Nothing is more difficult than interacting with people whose lives, whose circumstances, are so different from our own that there seems to be a chasm between us. We can't begin to imagine what goes on in their lives - or heads.
Do we look down on them? Or do we look up to God, praying to see the poor through God's eyes?
St. Vincent de Paul, who lived in the 1600's, was born into a peasant family. Later on, after attending seminary, he was on shipboard and was captured by pirates and sold into slavery. He had several "masters" before returning to France a free man. He knew well how "the other half" lived. He understood the chasm between the "haves" and the "have nots." He founded the Ladies of Charity to help the poor and was a chaplain to galley slaves.
He said, in almost brutal honesty: "I must not judge a poor peasant man or woman by their appearance or their apparent intelligence, especially since very often they scarcely have the expression or the mind of rational persons, so crude and vulgar they are. But ...the Son of God is represented to us by these poor people;....He scarcely had a human face in His Passion, and passed for a madman in the mind of the Gentiles, and a stumbling block in the mind of the Jews. With all that He describes Himself as the Evangelizer of the poor."
How does one relate to the poor? He tells us to be patient with their fits of anger. Don't give in to any inordinate demands, but give what we can. And, above all, "Do not attend to their bodies only. Help them save their souls....You are their visible guardian angels....We should groan under the burden of the poor and suffer with those who suffer, otherwise we're not disciples of Jesus Christ."
This sounds like a description of friendship to me. Not bending down to hand something out, but standing eye level and having real conversations - as equals. Which of course we are, in God's eyes. All of us, rich, middle class, poor, mentally ill, addicts, scammers, - all of us bear Christ's Image. Vincent doesn't make any distinctions between "worthy" and "unworthy." He says "The Son of God is represented to us by these poor people."
Dorothy Day, who began Houses of Hospitality to feed the homeless and unemployed during the Great '20's Depression (many are still open), marched for Civil Rights in the '60s, and for various workers' rights, said the same thing even more strongly: "Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed."
And - "I only love God as much as I love the person I love least."
Dorothy realized that to be on the receiving end of "charity" was a source of anger and grief to people - " Who wanted charity? It was a word to choke over."
People deserve the dignity of jobs; workers have rights; Christians need to speak out unceasingly "to make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do."
She emphasized speaking out for "the rights of the worthy and unworthy poor... The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor."
I'd call this a re-working of "Judge not, lest ye be judged." If we believe that all bear the Image of Christ as Vincent and Dorothy affirm, we cannot judge others on their behavior alone. God alone knows their hearts and souls. And God's love rains down on the just and the unjust, the saint and the sinner.
We may have good fortune, which is a blessing, but it also insulates us with so much comfort that it is hard for us to understand and identify with the poor's isolation, alienation, desolation. We can only truly know the poor if we pray and then step out of our comfort zones to talk with them as equals, brothers and sisters in Christ, not objects of our charity. And speak up for reform in our social structures, be a voice for the voiceless.
Dorothy's prayer is our prayer: "Dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other."