Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Is charity still a mandate?

A few days back I was driving the long, rural commute between my house and my parish when my crummy, 1992 Dodge Caravan rust-bucket broke down on the side of the road. Breaking down is always inopportune, but this happened to be right in the height of the great Michigan blizzard of 2008 (see this post for some pics). Being that I am a frumpy anti-modernist with a strong streak of neo-Luddite in me, I of course have no cell phone, so my only plan of action was to get out and walk somewhere. The temperature was 10 degrees, and about 7 below zero with wind chill. Being that it is Michigan and winter, I did have a pair of snow boots, and I did have my winter coat and scarf. But through two odd flukes I did not have my winter hat and gloves, which I usually would have had with me. Therefore, I ventured out into the cold and began walking south towards the nearest town, probably a two mile walk.

Well, without boring you with all the details of that horrible walk, let me just say that I almost froze to death. I've never been so cold in all my life. My ears hurt so bad I thought they'd have to be amputated (do they amputate ears for frostbite?). I had to keep my hands in my pants against the flesh of my thighs to keep them warm. At first I was not too intimidated by the two mile walk: most humans walk three miles an hour at their normal walking pace. But in this frigid wind in seemed like a desperate distance. I decided to try hitch-hiking, and wouldn't you know it, car after car after car drove by me without so much as a second look.

I wasn't dressed shabbily. I was in my work clothes (office attire) with a very nice black dress coat on. I can understand single women passing me by, but time again I saw trucks with grown, burly men drive by and ignore me. There was also a lot of wimpy looking little guys in Hondas and Jettas as well. Everybody knew there was a town only two miles up. Everybody saw I was walking that way. Everybody knew it was 7 below zero. Everybody saw me frigid with no gloves or hat. Everybody saw my broken down van sitting on the side of the road. Yet nobody stopped. I couldn't help thinking of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and between my prayers for a ride and prayed, "Lord, don't hold it against them!" I even thought that perhaps I'd have better luck getting picked up if I layed down and pretended to be dead - then somebody would see the body, stop to call the police or something, and I could get up and say, "Hey, thanks for stopping!" But I was so cold that I thought I might actually die if I layed down and stopped walking. So, I lumbered on through the freezing air and biting wind.

To make a long story short, I did get picked up a half mile from town by a guy on his way to work. He was a lot bigger than I and could have easily taken me out had I been one of those evil hitchhikers of urban myth. Everything worked out okay in the end, but not before at least thirty cars passed me by and my fingers almost froze. I was a little indignant at society that nobody would have mercy on someone obviously in dire need.

But then I was even more shocked when I told my parish priest about it later in the day and he said, "Well, I don't blame them. In today's world you can't pick up hitchhikers. I probably wouldn't have picked you up if I were them either. You just can never be sure." It has been several days since I had this conversation with my pastor, and it has been rubbing on me all week. I knew I disagreed with something about his position there, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

This, I think, is the crux of why my pastor's words irked me so: do we or do we not have an obligation to exercise charity when it is possible? Obviously we do. One of the corporal works of mercy is "clothe the naked." Now, I wasn't naked, but I think shelter someone who is freezing could be an extension of this precept. You will notice that there is no disclaimer, "Unless you live in 21st century America." This rule is binding at all times universally - to suggest that circumstances are different because we are modern and live in America would be, I think, a hint of the belief known as Americanism: that the doctrines and disciplines of the universal Church need to be interpreted differently in this country because we are somehow a "special case."

Now, I'm not accusing my pastor of Americanism or anything. He's a great guy who is the most orthodox priest around. Since he is a pastor, he was coming at the problem from a pastoral angle that prioritized the safety of the persons involved. It is true, charity obliges us to love our neighbor, but it does not oblige us to recklessly put ourselves in danger (although that can be an act of heroic virtue at times). I understand that picking up hitchhikers has dangers inherent to it. I understand that I would not expect a woman driving alone who was 5'2" and 100 pounds to big up a 5'10", 178 lbs guy like me. But it is to the men who passed me by that I am addressing: to the construction guys, laborers, roofers and burly men that passed me by the dozens. Realistically, how much inherent danger is there for a big guy like that to pick up somebody? Is picking up a hitchhiker a "reckless" activity?

"Boniface, it doesn't matter how big they are. You could have had a gun or something."

