Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Meet and Greet

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Meet and Greet

Article excerpt

Creating a culture of encounter requires more than just organizing drives. It might even mean learning a name or two.

About 10 years ago, during a college Christmas break, I spent a couple of days with a group of classmates at a Franciscan community of priests and brothers in the South Bronx. One night we packed a van with sandwiches and a tank of hot chocolate, and a friar named Brother Giuseppe drove us down to Lower Manhattan. We parked and unloaded at a street corner where the Franciscans spend time with the homeless all year round.

Within a few minutes, people began to gather. We handed out sandwiches and chatted. A middle-aged man came up to me, smiled, and reached out his hand. "Jian," he said.

"Mike." I took his hand.

Jian, who was originally from Asia, couldn't speak English, and I am distinctly monolingual, so we just stood there, smiling at each other. Five minutes passed, then 10.1 thought about saying good night and looking for someone else to give a sandwich to. But Jian wasn't going anywhere. I didn't know what to do. Thirty minutes went by. Forty-five. An hour.

The rest of the group was milling around and pouring hot chocolate. I nervously shifted back and forth. What if Brother Giuseppe or one of the students noticed me standing there not doing anything?

Finally, after two hours of this, Brother Giuseppe said it was time to go. I pointed to the van and shrugged. Jian offered his hand again and his grin widened. Utterly perplexed, I climbed into the front passenger seat, next to Brother Giuseppe. "Um, I'm not sure if you saw that," I said, "but I just stood with someone named Jian for two hours without saying a word. We just smiled at each other."

"Well, if he was out here tonight, he must be having a pretty rough go of it. How many people do you think walk past him every day without even making eye contact or asking his name?" Brother Giuseppe said. "Maybe it's better to look someone in the eye and learn their name than it is to hand over a $5 bill and turn away." This was not the answer I was hoping for. There was no solution in it, and I love to fix things. I wanted Brother Giuseppe to tell me how I could've solved Jian's problems. Just tell me what to do and I'll do it.

I have been thinking about this story a lot recently. The city where I work is stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and violence. My office is next to the Catholic cathedral, and the parish has a ministry that provides food and other basics to hundreds of people every day, many of whom are living with addiction or mental illness. Each morning, on the 30-second walk from the parking lot to my building, I pass people who remind me of Jian. And usually, I am just as uncomfortable as I was that night in New York, because the suffering is ugly and smells bad and I still have no solutions.

After some of the most gut-wrenching morning walks, I've tried to search Brother Giuseppe's message for some practical advice. Perhaps his point was that there is no good practical advice. In his own gentle way, Brother Giuseppe was telling me that my default approach is out of whack. Instead of starting with solutions to injustices, we should start with relationships.

I suspect this idea is challenging for many of us. Given, say, our nation's love of advice columns, home makeover shows, and fad diets, it's fair to assume most Americans share my preference for the quick fix. When we apply this disposition to social problems, what happens? Usually, we end up organizing a whole lot of drives: food drives, clothing drives, fund drives, Christmas gift drives, and so on.

Drives seem to be clear-cut, convenient solutions that have the added benefit of helping us feel good about ourselves. We don't have to confront any suffering or ask difficult questions about the world. We can bag up our extra stuff and drop it off at church. Someone else will bring it to the poor on our behalf. …

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