a small park in central Dallas. After a few weeks I noticed a woman who came to the park around the same time each day. She was homeless and slept in the park at night. She looked friendly and approachable so I started to say “hi” to her when I ran past the bench she was sitting on. Over time we chatted more and I asked her about the park and her life. I think the people in my running group thought I was nuts based on the looks I got from them. Years of working downtown had conditioned me to look past homeless people. This woman reminded me to look again and see the person and not the label. And I am forever grateful to her for that.

  • Amber F

    Thanks for sharing this incredibly beautiful reflection. I hope you’re able to find him and befriend him. I’ve learned so much about gratitude from our homeless neighbors over the years. Seeing Christ in everyone isn’t always easy, but it’s what we’re called to do. Thanks for the reminder :)

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