Mercy in the streets – Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ

Doña Tere is probably in her late 60s, but looks more as if she would be in her early 80s. She stands every day for several hours on a very busy intersection in one of the wealthier suburbs of San José, the capital of Costa Rica, where I have spent the past couple of months. I have always encountered Doña Tere in the same spot. In a way she has looked pretty much the same for the past ten years or so.

The one difference is that she now pushes in front of her a small oxygen tank on wheels, permanently connected to her nostrils through two small tubes.

Doña Tere spends several hours a day there begging for money. As cars stop at the traffic lights, she moves slowly over to the driver’s window with her hand extended. Whether she receives money or not, her response is always the same: ‘Thank you and God bless you’. She is always gracious and usually manages to have a constant smile on her face, even on hot days.

If on a given day I am going to drive past Doña Tere’s spot, I make sure to have at least some money with me, so in case I meet her I will not be caught empty-handed. I am not sure whether it is compassion, a sense of solidarity, or guilt (perhaps a mixture of the three?), but my heart stirs whenever I see her. And even though I have to admit that I usually find it difficult to give money to people when they ask for it on the streets – ‘What will they use it for?’, I wonder – this is not the case with Doña Tere. On the contrary, I actually feel grateful for her presence and her blessing to me.

I often see people in cars around me who do not give her money. I try not to judge them or be too critical of them because I do not know the reasons why they do not. Perhaps they do not have coins on that particular day. Or perhaps they are too distracted with their mobile phones or talking to someone sitting next to them. Or perhaps it is just easier to keep the windows of their cars rolled up and thus avoid connecting with a world that seems too complex to deal with.

Often I have thought about the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in the Gospel of Luke, whenever I see Doña Tere leave those cars empty-handed.

We know the parable well. While the rich man is clothed in the finest linens and feasts sumptuously every day, just outside his gate poor Lazarus lays covered with sores longing to be fed with what falls from the rich man’s table. At the end of their lives, Lazarus is carried by angels to heaven while the rich man suffers in great torment in Hades. The parable does not tell us much more about the type of persons they had been. It could very well be that the rich man had in fact been a loving husband and father, and that his great fortune was the result of many years of hard and untiring work. Perhaps Lazarus was not such a nice man and had ended up a beggar as a result of dissolute living. We just don’t know. It could also be that the rich man was just too busy with his own affairs to even notice Lazarus and his pitiful condition. If he had, perhaps he would have done something about it.

In a couple of passages just previous to this one, Jesus has been talking about the dangers of wanting to be rich and amass great fortunes. He does not condemn rich persons per se, but reproaches the love of money when it becomes the centre and purpose of people’s lives, so that they become blind to the needs of others. Is this the reason the rich man is condemned? The Gospel seems to imply as much. It is not enough to be a ‘good Jew’ or in our case today, a ‘good individual Christian’, while many others lay uncared at our feet, around us or even in distant places, if there is something we can do to alleviate their needs.

Most of us might not think of ourselves as being rich, but we do live in a prosperous society compared to many others in the world. Yet, even within our own society wealth is very unevenly divided. There are also many social problems in our midst affecting both rich and poor – various forms of deprivation and denial of full human living – and hence poverty in Gospel terms. How aware am I of these problems? How aware am I that I am somehow responsible for their elimination? What, in practice, am I contributing to the removal of these problems? Again, being a personally ‘good Catholic’ is hardly enough.

Someone once said that Jesus had a special heart for the poor, not because they deserved it more than anyone else, but because they needed it more. They need to hear that despite their material poverty, their being rejected and marginalised and regarded often as outcasts or unwanted, they are deeply loved by God. And as Jesus’ followers, we are called to proclaim this message in words and in actions.

We often think that the social problems around us are too big, too insurmountable. How to begin tackling them? Awareness is a good starting point. The more we know about specific issues and needs, the more we can do to face them. Besides, we cannot simply claim anymore, as the rich man did in Lazarus’ case, that we ‘didn’t know’. The gospel calls us to ‘roll down the windows of our cars’ and become more aware of the Doña Teres of our world. Who are they in my own life, in the here and now?

I know that the amount of money I share is only a small token. And that it comes from my surplus. Yet I know she appreciates it, and appreciates the fact that I try to engage in conversation whenever the traffic lights allow it. To stand in solidarity with the poor is a complex issue, but I am often reminded of the words of St John of the Cross: ‘At the sunset of our lives we shall be judged by our love’, and our love of course is best expressed in deeds, even in small ones.