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What would Jesus do with Harry’s need and wounded pride?

Jesus was quite clear about feeding the hungry and healing the sick. But he never said what to do about Harry.

Harry’s a Vietnam vet who calls me regularly. “Miss Batz?” he says in an extra loud, nasal voice with an odd singsong rhythm and flawless courtesy. “Miss Batz? This is Harry, the Vietnam veteran ... ” Always, he has a hot news story for me. Once, it involved the Veterans Administration’s Code of Ethics not being posted in hallways. Once, it was a tortuous account of his bowel movements, certain intersecting health problems and inadequate care.

I like Harry. He is earnest and kind, and cares more than most. But when a page came announcing that he was in the lobby -- 10 minutes before our big, hurriedly-scheduled staff meeting with the new publisher -- I looked helplessly at my editor. “Oh my God, he actually showed up!” I said.

“Call down and say you’re in a meeting,” urged my kind but ruthless editor, accustomed to sieges by people with stories.

“I can’t, he told me he’d come this morning to drop this thing off,” I explained guiltily. “He wants to put it in my hands himself. I’ll just run down and get it.”

Harry wasted no time on his usual telephone pleasantries.

“Are we going to sit down and go over this?” he asked the minute I spoke his name.

“Well, they’ve called a meeting, but I can take it from you now, and we can talk later today,” I said awkwardly.

But instead, he slowly withdrew his outstretched hand, fingers clamped securely over the edge of a red-white-and-blue poster. This time it was the federal government’s code of ethics. He was the only person who had it, he assured me. I nodded, skimmed the words, thanked him for bringing it, promised again that we could talk later. But Harry refused to leave the poster without explaining the violations of the code and the secrecy that shrouded it. Slowly rewrapping the poster, he turned to go, saying with impeccable dignity, “I may go elsewhere.”

I climbed the stairs and joined the meeting, my head a swirl of relief and guilt. I was kind of proud of Harry’s feistiness, proud that he stuck with what he thought important and refused to be cast aside. If he did go elsewhere, I’d be delighted; I couldn’t even figure out what story he was proposing. But I was ashamed that I hadn’t found a way to spend the time he needed. And I was even a little hurt that he hadn’t entrusted me with the poster.

By afternoon, I was angry. Feeding and clothing and healing are all tangible, doable projects. Even raising somebody from the dead’s probably easy if you know how. But what about the emotional problems, the loneliness and confused eagerness and wounded pride that fill the world?

The Sermon on the Mount didn’t address Harry’s kind of need with any specificity. But if we substitute “needy,” in its modern emotional context, for one of the Beatitudes’ more concrete needs, the line flows just as smoothly.

Harry’s mind needs healing as much as the “halt” and “lame” in the Bible, but he’s probably not going to get it. He’s as hungry for involved, purposeful action as the starving are for bread, but he’s probably not going to get that either.

Every time I meet someone like Harry, I panic; the need is so obvious and so great, such a psychological black hole, that I fear I’ll be swallowed up in it. By giving the slightest encouragement, I’ll only be sucked deeper into the void, trapped in a worldview I can’t translate.

But then I give the slight, affordable encouragement anyway, brushing the extra crumbs from my lap into their outstretched hand. And the minute they want something more substantial, I find myself slapping their hands away, hurting them more because they are too hungry.

What would Jesus do? Write an investigative piece about the poster? Cut below the surface problem and find a way to give Harry something real?

He wouldn’t send him away because He had a meeting, I’m sure of that much.

But He could fill that black hole. I can’t. And knowing it paralyzes me.

The rationalization reminds me of an old Jules Ffeiffer cartoon in which a girl says she’d love to love other people, except that they’re so dirty and hungry and scary, so maybe God should love them and she’ll just love God.

Her conclusion’s honest, at least. More honest than I was, when I first acquiesced to Harry’s plan to bring me the poster. Why didn’t I just listen to his worries -- thoroughly and patiently -- and then explain my own job better, let him know with firm, ultimate kindness that it wasn’t news I could write about? Ah, but that would be the equivalent of inviting a Jehovah’s Witness in for coffee and a theological discussion. One does not take the time.

In Reaching Out, Henri J. M. Nouwen writes about the near-extinct tradition of real hospitality. It’s not the bland automatic politeness we think of today, it’s a serious search for a way to connect with a stranger.

“When we want to be really hospitable,” says Nouwen, “we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life-style clearly and distinctly.” Otherwise there is nothing real to engage either person. There is only formal niceness, the remote going-through-the-motions that instantly told Harry I wasn’t interested.

And by that time it was a message that turned him away, sending him back out into the cold and leaving both of us unhappy and unblessed.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999