Charity begins in the heart, as does hatred for the poor
Unconditional love and acceptance of people who appear undeserving isn’t easy. But it’s necessary.
By Sam Fulwood IIIPlain Dealer Columnist
The calls kept coming. My voice mail and e- mail in-boxes filled repeatedly Tuesday and Wednesday with an outpouring of sympathy and concern for Horace Solomon, the 84-year-old man raising his five grandchildren after his daughter died of leukemia. Solomon is just one of more than one hundred thousand poor people living in the nation’s most impoverished big city. But his story generated more positive reaction than any I’ve written in this series. I think I know why. Unlike most of the other poor people I have featured, readers identify with Solomon. He’s admirable. He’s poor not because of some personal failing, but because he’s assumed a burdensome responsibility. He represents what the late President Ronald Reagan once described as the “deserving poor.” Not so with some of the others.
Roughly four of every five calls or e-mails I received on their stories expressed anger, blaming the people spotlighted for their own problems. In particular, readers fumed after reading about Brandon Goins, a 21-year-old man who has no plans to marry although he fathered three kids by two women.
Gary Papson’s outraged e-mail was typical. “My inclination is to leave him to God’s discretion,” Papson wrote. “He will either bring him around or condemn him. Either way is fine with me. That’s as close to Christian love as I can come with this guy.”
Hugh J. Garvey III wanted to hear more stories like Solomon’s. “Let’s keep focusing on the good in the world instead of the constant flood of the evil,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Who knows, maybe people will one day start believing once again that their efforts do make a difference.”
I wonder. Could it be that only the poor people we want to help are those we consider “worthy?” If so, we’re doomed to wallow in poverty. One-third of Cleveland’s people are poor, but most of them aren’t kindly old grandfathers. More of them are like Goins than Solomon. But that doesn’t mean they don’t all need help.
This point was driven home during a recent visit with Sister Corita, who works with the unlovable poor at St. Augustine Church in Tremont. She knows that many of the men she feeds, counsels and otherwise cares for are drunk, derelict or just out of prison. But all are hungry and jobless, and that’s all she needs – or cares – to know. “I just accept them as they are,” Sister Corita told me. “I don’t have to know a lot of that other stuff. That can prejudice you.”
Unconditional love and acceptance of people who appear undeserving isn’t easy. But it’s necessary. We can’t solve Cleveland’s poverty problem by dealing only with the “deserving” few.
Sister Corita explained how she learned this lesson herself from Jimmy, one of the homeless men. Jimmy had seen her hugging someone and approached her with a complaint. “I’ve been here every day and you’ve never hugged me,” he said. Sister Corita was shocked, but had to admit that she hadn’t ever hugged him. And she wasn’t keen about doing it right then.
Jimmy was filthy. He had lice in his hair and his nose ran with snot. She told Jimmy she loved him, but she couldn’t hug him. That kind of love didn’t mean much to Jimmy. He wanted proof. So he asked Sister Corita for a hug every day. Eventually, after a great deal of prayer, Sister Corita gave in. She held her nose and hugged Jimmy. What happened? Nothing, really; Jimmy is still homeless and filthy, and he still comes to the church most days. But Jimmy changed her. “That day I gave him that hug freed me,” she said. “I can hug anyone and I can love anyone, if I can hug and love Jimmy. And by loving Jimmy, I can work harder to help those who can benefit from what I do.”
In that story, in Sister Corita’s example, is the way out of our poverty problem. If we’re serious about attacking it, we must learn to love the least among us.
To reach this Plain Dealer columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org, 216-999-5250