Tag Archives: poor

Banqueting with the poor

When you give a banquet, invite the poor.
Luke 14:13

When I was working in campus ministry and social ministry in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, Iowa, one of our ministries was to bring meals on Fridays to the local homeless shelter. Parishioners and students would go to cook meals at the shelter and I would join them a few times a year.

In the 1990s we began a student service and justice team to lead various service activities in Ames and nearby communities. They met each week to prepare upcoming activities, but also to reflect on their experiences in the light of their faith. It was probably the closest I’ve ever come to a base community in the US – combining prayer, reflection of scripture, fellowship, and service to the poor.

Many of them loved to lead the groups of students preparing meals at the shelter. Some of them began activities with the kids at the shelter. They were extraordinary young people – and they are now extraordinary adults.

I insisted that they went to eat with the poor, not merely prepare food for them. They would meet at the student center, decide on a menu, go to buy what was needed at a grocery store, and then go to the shelter and prepare it in the kitchen. Then they would sit down and eat with the residents

I am convinced that this changed the lives of many of them, as they sat around the table with the men, mostly homeless wanderers, and shared stories.

One of our service and justice team members, Maria Lux, painted her memory of one of those meals. The painting hangs at the Emergency Resident Project in Ames.

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What strikes me is that these students had an opportunity to meet the homeless as real persons, with stories of joys and sorrows, of success and failure. The poor were not a group; they were Joe, Harry, Marty. Eating beside these men, the students could recognize the bonds between them.

So many people I know are very generous – but from a distance. A few people I know are advocates of the poor – but from a distance. Very few, but many from groups like the Catholic Workers, know the poor by name and sit down with them at table. They know that we are one.

This is a hard message for me, and for many of us. We prefer a disembodied charity and an advocacy of justice from above. Getting our hands dirty with the poor, eating and speaking with them are hard. But I think this is what God wants.

I write this on Saturday, August 31, the anniversary of the death of John Leary in 1982 at age 24. I met John a few times at Haley House, the Catholic Worker House in Boston. He came to Boston to study at Harvard, but he found himself working with the poor, sometimes sharing his room with them. He was an advocate for peace, protesting and being arrested two times at a Boston weapons lab. He lived the seamless garment, also being arrested once at an abortion clinic. He worked at the Pax Christi Center for Conscience and War with Gordon Zahn. He embodied the love of the poor, the advocacy of a seamless garment of life, and a nonviolent life. But he was also a man of God. One of his prayer was praying the Jesus prayer as he jogged. He died, jogging home from the Pax Christi Center to Haley House – probably with the words of the Jesus prayer on his lips.

He had given his life, as a banquet for the poor.

May we find ways to eat at the table with the poor, making ourselves friends with the poor. As Paul wrote to the Romans (12:16):

“do not be haughty but associate with the lowly”

 

Preaching to the poor about fasting

I live in a parish where most of the people are poor. How can I talk with them about fasting during Lent? How can I preach about fasting this Lent?

Earlier this year I was working with a few groups of people to prepare them for Lent. When I got to talking about fasting, I asked them, “How many of you eat meat every day?” No response. “How many eat meat three times a week?” A few hands went up. How many eat meat once a week?” A more, but there were still some who had not raised their hands. They probably have meat once every two or three weeks.

I explained, first of all, that abstinence means not eating meat and that fasting in the church’s understanding is eating one full meal and two smaller meals and no eating between meals. I thought this understanding in necessary because some have the idea that the fasting in the church means not eating anything.

It helps to explain that fasting is not just something physical. The readings from Isaiah 58 the next two days make that clear:

“This, is the fasting that I wish:  releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”

This morning, preaching at the 10 am Ash Wednesday Mass in Dulce Nombre, to the Delegates of the Word from most of the villages. They had come in to Dulce Nombre, from some of the furthest parts of the parish, to get ashes to bring to their communities for a celebration this afternoon or evening.

I spoke about fasting from what keeps us from opening our hearts to the Lord so that we can celebrate our death and resurrection in Christ in a special way at the Easter Vigil.

If we fast from gossip, from the desire for vengeance, from the tendency to scold other, from quarrelling – we are going a long way to letting our hearts be rent.

But I also noted that on fast days we are called to only eat three times a day. So I put in an admonition to give up the mid-morning snack and the churros – chips and the like sold in small bags.

I am not sure this is the best way to speak about fasting and abstinence among the poor – but it’s a start.

But I also need to add, that fasting should open our hearts to God and to others. The third discipline of Lent – with prayer and fasting – is almsgiving, or, as we sometimes say here, charity.

