In this episode Malcolm interviews Matthew Flaherty, a Christ in the City missionary. They discuss the human dignity of the poor, the spiritual lessons of living in community, and the work Christ in the City does in Denver.
Christ in the City
Christ in the City is a small missionary organization of young adults who serve the unhoused in Denver. The missionaries live in community. Every day, they walk the streets and befriend those they meet. Their mission is to show the love of Christ to the poor and marginalized, particularly the unhoused.
Matthew Flaherty grew up in Los Angeles, California. While attending college in Humboldt county, he heard about Christ in the City and their mission. He traveled to Denver and volunteered with them for two weeks. He was deeply impressed by the intentional life of prayer and fellowship in the community, and by the way their work grew out of their life of prayer. In particular, he was struck by the way that the missionaries developed friendships with the poor.
Friendship, rather than just Aid
There are many great aid organizations. In major American cities, it is easy to find free meals. That’s a good thing. It isn’t sufficient, however. Too many of the aid organizations are bureaucratized and professional. They can’t provide the friendship and relationships the marginalized need. In fact, at times they can further erode the dignity of the poor.
The poor and particularly the unhoused suffer material hardships, but the loss of human dignity is even worse. Many of them never hear their own names spoken. They are socially marginalized, modern day lepers. The world ignores them. People walk by on the street, purposefully avoiding eye contact. We subconsciously block them out, because it is uncomfortable to see reality.
Many of the unhoused become “resource resistant”. They know all about the resources available. But they lack the motivation and assistance necessary to navigate what is on offer. For instance, many of them lack IDs. Without identification, many services become unavailable. Getting a new ID card is a difficult and lengthy process, particularly for the unhoused. They have no secure places to store documents and paperwork. One theft can undo weeks of work, and give a fatal blow to their motivation to get off the street.
That’s where Christ in the City comes in. Instead of an emphasis on aid, the Christ in the City missionaries have an emphasis on friendship. They treat those on the streets with dignity and respect. Through this friendship, they can learn about the unique struggles and needs of each individual person. The missionaries can then provide assistance, just as they would for any other friend in their lives.
Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ
We’re called to see every other human being as a brother or sister in Christ. How would we react if a brother or sister was sleeping on the street? We might not all be called to work with Christ in the City, but we are each called to give the poor the respect and recognition that they deserve as fellow human beings. To often, we shunt our charitable duties over to organizations. We throw money at problems, because we can’t think of anything else to do. Giving money is good, but not enough; we have to show others the personal love of Christ.
Aid through Friendship
The Catholic teachings of solidarity and subsidiarity would seem to suggest that we can only truly help those we know. If we don’t know them, we don’t know what they need! This is a widespread problem in our society. St. James condemned those who say “go in peace, be warm and fed” without taking concrete steps to make this sentiment a reality. But if we don’t know others, we won’t know if they need help! It is perfectly possible that we’re attending Sunday Mass with a family who has just got their power shut off, but we don’t know them. This lack of knowledge makes us unwittingly fall under the condemnation of St. James. The Christ in the City missionaries focus on friendship to get to know the poor; but part of friendship is assistance. Aid and friendship are not opposed, but complementary.
Life in Community
At any one time, there are about 30 to 35 missionaries. They live in a building near downtown Denver. The typical day starts with morning prayer and a holy hour. Then the missionaries split up into pairs for their time on the streets. In the afternoon, the missionaries work on tasks to maintain the institution and carry out any plans they’ve made with their friends on the streets. Life is like a religious order, though somewhat less structured.
Should We Give to Those Who Ask?
Many people say that we should not give to the people who are begging on the street. They argue that this will merely fuel people’s addictions and negative lifestyles. There are several problems with this advice. What are we going to do with the money? Is our use of money necessarily optimal? Do we even rightfully own surplus wealth? Further, isn’t such a mindset rather dehumanizing toward the poor? Would we ask similar questions before giving presents to friends and relatives? Isn’t this the same mindset held by the bureaucratic organizations that insist on snooping through the lives of the poor before dispensing aid?
Most importantly, the message of the Gospel and of the Saints is clear; we should give to those who ask of us. If we’re deeply concerned that our donations will be misused, we could give food or gift cards instead of cash. We shouldn’t worry, however, that God will condemn us for being “taken in” or giving money to the wrong person. As Matthew pointed out, we’re more likely to be condemned for not giving under the pretense of being responsible. God gives us a new day each morning, even though time and time again we squander his gift. We are called to imitate this open-handed generosity.
You Are Not as Busy as You Think You Are
Matthew’s concluding advice is to realize that you are not as busy as you think you are—and if you really are that busy, you should probably cut some things out of your life. While it might be difficult to give away money, it is even harder to give away time! Friendship is necessary, but if we are too busy we won’t have the time for the “interruption” of really seeing those God has placed in our path.
Header Image: Last Judgement, 5th-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo by Lawrence OP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0