Each winter, I see a man sitting on a grate a couple of blocks from our Catholic Charities offices on G Street. He doesn’t ask for money, a helping hand or anything else. He’s simply holding a sign that says:
“Just smile at me.”
I think that’s an important image to keep in mind as we begin Respect Life Month, a chance for us to reflect upon all the different ways we are called to protect the great gift of life God has given us. The fact that Jesus conquered death through his Resurrection is reason alone for us to protect life in every way, from conception to natural death.
There are many aspects to protecting life. I strongly respect life in the womb, and I believe that has to be a priority in our Church and in our world. I respect recent statements by Pope Francis calling us to think about whether capital punishment is ever a legitimate solution to the problem of evil. The District of Columbia now allows, and Maryland legislators continue to consider, the legalization of what some call mercy killing, or assisted suicide, which places us in charge of our death rather than the “author of life,” as Peter refers to the Lord (Acts 3:15).
On the last Sunday of October, we place a special emphasis on those who are abused in their homes. You might hear about domestic abuse at Mass that day. It affects mostly women, though men are victims as well, and recent headlines have reminded us that abuse takes place in all situations. There seems to be a greater commitment throughout our land, particularly on the part of women, to stand up against those who have abused or mistreated them. I applaud all of those efforts and offer my support to anyone in our own diocese who needs help because of an abusive situation.
We should reflect on all of those important issues during October, and we should think about our Church’s teaching and our moral imperative to do everything we can to protect life.
I would add one thing more, which gets us back to the man with the sign. When I help guide orientation for those who work at Catholic Charities (we have 750 employees who give their time and talent every day to those in need), I discuss all of the issues I just mentioned, and my final thought is this:
The dignity of human life is not just in those major issues – abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, abuse – as critical as they are. Respect for life begins in the way we treat those around us, who are our brothers and sisters in the Lord. I encourage our employees to see the dignity of each human life as they minister to those who come their way.
That’s what the man with the sign asks for when he says “smile at me.” He asks for dignity, a welcoming attitude, and to be respected for who he is, even if he might be poor, not dressed as nicely as others and more vulnerable than most. His sign always reminds me to see beyond that and into his humanness, even as he sits on a grate leaning up against a wall asking for the very simple gift of a smile as the rest of us walk by.
I’ll share another equally powerful image that happened at our Catholic Charities Christmas dinner last year. Every year, we serve a wonderful turkey dinner to the homeless and needy. It is a joyous occasion, and our clients leave with all kinds of goodies – maybe a new coat, gloves, hand warmers, Metro cards and more – to help them get through the winter months.
Last year, one of our volunteers greeted people as they came into the room to eat. “Hi, I’m John,” he said to one man as he extended his hand and smiled.
“I’m Tom,” the man replied. “Thank you so much.”
“You don’t need to thank me,” said John. “We’re happy to do this. We love that we can help out.”
“No, I’m thanking you for something else,” Tom responded poignantly. “You’re the first person to shake my hand in 10 years.”
What a stark, startling and almost unbelievable statement. Think about all it says. This man has been ignored or treated as less than human for an entire decade. He was so honored, thrilled and lifted up just by the fact that someone shook his hand, touched his flesh. The message in that handshake was, “You are my brother. You are important to me no matter whether you’re hungry, no matter what clothes you are wearing, just because you are you.”
So as we celebrate Respect Life month, let us stay strong on all of the big issues that affect our society today. They are key to how we live moral and ethical lives in a world that seems to have forgotten the importance and sanctity of life.
But even as we do that and realize how difficult it is to change the laws of our land or a culture that seems to allow greater and greater offenses against life itself, let’s remember what we can all do. We can all “just smile” at someone. We can all offer a helping hand to family, friends and the needy among us. We can all treat others with the respect they deserve just because they are children of a God who loves each and every one of us.
We are called to do the same. As we consider ways to respect life, may we work diligently to make sure that all we meet see us as a sister or brother to them.
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