February 23, 2019 – Memorial of Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr
I’ve only been to Haiti once, for about 10 days in July 2012. Whenever I mention this, the most common question I get in response is “what did you do there?” I suppose that’s a fair question, but a very unfortunate one.
Haiti is a beautiful though long-suffering country. The only nation in world history to have been born out of a successful slave revolt, it fought off none other than Napoleon’s army to become the second republic in the Americas and the first independent nation of the Latin American and Caribbean region. Despite this inspirational beginning however, foreign exploitation and internal strife over centuries have led to the current situation in which Haiti is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The World Bank estimates annual per capita income at $250, meaning the average person there makes only 69 cents per day. It has become known as a “Republic of NGOs” for the many non-profits that dominate so much of society there, at times doing more harm than good in spite of their good intentions.
So what did I do there?
Aside from getting a wicked sunburn and enjoying reflective conversation with my fellow Marist Brothers, I ate some great Creole food, travelled a bit, and kept my eyes and ears open. I learned about how excessive foreign aid has stymied the growth of a local professional class. One crafts merchant in Jérémie told me pointedly that his is NOT a poor country—in spite of material deprivation, Haitians are rich in culture, history, and dignity. Indeed, as tragic as the recent violent protests have been, at the very least they show us a people who have not given up, who know they deserve better than abuse and corruption.
Contrary to what you might expect, I am very glad that my first trip to Haiti was not on a helping mission of any kind (even though my next one could be). I am likewise very glad that my first several visits to West Virginia were also of a social nature—I only went there on service trips later on. Many people in these places need a lot more than they currently have, this is true. Poor economic prospects combine with other factors to result in poor health and early death (while life expectancy in the USA is about 79 years, it is only 75 in West Virginia and 64 in Haiti). But although poverty kills, and there are many people who could use a hand, they do not need such assistance out of pity but rather out of respect for their inherent worth and ability.
The poor do not exist to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves for having helped them. They exist for the same reason that everybody else does—to love and to be loved.
Poverty has an intensely subjective dimension. I know many people who would not know what to do without running water at home. Thanks to my time here in the Dominican Republic, I have now met many others for whom this is normal. They will not be defeated by the lack of water though, and in many cases will struggle to obtain it. In a not so different way, the examples of Special Olympians, and even that of the departed Stephen Hawking teach us that helplessness is not a natural condition, nor is it an inevitable response to challenging circumstances. A conscious person can always struggle and redefine his or her situation, even in the face of long odds. The most extreme form of poverty does not have a tidy socio-economic definition, but rather it is the despair of either feeling unable to help yourself or so isolated that you cannot rely on anybody else for help. Of course this feeling may more likely be present in some circumstances than others.
As vowed religious, we Marist Brothers take a vow of poverty. If you’ve seen many of us however, we don’t generally look like we’re starving. In the USA at least, we all live in safe housing, and most of us have access to a car whenever we need it, even if it doesn’t belong to any of us individually. Some of us live with fewer gadgets, plainer clothes, more frequent leftovers, and less junk than we otherwise would, but for others the vow of poverty has not brought an obvious difference in living standards: some of us would prefer simple living anyway. Regardless, even the strictest material expression of religious poverty could never be the same as actual poverty, insofar as it has been freely chosen by individuals who could have done otherwise. True poverty means not having such options.
This is a vow based on a paradox. We want to eliminate poverty in the world while claiming to embrace it in our lives. Yes, this should include living simply and “stand[ing] in solidarity with the poor and their just causes,” as the 1986 revision of our Constitutions put so well. However, it also involves a further, spiritual paradox. We are challenged to confront our own human experience of “not enough” and to embrace this void rather than attempt to ignore or satisfy it, knowing that there is a certain emptiness that only God can fill.
The challenge of evangelical poverty is to detach not from our care of each other and of God’s Creation, but rather to give up our illusions that we truly possess or control these things, people, circumstances, and experiences that we hold on to so tightly. These very illusions are what we can then bring to the marketplace to exchange for the Pearl of Great Price that we may find our true treasure in the One who dwells both entirely within and entirely without.
This week’s reflection focused on themes related to poverty, and so it shall be with your “ear candy” and “brain food”. First up from Spearhead is a song that reflects on the simple, everyday experience of a working man and his dilemma of how to respond to a beggar on the street. The article from America Magazine reflects on the Christian obligation to honor the human dignity of vulnerable immigrants in our midst today—regardless of what choices led to their current situation. Enjoy!
Ear Candy: “Hole in the Bucket” by Spearhead
Brain Food: “Accompanying Undocumented Immigrants Is ‘the Catholic Thing To Do’” by J.D. Long-García
Come back next Saturday for a new post!