But I think that is inadequate.

Almsgiving presumes a distance between the almsgiver and the one begging. I wonder if we would be better off, spiritually, when we think of sharing with the poor, who are part of our family.

This is what struck me this morning, while reading a passage from a Lenten sermon of Pope Saint Leo the Great, found in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

For such a holy fast there can be no better companion than almsgiving. But we must note that “almsgiving” or “mercy” here includes the many pious actions which make possible a familial equality among the faithful, whatever be the disparities between them in worldly wealth.

Our fasting should open us to our family in need.

But I wonder if many of the people I know need that message. How many times have I seen them helping someone in need – even a gringo whose car is broken?

I think some of them know better than I what St. Leo the Great also said in the same sermon:

Those who are less able to give material things can rival their richer neighbors in good will and love.

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Among the poor – in the Eucharist

By the prayers and example of Saint Katherine Drexel,
enable us to work for justice
among the poor and the oppressed,
 and keep us united in love
in the Eucharistic community of your Church…

 Today is the feast of Saint Katherine Drexel, daughter of a rich Philadelphia banker. But, with his example of daily prayer and the example of her step-mother who served the poor three times a week in her home, she developed a faith that strove for justice.

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Alarmed at the poverty and oppression among Native Americans and African Americans, she asked the pope to send missionaries. His response was to the point, “Why not become a missionary yourself?” She did and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

This morning, the prayer for her feast day noted above, struck me.

We ask to be enabled to work for justice among the poor and the oppressed – not for them, but among them. This is a struggle with them, taking part with them – not as leaders, but accompanying them.

It is also a prayer to keep united in love, in the Eucharist. Mother Katherine Drexel had a deep devotion to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the presence of Christ uniting us in love with all people.

Justice and the Eucharist – two dimensions of the holiness of Saint Katherine.

Justice among the poor and Eucharist in union with the whole Body of Christ – these are for me, especially as a deacon, the central dimensions of my life.


The image is taken from an article in Franciscan Media, found here.

How can I preach the Lucan beatitudes to the poor?

In the Gospel for this coming Sunday, we hear the beatitudes and woes of Luke 6: 20-26.

Blessed are you who are poor
Woe to you who are rich

Blessed are you who are hungry
Woe to you who are stuffed

Blessed are you who weep
Woe to you who are laughing

How can I preach “Blessed are you who are poor,” when I know that there are people here, perhaps in the church, who struggle to eat?

What can I say to them?

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Yes, most of the people in the celebrations in the countryside are poor, but some have a dream of escaping poverty by going to the US to earn lots of money. Though poor, some have the dream of the rich, to be completely self-sufficient. They are willing to endure the nightmare of passing through Mexico to try to reach the US.

This is not to deny that those who are trying to enter the US are more often those who are trying to escape the violence and the poverty, the misery, that affects the lives of many in Honduras.

Those who live in the cities experience the violence of the gangs and drug-traffickers, as well as the repression of those who try to speak out against the rampant injustice. Throughout the country there is continuing violence of many other kinds – domestic violence, especially against women; violence due to conflicts over land or other issues; violence due to people seeking vengeance for crimes committed against their families; violence connected with abuse of alcohol or drugs as well as the large number of weapons. This is exacerbated by the lack of a justice and police system that investigates and prosecutes crimes. But others are leaving and seeking refuge in the US because of extreme poverty and the worsening of the economic situation. They are seeking to improve the lives of their families.

Of course there are some who leave seeking adventure or seeking money to live comfortably in the future. But violence and poverty, in a political situation of ineptitude and corruption and an economic situation of extreme inequality, are the driving forces for the migration.

But what do I say about the Gospel to those who are here?  More than two-thirds in the country live in poverty, perhaps 40% in extreme poverty.

I think the message has to be a message of hope: Jesus has a vision that turns this world upside down.

Jesus does not invite the poor to be rich, but to live the kingdom. When the poor are really poor, living austerely, they are more likely to be living the Kingdom. When the poor are impoverished, they have been deprived of even the little they need to live as people of worth.

What is the kingdom? What are the signs of the kingdom? Share, care, trust.

What signs of the kingdom have I seen here?

  • People caring for their sick or elderly relatives.
  • Communities regularly responding to the needs of the poor, collecting basic food supplies and taking up collections to pay for expensive medicines or medical treatments.
  • People donating money to buy land for a homeless family.
  • People stopping to help me start my car when it broke down.
  • Communion ministers walking for hours to bring Communion to the sick.
  • Groups of young people who visit the sick.
  • Poor people almost never turning aside from someone who asks for help, even if it’s only one lempira (about four cents).
  • Offering food to whoever is in the house, even a crazy gringo.

