STUDENT VOICES | CHYNN PRIZE HONORABLE MENTION
By John Tracey
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. . . Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25: 35-36, 40)
This quote has been a stinging thorn pushing into my stable, privileged, and comfortable life. As part of the gospel, I am bound as a Christian to take Jesus’ challenge seriously, but also as a self-centered, flawed human being I wrestle with this quote’s implications: why should I care for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the least of Jesus’ brothers who often appear dirty, unkempt, frightening, and coarse mannered?
Throughout my time at Fordham, I have come to a working conclusion, a best guess informed by the destabilizing experience of living in the Bronx. This may seem like a non-sequitur, but Ursula K. Le Guin captures my conclusion perfectly in her science fiction novel The Dispossessed, “And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor of the human spirit.”
I have found that when I look into the eyes of the hungry, the thirsty, the dirty, and the coarse, if I let their humanity attack my own resisting brain, then I cannot turn away and I cannot put back the blinders. At the same time, I know that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and that intelligence and reason should inform how I respond when I can no longer turn away.
I would like to begin with a story of a time another’s humanity attacked my own conflicted self. This November, my Global Outreach (GO) team had a reunion at Estrellita Poblana III, a Mexican restaurant on Arthur Avenue. We had just gotten our food when suddenly we smelled the off-putting smell of sweat mingled with urine and a woman appeared right next to me with her hands cupped and outstretched mumbling, “please, give me something to eat.”
My team froze, unsure how to respond as the woman repeated her request. My conscience pounded relentlessly against my mind, pushing me to look into her eyes, ask her to stay, or at least to order something for her to go. My mind took a different tack pushing back, and afraid of my teammates’ disapproval I did nothing.
Security officers hired by Arthur Avenue descended and after a firm “Ma’am you are disrupting these folks dinner and you can’t be in here” the woman acquiesced. Although the woman had only murmured “please, give me something to eat,” the desperate look in her eyes and my silence bothered me for weeks.
What should I have done? My conscience was clearly telling me that I should have fed someone in obvious need, but as I pondered the insidious thought that she could have lied to gain a free meal disrupted my thoughts. After all I know that it can be very easy to exploit those with good intentions.
As I continued to think, I decided on the following parameters for similar situations in the future: First, I would consider whether I was alone or with others. If I was accompanied by other people and if the person I encountered asked only for food, clothing, water, or any other item I could buy directly for the person then I would act. Second, I would make sure I kept the receipt so that what I purchased could be used for its intended purpose and not returned. To me, these guidelines seemed like a common-sense way to reconcile the thrust of Matthew 25 with essential concerns for personal safety, and I began trying to live according to them.
However I soon discovered that responding to Matthew 25 with a formulaic ethic was an important, but not complete understanding of the gospel. Several weeks after my GO reunion I encountered a man outside Fordham’s gates begging for money and for food. From thirty feet away I began my mental calculus: I was alone, but in a public area with a Fordham security guard fifty feet away. Deciding on action, the script I imagined was:
“Please, could you spare some change or buy me some food?”
“I can’t give you money, but I would be happy to buy food, what would you like?”
“Could you buy me a sandwich at _______________?”
“Sure, I’ll be right back.”
All went according to plan, and as I walked back through the library gate, a self-satisfied glow crept over me. I thought to myself, “I did it, unlike at Estrellita’s, I acted as Jesus would have acted.”
It was not until later that week that I began to realize how much farther I still had to go. I may have checked the Matthew 25 box in feeding someone a sandwich from Subway, but I had missed an encounter with a human being. I may have fed someone, but unlike Jesus I viewed my giving as a duty and I forgot a crucial part of Jesus’ ministry, the time he spent in conversation, eating with, healing, and being a companion for others.
I realized that Jesus did not treat the poor and the marginalized as boxes to be checked, but instead made time to eat, talk, and visit with them. Now, a new and even more challenging question arose; I confronted the fact that while I may have broken my fear of fulfilling the letter of Matthew 25, I had work to do fulfilling the spirit. In my attempt to overcome my social fears, I had squelched the human encounter.
To conclude, I would like to quote Robert Frost. In his poem “Mending Wall,” Frost presents two views of the world, one committed to erecting barriers between human beings, the other committed to openness and encountering fellow human beings. The following quotes capture the interior tension I feel as I try to continue to overcome my fear of fulfilling the letter of Matthew 25, yet alone the spirit.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down”
“Good fences make good neighbors”
To a certain degree, good fences do make good neighbors, and while my formulaic response to Matthew 25 was an incomplete understanding of the thrust of the gospel, I think it is essential to use reason and intelligence to choose how to approach unfamiliar, potentially untrustworthy people wisely. At the same time though, I think a truly Christian understanding of Matthew 25 includes a commitment to encountering other people in their humanity through conversation and time spent with the unfamiliar, often dirty, often coarse, and often frightening.
John Tracey FCRH ’15 was a Biology and Theology double major. This essay was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2015 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.
Robert Frost. “Mending Wall.” Early Poems. New York, NY: Penguin, 1998.
Ursula K. Le Guin. The Dispossessed. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1974.