If We Ignore the Poor, We Will Go to Hell (Literally)

I’ve said many times over many years that if we ignore the poor, we will go to hell: literally.” – Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia

I know this statement. I’ve heard it before. I’ve told it to other people. But, this last summer I’ve started to live it out with more conviction. Let me tell you about the best day that I had last year.

So there I was, driving my mini-van home from church with my wife riding shotgun and my three kids in back. We had just switched parishes and were trying to find the best route home. We were on some unfamiliar street, driving along in a different part of town…and that’s when I saw him.

As I was stopped for a red light, there was someone in a wheelchair struggling to get through the cross walk. As I watched him, I realized that someone needed to do something quickly to help this man. Someone needed to help this person!

Then it hit me. That person was me.

I jumped out of my mini-van. I asked the man if I could help, and I heard a weak “yes.” As I pushed him to the other side, I asked him where he was going. He told me that he was off to the grocery store (right in front of us, up a big hill). It seemed pretty ridiculous to push him across the street and then leave him at the bottom of the hill, so I continued to push him.

As I pushed him along, I began to evaluate the person in front of me. He didn’t look good. He had fresh wounds on his face in several places. He only had two teeth and was wearing women’s clothing. I’ve been on foreign missions before, and I’ve worked with the poor in the United States — but I’ve never seen anyone in worse physical condition than this man.

As we waited in the store, my family came in, met the man and asked if they could purchase him anything. Off they went around the store, which gave me a chance to get to know this man a little better. I learned a lot about him in just a few minutes.

His name was Joseph. He was Jewish and was born and raised in Israel. He had worked for the Jewish military for missile defense and deeply regretted it. He had one son who lived in Phoenix whom he hadn’t spoken to for seven years. He had recently gotten into some type of wreck on a bus and had lost his wallet. He had liked to cross-dress in the past, but he wasn’t so sure it was a good idea now.

Joseph was very, very broken.

After we bought what Joseph needed from the store, my family and I walked him to the bus. As we did, I reminded him of the story of Joseph in the Old Testament and told him there would be better days. I gave him some money for bus fare and other things he might need — and then I gave him a hug and wished him good luck.

This was my best day of the year for many reasons.

First, Pope Francis talks about the joy of the gospel (in fact, he wrote an entire Apostolic Exhortation on it). When we reach out to others and give of ourselves, we experience real joy. I was completely and utterly moved by my time with Joseph. It was such a joy to help someone who needed it, even in just a small way. I got way more out of this experience than Joseph received from me.

Second, I was thankful that my kids were there. In our family, we talk a good deal about the faith, but my proudest moments are when I can show my kids what faith looks like in action. These are the real teaching moments. I don’t think our encounter with Joseph will be something any of us will forget anytime soon.

Third, I desire to help the poor…but honestly, I don’t always do a great job. I was thankful the opportunity hit me square in the face. It’s motivated me to do more on a regular basis and our family has started to do so this year.

So, how do we help the poor more consistently? How do we keep it from becoming something that happens only occasionally when someone asks us for something?

Here are three tips:

1. Build Conviction

First, we have to be convicted that helping the poor is an essential part of being a Christian — because it is! Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia gives it to us straight: I’ve said many times over many years that if we ignore the poor, we will go to hell: literally.” (For more, check out this article). The good archbishop states it very clearly. Ultimately, though, we shouldn’t just be moved by eternal damnation, but by love as well (though sometimes it is good to make it clear how vital serving the poor really is).

2. Be Intentional

Second, if we are convicted that this is something that we need to do, then we need to be intentional about finding opportunities to help the poor. Is there a soup kitchen in your area? A nursing home you could visit? A prison that needs someone to lead a Bible study?

3. Have Life-Changing Encounters

When it comes to helping the poor, many of us turn to very easy options: writing a check, giving away food, giving away stuff we don’t need, etc. All of these things are good, and they do help others — but ultimately, we are called to be in a relationship with the poor. Pope Francis challenges us to encounter them in authentic ways: “The Christian is not one who speaks about the poor, no! He is one who encounters them, who looks them in the eye, who touches them” (Address, October 4, 2013). I’m a changed man after meeting Joseph face to face. The same couldn’t be said if I simply wrote a check.

There are many ways you can be consistent in reaching out to the poor. One of the best ways that I know to build conviction, be intentional and have a life-changing encounter is to go on a FOCUS mission trip. Sign-up for summer missions closes on January 15. There are some amazing trips this year. Check them out and sign-up – Do not be afraid!

Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter is the Executive Director of Programming at Amazing Parish. He previously served with FOCUS for 11 years as a missionary and Sr. Director of Curriculum. Kevin holds a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Benedictine College and a master’s degree in Sacred Scripture from the Augustine Institute. He is the author of numerous FOCUS resources and Bible studies and several books, including Dating Detox with his wife Lisa and Called: Becoming a Disciple in a Post-Christian World. Kevin currently resides in Denver, CO with his wife, Lisa, and their children.

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