July 14, 2017

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

The poor are always with us, but are we with them?

Cynthia DewesWe know that as Christians we must help the poor. Scripture says the poor will always be with us, and we are obligated to contribute to feeding, clothing, housing, and whatever else is necessary in aiding them.

We all agree that this is our duty as fellow children of God. The thing is, many of us simply don’t know anyone who is really poor. Down on their luck, maybe, unemployed or on welfare, but no one who’s a real victim of poverty. So we throw some money in the poor box, or answer a plea from a religious order and hope that will do.

On the other hand, our family received a gift of God’s grace when we met Billy and saw the real face of the poor.

One of our sons started a community outreach program as an extracurricular activity while he was attending college. He assembled a Boy Scout troop of adult handicapped young men, including those with physical and/or intellectual limitations. Billy fit both categories, or so we thought.

He was the oldest of many children in a poor farm family. When he was very young, he contracted polio, which left him with a shriveled right arm and a limp that made him drag one foot. His family thought he was mentally handicapped as well, and took him out of school after fourth grade. So he worked on the farm, spent time with his large family and attended the local Catholic Church with them.

When we visited our son at college, he introduced us to Billy at a dance they were having. Immediately, Billy invited me to dance, and soon he was polka-ing the older lady around the floor. It was the first of many delightful surprises Billy gave us.

Later, our son invited Billy to our home for a few days to celebrate his birthday in the “city.” We planned to show him a good time, and when he arrived I asked him what he’d like to do. “Let’s go see, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” he said. What? We were silently dubious, but went to see a movie we’d never even considered. It turned out to be hilarious, and we all laughed ourselves sick. After that, we never questioned Billy’s taste or judgment.

Billy loved life, and he was funny. He was also kind and generous. We thought it ironic that he, who had so little, gave so much, not only of his love and attention but also whatever material things he could create. We have several gifts which he made for us from popsicle sticks, of all things, including a table lamp and a standing crucifix.

Eventually, Billy fell in love with a woman who had cerebral palsy. She had a high school education and could operate a computer with her teeth. The two of them shared a similar sense of humor, and a strong will to live life fully, so they married. They were quite different, but as with most well-married couples, they complemented each other.

The couple lived on welfare and disability income, which was barely enough for essentials, but they were happy. When his wife died, Billy went into a nursing home, where the staff soon loved him as much as we did.

Billy has gone home to God now, but he allowed us to see the real face of the poor. Since we’re all made in God’s image, we saw a lot more than that.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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