The homeless man stood unsteadily in the church vestibule reeking of cheap wine. In the chancel, the choir was singing a glorious rendition of “O Holy Night.” It was Christmas Eve and the pews were crowded with erstwhile parishioners home for the holidays.
Before mass, he had approached us (as well as every other churchgoer) in the parking lot, wishing us a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year before hitting us up for spare change. We declined, as we always do, but naturally felt a bit guilty afterwards. We were, after all, on our way to Christmas services. “This guy knows where to find a soft touch,” I told the wife.
We had seen him before at mass. I figured he came to escape the cold and to imbibe the free wine given out at communion. It seemed unlikely that he was a parishioner. As an African-American he stood out somewhat. (There were a handful of African-Americans in the congregation, but most of these were recent immigrants from former Portuguese or Belgian colonies.) He chomped the communion wafer as though it were a stale potato chip. By the time it was his turn to take the communion wine, little remained in the chalice, a fact which seemed to displease him greatly.
Ironically, the subject of the Christmas homily concerned our duty as Christians to provide for the poor and homeless. The baby Jesus had been homeless and poor, said the priest. This gave Him a greater insight into the sufferings of the least fortunate.
As usual, I turned to the wife with my list of objections. Homeless? Because there were no vacancies at the hotel? Sounds like bad planning to me. As for being poor, since when are carpenters destitute? Was Jesus’ father a particularly bad carpenter? Also, I didn’t buy the faulty logic (argumentum ad experientiam) that only persons with first-hand experience of poverty can truly sympathize with the needy.
The wife shushed me.
After the homily, the priest strode to the vestibule to bless the crèche. Nearby the homeless man stood swaying back and forth, his eyes yellow and rheumy. I waited, a bit hopefully, for the wino to interrupt the celebrant’s blessings with a plea for spare change for the homeless, but, alas, he remained silent and respectful.
AFTER MASS on the way back to our cozy abode, there to open our Christmas gifts, we discussed what to do about the homeless fellow. Giving him spare change, of course, would only facilitate his alcoholism. If parishioners truly wanted to do something useful they would have to get the man treatment for his alcoholism, after which we might possibly tackle other, more pedestrian problems, like housing, job training, etc. This, naturally, would depend on whether he truly wanted to cure his alcoholism. Many drunks are perfectly content with their situation and life, and the idea of life of sobriety would strike them as horrible and one hardly worth living.
It wasn’t a very cheerful thought with which to start Christmas day, but a common one here in the city.