Last December, as I was leaving a business meeting in midtown Manhattan, the gentleman in charge of the restrooms came up to me. He said, “Father, will you be back here next week? I have a little present for you.”
He told me to meet him at the shoe shiners’ booth at 4 p.m. the following Wednesday.
When I showed up at that time, his friend greeted me warmly, saying, “Boris went out to buy you a bag of special Colombian coffee. He could not find it in the local shop, so he took the subway downtown to try another shop. He was hoping you could stop by again at 5 p.m.?”
“This is the best coffee from my country, and I give it to you from the heart. I hope you like it.”
An hour later, I returned to the small cubbyhole of a shoe shine booth to discover Boris and his Colombian friend speaking in Spanish and laughing.
When Boris, the man in charge of the restrooms, saw me, he stood up and said, “Fr. Michael, I just wanted to give you a little Christmas gift. This is the best coffee from my country, and I give it to you from the heart. I hope you like it.”
Boris and I have conversed in passing over the last few years about his family, his Catholic faith, and his country. I have learned so much from his simplicity, humility, and deep charity — and his small gift was by far the most meaningful for me this past Christmas.
Pope Francis has been reminding each of us to treat others with respect, recognizing their inherent dignity as children of God. He reminds us in this year’s Lenten message: “A right relationship with people consists in gratefully recognizing their value. Even the poor person at the door of the rich is not a nuisance, but a summons to conversion and to change. The parable first invites us to open the doors of our heart to others because each person is a gift, whether it be our neighbor or an anonymous pauper.”
He continued: “Lent is a favorable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ. Each of us meets people like this every day. Each life that we encounter is a gift deserving acceptance, respect and love. The word of God helps us to open our eyes to welcome and love life, especially when it is weak and vulnerable.”
Several years ago, I entered a crowded Starbucks and was looking for a spot to sit down and send a few emails. The place was packed, but there was an available stool next to a homeless man in the corner. As I approached the corner, I immediately noticed the bad odor of this man. His tired eyes met mine as I took my seat.
He waited a few seconds and then asked me a series of tough questions: “Reverend, have you ever spent a month out in the street? Have you ever had four pairs of socks on and still could not feel your toes? Have you ever not showered for two weeks? Have you ever had someone walk up to you when it is five degrees outside, give you a bottle of cold water, and tell you to stay warm?”
My answer to all of these questions was, “No.”
Then, with tears coming out of his eyes, he said, “To be honest, all of those things really aren’t so bad. The hardest thing is that I am no longer treated like a human being. This is what’s really hard.”
“The hardest thing is that I am no longer treated like a human being. This is what’s really hard.”
One of the business leaders in our Lumen Institute in Manhattan recently moved to a new office building. One of the first things I noticed as I walked into his new office was a four-page document with names and pictures on each page.
This was the entire directory of the service staff of that building. The man had memorized all of their names and faces so that, little by little, he could acknowledge their presence in a meaningful way.
I encourage all of you to ask the names of the waiters and busboys at restaurants, to make an effort to thank the folks who service your work area, to try to make the invisible people in your world “visible” with your love and respect. This will allow God’s love to reach them — through you.
Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.