This homily was given to Seniors at St. Louis University High School (my alma mater) on the occasion of their return from Senior Project. Senior Project is a month-long "practicum" where the men work at various non-profits and places of service where they assist with the poor, the young, and those in need of help.
His beard had pieces of food in it. He was a poor man and his beard was long like a monk’s, salt-and-pepper and wiry. He was standing right in front of me and I couldn’t help but notice the food in his beard. It reminded me of grandfather’s miniature schnauzer after months of eating without a bath. But this man was not a dog; he was a man. And he was full of glory—glory hidden behind an appearance that I found startling and offensive to my nature.
I was feeding the poor in
at a church kitty-corner to the Superdome. This was before Hurricane Katrina
had hit. I was helping with Habitat for Humanity and working at a food pantry
there during the early summer. It was a kind of “Senior Project” for me. But unlike
the Senior Project here at SLUH, this one was not mandated; I had freely chosen
to serve. But in full disclosure, I didn’t really choose service per se. I chose to go because it was New Orleans and friends and getting away from St. Louis. It was going
to be fun.
Four years prior, I had done Senior Project at SLUH and I had chosen a fun project to do: I was part of the jazz band that would travel to various schools and nursing homes and play. And it was fun. But I missed out: I never became vulnerable to anyone. And because I never became vulnerable, I never was hurt and my heart was never stretched. Ultimately, I never grew in love. This wasn’t SLUH’s fault. It was my own.
So, you see, when I encountered this man and his beard, I was startled. I was vulnerable.
… And he was white.
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t matter. But it did. I hadn’t been pushed face-to-face with a poor
white man before. I grew up in Sunset Hills. You don’t see many poor white men there. I was being stretched.
Again I looked at the man, and this time I saw someone. People ask: “Did you see Jesus? Did you see God?” No…. I saw myself. In the man’s exterior appearances—his poverty, his need for food and for a shower—I saw myself. I saw the state of my soul.
This startled me. How could I be poor? I have a
education! I graduated from
SLUH! I have a good job at a pharmacy and I have good friends and good family.
I have everything I want. … I’m the one who showered this morning… Washington University
When I returned home, I came here and talked with a Jesuit priest about it (it was Father Knapp who is teaching now at the seminary). He asked me: how’s your relationship with Jesus?
… I was four years removed from SLUH… I had lost so much of my faith. I had forgotten about Kairos. I had forgotten what I learned in so many theology classes. I had started to doubt the God who I had received at so many Masses like this one. And I had stopped praying. I was spiritually poor and my soul needed a good shower and a bite to eat. I needed divine love.
That day, I learned that it was far worse to be spiritually poor than to be materially poor. That man with the beard… we can probably bet that he prayed. He probably prayed each night for protection against those who might beat him up. And because he didn’t know where his next meal might come from, he probably prayed for that too. He was materially poor, but richer than me. And that’s what matters—especially since, when you die, you can’t take your stuff with you.
Love, or its lack—that is all you take.
I think back on that moment in gratitude. And after years of doing so, I have noticed something more: I didn’t simply feed another man that day. It was Jesus who fed me. I was dressed as the rich; He was dressed as the poor. I thought I was serving; but in reality, I was the one being served.
It seems to always happen that way, too. I have had the opportunity to serve the poor throughout
Mexico and Mississippi and Alabama
and even with the Missionaries of Charity—not in India,
but here in North St. Louis—and each time I return home from a day of service,
I can’t help but have that strange sense of gratitude in the heart that I have
received more than I have given. To think: Jesus is feeding the poor through me
and, in allowing Him to do so, He feeds me as well. In allowing myself to
become vulnerable in service, Love Himself responds with greater vulnerability
and pours forth into my open heart divine Love.
Can we not speak of the Holy Mass in such ways? Is not the Holy Mass God’s “senior project,” if you will? Here He comes to feed us, to heal our soul, to open our hearts. And does this not require that we be vulnerable?—to admit that we are poor, that we need Him, that without Him nothing matters. We could have everything we want—a degree from WashU, a certificate from SLUH, a great job, a fine family—but without Him, we have nothing.
And so He comes to feed us. The glory of God hidden in appearance we might find poor.
And more so than yours, God’s Senior Project changes the world.
A final thought:
A few years after
I began to frequent the Eucharistic Adoration chapel at St. Catherine’s in
south county. Many people would come in and out of the chapel, some young, but
mostly old. “Old ladies.” I went to the adoration to talk to the Lord, knowing
I needed to be fed. One night as I was getting up to leave, one of the old
ladies grabbed me by the arm and she looked at me and said, “Son, it is good to
see you here.”
I didn’t realize it at first, but now I know what she said: as I was being fed by Christ that night, Jesus was feeding this woman through me. Just my being there strengthened her faith.
My brothers, the world needs men of faith today. Your fidelity and your presence to prayer, to Sunday Mass, to being there and being seen praying—while you are fed there, it feeds us and it strengthens us too. In such ways then, our faith and our service are inseparable and they meet here: at this holy altar where God comes to meet us; this “Senior Project,” this Holy Mass.
Let us approach and be fed and so change the world!