On a gray, Saint Louis winter’s day, I learned that Walter had moved his business address to the corner of Kingshighway and Route 40. I first met him about sixteen years ago at his original location two miles up the highway, on Grand. Back then, I would roll into his office on most Sunday mornings on my way to Mass. He would stretch out his right hand to collect whatever drivers were willing to donate. He used what remained of his left arm to pin a cup against his body where he would store his accumulated coins. He would make his way up and down the line of cars panhandling until the traffic signal released his captive customers. That first Sunday, I explained to him that I had no money with me. “I do have this lunch that I packed. Would that help you out?” Walter smiled as our transaction was completed. Before long, my usual Sunday morning ritual of making breakfast, harassing the children, and dashing out the door was expanded to include making one extra brown-bag meal for Walter.
The length of our conversations was always dictated by the time settings programmed into the traffic signal. If we could have spoken more than thirty seconds at a time, perhaps I would have learned that he had lost his left arm in
Vietnam? Maybe I would have discovered that he was a father, or a widower? Maybe I would have learned that PTSD had resulted in an inability to hold onto a job? As it was, fifteen to thirty second intervals of time, once-a-week, allowed me to know that this man with kind, smiling eyes was named, “Walter,” and that some days, Walter felt “Pretty good,” on other days, he felt, “Blessed,” and on some days, he was “Just trying to hang in there.”
The construction projects on Highway 40 re-routed my path to Sunday Mass, and therefore, re-routed my relationship with Walter. When all of the sections of Highway 40 reopened, and we returned to our old route, my kids and I were hoping that one Sunday morning we would find Walter back at his old post, open for business. But Walter never reappeared.
From time-to-time, my kids asked me what became of our panhandling friend. It was easy to imagine that the combination of hard living, and hard winters had taken their toll. It was easy to imagine the worst.
And so, when I saw Walter on my way to work at a new office at a different intersection, I instinctively rolled down my window. Walter interrupted his work and said, “Hey, how are you feeling? I haven’t seen you in a long time!” The light changed. A horn honked. I apologized that I had nothing to offer. “That’s okay man. It’s just good to see you!” As I pulled away from that intersection I found myself smiling. It occurred to me that the roles in our relationship had been reversed. With his kind, smiling eyes, Walter had just fed me.
In this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, taken from 1 Samuel 16, God’s words were placed in the Old Testament prophet’s mouth, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.”
Our Christian spiritual tradition, like other major world religions, has taught that the poor and those living on the fringes of our society occupy a privileged place in the kingdom of God. I was once told that in the Hindu tradition, it is believed that those men and women who have achieved the highest levels of holiness, are offered a choice just before they enter into the long-sought-after state of enlightenment. If they choose to do so, they can dedicate one more reincarnated life assisting others in attaining enlightenment. Those generous souls, who choose this pathway, come back in the form of people like Walter—the poor among us. In this humble state, they serve the rest of us by offering us opportunities to give of ourselves. In the act of giving, our human destiny comes to further completion.
Christianity does not believe in reincarnation, but we do believe that our human spirit is ennobled, and in some way fulfilled by caring for the impoverished in all their forms. When we befriend the poor, and take up their various causes, we come to a deep intimacy with Christ, and find, that in a mysterious way, our deepest human hungers get fed, our deep-down soul thirsts get satisfied.