While waiting for a funeral cortege to arrive at St. Charles Church in Woonsocket, my attention was sadly drawn to a mattress, a blanket, and some paper cups concealed in a protected spot upon the church’s massive granite steps. The alcove might have provided some privacy from passing eyes but it would have offered no protection from rain or bugs or the sniffing dog. In the winter Woonsocket’s Harvest Community Church, less than a block away, offers well-maintained sleeping quarters to the city’s homeless men. Women and children have received similar care throughout the year at other sites in the city for some time. Providing care for men was realized at a slower pace. The Diocese of Providence responded to a similar need in the capital city when the former Carter Day Nursery was transformed into Emmanuel House for homeless men, a classic act of Christian charity.
A short way across the city of Woonsocket is All Saints parish. For over a decade, a meal site currently named “New Beginnings,” has been situated here operated by local, social-minded residents. Due to the coronavirus, sit down meals have been temporarily replaced by packaged meals that needing persons can secure at the church’s side door every day. Other food stuffs are available at other times as well. While the effort at All Saints is a major undertaking, a good number of parishes maintain modest food closets for neighbors who are down on their luck. St. James parish in Manville is a fine example of such charity.
Practical efforts by the diocese of Providence, the local parishes, and random socially conscious people would certainly have gladdened the heart of St. James, author of the second reading at Mass this coming Sunday. St. James’ concern for the poor and needy permeates this brief letter to Jewish Christians. This Sunday the writer laments defrauding the laborer of his hire: “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts (5:4).” Elsewhere, St. James frankly defines religion as concern for the poor: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world (1:27).” Here James, the pious Jew, echoes the Book of Exodus exactly: “You shall not wrong any widow or orphan (Ex.20:22).”
Again, the author draws from the practical experience that anyone engaged in parish life has probably witnessed: “For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? (2:1-4).” Just as practical is his further advice from the same chapter: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? (2:15).”
The Jewish community in the time of Christ was often criticized for their exaltation of works over faith: good deeds versus interior renewal. The precise keeping of the Mosaic Law became the mark of the good Jew. St. Paul, in his Epistles to the Galatians, especially warns against this frame of mind: “we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law (Gal.2:16).” Still, the ancient Jewish Church, guided by God of course, deserves every recognition for linking faith to works, religion to good deeds, piety to charity. Pagan religions took place entirely within the temple or at home before the household gods. Paganism was prayers, vows, divination and omens. Charity and even justice were not the religious concern of the devout pagan. But authentic Judaism was guided to appreciate that faith without works is dead. For the inspired Jew, the supreme law was twofold: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God…” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as they self.” As Jesus Christ himself wisely insisted: “There is no commandment greater than these (Mk.12:31).”
Some charitable works are grand and sorely needed: shelters, meal sites, drop-in centers. Other charitable works are humble but still needed: the phone call, the ride to the doctor, the hospital visit. True faith demands practical works.