We live in a culture in which money seems to be the answer to all our problems. Even in our charity, we tend to address issues of hunger, homelessness, and poverty through money. Of course, I realize money is necessary to improve the conditions of so many of our neighbors. However, the danger of solving a problem only with our finances leads to those very finances creating a buffer between the giver and the receiver. In a sense, when we only give money, we may unconsciously distance ourselves from the poor, the suffering, and the neglected whom it would be easy for us to forget.
When I take students to a local soup kitchen or travel with them to Haiti, I remind them of our purpose: to make the stranger our neighbor. I encourage them to sit and talk with the people they serve. Our students willingly embrace this edict and through shared conversations learn the backstory of each person they serve. This gives them a sense of the person’s individual dignity. Often, they find out they share many similarities. The interpersonal exchange allows them to see beyond the labels associated with the marginalized. They see a person, who happens to also be hungry, homeless, or lonely.
When Saint Clare, a child of a wealthy family, heard Francis of Assisi preach, her heart opened to embrace the poor. As a result, she voluntarily became poor herself. Her vow of poverty guided her to resist the lure of material pleasures and wealth to more fully love God and love her neighbor. She learned what life was like for the people she served. In a sense, she discovered their backstory. As a result, she made the stranger her neighbor.
Clare inspired other women to follow her example. Consequently, she founded the Poor Clares. When Francis suggested she become the Superior of the order, she refused the position until she came “of age.” Her humility and Christian devotion became hallmarks for the Poor Clares to follow. As a result, the order devoted themselves to prayer, nursing the sick, and other works of mercy for the poor and neglected.
Clare’s response to the extreme poverty she witnessed in her world may inspire us to examine our own lives as Christians. Our society may not be all that different than Clare’s as our middle class shrinks and the divide between rich and poor increases. We can examine our attachment to our material wealth. We can teach our children to respect the value of today’s dollar and help them realize part of that dollar can go a long way in helping others.
However, it may be even more important to teach our children that there is a person, a living, breathing being, who may be the recipient of our charity. We can teach our children to honor the image of God within every other human being. We can go to the scriptures and teach our children about the parables of Jesus. For example, we can read and discuss the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. We can inquire who is the Lazarus at our gate? We can also help our children understand that our gate must extend beyond the literary gate of our home or community.
I love the story which informs us of the extent that Clare embraced the gospel. When she was 18 years old, she vowed herself to a life of poverty. Her family was horrified and forced her to return home. One night she escaped her house through “the door of the dead” (a small side door that was traditionally opened only to carry out a corpse) and returned to the house of the Franciscans. This symbolic gesture represents Clare’s dying to her old self in order to rise in life fully devoted to Christ. Clare stripped herself of her old clothes and put on the clothes of Christ. She was renewed in Christ.
Each day, as Christians, we can take the opportunity to make the stranger our neighbor. Each day, we can remember we stripped of our old clothes and put on the clothes of Christ by reminding ourselves of our baptismal vow to respect the individual dignity of every human being. Each day, we can live into Clare’s example by making the stranger our neighbor.