I’m not a Catholic anymore, but like millions of people, I watched Pope Francis’ visit to Washington D.C and the other parts of America.
Since the day he became Pope, I admired his Christian demeanor and his actions above rhetoric. His compassion for the homeless, the children, and immigrants reminded me of a lesson my mother taught my siblings and I a long time ago.
Those were the days of welfare commodities, those big silver containers of oily peanut butter, Spam, powdered milk and eggs. Mom was a divorcee, a single parent with four kids who went to night school to get her diploma after her full-time job.
An asphalt parking lot separated the housing projects, the apartment buildings where we lived. The lot served as a playground for roller skating, a game of tag, or kickball between cars.
Amid the old Chevy’s, work trucks, and cars on their last legs, sat a hulking tank of a car, decades old, early 1950’s Mercury. Rimless, faded paint, and worn tires made it look ready for the junk yard. The car had a larger front end than a behind with a huge dashboard full of newspapers and junk, blankets in the rear seat.
We found out a man lived in the car. White stubble dotted his chin and neck against the mahogany of his skin color. He appeared overweight since he wore layers of clothes. A black jacket with sweaters over shirts, blue overalls, red bandanas in his pocket. Skimpy mittens stretched over large hands to ward off the cold. He wore a Charlie Chaplin type hat.
The round man who matched his heavy set car slept in a parking lot of cars that left at dawn for the packing houses, dairy, or vegetable fields. Sometimes he used someone’s water hose to douse his head and face. Drying himself with his bandana.
Sometimes he got drunk on cheap wine, telling us he was from the south, never naming the state or maybe we didn’t ask. There was no work, his jalopy broke down near our apartments and he pushed it into the lot, living there ever since.
When he got drunk he’d reach into his pockets, pull out pennies and nickels and throw them into the air. Kids dove for the coins, it was like bolo, being at a Catholic baptismal when the baby’s godfather threw coins on the church steps to celebrate the event.
One morning he came to our back door, hat in hand, asking my mom if she had some spare bread, water, maybe a sandwich?
We watched her from the kitchen table, making a sandwich with some of our fried Spam. She found a mason jar and filled it with iced tea. He glanced from her to us, to his scuffed brown boots and back again, staring at the concrete.
He took his sandwich and tea with many thanks, a big smile, saying “God bless you,” several times. My mom nodded. When she shut the door one of us said something about the wino and why did she give him some of our food. She corrected us saying he was down on his luck, and he needed help. She grew up during the great depression and knew what hunger felt like and we were Catholics, it was our duty to help other people.
After that, mostly during payday, Mom would make him refried bean burritos, kept hot by wrapping them in aluminum foil. She filled the mason jar with tea and send us out to the parking lot to give to the man. The other neighbors occasionally fed him too, bringing him something they picked from the orchards or field. One day we went outside to play and his car was gone.
I imagined he found a job, lived a better life, but I don’t know what happened to the homeless man. What I do remember is the compassion my mother showed to someone who was poorer than we were, reminding us we had a duty to help others.