Saturday, January 30, 2010

Responding to love with love: a church youth group’s encounter with a blind beggar

Love is best repaid with love. This is what the members of the youth group from St. Michael Archangel Catholic Church in Nong Bua Lamphu, NE Thailand felt today when they went out onto the street to ask for donations for the victims of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti that killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people and left millions homeless.

Like people all over the world, people here in Thailand were left dumbfounded by the amount of damage that took place in this small and poverty stricken Carribean nation. Appeals were made for assistance by government, non-government and religious organizations all over the country to assist the Haitian people in their time of need, just as Thai people received assistance and support when it was struck by the catastrophic tsunami some years ago. Thai people have been generous in responding to the call for help.

When the church youth group, which was composed of members who were students, young migrant workers, and teenage orphans infected with HIV, heard about the appeal from the Thailand Catholic Bishops’ Conference for all churches to join hands to help the peopler in Haiti, they readily responded. After a short discussion, the group decided that the following Saturday, it would go to the local market place with posters and boxes asking for donation. The group would get together at the church at 9 o’clock in the morning and head out to the market by 9:30.

When Saturday came, people arrived as planned. Only some of the members were missing because they were busy with other activities that couldn’t be helped. As they got down from the church pick up truck to go stand in a public place to ask for money, the feeling of nervousness were apparent on their faces. No one in the group had ever done this before. They had not even thought of exactly what they would say to the people passing buy. They weren’t sure how the people would respond to them. Would people trust them to give them money? Would people criticize them or speak unkindly to them? Sure, they were all wearing shirts imprinted with the church logo, and the poster had a letter and contact information of the parish priest to show that they were not some group trying to make a buck off other people’s pain and suffering. But still, they were nervous.

The group made its way to the entrance way of a bank. It was Saturday morning, so the bank would open later than normal. It was located only a few meters from the local market where people sold fruits, vegetables, meat and other goods in their individual stalls. In front of the bank, various people had also set up “shop” there. One man was selling sunglasses. Four or five people had their cases opened, and inside the cases were displays of lottery tickets.

In front of the bank is a good place to wait for customers. No one knew this better than the beggar who was also sitting on the edge of the sidewalk next to one of the lottery ticket salesmen. He was a man about 40 years old. He was apparently handicapped because he had a cane lying behind him on the gutter. He was also blind. This was certainly no ordinary beggar because he also had a “sound system” complete with amplifier, a CD player, and a microphone to help him with the business of begging. The beggar was talking on the microphone when the group came, asking people going about their errands to spare whatever they could. A song was simultaneously being played on his sound system. His voice was quite attractive. If he was in a better situation, perhaps he would be a radio D.J.

The group stood about five meters from the beggar, not wanting to crowd his space. They held up their posters and hesitantly started to make greetings to passerbys asking for donation for earthquake victims. They had to be urged to speak more boldly and to all people because many were still too shy to make a sound. The first few people started to put money in the box and the youth became more encouraged. They began to speak a bit louder than before. More people heard them, including the blind beggar sitting close to them.

To the young people’s surprise, the blind beggar did not become in the least annoyed by the competition from the group. On the contrary, once he found out by his keen ears that the group was there to ask for donations for the earthquake victims in Haiti, a country that not many Thai people had even heard about before this natural disaster occurred, he started to speak into his microphone that he wanted to make a contribution. And as it was difficult for him to walk, he asked that they come to him to accept the money. One of the youth group members approached him with the tin cookie can covered with pink paper and had the words “Help Haiti” written on it. He took out the money from his pocket, the money that he collected from his own begging and put it into the box.

It was a gesture that made every member of the youth group both surprised and humbled—surprised because a blind beggar knew exactly what the group was doing and what was going on in Haiti that called for this effort. And humbled because even a blind and lame beggar who didn’t even have much could afford to contribute to their little fundraising drive. The feeling of admiration for the blind beggar came from the 11th grade girl who was the leader of the youth group, and from the 14 year old boy who was infected with HIV, and all the rest who realized that generosity was not something that only the people with means have a monopoly on. Rather, caring for the poor, sharing with those less fortunate, and being in solidarity with the suffering was something that even the poorest of the poor and the most unfortunate of the unfortunate can do extraordinarily well.

