Seeing the Face of God in the Poor

There is a tenet in the Legion of Mary so central to the mission of the apostolate that perhaps all the works and prayers its members perform can be said to flow directly from it: it is critical for Christians to see the face of God in their fellow man.

Whether a person is in a prison, a hospice center, at the office, or at home, that person has been created by God in His own image.  As Christians, we are called to recognize Him in one another. But what does it really mean to “see the face of God” in others? And how can this philosophy change the way we approach social problems, like poverty?

The Least of These

Performing works of mercy with the Legion of Mary introduced me to the idea of truly seeing God in others.  This must be the first step in living an authentic Christian life. Now, I believe any ministry can only be effective if it comes first from this place of love and recognition. More importantly, our basic day-to-day human interactions can be transformed through this philosophy.

As a Legionary, my first assignment was praying the rosary at a local nursing home.  I saw many broken bodies and dimmed eyes there. And yet, despite their physical and mental decline, the residents were still God’s children, imbued with His divine imprint. They deserved the same respect and dignity as any human, because their souls, like everyone’s, were willed into being by divine love. We recognized their physical state, but what mattered was their inner light.

Similarly, when I began prison ministry, questions about an inmate’s crime or sin were irrelevant. We weren’t meeting with inmates; we were meeting with our brothers or sisters who had erred and were seeking a new way. Over time, I came to understand that what we did was not just about ministering to or for them. We were forming a relationship that placed the recognition of their true identity – children of God, created by Him – before any judgment on the value of their life.

Part of Christ’s Body

It can be a tough truth to get to, but it’s connected to the Church’s overall belief in the sanctity of life, as well as the philosophy of the Mystical Body of Christ. As St. Paul said, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it“[1 Corinthians 12:27]. If we believe this, it means that every part of the “body” has a very specific and necessary role to play, whether we understand it or not.

It can be easy to default to a judgment on the value of a life; what purpose, after all, could a convicted felon’s life still have after the commission of a heinous crime? But look at St. Paul himself, who was personally responsible for the stoning death of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Even he was redeemed. It is therefore not our role to assign value, but rather to meet people where they are, and for who they are.

Jesus made this clear when he said,  

“For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,

a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’

Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’

He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” [Matthew 25:42-45].

The problem of poverty

I recently talked to Dr. Jonathan Reyes, Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) about seeing God in others.  The point of our discussion was how a person-focused approach to ministry could change the way we view and resolve a major American social ill: chronic poverty.

Prior to working for the USCCB, Dr. Reyes served as President and CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Denver, overseeing multiple homeless shelters, child care centers, affordable housing centers and various ministries. He also founded Christ in the City, a national volunteer, and formation program that teaches college students to know, love and serve the poor.

“Both left and right talk about poverty as a problem to be fixed,” he said, “and traditionally both ends of the American political spectrum view ending poverty as a matter of making a policy or social adjustment.  Both sides have a few principles they fall back on.  For example, one emphasizes the power of economic empowerment via employment to lift people out of poverty, while the other emphasizes the need for state aid not as a handout but as a hand up.”

The Catholic View of the Poor

Dr. Reyes, however, says that Catholics are called to approach the problem from a different starting point: to start from a genuine encounter with the human being made in the image and likeness of God. From there, the solutions to poverty become more personal and more dynamic. He sees a difference between starting from the goal of eradicating poverty and loving the poor.  It starts, therefore, with relationships.

“Isolation is the greatest form of poverty,” he says, referring to similar observations by Mother Theresa and a number of Popes.  And in our society, isolation is increasingly common, as families and traditional relationships fragment.

The healing power of right relationships needs to be addressed. And direct service can help you get to know someone.” For Dr. Reyes, taking this step into a relationship with the poor will make all the difference – for both those suffering from poverty and for us.

How does this work?

Poverty is complex, and without proximity to the actual problems, it is, therefore, difficult to understand. “It would be great for people to invest the time into getting to know another person, their community, and help move things along, one streetlight at a time, or neighborhood at a time,” Dr. Reyes suggests.  

“There is something organic about any community, and for those with higher incidences of poverty, you are stepping into the way things are done and the relationships already there. Go there and figure out who everyone knows and turns to, for example, when the community needs something.  Find local leaders. They are the experts.”

This is critical, Dr. Reyes believes, because otherwise, it will be difficult to understand the community and make a difference. “From that encounter will come good policy, relationships, ideasan understanding of the strengths of the community, and an identification of its vulnerabilities.”

In this sort of mutually transformative encounter, each person is meeting someone they would not have known otherwise. This fundamental relationship is what has the power to transform us as individuals and Christians.

“This is not all about giving, but receiving as well,” Dr. Reyes notes, while adding that our disposition going into working with the poor is not always something totally within our control. Most likely there will be plenty of opportunities for humility.

“Being aware that you’ll learn something is good. Humility largely comes through humiliation, and the experience itself will teach you that. The reality of loving another person, being open to them, and listening to them, teaches you humility – like marriage! You will want to step into these relationships with a disposition of wanting to learn.”

Service in our own neighborhoods

We may look to giants of the faith like St. Teresa of Calcutta or Dorothy Day (and of course Frank Duff!), for inspiration, though Dr. Reyes believes the opportunities to form relationships and serve others are already in our own backyard. For instance, we can find a homeless shelter, connect with our church’s ministry, or volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. There are many ways to integrate ourselves into a community that needs help – and this could help us.  Most importantly, it is helpful to stay in one community and do something regularly, rather than in the short term.

“No organization is perfect, and you will run into a lot of people who think differently than you about the work you’re doing (which is a good thing). Ask people who are already in it, and get going. It’s like writing a paper – just write the first sentence. And don’t be put off by the number of obstacles in front of you,” Dr. Reyes says. There will never be a perfect place to start – the important thing is just to start.

All of this, ultimately, points to our own path to sainthood and the plan God has to transform us in His will and to empower us to change the world. What better starting point than to first recognize the divine and beloved in those around us?

Or, as Dr. Reyes said, “I am just convinced that if more people moved into this space a whole set of graces would just bloom. You don’t want to overthink on your way in – just go do it. And be prepared for the Holy Spirit to lead you on the adventure of your life!”