Friday, March 17, 2017

When Pope Francis spoke to me

No matter how prettified San Miguel's colonial Centro becomes, street beggars refuse to go away.

And why should they? Beggars have been part of San Miguel forever so why should they pack up and go so as not to offend the sensibilities of tourists who will be here for only a week, or two or spoil the town's ever more commercialized colonial charm?

In a recent article Pope Francis spoke about beggars and his words struck my mind as well as my heart even though I hopped off the Roman Catholic haywagon long ago and generally don't keep track of Vatican pronunciamentos.

He said we should give to beggars, no questions asked, and also talk to them and even physically touch them. Go ahead and hold their hands for a second or two.

Francis says: "Reach out and touch that beggar."
His words also took me, in a roundabout way, to the debate in Washington over health care for the poor and what the government should do about it—if anything.

Panhandling and poverty are desperate conditions people don't voluntarily embrace.

Most beggars in San Miguel's Centro are women with ragamuffin children who set up shop in church courtyards or outside busy shops, where customers and supplicants can't avoid at least brief eye contact. The beggars' pitch is usually an extended hand, sometimes reinforced with a pathetic look or mumbled plea.

When we're confronted with them—people who may be dirty, smelly or disheveled, their lives disfigured by poverty, violence, substance abuse or maybe illness—our instinctive reaction is avoidance, just the opposite of what the pope preaches.

The Pope said that not only should we give money to beggars but reach out and touch their hand, even exchange a few words. We must not ignore or prejudge them.

Giving something to someone in need is always right, Francis said, and should be done with "compassion and respect." He doesn't want us to absent-mindedly flip some pocket change and keep on walking as if it we were contributing to the tip jar at the Italian Coffee Company.

"Tossing money and not looking in their eyes is not a Christian way of behaving," Francis said.

Even before I read the Pope's exhortation I was offended by the Republican proposed reform of Obamacare, which looks like a reverse Robin Hood affair that would transfer hundreds of billions of dollars to the rich in the form of tax breaks and not offer much to the needy.

According to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, millions of Americans would end up with no health insurance.

It reeks of contempt for the needy, in this case uninsured Americans. The Republicans' logic is that government aid "deincentivizes" people from working and makes parasites out of them. It's just a replay of the eternal battle between the job creators and the freeloaders.

Applied to beggars, some would likewise argue that giving them money only enables their alcoholism, laziness and irresponsible behavior. Better to just walk on by, as if your neglect will teach them a lesson. It might be good for them in the long run, however long that is.

Following Pope Francis' exhortation, I'll start carrying some coins, and start brief exchanges with beggars in San Miguel to hear bits of their story and what they are about. I don't expect any revelations but just hope the beggars I approach won't feel ignored or dismissed.

It might make me a more generous and sensitive person.

Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican spear-carrier in the charge to dismantle Obamacare, should get on his government-paid limo and travel outside Washington for a couple of weeks.

He should visit with the people who now rely on Obamacare—black, white, brown, destitute or working poor—to get some flesh-and-blood feedback about what would happen to those families if the draconian Republican health care reforms are implemented.

Ryan, a devout Roman Catholic, should heed the Pope's exhortation. The experience might change his mind.

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