The blind beggar did not only stop at giving a donation, but the entire time that the group was standing at the entrance of the bank, the man continually used his microphone to appeal to the conscience of people making their way through the group and of those sitting nearby but had not yet budged. With his own generous gesture and constant appeal, the blind beggar made those sitting around him unable to simply watch but also had to make their own contributions, even if just 10 or 20 baht. The youth group themselves also felt they had to reply kindness with kindness. They bought food and drinks and bought it to the man and thanked him for his generosity. The people around were impressed by the simple and honest exchange of kindness between the beggar and the youth group members. One of the group leaders said afterward, “Today we witnessed a small miracle.”

By the time the youth group left the marketplace two hours later, it had collected twice the amount of money it hoped for. Their voices calling out to people passing by, whether walking or driving cars, riding motorbikes or sitting on tuktuks became more bold and easily heard even from a distance. By that time some members had even gone to the large street intersection to call out to the people stopping at the red light. Quite a bit of money was received there. Perhaps the people in the cars were impressed that teenagers were taking their time out on a Saturday morning to stand in the hot sun to collect money for perfect strangers in another country.

But back at the entrance of the bank, the youth group had to move because the bank was opening and cars had to go in and out. The youth group said good bye to the blind beggar and thanked him once more for his generosity. The blind man offered to make a second donation, but one of the older members of the group told him that his first donation was more than enough. They were very grateful for his help already.

Back at the church, as the group was eating lunch together – a simple meal consisting of sticky rice, papaya salad, fried eggs and fish, they talked about what had taken place that morning. A question was asked: “What impressed you the most about our activity this morning?” One of the teenage orphans replied simply and succintly, “The blind beggar.” He didn’t expound on his comment, but all understood what he was thinking. No one in the group had a different answer.

"I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." Luke 21:3-4

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pope to priests: Go forth and blog

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI has a new commandment for priests struggling to get their message across: Go forth and blog.

The pope, whose own presence on the Web has heavily grown in recent years, urged priests on Saturday to use all multimedia tools at their disposal to preach the Gospel and engage in dialogue with people of other religions and cultures.

And just using e-mail or surfing the Web is often not enough: Priests should use cutting-edge technologies to express themselves and lead their communities, Benedict said in a message released by the Vatican.

"The spread of multimedia communications and its rich 'menu of options' might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web," but priests are "challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources," he said.

The message, prepared for the World Day of Communications, suggests such possibilities as images, videos, animated features, blogs, and Web sites.

Benedict said young priests should become familiar with new media while still in seminary, though he stressed that the use of new technologies must reflect theological and spiritual principles.

"Priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ," he said.

The 82-year-old pope has often been wary of new media, warning about what he has called the tendency of entertainment media, in particular, to trivialize sex and promote violence, while lamenting that the endless stream of news can make people insensitive to tragedies.

But Benedict has also praised new ways of communicating as a "gift to humanity" when used to foster friendship and understanding.

The Vatican has tried hard to keep up to speed with the rapidly changing field.

Last year it opened a YouTube channel as well as a portal dedicated to the pope. The Pope2You site gives news on the pontiff's trips and speeches and features a Facebook application that allows users to send postcards with photos of Benedict and excerpts from his messages to their friends.

Many priests and top prelates already interact with the faithful online. One of Benedict's advisers, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of Naples, has his own Facebook profile and so does Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles.

In Saturday's message — titled "The priest and pastoral ministry in a digital world: new media at the service of the Word" — Benedict urged special care in contacts with other cultures and beliefs.

A presence on the Web, "precisely because it brings us into contact with the followers of other religions, nonbelievers and people of every culture, requires sensitivity to those who do not believe, the disheartened and those who have a deep, unarticulated desire for enduring truth and the absolute," he said.

Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, who heads the Vatican's social communications office, said that Benedict's words aimed to encourage reflection in the church on the positive uses of new media.

