I first met Jesus in a homeless person. No, like, really.
You might have read that and assumed I was speaking metaphorically. Or maybe you thought I was just being pious and self-congratulatory, trying to spiritualize a community service experience that any decent person could have done.
Three years ago, I would have thought all of those things. I would have thought the idea that talking to a homeless person was literally “talking to Jesus” was self-serving and cheesy at best, and threatening to actual social justice at worst.
But when Christ in the City says that they meet Jesus in the poor, they mean it. They’re not talking about a good feeling or an abstract idea, but a spiritual reality that Christ Himself taught.
When I first encountered Christ in the City on a visit to Denver, my faith was bottoming out. After throwing God to the wayside during my first year of college, I was trying – going to Mass, making Confessions, singing some Worship music – but in the midst of a tumultuous college career, something just wasn’t clicking. I needed a spark to ignite the fire of Love in me again.
I had always loved community service, though, so when some friends invited me to my first Lunch in the Park, I figured it couldn’t hurt. At least I’d get a chance to help someone, right?
I was right in a way, but I didn’t realize just whom I’d be helping. As I nervously handed out water, met missionaries, and eventually talked to some homeless friends, a sort of electricity filled me. My heart had felt a similar warmth before, but this was different; this wasn’t just the joy of helping out.
It set in when I met a smiling older woman who told me that she liked the song I was playing. The face of this woman was, in a mysterious way, the face of Jesus himself. And the glow I experienced was the deep, inexplicable soul-quenching peace that had to come from Him. It was the glow of community, of love, and – ironically enough – the glow I had felt once before, upon finally receiving the Eucharist after weeks without it.
My experience was undeniable – this was the fire of the Holy Spirit, alerting me of the presence of Christ in my midst and calling me to deeper communion with Him.
I had always been frustrated that I “couldn’t find” God in the experiences that others did, but He was never hiding from me. He simply chose to reveal Himself to me in the poor.
In Matthew 25:40 – Jesus says “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” – We as Catholics take Him literally here. We believe that because of this Scripture, we don’t just honor Him – we actually encounter Him when we serve our brothers and sisters on the street. In a special, mysterious way, He is present in them.
St. John Chrysostom even went so far as to say that “if you can’t find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will never find Him in the chalice.”
After that first experience with CIC, I moved to Denver, began praying every day, and started Spiritual Direction. My life took a radically different direction, and I eventually took ministry to the extreme by living as a missionary in a homeless shelter for six months. The impact of my encounter with Him was all too real.
If Christ is truly present in the poor like this, it’s life-changing. It means that, when we risk a little bit of vulnerability and are companions to the less fortunate, Jesus uses the poor to transform us. It means they become a unique way in which the Living God speaks into our hearts, just as He can do with charismatic prayer, praise-and-worship, theological study or any of the other unique spiritualities that He’s given us.
And, it means it’s entirely possible that you could have a story just like mine that hasn’t been fulfilled yet. And it is for that reason that I’m calling you to come experience Christ in the City, at a Lunch in the Park, on a mission trip, or even as a full-time missionary.
I’m calling you, good-hearted skeptic, I’m calling you, burnt-out ministry leader, and I’m calling you, who want to live in relationship with God but just can’t seem to make it work.
Maybe you don’t feel you’ve encountered the Lord in Praise and Worship. Maybe He doesn’t present Himself to you in all the theology. Maybe you’ve heard all the talks, been to all the retreats, tried all the devotions, but just can’t seem to find Him.
Maybe He’s waiting for you in the poor.
Daniel Lorenzo was a missionary with Christ in the City in the summer of 2017. He loves playing indie music and reading, and hopes to become the Patron Saint of Memes. He just finished a missionary experience at a homeless shelter in the Bronx, and now works as a freelance writer.