I want to share with you some insight given at a retreat I attended not too long ago. The priest focused on the importance of reaching out to those on the peripheries and becoming Christ for the least of these. The talk was inspired by the words of Pope Francis and his encouragement for us to reach out to those in need: “The Church is called to come out from itself and to go to the peripheries, not just the geographical but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, of ignorance and lack of religion, those of thought and those of every kind of misery.”
Pope Francis challenges us to reach out to those on the margins of our everyday life, especially those who are perceived as unworthy of love. Probably the most obvious groups who are marginalized are the immigrants, refugees, the homeless, social outcasts, and the incarcerated. These people need our love and understanding most, but so do those groups who are overlooked – those who are LGBT , those who have been released from jail, our veterans, the mentally ill, the unemployed, atheists, those of low socioeconomic status, and people of different races, religions and/or political positions.
We might be more inclined to help at a soup kitchen than to strike up a conversation with our LGBT brothers and sisters. We might be more likely to sit with someone by themselves at lunch, but afraid to reach out to someone who is a convicted felon and served time in jail. This is a thought that makes many Christians squirm and uncomfortable. It’s seemingly easier and more desirable to help some more than others, but this doesn’t mean we should see boundaries around those who need someone to be there for them.
We should squirm; we should be uncomfortable. As followers of Christ, we need to ask ourselves whom we are most uncomfortable reaching out to – and start there. We do not get to decide who is worthy of knowing Jesus Christ. We are not here to deal out judgment. Saint Mother Teresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” We must remember that everyone deserves God – even when we believe they are unlovable or unworthy. Sometimes we marginalize ourselves; and sometimes we are the ones who are marginalizing and excluding others.
There are those in our society who are treated as social lepers because of their label or actions, but that doesn’t mean we should turn them away. Being a friend to sinners does not mean that you are condoning the sin; even Jesus was friends with the prostitutes and cheating tax collectors, and those possessed by demons. These people don’t need our judgment; they have faced enough condemnation already. They need someone to be patient with them and love them through whatever trials they are going through.
Sometimes, all it takes is a smile and a kind word; and most importantly, we need to give them our time and compassion. Sometimes, we simply need to provide people with the opportunity to find Christ and heal. Sometimes, all they need is a friend to be there to listen and be the loving influence of Christ to guide them. Let us rise up to the challenge. It will be difficult and uncomfortable, but we must persevere and bring the love of Christ to those on the peripheries.