Empty Hands

“He [Christ] was the perfect expression of life as God intended it.” –Alexander Schememann

On November 26, 2013, just two days before we would sit at bountiful tables to celebrate Thanksgiving, The New York Times reported that there were more than 53,000 homeless people living in Los Angeles County, which is where I happen to live. The city is weighing an option to ban feeding the homeless in public spaces. I read the article just a week after returning home from Budapest, Hungary. While in Budapest, I spent time in a homeless shelter and was shocked by the harsh conditions the chronically poor face in this extremely beautiful city. For the homeless in Budapest, there are no governmental safety nets. I was stunned to learn that the city government in Budapest had just enacted a law banning the homeless from certain sections of the city, sections that attract lots of tourists.

I’ve spent a lot of time filming poverty, both on the streets of major cities in the United States and in massive slums around the world. My journey with the poor has taught me some hard lessons. The surprising thing is that poverty taught me more about myself than it did about the poor. I learned that the Gospel urges us not to be afraid of enjoying the full freedom of giving our lives away. But learning and doing are two different things. Transformation is on-going and lasts a lifetime.

My encounter with poverty helped me remove the veil of comfortability from the Gospel and revealed the truly radical nature of Christianity. Jesus showed us how to love, how to love unconditionally and without limits. And according to Christ, how we love the hungry, the lowly and the lost, is how we love him; and how we love Christ will be the only litmus test for our entrance into our heavenly home with God for all eternity. And until we enter our eternal home, we are all homeless, even if we live in a palace, because everything on earth is perishable…except love.

We are all created by the Creator, and so we are all in relationship with one another. We are all brothers and sisters, and to set yourself up as higher or better than others is a subtle form of blasphemy. We are all connected. If one amongst us is diminished, we are all diminished. We are one with all of creation and the Creator. We must seek harmony in diversity as we rejoice in our humanness.

The Incarnation compels us to step to the back of the bus and choose to sit with the poor and learn to see life from their point of view in order to better share in their struggle for access to God’s gift of freedom, oneness and love that has been denied to them by virtue of our selfishness. Through the Incarnation we know that God is humble. God lives in our poverty and weakness. Jesus mingled with the poor and outcasts of his society. He embraced, touched and loved the poor and rejected of his day. He called them “blessed.” For Jesus, the poor and lowly are sacraments, because they offer a direct way to encounter God. The richness of God is revealed in the poverty of Christ. Christ shows us that mercy is more than compassion or justice. Mercy requires us to become one with the poor and hurting, to live their misery as though it were our own. The poor, broken and rejected are portals through which we can enter fully into the mystery of the cross.

As I traveled, I began to see more clearly how in turning our backs on the poor we are turning our backs on Jesus. We need each other. None of us is truly rich. We need to stand with the poor, to walk with them, to share a meal with them, to talk with them. Why? For two reasons. First, to learn the causes of poverty, we must spend time with the poor. Second, the mercy we share with broken people is the mercy Jesus returns to us.

My exposure to those straddled with dire poverty uncovered my own clinging selfishness. I came to see how consuming more than I need was stealing from those in need. As long as I enjoy comfort and require security, I’ll have a hard time feeling true compassion for the poor and the weak. Compassion, by the way, is far removed from pity and sympathy; compassion grows out of an awareness of our common humanity. My awareness of God’s mysterious presence within me helps me become more aware of the same presence within others.

In our encounters with the poor, we must move from pity to love, from charity to justice. Service to the poor and lowly is not optional…it is a requirement for the follower of Christ. If we share in their struggles, we can share in their liberation. And love compels us to do so.

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4 Responses to “Empty Hands”


  1. 1 greatart3923 November 28, 2013 at 6:50 am

    The article in the Times made me very, very angry. The perversity of spirit that sours the soul with selfishness can only be combated with loving witness. “compassion grows out of an awareness of our common humanity” . Thank you for your hard earned wisdom.

  2. 2 aliceny November 28, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Thank you for these reminders, Gerry. I will read excerpts when our small family gather for our Thanksgiving meal today.

  3. 3 Jerry November 29, 2013 at 9:54 am

    I read today that Pope Francis used to go and break bread with the homeless. Any action which lowers the barrier between people and builds the sense that we are all one, one family under God, is divine action.

  4. 4 aliceny November 29, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Addendum:
    I did read excerpts from this posting at our Thanksgiving dinner. Among the nine of us present were two of my nephews (18 and 20 yrs. old). Also present were my sister-in-law (the hostess) and her sister. Both of them have been volunteering for years at Albany soup kitchens and other Catholic Charities venues. After the reading, there was dead silence. My son, sitting next to me, had tears on his face. A few minutes later, while dinner was being served, my nephews asked if they could help with the soup kitchen the next time their grandmother and aunt went!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    The joy in my heart and soul was palpable, Gerry.
    Thank you for the seeds that have been planted by your timely words.


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