October 12, 2018

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Who cares for the least among us? We do, as brothers, sisters in Christ

David BethuramHave you noticed how often you hear or use the phrase, “who cares?” It is generally used for saying that you do not think something is important and that you are not worried about it.

“I don’t know. Who cares?” Or, “I mean, really, who cares whether he lied or not?” After reflecting on the use of “who cares,” I began to ask the question: Who or what should we care about?

Recently, I read a story about Stephen Collins Foster. Foster lived in the mid‑1800’s. He was known as “the father of American music,” primarily for his parlor and minstrel music. His songs literally made the whole world sing, tunes like “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna” and hundreds of others.

One would think that, at the end of his life, he would have been heralded as a wonderful songwriter who wrote the songs that became deeply rooted in our rich American heritage.

But we learn he was a routine admission to busy Bellevue Hospital in New York, a charity case, one among hundreds. It says he was a drunken bum with a slashed throat from the Bowery, a hotel in the East Village of New York City, at that time known as the last stop before the morgue. It was a synonym for filth, loneliness, cheap booze, drugs and disease.

His name was misspelled on the hospital admission form, but then what good is a name when the guy’s a bum. The age listed was also incorrect. He was 38, not 39, and looked twice his age. Someone may have remarked, “What a shame for one so young,” yet no one probably did because no one cared.

The details of what happened in the predawn hours of that chilly winter morning were fuzzy. The nurses may have shrugged it off. They had seen thousands of patients. They were sure to see thousands more.

Foster’s health was gone, and he was starving. He had been found lying in a heap, bleeding from a deep gash in his throat. His forehead was badly bruised, and he was unconscious. A doctor used a sewing thread to suture the wound. He was then taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he languished and died. But it didn’t seem that anyone cared.

Later, a friend looking for him was directed to the local morgue. There, among dozens of other nameless corpses, Stephen Collins Foster was identified. When they scraped together his belongings, they found a ragged, dirty coat with 38 cents in one pocket and a scrap of paper in the other. All his earthly belongings. Possibly enough coins for another night at the Bowery and five words, “Dear friends and gentle hearts.”

Christians are called to care for those like Stephen Collins Foster. To care enough to step in with love; to restore a soul, rekindle a flame that sin snuffed out, and renew a song that once was a life.

Some of these souls are in prison. Some are in hospitals. Some in nursing homes. Some are on the streets or under a bridge. And some silently slip into Church on Sunday mornings, confused and afraid.

Do you care enough to show hospitality to strangers as the Book of Hebrews puts it? It also says that in doing so, we occasionally “entertain angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2).

Angels who don’t look anything like angels. Some might even look like bums from the Bowery. They also may have a song of joy dying in their hearts because nobody knows, and nobody cares.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at dbethuram@archindy.org.)

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