While finishing up a boat tour on the island of St. Lucia I heard one of the tourists, a man from the U.S., ask the tour guide if there were any poor areas on the island like the ones he saw on the other islands he had visited. It seems that he was surprised, relieved, he didn’t see any. I am not sure of his intent, I can’t read his mind but his delivery was brash, clueless and culturally insensitive. It was also idiotic since he had never gone onto the island – it was a boat tour that started behind the cruise ship – which is what the tour guide politely pointed out. She went on to say that the island was very rural in some parts – an interesting observation and one that confused the man – who then connected rural with poor.
Another time I heard a lady behind me talking to another about the low wages the crew made – it seems that these ‘poor overseas people didn’t know how much they should really be making’ – sigh! Americans, the gracious tourists!
I kept reflecting on these two tourists as the vacation went on and their attitudes. It seemed to me that there was a common thread: poverty is something that they shouldn’t have to see – it is evil and should be eradicated – and those who were poor didn’t know enough to elevate themselves.
They seem to think that being poor was something that should never happen, that it should be eliminated from the world. As honorable an intention as that might seem, it is both impossible and maybe, deep down, a selfish wish.
Are we to contradict our Lord? It was He who said: ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Christ is making us aware that being poor, in and of itself, isn’t something evil. Those who are poor aren’t failures because they are poor, in fact they could be successful in what is truly important – faith.
The issue here lies between two words poor and destitute. The people of these islands that this tourist saw, and had a type of pity for, might very well not need his pity. Yes, they hardly had much at all, at least according to our standards (which is a very consumerist, vulgar viewpoint) but they were not lacking in the necessities, and they had family, faith – love. They made due with what they had, and were happy. Now to be sure some probably had fallen into destitution but not all.
What strikes me about these types of tourists, and by extension many Christians of the first world is that their desire to rid the planet of the poor by elevating them is a cover for their fearful distaste of having to help them in a personal way. Sure, these types of Christians will most certainly throw dollars at the issue, but that is not what Christ calls us to do – he calls for more. He calls us to a solidarity with the poor. Pope Francis speaks constantly about looking into the eyes of the poor, talking with them, showing concern and care as we help them financially. Christ calls us to love and love isn’t paying for them to go away by raising their standard of living. Love is compassion – compassion is made of two latin words: com (meaning with) and passion (meaning to suffer). We are called to be one with them, solidarity among family.
Hard lesson but important
This is a hard lesson to teach even to the Christian world, especially we who live in the first world. We are called to live with those who need our help. Some try to separate almsgiving from the social works of charity and I have to ask – is this how we witness to love? We proclaim to be members of the mystical body of Christ, the Church, so how can we be satisfied with this logic? Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical speaks of the specific attributes that separates the church (and every member) from well-meaning but bureaucratic charitable organizations ‘The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support.’
Brothers and sisters, let’s take to heart Jesus’ words in our actions towards those we meet ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
Judgement no – compassion yes.