Do you remember the last time you took a look around to search for someone who was on the fringes of society? Do you recall the most recent moment where, intentionally, you sought out someone whom you could help? Are you attentive and aware of the signs of someone asking for help?
The fringes of society can be the cases we are all familiar with; they may be homeless, unable to feed themselves or their families, struggling with unreliable transportation to get to their minimum wage job. They may also be the cases we aren’t as aware of. It may be the man who puts on a show of perfection to the outside world while inside he just longs to be appreciated. It could be person next to you who is in an abusive relationship but cannot find a way out, so she continues to cover her bruises (physical and emotional) and hides her tears behind a smile. It could be the woman in the last pew wearing the flashy jeans and colorful turtleneck – the only clothes she has left because her house caught fire the day before.
There are figures in history that have made differences in the lives of huge numbers of people who are on the fringe of society. There are also people that have made differences in the lives of far smaller numbers of people. There is no question that each of those people is important, and no question that each of those people changes, saves, and inspires the lives of those around them.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta founded the order we know today as the Missionaries of Charity. She wanted to bring love and compassion to those that the world had largely abandoned. She lived a life of Christian devotion, a life filled with an infectious kindness for people who might otherwise have died without ever knowing the love of another human being. Hundreds of missionaries in over a hundred countries share her focus and vision.
For every Mother Teresa, there is a Connie Guilbeault (yes, there’s relation). Connie and I were second cousins, and she knew me from just about the time I was born into this world. She spent nearly forty years as a member of the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa. I used to go swimming as a young child at the convent where she lived. The SCO has a dwindling presence in my hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. Their membership runs a school and a nursing home/assisted care facility, and the convent houses around a dozen young ladies who would otherwise not have a place to go. At one point they administered care at a hospital; their presence was felt everywhere in the city. Connie would give anything she had to anyone who needed it, sometimes even if she couldn’t spare it.
I recall walking Connie home on the night of one Christmas Day. She was in the early stages of the Alzheimer’s that would eventually leave her confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. She knew that I was familiar to her, but I hadn’t seen her in a number of years, so she didn’t recognize me. She showed me a ceramic Christmas tree, one of the ones she was famous for making in her kiln. The glimmer in her eye as she whispered “I made this” is something I’ll never forget. She was selfless – a driving instructor, a teacher, a friend, an inspiration. She won’t be known by millions for generations, but she is a saint in my world. God called her home on November 5, 2011. While I do remember the days of her suffering, I remember more the days of her charity, her kindness, her compassion, her love.
So what was the purpose of telling you all this? Neither of these women would have wanted to be recognized – their mission in life was to follow in the footsteps of Christ. In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, (6:1-4) we learn that the purpose of our good deeds shouldn’t be for others to see them; we shouldn’t toot our own horns – instead, we should give in secret. These two women exemplified that. I believe that for every story of their good virtue that we know, there are many more that we do not.
Simply Care About the Fragments and Fraying
When you ask someone how they are, pay close attention to their response. I don’t mean just the words of their response – be attentive to their tone, their posture, and their facial expressions. Because the majority of the time, the words they will say are “fine” or “good” or “okay”, when in reality they couldn’t be further from any of those things. The nuances of their tone, posture, and facial expression might show you more than their words say. Stop and follow-up; don’t simply walk by in passing and ignore the signs. This is one small way to reach a person whose life may be in fragments, but might feel as though nobody they see today will care enough to talk about it. Accept that they may not want to talk, but know that they appreciate you noticing.
I have friends who tell me stories all the time, such as sitting next to a complete stranger at a farmer’s market, opening up about the bad days they were each having. In a moment where they both might have been on the outskirts, they both walked away better because each of them took that risk of digging deeper than simply saying “I’m good.”
Another idea is not to feel as though we have to be able to help a million people to change the world. Mother Teresa of Calcutta never set out to change the lives of millions. She set out to offer the light of Christ to a part of society that had long ago frayed, falling apart with no one to care to re-stitch it. The only way you can ever impact a million people is by first impacting one.
We also never know when we could be helping or saving or inspiring the person who will go out and change the world in ways we never imagined could be possible. What would the world be like without all of the people who were inspired by the works of Connie Guilbeault? I know many people who came from far away to reminisce at her funeral. They recalled her singing or cooking, always smiling. Her goal was never even to be loved in return – she gave everything of herself. Those people are out changing the world, and I think that she did the work of God and played a role in the lives of many more than she ever knew.
Be Not Afraid
We can always find a reason not to take that step toward a person on the margins. It could be their fault; it might be the result of circumstances out of their control. We can be hesitant and afraid to do this because of how we will be perceived. We place a lot of value on other peoples’ perception of us and sometimes forget to think about what God will think of us. It is human nature; after all, we aren’t in our eternal place of rest. For now we are in the world where humans seem to impact our day-to-day lives and we can lose sight of the role that God plays now and forever.
I am guilty of this – looking at a person or situation and calculating in my head whether or not the ‘damage’ I might suffer from sitting next to the kid eating alone would outweigh the goodness of the simple act of kindness. We can find the courage to move past that. We can find the strength to leave our comfort zones and travel to the furthest point from society and bring that person back with us. One of the many beauties of life is that we get to learn. I can look at myself and ask what I am doing today to improve the life of even just one person. I can ask for the strength and resolve to overcome my own fears and inadequacies to help.
To those on the fringes or in fragments, we are here.
You’ll find that I write a lot from personal experience, as I am not a scriptural scholar or someone well-versed in even my own faith. So here is a snippet of my own experience with the outskirts and margins of society.
I am not one of those people who ever found popularity. I cannot walk into a roomful of strangers and walk out with a new best friend and a half dozen people to hang out with the next time I am in town. But I am where I am in because at every turn, whether I saw it or not, the face of God was present in someone else (I may get to more in-depth moments in a later article).
I don’t believe I am offering some kind of insight into something we haven’t all heard before. What I do hope to be offering is just a soft reminder, as someone who has spent most of his life feeling on the fringes (whether or not I was/am), that you can be the one to change the world. You may not change the entire world all at once, but know that you change the world and make it better every time you change the life of anyone in it. I think most of us learn well when we hear a common theme presented in a different way, because it is usually a certain combination of words that just suddenly click in our minds to where we understand what a multitude of people have been saying to us for years.
As promised in my first article on faith, here is my request and my prayer:
I ask each of you to pray for me to find the courage to walk along my journey with the will of Christ in mind. Please pray for a deepening of my faith and my love for those in society’s margins.
For each of you, my prayer is that you will reflect and find a person or organization that might be able to use your help. I pray you will all remember that almsgiving isn’t necessarily about money. Each of you has something to offer this world. I pray that our hearts radiate with compassion and our hands are extended to those we can help.