I would suggest that when Jesus says the Kingdom belongs to the poor he is asking us to look at our communities:

  • Are they selfish, concerned only with my well-being? Or are they place where people share?
  • Are they communities where the poor and the marginalized are welcomed as full members of the community
  • Are they places where people accompany those who mourn or are they only concerned about themselves?
  • Are they places where the hungry are fed? Or, better, are they places where we all sit down together to eat, poor and not poor?

So, what can I preach?

  • Be communities that welcome all.
  • Avoid the temptation to accumulate.
  • Share in the joys and sorrows of all.
  • Above all, place your trust in God, who is a God of life and hope, and live as participants in the Kingdom of God.

I’m not sure that’s what I’ll preach – but it’s what’s moving my heart tonight.

Where is our security

“Being poor of heart: that is holiness.”
Pope Francis

cross-foucauldIn his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate – Rejoice and Be Glad, Pope Francis devotes a large section to reflections on each of the beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

The opening line of his reflection (67) sets the tone: “The Gospel invites us to peer into the depths of our heart, to see where we find our security in life.”

The question is: Where do we find our security?

If it is in wealth, we will fall apart and feel totally meaningless when it is threatened or when we find ourselves stretched financially. I dare say that this may be one of the problems rampant in the United States today and so the other, the migrant, is perceived as a threat.

Wealth can bring self-satisfaction, warns Pope Francis, so much so that “we leave no room for God’s word, for the love of our brothers and sisters, or for the enjoyment of the most important things in life. In this way, we miss out on the greatest treasure of all” (68).

But if we have a poor heart, “the Lord can enter with his perennial newness.”

As one formed in the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, Pope Francis links this beatitude with “holy indifference.” Citing St. Ignatius, he cites part of paragraph 23 of the Spiritual Exercises:

“…it is necessary to make us indifferent to all created things, in regard to everything which is left to our free will and is not forbidden, in such a way that, for our part, we not seek health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters, wanting and choosing only that which leads more to the end for which we are created.”

If our end is love – praising, reverencing, and serving God – then all is put into perspective and we can face everything, confident in the security of a loving God.

“Being poor of heart: that is holiness.”

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The translation of paragraph 23 Spiritual Exercises is by George E. Ganss, S.J., as cited in The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times by the late Father Dean Brackley, S.J.

The joy of the poor in the reign of God

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Joyful are those who have the spirit of the poor
For theirs is the Reign of God,
For the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

Cristomendigo

Unlike all the other beatitudes but the last, the second clause is in the present tense. They won’t have the kingdom in the future. It’s there’s now.

That seems so contrary to the facts of life.

The kingdom belongs to the powerful, the mighty, the violent, the rich. How could the kingdom ever belong to the poor in spirit – or, even as Luke puts it, to the very poor? How could it be a blessing to be poor in spirit? How could one who is poor in spirit be joyful?

But that’s what Jesus says.

What could he ever mean?

I don’t think he believes that the destitute are happy; I think he wants to welcome them into his reign, to sit at the banquet table with him.

I think he wants us to be poor, or, at the very least, austere in our living.

I think he wants us to accompany the poor, not just helping them, but being with them in their times of sorrow and pain –  and joys.

I think he wants us to join the poor in their struggles for justice so that we can move toward a world in which the presence of the kingdom of justice and love and peace is more apparent, especially for those at the margins.

I think he wants us to sit down at table with the poor – at the tables in their homes and ours, and above all at the banquet table of the Eucharist, where there are no divisions, but where we are all one in Christ, sharing afflictions and consolations, joys and sorrows, disappointments and hope, where the final word is not death but life and love and resurrection.

Maybe then we can experience the joy of the poor and of the poor in spirit, where the Kingdom of God is present.

 

Romero – prayer and the poor

Monseñor Romero was a man of prayer. It is said that when, as archbishop, he faced difficult decisions in the face of the violence and divisions in El Salvador, he could be found praying in the chapel in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

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But his was not a spiritualized prayer, but a prayer rooted in the reality of the people he served, fully aware of their sufferings and of the injustice of society.

About a year after being named Archbishop of San Salvador, he shared these thoughts in his homily of February 5, 1978:

The guarantee of one’s prayer
is not in saying a lot of words.
The guarantee of one’s petitions
is very easy to know
– How do I treat the poor? –
because that is where God is.
The degree to which you approach them,
and the love with which you approach them,
or the scorn with which you approach them
– that is how you approach your God.
What you do to them, you do to God.
The way you look at them
is the way you look at God.