"That doesn't mean that (every priest) must open a blog or a Web site. It means that the church and the faithful must engage in this ministry in a digital world," Celli told reporters. "At some point, a balance will be found."

Celli, 68, said that young priests would have no trouble following the pope's message, but, he joked, "those who have a certain age will struggle a bit more."

(On the Net: *
By Ariel David /AP

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Church Newsletter January 2010

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Put on a cheerful face

I am not sure if it still exists, but I remember for some time, the fashion trend among teenagers was the “gangster look”. People walked around in baggy jeans, oversized t-shirts, and baseball caps. On their faces, they always wore an expression of toughness that seemed to say “You better not mess with me.”

Even though it was just part of the fashion statement that young people were trying to make to their peers, I can’t help but think that trying to look tough on the outside will eventually make you become tough on the inside as well. If you concentrate on making yourself look like you’re going to smash someone’s face in if they looked at you the wrong way, you won’t have a whole lot of time left to think about being a nice and cheerful person to people around you.

The reality is that many people walk around with angry or unpleasant looks on their faces even though it has nothing to do with making a fashion statement. Many people do not feel happy in their lives or do not know how to be joyful with what they have. Many people intentionally or unintentionally make themselves into uncheerful people that are unpleasant to themselves as well as to people around them.

Charles Evans Hughes, who was chief justice of the United States Supreme Court once said, “A man has to live with himself, and he should see to it that he always has good company.” One of the ways we turn ourselves into good company, not only to people around us, but also to ourselves is by being a cheerful person. Cheerfulness is not like when you do not have a good grasp of reality and become ditzy and everything is “Like omigod, how cool!” But cheerfulness is an attitude in which we reflect the joy we feel inside at all the good things that we have in life.

There are many aspects of our lives in which should make us feel joyful, but this isn’t happening because we are not aware of these good things. Sometimes, we even mistake a good thing for being a bad thing.

Let’s take the case of being stuck in traffic when we are driving on the highway. To most of us, this is really terrible, especially when we have some important place to go. But think again and we’ll find that we should be cheerful even when stuck in traffic because it means that we actually can afford to have a car in order to drive around, unlike many others in the world where even finding money for a bicycle is not possible.

Or let’s think about when we are stuck on a difficult math problem. We might be really angry at the teacher for assigning us so much homework, especially with math problems that are impossible to solve. Yet, if we think again, we’ll see that even now, we should be cheerful because being stuck on a homework problem means that we have opportunity to go to school and learn many things that are important to finding success in the future. In this world, there are millions and millions of young people who would love to be able to sit at a desk listening to the teacher explain lessons but cannot because they have to go out to find a job to make money for their family or for their own lives.

Despite the fact that our lives are full of occasions for joy and cheerfulness, many of us choose to go for the tough look every time we step out of the house. We look tough so that other people will afraid of us. We look tough so we don’t have to smile at the beautiful things that appear in front of our eyes. We look tough so we don’t have to show gratitude at all the blessings that have been bestowed on us by God, who is the most cheerful Being in the universe. According to American philosopher Dallas Willard, “We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe. The abundance of his love and generosity is inseparable from his infinite joy. All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.”

Since God is joyful, God always wants each of us to be joyful. In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself prayed for our joy (John 15:11;16:16-24; 17:13). And Jesus wants to make it easy and joyful for each of us to come to him. As he assured us, “My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30)

Lastly, we must remember that to be cheerful and joyful is a decision that we make ourselves. It is not a result of something that happens to us. Just as we can make a choice to be angry and resentful, we can make a choice to be cheerful. The way to make that decision is by looking at our lives for signs of God’s presence. God’s presence is not only detected in the good things, but oftentimes, also in the hardships and difficulties. In fact, we are even more likely to find that God is walking with us in times of pain and suffering than in the good times. As a result, no matter in what state we are in, if we want to feel God’s presence and support in our lives, we will be able to feel joy.

Life is difficult and sometimes painful. In our modern society, there are many things that we can use to justify why we walk around looking angry all the time. Yet, it does not have to be this way. We can all be cheerful and joyful, if that’s how we want to feel!

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.
- Chinese proverb