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Invite the Poor to Your Family’s Table

“As a sign of Christ’s love (Christians) will on occasion invite the poor to their own table,” the Catholic Book of Blessings says in its introduction to table blessings. Are you ready to expand the size of your family meal table? Here are some ideas about how to proceed.

The Book of Blessings offers this interesting instruction on the table blessing:

As they gather at table and see in the food they share a sign of God’s blessings on them, Christians should be mindful of the poor, who lack even the bare minimum of food that those at table may have in abundance. By their moderation they will therefore try to provide help for the hungry and as a sign of Christ’s love will on occasion invite the poor to their own table, in keeping with the words of Christ recorded in the Gospel (see Luke 14:13-14).

Book of Blessings #1034

Christ taught that care of the poor was essential to Christian life—in fact, essential for entering the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 25:31-46), and countless saints have made care of the poor the center of their ministry. Since Jesus made meals with the poor and marginalized a regular part of his proclamation of the Kingdom, it makes sense that we would imitate him by doing the same in our own homes.

Here are some suggestions for how to proceed:

Get to know the poor and marginalized. I once heard a popular Catholic podcaster spend half an hour lamenting that he didn’t know any poor people that he could help (and besides, he said, when would he have time?). There are two ways to handle that situation:

  1. Rather than reaching out to the homeless or economically poor, look for those who are marginalized in your own social circles. Who is “on the outside” in your own neighborhood? Your circle of work colleagues? Your kids’ school friends?
  2. Go to where the poor live, and get to know them. You could seek out a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, social service agency, or just someplace where poor people congregate, and start building relationships.
  3. Get to know people the same way you would get to know anyone new—find a common interest to talk about. When you visit a homeless shelter or food shelf, bring something that you can talk about—a Doctor Who t-shirt, a musical instrument you play, the sportswear of your favorite professional team. Find a way to make a common bond.

Realize there is no such thing as “the poor.” While it is a convenient shorthand term, few people ever think of themselves as “poor” much less as “the poor,” and people who work with the poor and marginalized tend to think in terms of individuals with stories. This is a helpful attitude because it emphasizes our common humanity, which in turn might make it easier to get know folks who could use your help.

Realize that you need the poor as much as they need you. Initially, when you reach out to those in need, it might look like you are the one helping them—that the relationship is one way. But as the saints repeatedly point out, the poor are Christ in disguise. They might not act like Christ, but they have something to give you nonetheless. As you build relationships with those in need, keep an eye out for the non-material gifts that you are receiving from them.

Involve your kids…and let them teach you what to do. Kids—especially younger kids—are great ambassadors of Christ to other people, and aren’t burdened by all the anxieties and reservations that adults sometimes have about reaching out to strangers. For a beautiful reflection on ministry to the poor with kids, read Motherhood, hospitality, and the Catholic Worker: Vocations that heal by Susan Windley-Daoust.

Invite those in need to your table. Once you have established a personal relationship with someone—once you both feel comfortable—invite them over for a meal. You don’t necessarily need to know someone really well before inviting them to your house—you could invite home the panhandler you pass on the street every day, and just see what happens—but everyone is more likely to have a relaxed, fun time if you already know one another.

Is it dangerous? Yes it is, otherwise more people would do it. Some dangers to consider:

  • Your family could get involved in someone else’s messy, chaotic life.
  • You could end up giving away more of your time and money than you might initially want.
  • You might need to set limits and say “no,” and that might be uncomfortable.
  • There is a very, very small chance that you might become the victim of theft or violence; that risk increases if the person is mentally ill or abusing drugs or alcohol.

Our own family has been involved with our local homeless shelter for twenty-five years, fourteen of those years with kids, and we sometimes invite people we get to know there over to our house. In all of that time, we have never personally experienced violence or theft, or felt unsafe. The blessings and spiritual benefits, on the other hand, have been numerous.

Go slow, be prudent—but pray to the Holy Spirit to help you take risks appropriate to the Christian life, which has never been “safe” from the standpoint of “common sense.”

And during the meal, be sure to say a prayer before your meal!

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