I have a short nonfiction piece published with St. Dominic’s Media. You can read the story here, and thanks for taking a look.
This coffee-stained, handwritten message was tacked up outside of the Dunkin’ Donuts on South Crouse Avenue. I had turned toward a wall filled with placards, looking at advertisements for apartment complexes and Syracuse-area concert notices. Then I saw the scrap of paper; the question posed by the writer of this note made me examine my conscious. Do I care about the homeless in CNY? Answer: yes, sort of. What am I doing about it? Not a whole lot.
And this makes me wonder whether a financial contribution to the Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army would make much difference. Would it really help someone?
I always feel like I am being scammed when panhandlers ask me for money when I’m walking in downtown Syracuse or in the Marshall Street area near Syracuse University. I get the sense my money will be used for drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Sometimes I politely tell the person I have no change. Other times, if I am in a hurry, I’ll just put my head down, avoid eye contact and walk briskly past the person. But as a Christian I feel guilty for rejecting someone who is asking for help. I know Christ would not snub the person, and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew instructs us to be charitable to those in need:
Matthew 25:40 (New International Version):
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
But I also understand spare change will not solve our city’s and our nation’s homeless crisis. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the problem. Maybe the first step is to recognize the homeless exist and maybe try to treat them with dignity. Maybe that’s what the writer had in mind when he or she posted the missive.
One of the poems in my new collection Sidewalk Stories explores the issues of mental illness and homelessness. I’m sharing it here because it seems relevant; yet in reading it again, I realize the poem is pointless because it raises questions without offering solutions—in short, a lot of words but no action.
Where do those with mental illness go?
What worlds do they navigate in their minds?
Are they able to restrain their thoughts?
Can they find a place of rest in society?
To exist without hurting themselves
Or someone else?
Go downtown in any decent-sized city,
And witness for yourself the ghost people—
The mumblers, the droolers, and loiterers.
They are fragile, cold, broke, and alone,
Dressed in tattered clothes caked with dirt.
The men wear shaggy beards
And flimsy baseball caps
Topping their matted hair.
You see them pacing at bus stops,
Begging for change outside Starbucks,
And sprawled out in city parks,
With their pushcarts and
Garbage bags filled with empty
Soda cans and plastic bottles.
I force myself to observe
The unbalanced people out in public.
I refuse to look away.
I am not gawking.
I am not a voyeur who finds humor
Or pleasure in studying the deranged.
But I do want to remember
The way they look,
To record their facial expressions
When they say things like: “Go away,”
“Stop touching me,” and
“I will devour your children.”
Whose problem is this?
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution.
And I wonder, just where do we start?
How did we begin the process
Of trying to restore the street people?
Are we obligated as human beings
To care a little bit?
To notice the other life forms
Walking toward us?
Instead of quickening the pace,
Looking at the ground, turning away.
Of course there is an element of fear in us,
A desire not to be attacked
By the crazy people.
This instinct is natural and correct.
But what do we owe our fellow citizens
Who have no intention of harming anyone?
And what do we demand of ourselves
When we see others
Who are suffering a few feet away?
Look, I know it’s not your problem,
And it’s not mine either.
But it does exist and these souls
Are not going anywhere.
We can’t avoid them,
Or force them out of our cities.
So is there anything we can do,
Anything at all to make things better?
And can we at least take a moment
To think about it,
Before dismissing the idea,
And being on our way?
I rarely write about my faith life. But I thought I would share this story because it seemed important to me.
I often forget about the Lord, and my Christian faith becomes an afterthought. I get preoccupied with work, with my side projects, with daily errands and to-do lists. The result—Christ gets shoved out, pushed to the side.
He never enters my mind during the course of my day.
And that’s when the Holy Spirit steps in and prods me. He never lashes me across the back or drops a tree branch on my head. But I receive a gentle nudging and a whisper: “Wake up Francis. I’m still here. Remember me?”
On a recent Saturday night, after I finished working out at the Marshall Square Mall Fitness Center, I walked down University Avenue toward my apartment on Genesee Street. The cold air felt good against my skin, and I was bundled up in my black pea coat, knit hat and winter gloves.
I was listening to “Mr. November” by The National on my iPod as I passed by Grace Episcopal Church at the corner of Madison Street and University Avenue.
I looked up and saw through the circular stained-glass window light coming from inside the church. It looked warm and inviting; I also stopped and peered at the stone cross perched on top of the pitched roof.
And that’s when it hit me. “Oh right. I am a Christian too.”
I realized I had not spoken to or acknowledged the Lord the entire day. I said no prayers and I failed to express gratitude for the gift of my life. I went about my day in pursuit of worldly ambitions; I served myself and Jesus did not fit into my plans.
And it seems I repeat this scenario often. There is little room for God in my world these days.
But on this Saturday night, while swinging my arms to keep warm, I said a quick prayer as I hurried toward my apartment building.
It went something like this:
“Dear Lord, break open my heart. Shatter it. Let it fall away. And then rebuild it according to your model. Let my heart be like your heart, full of love for others. Let me pour out this love and not save it all for myself.”
I felt better after I said the prayer. And I hope it will serve as a reminder to myself to reserve space in my day for what I need most.