Wednesday, February 10, 2010

His Majesty's Service

I was reading today and came across the story of a Catholic friar named Abbe Pierre. Pierre was assigned to work with homeless beggars in Paris after WWII. He found that many were freezing to death in the city during the winter, not having a place to flee from the cold. He tried to interest the community in the beggars' plight, but had no success. He decided the only option was to show them how to mobilize themselves.

First, he taught them to do their everyday tasks better. Instead of sporadically collecting bottles and rags, they banded together in teams to scour the city. Next, he got them to build a warehouse from discarded bricks and start a business in which they sorted out vast amounts of used bottles collected from around Paris. Finally Pierre inspired each beggar by giving him responsibility to help another beggar worse off than himself. That is when the project really took off. An organization called "Emmaus" was founded to carry on Pierre's work, with branches in other countries.

A few years went by and presto! No more beggars in Paris! And Pierre believed his organization was about to face a serious crisis. "I must find somebody for my beggars to help", he declared. "If I don't find people worse off than my beggars, this movement could turn inward. They'll become a powerful, rich organization and the whole spiritual impact will be lost! They'll have no one to serve."

Pierre eventually went to India and found leprosy patients to fulfill his desperate search to find someone worse off than his beggars, and when he found them, he was overcome with joy. He returned to France, and Emmaus worked to donate a ward at an Indian hospital. The beggars had found people who needed their help so the spiritual motives of their lives continued on.

For us, the lesson is clear. Has there ever been more opportunity than right now to be there for the less fortunate? With our economy struggling and unemployment rising, the gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots" becomes ever more obvious. Christ spoke a lot about this, about clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving cups of cool water to those in need. He instructed us to consider others better than ourselves. If we do this, we will have to go against the flow of society. Advertisers constantly urge us to think of ourselves first, pamper ourselves, and reward ourselves. For sure, there was a great outpouring of American aid and effort for Haiti...but most probably ignored the opportunity.

For a nation of individuals that increasingly struggles to "get in touch with your real self", Christ's admonition that "he who loses himself shall find himself" rings very true. This Pierre fellow had it all figured out.

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