|The author shares lessons he learned and values he discovered when he ministered to the poor in a parish in Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico.|
Father Scanlon, O.P., served as provincial of the Western Dominican Province prior to serving as pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Mexicali. He has recently been appointed formation director for his province.
JOHN the Baptist’s primary role in life was to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, to announce him as the long-awaited Messiah. Their styles of life, however, proved to be so totally different that it seems to have caused John a crisis of faith in that difficult period just before his death. John fasted, lived very poorly, was the essence of asceticism, while Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to delight in eating out with friends, attending wedding feasts and social gatherings. Jesus himself delineates this difference: “John the Baptist came, and he fasted and drank no wine, and you said,’He has a demon in him!’ The Son of Man came, and he ate and drank and you said, ‘Look at this man! He is a glutton and wine-drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other outcasts!’ (Luke 7:33-35).
Doubts began to torment John as he languished in Herod’s prison. Had he been mistaken in introducing Jesus as the Messiah? How could this person who so obviously enjoyed beauty, companionship, and celebration — seemingly so unascetical — be the prophet and wonder-worker people claimed he was? So he sent his disciples to meet with Jesus and inquire if indeed he really were the expected one, or should they look elsewhere. We know well the reply: “He answered John’s messengers, ‘Go and report to John what you have seen and heard. The blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life, and the poor have the good news preached to them”‘ (Luke 7:22-23).
For so many years those final words of Jesus’ reply seemed to me a real “put down” — ” . . . and the poor will have the gospel preached to them.” Why was everyone else healed while the poor were left to struggle in their poverty? “Let them eat cake” was the meaning that I continually read into these seemingly harsh words of the one who supposedly came to set the poor free. Only after living and working with the poor for two years did I begin to grasp that, indeed, “preaching the gospel” was the most fitting response to the poor.
LIFE AMONG THE POOR
I had the privilege of serving as pastor of a Dominican parish in Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. Located at the far end of this border town, the parish consists of four churches, small in size and humble in furnishings. Approximately 40,000 people live within the parish boundaries, 95 percent of these being Catholic in name with about 10 percent attending church on a regular basis. Only three of the streets are paved; and, since the average rainfall is less than two inches a year and the summer heat lasts from April through October, the dust is insufferable. Unemployment is high and many parishioners earn their livelihood selling fruit, tacos, and other typical Mexican food on street corners. Or some sell bottled American tap water from house to house, often delivered by horse-drawn carts. Occupations such as these bring in minimal salaries which make those fortunate enough to work in the agricultural fields on the American side — a job generally scorned by Americans — appear to be ranked among the privileged class.
Poverty is rife. People struggle to make a living. The three of us on the parish staff learned that poverty means not so much real hunger but living with continual, exhausting demands. The father of one family with ten children, for example, sells bottled water and on a good day clears twenty dollars. Because competition in selling potable water is high, he has to offer daily service. This means he works every day of the year without vacation. If he gets sick, he drives the truck and his children — mostly girls in this case — help him deliver the bottles. This lack of rest, the constant pressure to make ends meet, is the usual daily fare of the poor. Its price is the enormous emotional strain it places on married life. Men become exhausted and discouraged, and then they take to drinking for an escape. This often leads to wife-beating and adultery. Both in turn increase delinquency, bitterness, and despair among the youth.
Over a period of four months I visited about one thousand homes in Colonia Benito Juarez, one of the ten colonies within the parish boundaries. What struck me so profoundly was the continual self-deprecation. “Oh, Father, you don’t want to come into our humble house. It’s so poor and dirty.” This constant refrain was matched by the embarrassment they felt about not knowing how to read or write or sign their own names. People would beg off from leadership in church activities because of their lack of education. All this discouragement generated such low self-esteem that any ability to better themselves or their condition was seriously enervated.
THE NEED FOR GOOD NEWS
Our approach was to identify with the poor, love them, be compassionate, and aid them in any way we discerned helpful. We soon found ourselves frustrated because monies we received as donations from parishes in the States simply could not be doled out to the poor. They had enough dignity to feel insulted at such charity. After a variety of attempts, we discovered that one acceptable way to dispense money was to offer small scholarships that enabled children of large families to continue their education. Medical help was provided at a very inexpensive rate and, in cases of dire poverty, at no charge at all. Slowly, however, I began to see that what the people needed and wanted above all was that the gospel be preached.
What is the gospel in essence? It is the good news that we are loved, we are important, we belong. It is the challenging news that every person is worthy of respect and ought to treat others with equal respect because we have all been bought at the price of Christ’s blood. Each person is God’s work of art, Christ’s very body, the very temple of the Spirit. This formed the core of our preaching. As the people began to see that they were loved by God, they attempted to live in a way that made them feel more worthy of that love. In that manner they began to set about improving their own lives. They struggled with us to build a decent church which replaced the open shed formerly used for worship. We did this primarily to let the people know that they deserved something beautiful. A lady who lives alongside the church in a house with a dirt floor commented that, because of the new church, her house now had greater real estate value. Her statement was symbolic of the new worth the whole neighborhood felt.
