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Poverty is not a project

Beware the Christians who use the poor to inflict goodness upon them

  • Fr. William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • April 4, 2014
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Do you recall The Great Jubilee Year 2000?

For a few years before the turn of the century, almost every statement by a bishop or other church leader or organization contained some paean to the jubilee. The pope had called for it, and so all sorts of people either sincerely or for show acted as if the Church were on the verge of a great renewal and the world would enter a new age.

It didn't happen. The year 2000 came and went and all the hoopla about it faded into oblivion. It was, however, a lesson in how much certain people in the Church will act on something a pope says, even if they are merely play-acting.

Now, we have a new pope who is calling for the Church to become more aware of, in service to and guided by the poor. As in the past, we are already seeing hierarchs and others suddenly "getting religion" and parroting the pope’s call for a church of the poor. It appears that in many cases, their advancement in the Church had not brought them into contact with the biblical emphasis upon the poor that was there all along.

Certainly, a renewed commitment to the Gospel as good news for the poor is something to be applauded and emulated.

But, we must beware of repeating the Jubilee Year phenomenon of going through the mottos and motions without thought or real commitment.

When I was a boy, my family lived in a slum in New York City. People from some churches in prosperous towns outside the city decided to do something for the poor neighborhood. So, they came to paint murals on the sides of buildings in order to beautify the area. I hated them - the people, not the paintings, which I’ve forgotten. 

Even as a boy, I could recognize presumptuous condescension in the attitude that our problems were better understood by outsiders and could be fixed by some basically cost-free gestures on their part without ever meeting, let alone consulting, the residents. I also knew very well what would have happened if I and some of my friends had dared to go into those people’s communities and started painting pictures on the walls of buildings there.

That experience has made me wary of Christians who would use the poor by inflicting their goodness upon them, hoping to nurture self-satisfied good feelings about being "servants of the poor" or "good Christians".

The poor are not projects. They are people. Their economic and social situations are only parts of their stories, and usually not the most important parts. But, someone who attempts to deal with their problems rather than with their selves will never learn that. Like the muralists, they will only antagonize.

In fact, many of the problems that face people who are poor actually have their sources and solutions in the boardrooms of corporations or the offices of governments, and probably those are the chief places to deal with poverty by building unselfish justice and ending favoritism and corruption.

If instead of dealing with poverty, Christians want to deal with people who are poor, they must make the effort to meet with, listen to and share life’s joys, frustrations, hopes and pains with them as equals.

A Trappist monk in Japan once told me that so long as we feel sorry for another, we are not being Christian, for a Christian looks upon others as brothers and sisters and we do not feel sorry for our brothers and sisters. We share their pain. The same is true of joys.

And sharing runs in two directions. If we go to the poor hoping to merely be hearers and viewers of their pains and joys without being willing to share our own, we are nothing more than voyeurs or tourists. Truly mutual sharing will lead us all to a new level of communion and allow us all to serve one another.

Once we achieve that level of communion, only then can we know what the real needs and riches of others are. Only then can we offer to join them in meeting those needs and nurturing those riches, whether material, emotional or spiritual. We can also welcome their assistance in meeting our own needs and evaluating and using our own riches.

That is the kind of relationship with the poor to which Pope Francis, echoing the prophets and the Gospel, is calling us.

Maryknoll Fr William Grimm, based in Tokyo, is publisher of ucanews.com.

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