In his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis describes the growth in faith that is part of evangelization as our ability to observe: “. . . all that the Lord has shown us as the way of responding to his love. Along with the virtues, this means above all the new commandment, the first and the greatest of the commandments, and the one that best identifies us as Christ’s disciples: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12). Clearly, whenever the New Testament authors want to present the heart of the Christian moral message, they present the essential requirement of love for one’s neighbor…”
Challenged by this thought, a few friends and I decided to volunteer for this year’s Shop and Share program at the 2nd Street Kroger. The purpose of this program (initiated by First Lady Jane Beshear’s Office and coordinated by the Center for Woman and Children) is to collect needed goods and funds for domestic violence shelters across the Commonwealth. Volunteers hand out lists to Kroger patrons and ask them to pick up needed items as they shop and donate them on their way out.
Not knowing what was required of us when we first volunteered, we arrived at the 2nd Street Kroger wondering, “How were we going to ask customers who appear to have so much need themselves to shop for anyone else? Perhaps if we retreated to a Kroger at a different location, our task would be a bit easier and bring us greater success.”
Agreeing that we needed to fulfill our initial volunteer agreement, we proceeded with some trepidation to the task in hand. What enfolded before us was nothing less than a live reenactment of the parable of the widow’s mite. Men and women, young and old, most of them with serious physical and emotional challenges, responded with a tremendous generosity that I have never before experienced. They gave, like the widow, of everything they had. Some donated more items then they purchased for themselves. Others, concerned that they did not give enough, asked if we would be back on the next week when social security checks arrive, and they would be able to give more.
The Kroger employees took up a collection among the staff and donated a shopping cart full of items. By the end of our shift we had acquired five large shopping carts full of items and almost $200 in cash. Seeing the surprise on my face, a Kroger employee came to me and said “We find that the patrons here are very giving. They know firsthand what is it to be in need.”
Shamefully, I was struck with the realization that I would not have responded as generously. Sure, I might have given a couple of extra dollar bills, but I would not have taken the time to shop for someone else. Yet this “zeal” and “intensity of love of neighbor,” Pope Francis tells us, is required of everyone.
As we enter this Lenten season of almsgiving, I am challenged, not only by Pope Francis’ words, but also by the abundant generosity at the 2nd Street Kroger. The patrons and staff I encountered were powerful witnesses of how we are called to love God and neighbor.
Sal Della Bella is the Director of Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Louisville.