Pope Francis has delighted his audiences all over the world by his warmth, and his simplicity. Shining through everything though, is his love and concern for the poorest, the weakest and the least important. Reflecting back on my own experience of living among and working with marginalized communities, I realise how deeply I have been enriched and gifted by these families and friends. Often they have ‘gifted’ me in an extraordinary way.
The Little Old Woman
In the late 70s I was living in a shanty town in a port area in the Philippines. One day I went into the open market in the City – a very big market with plenty of everything, especially vegetables. I was standing by a stall deciding what to buy when I became conscious of a little, old woman standing next to me. I watched her as she picked up a small vegetable, perhaps the equivalent of a potato. She held it out tentatively to the stall keeper and asked how much.
He told her; it was a penny or two. She slowly put it back and then stood looking at it. Suddenly I became conscious of the abyss between myself and her, between myself and the poor – all over the world. Here was I able to buy what I wanted and needed and she…?
I never saw my little, old woman again but I have carried her in my heart ever since that day. She speaks to me all the time – reminding me of those who have nothing!
I used to meet street kids all the time in the Philippines. One Saturday evening I was visiting a neighbouring island and was going to Mass. Around the church there were many children begging. One about 7 yrs. old came up to me and said in the dialect, “Give me money.” I had a single 10 Peso bill (about 10p in sterling) and I needed four Pesos to return to the house. I excused myself and said I had nothing to give him.
I went into the Church and knelt down. The next minute in came my small friend and sat in a pew about three rows ahead of me. He turned and just stayed looking at me. There was nothing insolent in his gaze – a sort of interest. This continued for the whole of Mass. Slowly my Mass became focused on an inner dialogue: “Breda, what do you know of the life of this small child? What do you know of living on the streets of a big, dangerous city? What do you know of waking in the morning and not knowing if there will be any food? What do you know of being young and not having any hope for tomorrow?” The questioning continued. I quietly said to the Lord, Lord, I know nothing.
Christ on the altar. Christ in my small friend. Christ in me.
At the end of Mass my small friend and I came out, hand in hand. I explained that I only had this 10 Pesos, but if we could find someone to change it he could have the six Pesos and I would take the four. We found a vendor who did the exchange. The last I saw was my small friend waving to me as I went to find my jeepney to go home.
I often think of him, my little friend of the streets, and pray God to bless him and his companions.
In 2006 I returned to Birmingham, England, and got to know some of the homeless men sitting alongside the canal near our Cathedral. One very cold morning I was going there to Mass and stopped by three of them for a chat. One, Stephen, was a new face and he looked really frozen. I had recently bought myself a pair of black, knitted gloves in the Pound Shop, costing me 99p to be exact! I was wearing them. I looked at them and then at Stephen’s pinched face and asked if he would like my gloves? He protested a little and I said – “well, try them on”. He did and looked very pleased with himself – must admit I felt a little pleased with myself!!!
I then became aware that another had joined us. I turned and found my friend, Finbar, a homeless man from Dublin, standing there watching this exchange. Finbar then said to me: “Sister, take my gloves”. He held out his pair of gloves – black and much nicer than the ones I had given Stephen. I protested but Finbar continued to hold them out. “Sister”, he said, “Take them. You can do with them what you like.” I took them and put them on: one of the most precious gifts I have ever received.
Yes, the homeless, street kids and the impoverished elderly are the tips of an iceberg that we are called to be deeply concerned about. But in all my years of working with and alongside marginalized individuals, families and communities, I feel they have always deeply gifted and blessed me.
Sister Breda Noonan, a Social Worker and Psychotherapist, was missioned in the Philippines for many years and then in Birmingham. For a short while she assisted the Diocesan Social Action Program in Myitkyina, Myanmar. She now resides in St Columban’s, Magheramore, Wicklow.