True, true, but why do we apply this logic only when it comes to hitchhikers and not to so any other aspects of social interaction? Most people will answer their door if the doorbell rings. This is a much more threatening situation, I think. Why do you answer the door? After all, "he could have a gun?" What about when you are at the gas station pump and somebody comes up asking for directions? He could have a gun! Do you jump in your car and lock the door? Of course not; you give directions if you can. It's only with hitchhikers that we jump to this conclusion that they may be murderers - as if there is something inherently shady or devious about a person with no car needing a ride!

I know what you're thinking. "Those all happen in day-time out in public. That's different." Well guess what, I was broke down in day-time in public too! It was 8:45 AM on a rural road that had plenty of houses all around and dozens of cars going by because it was that time of day. What type of murderer hitchhikes at 8:45 AM? The especially irking thing is everybody could see my broken down van sitting there with my footprints in the snow leading right from the van to me. It was painfully obvious to any unbiased observer that I was in need - the fact that it was 7 below made my need even more urgent.

"Well, no matter what you say, I just never pick up hitchikers."

Like I said, if you are a defenseless woman, okay, fair enough. That may be prudent. And I'm not even saying that men should pick up all hitchhikers. I've seen some hitchhikers with scraggled beards and wild-eyes that sent chills down my spine. I've also picked up a lot of decent ones who were just having a hard day. In my opinion, there is no reason why a man should not pick up a hitchhiker when:

a) You see somebody outdoors improperly dressed when it is below zero and they are in obvious discomfort.

b) Their car is broken down right down the road in plain sight.

c) It is the middle of the day.

There's just no excuse. We can't let our society's own fears and paranoia's be some kind of justification for not exercising charity, especially if life could be on the line and the weather is extreme. I should also mention that its only Americans who have these scruples. In Europe hitchhiking is a commonly accepeted mode of transportation. I hitchhiked in Austria once and got picked up in about two minutes.

But what about the possibility that the person could be armed or dangerous? Really, you never know. You can't make judgments based on appearances that are full proof. But there are two examples from the lives of the saints where men were shown hospitality, despite the fact that they were rogues.

From the Little Flowers of St. Franics:

Now at that time three notorious robbers frequented the district, the which wrought many ill deeds therein; and upon a day they came to the said Place of the friars and besought Friar Angelo, the guardian, that he would give them something to eat; whereupon the guardian answered them after this manner, rebuking them harshly: "You robbers and cruel murderers, not only are ye not ashamed to rob others of the fruits of their toil, but, presumptuous and impudent that ye are, ye would even devour the alms which are sent to the servants of God. Unworthy are ye that the earth should bear you up; for ye have no reverence for men or for the God who created you. Go, then, about your business, and never show yourselves here again." Therefore were they wrath and got them thence in indignation.

And lo! St. Francis returned from without, with his wallet of bread and a small vessel of wine, which he and his companion had begged; and, when the guardian had told him how he had driven those men away, St. Francis rebuked him severely, saying that he had borne himself cruelly, inasmuch as sinners are better led back to God by gentleness than by cruel reproofs; " For [said he] our Master Jesus Christ, whose Gospel we have promised to observe, saith that they that are whole need not a physician but they that are sick, and that He was not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; and therefore often did He eat with them. Seeing, then, that thou hast done contrary to charity and contrary to the Holy Gospel of Christ, I command thee, by holy obedience, that thou forthwith take this wallet of bread, which I have begged, and this vessel of wine, and seek them diligently, through mountains and valleys, until thou find them, and give them all this bread and wine in my name; and afterward do thou kneel down before them and humbly confess to them thy sin of cruelty; and then pray them in my name to do evil no longer, but to fear God and offend Him no more; and, if they will do this, I promise to provide for their needs, and to give them to eat and drink continually; and when thou shalt have told them this, return hither humbly." While the said guardian went to do his commandment, St. Francis betook himself to prayer and besought God that He would soften the hearts of those robbers and convert them to repentance.

The obedient guardian came up with them and gave them the bread and wine, and did and said that which St. Francis had laid upon him. And, as it pleased God, while yet those robbers ate the alms of St. Francis, they began to say, one to the other: "Woe unto us, unhappy wretches that we are! how sore are the pains of hell which await us! for we not only go about robbing our neighbours and beating and wounding them, but also slaying them; and yet, notwithstanding all the enormous wrongs and wickednesses which we do, we have no remorse of conscience, nor fear of God; and lo! this holy friar, who hath come to us on account of a few words which he spake unto us justly by reason of our wickedness, hath humbly confessed his fault to us; and more than this, he hath brought us bread and wine, and so gracious a promise from the holy father."... And, when one of them had spoken these and like words, the others aid: "Verily thou speakest the truth, but what then ought we to do?" "Let us go," said one, "to St. Francis; and if he gives us hope that we may be able to turn from our sins to the mercy of God, let us do that which he commands us, if so be we may deliver our souls from the pains of hell." (Chapter XXVI)

