Soon after the Coronavirus pandemic began and the government “stay at home” orders were issued and employers began to lay off workers, a member of the parish pastoral council told me that many families in our parish are facing serious financial hardships. Many are unable to work and do not qualify for unemployment or the government stimulus money that is to be issued to all tax-payers. I let her know that anyone who needs help should call the parish office. We have a well-stocked food pantry, and many parishioners regularly drop off non-perishable food items for the needy of the parish. The day after our conversation, I contacted several parishioners who regularly volunteer in the food pantry, and they agreed to fulfill any requests and even deliver the food directly to the homes of the families in need. In the past three weeks, I’ve only gotten one request for food. At our pastoral council meeting this past week, I asked the council members to spread the word in the community about the food pantry. On Wednesday night, I went on Facebook live and made an announcement about the Food pantry and gave the phone number for the parish office. The video message was viewed over 750 times, and I made a similar message the following night that got over 400 views. On Friday, I didn’t receive any calls but a member of the pastoral council contacted me with the names of three families who could use the help. The need is great. The message went out and was heard. Why no calls? A parishioner who saw the message and shared it broadly texted me yesterday and told me that she had spoken to several families in need, and they told her that they are too embarrassed to call. What I realized is that it is not enough to have a solution to a problem. The solution does no good if the person in need is not willing to receive the help. There are numerous reasons why someone in need would not accept help. This might be a totally new situation, and the person doesn’t know how to ask for help. Perhaps they’ve always been the ones who have helped others, and it is a blow to one’s ego to ask for help. They may be ashamed of the situation they are in. They took great risks to get to where they are today; they made great plans for the future of their family, and now those hopes and dreams have been crushed. It feels like a great failure or a big mistake. They may have lost hope. What is the point of asking for help if one does not believe his life is worth saving? How is that gap overcome?
The resurrection appearance of Jesus meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus gives us the answer to that question. These two disciples of Jesus have abandoned hope and lost faith in Jesus. They believe that they were mistaken about Jesus. They’ve decided to go their own way and have separated themselves from the community of the Apostles. The plans that they had for the redemption of Israel have fallen apart with the death of Jesus. They are downcast and despondent, and, as we well know when we are under stress and in a negative mood, become curt in their response and can’t believe that someone else doesn’t see things the way they do. How does Jesus respond? He draws near to them and walks with them in their darkness. He is not scandalized by their ignorance or put off by their mistakes. He is interested in them and listens to them. He gives them an opportunity to express what is going on in their hearts. He takes the time to patiently show them a different way of looking at the events in their life as he accompanies them on this long road. Mercy is what overcomes the gap. The nearness and the concern that Jesus – this stranger in their eyes – has for them changes the way they see themselves. Their hearts are warmed. It is Christ’s mercy for them that allows them to be open to being corrected by Jesus – to seeing reality in a different way. When I know that I am loved – that my live has value – I become open to correction. “Correction” comes from the Latin words that when translated means “to walk supporting each other.” I am not alone but have support, i.e., companionship on the journey. It is companionship that we need. Companionship is what gives hope. When they recognize their true need and that an answer exits, they freely ask for help. “Stay with us!” This is why Jesus gives the impression that he was going on farther. He never forces himself or imposes a “fix” to the situation. Their freedom is essential to their receptivity. Unless their dignity is affirmed by someone who enters their situation, any offer of help will be taken as an insult and be refused. When they freely invite Jesus to stay with them – when they are open to a personal relationship – then they allow Jesus to serve them. Their eyes of faith are opened. They are given a new life and a new hope and return with haste to the community of believers.
Our church has to be a community that accompanies others with mercy if we are to give people hope through this crisis. We need to understand the suffering of others and the reasons why people are in the dark so that we can propose an answer that fulfills the need of the heart. We need to warm hearts so those who are downcast will have a reason to hope and a desire to stay with the community of faith. Fixing a problem is not the same thing as caring for the person. Caring for the person – considering the person – looking on them with mercy – is what opens the heart to accept love without embarrassment. Listen to each other. Accompany each other. Share how you have recognized the presence of Christ in the midst of suffering. The way we respond to our brothers and sisters in this crisis will determine whether they receive help, grow in faith, and come back to the Church when the crisis is over. Have they experienced an answer to their deep need or have they just been offered a fix to a problem? The Lord has shown us the path to life. May we follow his path and accompany each other on the road.