St. André Bessette: A Person is People

Author: Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C.

I get to see one of my favorite images of Christ almost every Friday as the André House staff gathers for Mass downstairs in our prayer room. Every other weekday, we have Mass outside in the parking lot, but on Friday the building is closed and we have Mass downstairs.

Christ in the Breadlines at Andre House

We sit in a circle around the altar, and Br. Richard Armstrong, C.S.C., usually sits next to me. Most Fridays he also shares a little reflection. As he does so, I turn to look at him. Over his shoulder I also get to see Franz Eichenberg’s “Christ of the Breadlines.” It is an image used in many Catholic Worker Houses depicting people waiting for food in a breadline, the center figure obviously Christ.

I could share many stories of seeing Christ in our guests here at André House. The picture regularly helps to remind me to try to see Christ in disguise, present in the people around me. This image also took new meaning for me last Christmas season when we received in the mail a letter with a couple of notes inside.

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Fr Eric talking to guests at Andre House

The letter came from a guest thanking us for the help received at André House. He sent a small donation to us, explaining that it was small because he is on disability, and most of his check goes to child support, leaving only $400 a month on which to live. Even with such a small income, he wrote, “It just felt right to give you what I can as you all fed me for a short time when I was homeless, and it really meant and still means a lot to me the help I received. … I’m still severely struggling with life but places and people like yours give me hope that I can have a better life someday and I now realize how important it is for everybody to help the less fortunate and those struggling with life.”

Those words, by themselves, would have been enough to make my heart melt. He is a man who obviously still struggles to get by sending us something so that he can help the less fortunate. He immediately reminded me of the story of the poor widow in the Gospel who only put into the temple treasury a few small coins compared to the larger amount others gave. However, Jesus said that she gave the most (Lk 21:1-4). God does not judge as the world judges, but instead judges the heart. His generosity and desire to helps others, even though he sought resources from charities where he now lives, made me think that he may still frequent souplines in his new city.  If so, they have Christ standing in their breadline.

Canes left at St

I also think of the time that I visited St. Joseph’s Oratory in Monreal, Canada, and saw the rooms full of crutches and testimonies and other gifts sent to Br. André in thanksgiving for miracles received. So many people touched by the grace of God through a man who did not have some of the usual credentials for great influence in the world: wealth, education, social status. Through Br. André, and the way that he sent them to St. Joseph, multitudes received the graces they needed. Like our former guest at André House, many felt the need to send back a token of appreciation.

Learn more about St. André, the first canonized saint of Holy Cross

To stop there, however, misses another level to the story. Christ was more than a miracle worker. He is our Savior. He also is a great teacher and usually uses stories to teach. The Christ of our breadline who sent in his small donation did just that too. His teaching came in the form of a note that he included with his letter and donation. The note was from his daughter. “Thank you!!! You were the one that helped my Daddy when he was homeless. Hope you have a Merry Christmas!!! God bless all of you!!! Now I get to see my dad.”

When I try to help someone, I can find it easy to focus on the person in front of me and try to help this person with her or his needs right now. All too often I can forget that when I help this person, I am helping more than this person. A Swahili saying someone told me as I prepared to spend time in East Africa when I was in the seminary is, “mtu ni watu,” literally meaning, “a person is people.” The times I may have handed our guest a ticket for the evening meal, or helped in another way during the soupline, I may have thought about helping this man. His daughter’s note reminds me still that we all have a story. No one is completely alone. When we hurt someone, we hurt the people they love. When we help someone, we also touch the people who love him/her.

St André Bessette

I am blessed to be in a position to touch the lives of many people. The effects of our efforts here at André House reach well beyond what we will ever see or know. I am also blessed by Christ in our soupline who sent us that Christmas note, helping me to feel hope, joy, and love.

This reflection written for the feast day of St. André Bessette, the first canonized saint of the Congregation of Holy Cross, was written by Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C., the Director of André House, which serves people who live on the streets in Phoenix, Arizona, in the United States.