“What the fight against poverty really needs are men and women who live in a profoundly fraternal way and are able to accompany individuals, families, and communities on journeys of authentic human development.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Peace Day, 2009
This has been the joy of my life here in Honduras for almost 19 months – accompanying the people. True missionary work, I believe, is accompaniment, being present with the people, helping them in whatever ways one can and letting them help me. We are not bringing Christ to the people – we are together finding ways to let all of us encounter Christ in a deeper way.
Yesterday, on the bus to San Pedro Sula to pick up two visitors from the airport I finished Kelly S. Johnson’s The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. It’s a fascinating work – a little dense at spots (since it looks like a reworked doctoral dissertation). But a quote on page 209 struck me:
“The opposite of poverty is not plenty, but friendship.”Johnson notes that poverty and plenty often exists side by side, which is obvious here in Honduras as well as throughout the world.
At times the plenty of the few is dependent on the poverty of the many. It’s now coffee harvest time in Honduras. You can see truckloads of people going out to work all day in harvesting the coffee beans; for many this is their one time in the year to work for cash. And I doubt they are paid very well. Those who have a small coffee farm, their finca, will sell their harvest to middle men who will make a good profit when they sell it to the few processors and exporters of coffee, who will really profit.
But, reflecting on Johnson’s book, I sometimes wonder whether the generosity of those with plenty (and that includes me) is more to alleviate our guilt or to look good before other people.
I recall the story told me of a US Sister of St Joseph of Peace who used to work in El Salvador, who obviously had little money. When a beggar approached her she would stop and talk with the beggar, ask her or his name, and establish a bit of a relationship.
I’m not as good as this. I often (not always) look directly at the person and say, “It’s not my custom to give to beggars.” I know that’s weak, but at least I’m trying to treat the person as a human.
And so I return to Johnson’s quote: “The opposite of poverty… is friendship.” I believe that we are called to be friends with the poor, to share their sufferings as our own, to link ourselves with others. This will mean sharing money and physical resources at times, but more it means taking time to share our lives.
That’s not easy. At times our hearts may be broken when we see a child with severe malnutrition or visit the shacks where people live. It may break our hearts at times.
But isn’t that the message of our faith – a God who became flesh and let his heart - and his body – be broken out of love for us.
And so as a new year begins, with all sorts of challenges for me, I see that I must keep letting others enter my life, by drawing near to them in their joys and in their pains. And so together we may healed by God’s love for us – healed by our sharing, by the love that God lets us share.