Crossing all denominational lines, Christians join together to offer up the atoning Blood of Christ for a hurting world. Hear the voices of hundreds of children, teens, parents and... Read more
Photo: Felix Carroll
In the empty plate of the poor we are invited to see our own reflections.
Why the Poor are Your Masters
By Marian Friedrichs (Apr 4, 2010)
My spiritual director is a Sister of Charity, and thanks to that fact, I can no longer wash the dishes without thinking of the poor.
A couple years ago in September, for St. Vincent de Paul's feast day, Sister Ellen gave me a card that I taped above the kitchen sink as soon as I got home. On the front of the card is a painting by Kurt Welther called Vincent at Table, which shows St. Vincent around a table with precisely 12 other people, and on the back are these words from the saint:
You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the full basket ... It is not enough to give us soup and bread ... You are the servant of the poor ... They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting you will see. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.
As the Community Service Club advisor at the middle school where I taught, I took a group of students once a month to work in a nearby soup kitchen. One Saturday afternoon, a sharp-eyed woman in her fifties or sixties came through the line toward the end of lunch. At her request, I pinched a triple helping of salad with the tongs and piled it onto a clean plate for her to take away for supper.
I was grateful she hadn't asked one of my students to commit this infraction, and I hoped I wouldn't be found out by the kitchen manager. The sooner this woman took her illicit extra salad and sat down, the better, but unlike most of the other guests, she didn't seem in a hurry to move along. Taking the salad from me and adding it to her lunch tray of chicken, rice, and cake, she started telling me that "some of us" have college educations and a good career history but just can't get a job because "there's nothing out there. You know, things are hard." I nodded. I didn't really know, of course — not like she did — but I couldn't come up with any other response. I couldn't pretend I understood what her life was like, but somehow I knew that to admit, even by silence, that I hadn't been aware of things being that hard would be unforgivable.
She was the last one in the dining room after we stopped serving food, and my students and I began to scrub tables, put up chairs, and push the broom across the floor while she finished eating quietly. When a sixth-grade boy started whisking stray grains of rice off her table, she snapped up her head and stared at him with eyes that had gone painfully hard.
"Excuse me, if you were homeless, you wouldn't like people cleaning around you like you didn't matter." The boy blanched, speechless. I dropped my rag on the plastic seat I was wiping and went over to him. My damp hand squeezed his shoulder and guided him away, and I told the woman it was my fault; he was just doing what I told him to do. She ignored me and insisted that if we were homeless, we wouldn't want to be rushed through our lunch and made to feel unwanted.
When I had read the quotation from St. Vincent for maybe the two or three hundredth time, I thought of that woman again. Forced to accept a dinner of soggy iceberg lettuce on a Styrofoam plate from an overfed weekend volunteer who could have been her daughter, she had desperately wanted me to know that her brain and skill level were at least equal to mine. And she had needed my student and me to understand that we could just as easily have been the ones eating that lunch at that table rather than the ones closing up shop so we could go home.
In his famous Life's Little Instruction Book, H. Jackson Brown wrote, "Remember that everyone you meet is wearing a sign. It reads, 'Notice me. Make me feel important.' " Perhaps it is only by acknowledging that sign that we can really serve our brothers and sisters in a way that approached the way Jesus served His apostles at the Last Supper and the way He serves us demanding, grumbling mortals at every Eucharist: the way Welther suggests in his painting that St. Vincent de Paul served the poor, whom he considered his fellows.
Original sin, after all, ushered poverty into the world with all the other forms of suffering, and none of us can escape culpability for that. I did need that woman's forgiveness, not for having a job when she did not, but for helping the machinery of global sin to run. She made it clear that I shouldn't expect that forgiveness until I looked at her, knew her story as I knew my own, and as Jesus commanded, loved.
Marian Tascio lives in Yonkers, N.Y.