Obviously Francis had in mind their repentance and conversion, but note how he said the friar who drove the away was guilty of the "sin of cruelty." And Francis made this statement concerning men who were known to be robbers and brigands. If the friar was guilty of cruelty by treating known criminals this way, what are we guilty of who ignore the needs of someone in the freezing wind just because we are scared they might be evil?

Another great example is the 9th century St. Meinrad of Einsiedeln, Martyr of Hospitality. He lived alone as a hermit upon a mountainside in Germany. One day, he was warned in a vision that two men were coming to see him who would bring about his death. Indeed, soon enough two men approached his hermitage. Their names are recorded as Richard and Peter, and the were notorious bandits from the region. Nevertheless, St. Meinrad went out and welcomed them and invited them into his house for food and drink. When the men went inside with him, they beat him to death with clubs. St. Meinrad knew the men were robbers, and knew by a vision that they would do him violence. Yet he thought this a lesser evil than to offend against charity by denying them hsopitality. If St. Meinrad acted thus for murderers, how should we act towards our fellow man?

One last thing: I'm not just mad about this because it inconvenienced me. Like I said, I turned out okay. Somebody picked me up. I'm upset because of the mentality that we give in to fear by not assisting people, the idea that our fundamental, default attitude towards strangers is one of fear and wariness until they prove otherwise: an attitude of guilty until proven innocent. I'm upset because I'm sure this happens to a lot of people everyday who maybe never get picked up, and I don't think we ought to make justifications as to why the command to clothe the naked or feed the hungry somehow doesn't apply strictly to us. Wasn't the Middle Ages or the time of Christ more violent and dangerous than our own? Yet these rules applied then. Today really is no different.

So, this is going to be one of those times (rarely) when I respectfully disagree with my pastor's opinion.

Just to answer a questions I know will come up: no, that's not me in the picture. And, no, I'm still not going to get a cell phone.

Please feel free to tell us about your own nightmarish hitchhiking stories.


Dymphna said...

I wouldn't have picked you up either. You could've been Ted Bundy or a drug addict or God knows what.

Boniface said...

Well Dymphna, first of all I exempted women from my tirade. I was mainly addressing the men who failed to pick me up.

But regarding your statement that I "could have been Ted Bundy," do you go through that line of reasoning every time your door bell rings, or the pizza guy comes over, or somebody asks for directions, or a stranger talks to you? Or is it only people who are unfortunate enough to need rides that get such suspicious treatment?

Unknown said...

Boniface, I live on a country road, dark as pitch at night, with no neighbors. I don't answer the doorbell EVER - even though I have a very large, very mean dog and a rifle.
I''m not obligated to answer the door, so I don't. Since I have initiated the pizza guy coming over, I will get the pizza. If someone approaches my car, I lock the doors - if I'm pumping gas, I get in the car and lock the doors. So, I am equally suspicious of everyone. Would I help someone in the situation you described in your post? Yes, I would stop, roll my window down a crack and ask you if you would like me to use my cell phone to call someone to help you.

Boniface said...

Thanks for the comment Jeanne...that would have been nice to have at least a cell phone!

But both of my commentors have been women so far...let's here from a man's perspective, since it is mainly the men I am directing this at.

I understand that the person could be a murderer, but I argue that it does not negate our duty to try to help people in need.

Anonymous said...

Your wonderful examples, St. Francis and St. Meinrad, have something in common that you do not share. They were both unmarried. I'm glad to read that you too would be discriminate in who you pickup, (ie. scraggly beards and wild-eyes). You must think of your family too.

Being a 6'2", 300 lbs+, bearded, wild-eyed guy, I can't tell you how many times I've been scolded by my wife after I share a, "I picked up this guy, on the way home today..." story. I just don't tell her anymore.

Of course, even with my size... I have a cellphone. They come in handy for many, many situations. I've made 911 calls reporting accidents, etc. Having a phone might save you, or a loved one, or a youth group member some day ;-)

For $10/mth., you can get a TracPone and 50 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Well, on the lighter side....

I know you....

And I might not have picked you up either :)

Anyway, I would be very hesitant to pick up a woman/lady/girl.

