Serving the poor is serving God

I met Jesus. I met him one day on my rounds as a visiting registered nurse working in the community. He showed me where he lives, how he lives, and how he suffers. I didn’t know at the time that it was him. I just knew that I was so happy to be in his presence I was reluctant to leave.

He lives alone in a sparsely furnished bachelor apartment where he cooks for himself out of meagre provisions. His aging body is wracked by illness and the daily struggle of living with pain. On one wall hangs a big crucifix, a reminder of His sacrifice for us. On the coffee table are stacks of devotionals, prayer books, and a Bible, all written in a different language. Within arm’s reach of his favourite chair is a black rosary.

His beautiful smile greeted me when I walked in. He was happy to see me and in broken English, he gestured towards a chair where I could sit. It was a serviceable chair, not particularly comfortable, but it was the best he had and the offer was from his heart, so I thanked him and sat down. Between gasps of laboured breathing that was a symptom of illness, he asked me how I was. Was I busy? Was I hungry? He insisted that I take a small bag of potato chips. At first I declined, but my refusal seemed to hurt him so I accepted. In the eyes of the world, it was a humble offering; in his eyes, it was a treasure.

He asked me if I would like to hear him sing. I was delighted! In his slurred speech and halting voice, I recognized the words and melody of the Pater Noster, sung with as much gusto as he could muster. He followed it with the Regina Coeli and then other sung parts of the Latin Mass. I reflected on how, although we don’t share a common first language, we could both worship in the traditional language of Holy Mother Church.

I provided the care I was there to do, using the skills and abilities He had given me. He was very grateful. So was I.

As I was leaving, two more visitors arrived. They were from his parish, Communion Ministers who were there to give him the Holy Eucharist. Even Jesus in the poor needs the life-sustaining Body of Christ. He was happy to see them and I was relieved that he would not be alone when I left.

It wasn’t until I thought about the incident, when I reflected on the peace and joy that was so palpable in the apartment, that I realized in whose presence I was. Now I know how the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus felt. “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was talking to us on the road, while He was opening the Scriptures to us?'” (Jn 24:31-32)

Why didn’t I recognize Christ when He was right in front of me? It was because I was so preoccupied with the task at hand that I failed to see His loving presence in the life of a simple man. I was more Martha than Mary. It’s good to do a job well but we must remember that when we do our work, we ought to have a spirit of prayerfulness, being open to the graces of God, being attentive to the Sacrament of the present moment.

Jesus comes to us daily in the lives of the poor in many forms: poor in health, possessions, companionship, love, faith, spirit. In fact, we are all poor. Do we acknowledge Him in our midst or do we not know Who it is we serve until He’s gone?

Mother Teresa said: “The important thing is not to do a lot or to do everything. The important thing is to be ready for anything, at all times; to be convinced that when serving the poor, we really serve God.” Through the lessons I learned that day, Jesus served me more than I served Him.

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