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

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