SAMUEL VASQUEZ has been spending a lot of time on Ben Franklin Parkway in recent weeks.
Sam, who spent many years homeless on the streets of Philadelphia, knows that in just a few weeks, the Parkway will be filled with perhaps over a million people eager to hear the words of Pope Francis. No longer homeless, Sam is now a resident at Project HOME's JBJ Soul Homes and is part of a special outreach team, including several formerly homeless persons, who have been going out in Center City, engaging in dialogue with the men and women currently living on our streets.
"I've been going out on the parkway, talking with the people who are homeless and stay in that area," Sam says. He and his fellow outreach workers are trying to keep those on the streets informed about security issues related to the papal visit, and are talking to them about how they can be included or what options are available to them during the last weekend in September when the pope is in the city.
"I want to make sure they know about the pope's visit soon and how it may affect this area. Many of those I speak to ask if the pope is going to be able to actually help homeless people in our city," said Sam.
It's a good question, and we don't have the answer. But we can say this: The papal visit has to be more than a multi-million-dollar spectacle of pomp and civic pride. Pope Francis has garnered worldwide attention because of his powerful and uncompromising message of compassion, mercy and justice. He urges us to hear the cries of struggle and suffering in our world and reach out to our sisters and brothers who experience poverty, oppression and social marginalization.
That's why the World Meeting of Families Hunger and Homelessness Committee is preparing for the papal visit through our Mercy and Justice Campaign. Our committee has created concrete ways for the local community to respond to the plight of poor and homeless persons in our midst. One way is the Francis Fund, a special fund to address the needs of those who are struggling with poverty in the Philadelphia and Camden region.
We are also reaching out to Congress, urging them to respond to Pope Francis' challenge by developing a bipartisan legislative agenda to address poverty in the United States - and we are calling on citizens to send similar messages to their elected officials.
We must seize this moment in history. The vision of Pope Francis reminds all of us, whether we belong to religious traditions or not, that the ancient call for compassion and justice is in truth an invitation to us to a fullness of life and a richness of human community. As we meet the needs of those in poverty, we are healing ourselves and our nation. As we ensure that all families have enough to eat, we are building the banquet table for everyone. As we work to provide health care and quality education to all, we are making our whole society healthier and wiser. As we bring those living on our streets home, we are finding our own way home because none of us are home until all of us are home.
"It's going to be a good for all of us when the pope comes," answers Vasquez when people living without a home ask what the pope can do for them. Sam then offers a prediction: "I think he will deliver a powerful message."
When Pope Francis leaves Philadelphia, it will be up to us: Will we hear his powerful message? And when we do, will we respond by acting with mercy and seeking justice for those who live in poverty?