And so I ask myself: How do I look at the look? How do I interact with them?


 

The photo is of the chapel in the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador where Monseñor Romero lived and was martyred on March 24, 1980.


 

Francis and the leper

Very few conversions happen in an instant. Often conversion is a long process, with various little conversions, until there is a “tipping point,” an event that brings a person to a turning point, where a decision has to be made.

For St. Francis, I think this was his encounter with the leper. As he himself wrote in his Testament:

The Lord inspired me, Brother Francis, to begin a life of  penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed very bitter for me to see lepers.  And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy on them.  And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body; and afterwards I lingered a little and left the world.

Francis began to see in the poor Christ. Nikos Kazantzakis, in his highly speculative novel Saint Francis, has Francis explain this to Brother Leo:

“This, Brother Leo, is what I understood: all lepers, cripples, sinners, if you kiss them on the mouth—”
He stopped, afraid to complete his thought.
“Enlighten me, Brother Francis, enlighten me, do not leave me in the dark.”
Finally, after a long silence, he murmured with a shudder:
“All these, if you kiss them on the mouth— O God, forgive me for saying this— they all. . . become Christ.”

This, though, is not far from the experience of Francis. Andre Vauchez refers to the Assisi Compilation which has Francis reflecting:

When you see a poor person, he said, you must consider that person in the name of the one who comes, that is, the Christ who took upon himself our poverty and our infirmity. Thus the poverty and infirmity of this person are the mirror in which we must contemplate in love the poverty and infirmity that Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in his own body in order to save humankind.

To see Christ in the poor person in front of me, to respond in love – that is the beginning of conversion.

Cristomendigo

 

 

 

Bowing before the Lord

I was in New Orleans for six days in July.

New Orleans was a shock.

I was somewhat saddened by what seemed misguided – if not sometimes sordid.

I saw many people walking around, or standing outside, drinking. I was surprised by the number of people with tattoos all over their bodies. I was surprised seeing the palm readers and zodiac advisors just outside the cathedral.

I don’t consider myself a prude. I enjoy a beer or a glass or two of wine. But something didn’t seem right. I did see same-sex couples holding hands, but that didn’t bother me at all. (I know a number of such couples.)

But what most saddened me was the large number of people on the streets either passed out or sleeping. A good number of people were also sitting on the sidewalks with hand-written signs asking for a dollar.

What to do?

I gave to one or two. I tried to have eye contact with others. But as the week went on I found myself pausing and bowing when I saw someone asleep or passed out on a sidewalk.

Just as I bow before the altar at Mass and genuflect before the Eucharist, I found myself moved to reverence God present in the least of these.

I’m not sure that it changed my way of responding to their requests. I’m a little too hard-hearted and cheap. But I’m beginning to recognize that the Lord is present and I need to respond to them as I would to the Lord.

That’s not going to be easy.

There is the story of the experience of Thomas Merton at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, that can help me. As he wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream….

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….

That’s almost what I wanted to do during the last two days in New Orleans. That’s what I need to learn and practice every day.

Cristomendigo

In front of St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City

The blood of the poor

One way to keep poor is not to accept money
which is the result of defrauding the poor.
Dorothy Day, May, 1952

Saint Ignatius of Laconi, Sardinia, was a Capuchin brother who died on May 11, 1781, noted most of all for his begging. While begging he not only gave people a chance to share but he also brought about reconciliation between peoples and converted sinners.

A notorious merchant in town, Franchino, was enraged that Brother Ignatius never stopped at his door to beg alms, because the merchant had built his fortune by defrauding the poor.

Franchino complained to the guardian of the Capuchins who ordered Brother Ignatius to stop and beg from the merchant. Brother Ignatius agreed but said, “Very well. If you wish it, Father, I will go, but I would not have the Capuchins dine on the blood of the poor.”

What happened next is extraordinary – but true to the reality of the situation.

As Dorothy Day wrote:

“But hardly had Ignatius left the house with his sack on his shoulder when drops of blood began oozing through the sack. They trickled down on Franchino’s doorstep and ran down through the street to the monastery. Everywhere Ignatius went, a trickle of blood followed him. When he arrived at the friary, he laid the sack at the Father Guardian’s feet.  “What is this?” gasped the Guardian. “This,” St. Ignatius said, “is the blood of the poor.”


The quote from Dorothy Day is found in Robert Ellsberg’s By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, pages 108-109.