Not for fear of a gun, but for fear of false accusations.

Perhaps the question is combined - what we fear about others, and what we think others might fear about us.

If I were the hitchhiker, I think I would also be hesitant about what kind of person would pick me up. I could not always hope it was a Catholic priest/pastor. And if it was, I would hope that he would not preach to me about a boy scout motto.

Regardless, we owe it to family and loved ones to be cautious. We owe it to God to throw caution to the wind "....and the greatest of these is love..."

Thankfully at least one driver listened to his guardian angel. The others were probably not home schooled.


Boniface said...


You bring up a good point: of course we don't want to recklessly endanger ourselves when we have to support a family. But it begs the question: where did we get this notion that we are recklessly endangering ourselves by picking up a hitchhiker? Where did we get this mentality that there is something inherently dangerous about a person with no car looking for a ride? Seriously, I personally can't think of a single hitchhiker murder or rape I've ever heard of. I'm sure I could Google one, but on my own I can't recall a single instance of any hitchhiker killing somebody. Does anybody else have any examples or is it all just from Hollywood?

Also, I am curious as to why hitchhiking alone gets this label of being so inherently dangerous. Here is my point:

1) Yes, the hitchhiker may be Ted Bundy.

2) But so could any person you meet in the course of your life.

3) So what makes you so suspicious about the hitchhiker when the chances are equally as good that anybody you run into could be a killer?

Is it the fact that in a hitchhiking situation one is alone with the person? Well, what if you had others in the car with you - then would you pick them up?

Mr. S-

I think you have had the best approach so far: a balance between making a prudent decision and "throwing caution out the window" when charity is on the line. The parable of the Good Samaritan applies universally, not just to everybody but hitchhikers.

Anonymous said...

My God, in what kind of country do you live? And is that a life? Here in Italy where I live that adventure of yours would have be impossible(please correct my english).How is it possible to live in such a way, among persons acting like those who abandoned you in the snow? I don't understand, I don't understand..is this the future society, is this our mutual destiny in a world of barbarians?

Boniface said...


THANK YOU. You echo my sentiments exactly and are a great example of how it is only in our own nation that we have these weird scruples against helping strangers, where we are conditioned to view strangers as a threat first and a person second. It is sad.

Anonymous said...

Just a thought I had as I watched a young couple with their 3 children at Mass this morning..... how blessed you were not to have your baby with you when this happened.

....even though it might have meant someone would have picked you up quickly.


Anonymous said...

Dear Boniface, remember: when you are leaving in winter for a journey to snowy regions take with yourself enough fuel,a mobile phone, a blanket for the cold,a fur cap,a bottle of whiskey, a rosary for your last prayers and a child..possibly crying, in the feeble hope that some good samaritan (evidently not a reader of your blog)would pick you two up.
Reading about your experience was a sad thing, but even more demoralizing is the reading of the opinions of your readers.And these are Christians I suppose.
A happy new year to you. Sergio Braida

happyhockeymom said...


I have struggled with this myself. I have been advised as a woman never to pick up a hitch hiker or give money to the homeless that sit by the highway off ramps where I live. Yet, every time I see them and do not help them, I feel a pang of guilt and wonder what I should do?

I may change my approach. I don't know.

Quite often I have my children with me and am advised to NEVER do it when I have the kids with me. But as my son has worked with the homeless this year, I keep thinking about this.

And I do wonder where I got this idea about ONLY hitch hikers? Worth thinking about.

Take Care & God Bless.

happyhockeymom said...


I have struggled with this myself. I have been advised as a woman never to pick up a hitch hiker or give money to the homeless that sit by the highway off ramps where I live. Yet, every time I see them and do not help them, I feel a pang of guilt and wonder what I should do?

I may change my approach. I don't know.

Quite often I have my children with me and am advised to NEVER do it when I have the kids with me. But as my son has worked with the homeless this year, I keep thinking about this.

And I do wonder where I got this idea about ONLY hitch hikers? Worth thinking about.

Take Care & God Bless.

Aaron D. said...

Great post! When I lived in the country I hitchhiked when it was convenient. I plan on encouraging my male children to do it. It is weird to me why people are so passionately against it. Perhaps people have lost sight of the fact that God has control in every situation, and see Him more of the clock maker God who does not directly intervene?

I like to think of how Mary and Joseph lost our blessed Lord on the way back from Jerusalem. Although not directly related it gives me a idea of how normal people should interact with strangers.

Keep Hitchhiking!