There are many material needs the church must attempt to provide for the poor. There are the needs to find employment and to form cooperatives. But precisely in preaching the gospel, forming community, and offering reverent liturgies, the church builds up community and enables people to feel capable of accepting the challenge to better their lives. Only a sense of self-worth can remove bitterness, destruction of property, and self-destruction through alcohol abuse.
To be poor is to be powerless — powerless to change the causes of one’s poverty, powerless to escape the desolation, fear, and anguish that are some of poverty’s bitter fruits. This desperation, however, can be the poor’s salvation. Since they have so few options from which to select, so few directions in which to turn, and none of the false gods or “securities” of the more affluent, the poor can more readily find their dignity and their liberation in the person of Christ who came among us, identified himself with the poor, and lived as one of them.
TODAY’S GOLDEN CALF
To experience desolation, terror, and loneliness is not simply the lot of the poor. When Moses went up Mt. Sinai and spent time with the Lord, the Jews he left behind at the foot of the mountain began to feel abandoned, lost, and terrified. In their panic they fashioned a golden calf, a symbol of their search for someone or something to empower them with meaning, self-worth, liberation. All humans throughout history — rich and poor alike — have had that same hunger, and it has expressed itself in a variety of golden calves. Our own society has fashioned money as its god and bestowed upon it the responsibility of staving off hunger and loneliness. In recent years this effort to hide our human frailty and naked loneliness has taken interesting paths. What is the modern-day symbol of security and trust if not the plethora of insurance policies and health plans formulated to guarantee salvation and protect us from disasters natural and unnatural? The principal boulevards of our largest cities are lined with rows of towering banks and insurance companies — the cathedrals of our era. As the church used to be the patron of the arts and the treasure house of sacred paintings, the modern insurance buildings and banks have become the galleries of treasured works of art — symbol of the fact that in them we have placed our confidence and hope. Insurance policy in hand, we pretend to stride through the valley of darkness, fearless and valiant. Neither the scourge of old age nor the slings of infirmity will lay us low. How tissue thin and fragile is this bulwark that pretends to ward off death, illness, and loneliness! The poor cannot afford insurance. They are the unkempt, unemployed, and uninsured of this world. Quite possibly that ranks among their noblest blessings, for it enables them to choose the rock of Christ as their advocate and strength in place of “the rock” that Prudential offers. The only alternatives left to the poor are either despair or hope in Christ.
Ironically enough it may be that Jesus meant the .phrase “the poor you will always have with you” as a blessing, not as a discouraging acceptance of an irremediable problem. It has been a serious “culture shock” for me to return to this country and realize the shallowness of our interests. It is heartbreaking to discover that our treasure basically lies in commercialism, competition, materialism, and hollow entertainment. It makes a person wonder who really are poor — we or they? Meeting the hardships and reality of life eyeball to eyeball gives the poor a better sense of the richness and poignancy of life. Although we must eradicate poverty and injustice from our world as best we can, in God’s strange ways it is the poor who very often are the richest in goodness, generosity, and wisdom. They have so much to teach us and to forgive us. Even their very presence can goad us into reexamining our own lives, reevaluating wherein we have placed our treasure, redefining our values and priorities.
LEARNING FROM THE POOR
The poor best reflect the tension between the values of Christ and the values of the world. Being successful is without doubt one of our society’s primary values. Yet Christ’s greatest “success” was being a failure in the world’s eyes, dying as a thief on the cross. The Christian value is being grateful, not being successful. (How many hours have counselors spent with those who felt they failed, trying to give their lives meaning?) We have so much to be grateful for; yet, because of our competitive society, we allow ourselves to feel that our stance must be one of snatching success, shoving others down, rather than simply opening our arms and hearts and acknowledging the flood of gifts the Lord hungers to shower upon us — life, love, dignity. The poor can teach us that it does not matter in God’s eyes how much we own or how much we have done but, rather, who we are, how deeply we have loved, how generously we have given. Commercials lure us to live this life as though “you have but one life to live,” therefore spend all you can now. We build our castle of worldly wares — and how quickly it will tumble! It is the meek who will inherit the earth, the poor who will enter the lasting kingdom.
In hearing the gospel the poor have discovered the richness of God’s love and the value of their own lives. That wisdom ennobles them as well as enables them. It enables them to be free in spirit no matter how burdened in body. No need for them to wait for their “pie in the sky” to make this world bearable. It is bearable because the poor carpenter from Nazareth chose to be their blood-brother. In their poverty they lay claim to a special identity and intimacy reserved to God’s privileged ones. The first shall be last. The depossessed will be repossessed. Being God’s preferential choice, they will be in the kingdom before us to welcome us as we straggle in. Since in some measure our industrialist/capitalist ways helped put them there, they will surely welcome us and forgive us. Although we must energetically dedicate ourselves to battle poverty and injustice, at the same time we must be humble enough to concede that it is the impoverished who enrich us and gift us with more than we can offer in return. Part of their gift is the invitation to share in their kingdom. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”