The phone calls come at very inconvenient times. This last Sunday, it came just before 10 am, when I was having breakfast. It was the Red Cross. There was a fire in Mount Vernon, people had been put out of their homes, and they needed somebody to go and help them out. That person happened to be me.
Since 2001, right after 9/11, my wife Peggy has been a Red Cross volunteer in Westchester County. She worked with others responding to the scenes of fires. Her task was to find the fire victims shelter for the night, usually in a local motel. She also helped them get replacements for their clothes, some food for the next couple of days. But the main task was to give them some hope, a friendly person to talk to and sympathize with, and sometimes a loving shoulder to cry on. After a few years of watching her get out of bed in the middle of the night to go to a fire, I decided that I wanted to do it with her. So I joined the Red Cross too, and it's been one of the best things I've ever done.
This Sunday, when I got to the fire scene in Mount Vernon, it was bad -- a restaurant had caught fire, and it spread to two nearby homes. The streets were filled with smoke. The firefighters were, as usual, doing their heroic best, but the homes were clearly destroyed. There were eight people out in the street, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Several of them had significant health problems already, and one had to be taken to the hospital. Several other Red Cross volunteers were on the job, so we spent the next few hours talking to the victims, answering their questions, and arranging for them to have a safe place to stay, some clothes to wear, and some money for food. It's not much, but the people are so grateful for these small acts of mercy that we are privileged to do for them.
This is not easy work. Nobody likes getting up at 4 a.m. to drive across Yonkers in a blizzard to a fire scene, and interview a family in a smoky, wet, dark hallway. It is emotionally exhausting to deal with distraught or upset people, especially when somebody has been hurt or even killed in the fire. But it is a tremendous blessing.
Papal Bull announcing the Year of Mercy
, Pope Francis called us to "look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society". He went on to say that "During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care." And he encouraged us to contemplate the corporal works of mercy (to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead) and the spiritual works of mercy (to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead), and making them a part of our lives.
Pope Francis reminds us of the lesson of Matthew 25 -- in the end, we will be judged by the Lord based on how we've helped people in need, because "In each of these “little ones,” Christ himself is present".
So it's a good idea to take this lesson to heart. There are so many ways to live the Year of Mercy -- volunteering for the Red Cross, cooking for a soup kitchen, praying outside of an abortion clinic, visiting moms who are in prison, calling an elderly homebound woman who has no family, or a million other things. But what a wonderful opportunity we've been given -- a chance to bring God's mercy into the lives of those around us, so they can experience how much God loves them and cares for them, especially when they are most in need.