A few weeks ago, all of the SLMs in Bolivia came to Cochabmba to spend three days in retreat together. It was wonderful! The sisters were fabulously hospitable and gave us an entire building to ourselves. It was so wonderful to be together, and it really amazed me how instantly I felt part of the group, even though almost all the volunteers are from the “orientation class of 2010”- my site-partner Mary Pat´s group. Dedicating your life, at least temporarily, to living in the same country, serving the same population, and being guided by the same Salesian philosophy sure gives you a solid common ground.
Our last day together, we went to mass at the Cathedral. Cochabamba is full of suffering and poor people. Many people, men, women, children, people with obvious illness and disability, crowd the streets, and especially the doors of the churches, asking for help. To give or not to give? That is the question. Well, not really. Everybody has a different philosophy regarding the question, each equally valid, and I’m not going to make a statement about it in this space today.
As we made our way out of the Cathedral, I was separated from my group. In a stream of church-goers, both Cochabambinos and tourists (and the poorly-categorized “others” like ourselves), I shuffled slowly through the crowded doors. Flanking the exiting crowd were dozens of tired and hungry people with outstretched hands. Sometimes they grab hold of you as you walk past, or barefooted children leap in your path, pleading for just one “pesito.” As we passed through the noisy, jostling doorways, I felt someone, apart from the steadily bumping and pushing group, nudging me from behind. A woman’s voice, anxious and urgent sounding, pleaded “Move!! Keep going!” in American English. I turned around, leaning sideways to show her the children in front of me, offering a silent and simple explanation for my delay. She looked genuinely panicked. Her purse was clutched to her chest, her face was tense, and her eyes darted across the dirty hands and faces hoping to capture her attention. I was clearly impeding her escape from the people who called to us, touched us, reached out to us.
Shamefully, I remember occasions in my own life in which I have reacted the same way to the needs of others. Fear and disgust are such deep and primitive emotions that they cannot simply be willed away. And maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t mean to imply that we should all hope to react as my foreign acquaintance. Rather, I want to say that these negative emotions need to be redirected, not dissipated. I had no desire to tell that woman to relax, to calm down, that there was no reason to be upset. I did not pray at that moment for God to fill her with soothing indifference, because I did not want for her to become like the millions of proudly hardened middle and upper class who step over the homeless in the street and shoo away the children selling gum and cigarettes on the sidewalks.
Allowing those feelings to rule us is the path to dehumanization and vilification of the poor. Suppressing them is the path to complacency. But redirecting them is the path to justice and change.
Be disgusted with poverty and injustice, but do not be disgusted with the poor
Be angry at the systems and norms that bear down upon the weak and exploited, but do not be angry at their hands reaching up to you.
Fear the selfishness within us that leads us to abandon our brothers, but do not fear the abandoned.
Fittingly enough, the next day’s gospel reading was a synopsis of what Jesus was facing during his ministry. There are a lot of similar passages throughout the four gospels that I think are a little richer in imagery, but this is the one that came up so this is the one we’ll look at.
“After making the crossing, they came to land at Gennesaret and tied up there. As they were leaving the boat, people immediately recognized him. They scurried about the surrounding country and began to bring in the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many as touched it were healed.” Mark 6: 53-56
Every setting in the gospels presents a similar scene. The sick and poor are collectively one of the most important figures of scripture. If you don’t believe me, set aside an evening to read through any one of the gospels in its entirety and take note of how often Jesus is interacting with, comforting, or advocating for the “underdogs.” I don’t know how we got it in our heads that social justice is an optional side-thought in our walk with Christ, when it was in many ways the center of Jesus’ life on earth.
I am unoriginal, so I’m just going to copy out of my own journal my prayer in response (I have a frustratingly short attention span and find I often have to journal my prayers because I just can’t keep focused most of the time in normal reflection. It’s tedious but so worth it).
“Today’s gospel shows the sick flocking to Jesus and his disciples in massive numbers. I imagine them coming in great droves, a constant stream of suffering and grieving people, jostling and pressing in on Jesus and his disciples, grabbing and reaching and crying out, and oh, how their hearts are broken. It had to have seemed like too much! Everyone pressing in, pleading for relief, a look of compassion, a word of mercy, a brush with his cloak at the very least. Oh, Lord, thank you for giving me this image to think about. No matter how overwhelming the need gets, you do not turn away, and I pray that neither will I! Even a brush with your cloak, the passing of your shadow, is enough. Fill us, oh God, so that we, as your body, like the hem of your clothing, can be enough to offer your peace.
Also, God, I wonder if any of your disciples felt like that woman at the Cathedral yesterday yelling ‘Keep going! Move!’ ‘Come on, Jesus! Can we please just get out of here!’ Probably. Forgive us for the times we do the same.”