The National Catholic Review
When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, and celebrated his inaugural Mass last year, I was in India. Later I visited Thailand and Laos. In all three countries the events in Rome were well covered in the local mediaperhaps less thoroughly in Laosthough only about 1 percent of the populations of these countries is Catholic. The papacy and what the pope has to say on the important issues of the day are clearly of interest to people in Asia. I wished, when I was in those countries, that our new pope would say something of direct interest to them and to the billions of non-Christian Asians, especially the poor. He did not, but no one can speak at once about all necessary matters.

The larger question is, Does the church have a strong, helpful message for non-Christians and for the poor of all religions? Many priorities are discussed in Rome. Freeing people from poverty is one of them; good relations with Muslims and other non-Christian peoples is another; the re-evangelization of the West in an effort to combat its materialism and rationalism, its culture of death, is still another. In my view, the question of the poor of the world, all poor people of all religions, should be given top priority.

Calcuttathe Problem

At the start of the papal conclave last April we were in Calcutta, a once-grand city and the home of many of India’s great poets and writers. Sadly and slowly it has become unravelled and run-down. Many cities are perhaps as poor as Calcutta, but no other invites the visitor to meditate on the meaning of poverty and God’s providence as strongly as Calcutta does. It is not by accident that it was Mother Teresa’s city. Nothing seems to change. A woman I interviewed 17 years ago still lives on the same patch of cracked sidewalk on Sudder Street opposite the national museum. She was a teenager then and told me her mother and father had lived on the same spot and that she was born there. Now she has two babies of her own. Across the street from the woman are two old and neglected Protestant churches dating from the 1860’s. Golden shower petals cover the street and sidewalks every morning as the street people rise from sleep and start their day.

I visited with friends, some of the poorest people in Asia, communities of urban poor families evicted from their homes along a canal, who now live in shabby lean-tos on the sidewalk. The huts, none higher than a man’s waist, stretched as far as we could see down the street.

I met Chamon Bibi, 43, a Muslim widow, who is one of the evicted people. She is a ragpicker, as are many of her neighbors. While we talked, her severely retarded 18-year-old son sat on the street at our feet. We asked about her difficulties, and she told us of the hunger, insecurity and violence in their lives, and their problems with water and sanitation. We saw women nearby pounding spices and cooking on fires just a foot or so from the filth flowing in the gutter. Perhaps 40 other poor people had gathered around us. When she finished talking, we asked her, Why is this happening to you and your neighbors? Are you angry?

No, she said, it was their fate. Everything is here, she told us tapping her head. Friends with us said this meant, It’s all in God’s hands. She talked some more, and then she pulled her son up from the ground and left us. Later we visited another poor area and a Hindu man, Balli Patra, answered a similar question by telling us: We are not angry at what happens. It is our karma. We must have done something wrong.

That same night we heard on television that the new pope had listed his papal priorities as Christian unity, dialogue with other religions and continuation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. I cannot help wondering, a year later, what difference those priorities can make in the lives of the poor. Does our church have nothing more hopeful to say to the 1.5 billion poor people of Asia, or the poor of the world?

To be fair, the pope did mention poverty problems in later speeches, and it is too early to say anything certain about his priorities. Still the question persists: Does the church have a message for the poor of the world? Is the church a source of courage and hope for the poor, including the billions of non-Christian poor? Perhaps the quality of its message for the poor will be the test of its relevance in today’s world.

What can the church say that will help the poor understand and come to grips with their problemsfood, health care, education, safety for their children and joy in life? Will the church and all those who speak for God be seen by the poor to be on their side? Will the church reassure the poor as Jesus did, even when he spoke of the end of the world? Jesus spoke of terrible natural disasters, famine, wars, torture, betrayal and martyrdom; but at the end he told the people, Not a hair of your head will be lost (Lk 21:18).

I once worked with the Office for Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences and am well aware that for 35 years the Asian bishops have advocated dialogue with the poor and with other religions. This practice flows from the central insight of the conference, first expressed at its meeting with Pope Paul VI in Manila in 1970, that Asia was poor in material resources but rich in culture, and that anyone who wishes to help Asia must do so with deep respect and in dialogue. The first officials of the Office for Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Bishop Julio Labayen of the Philippines and Bishop Bunluen Mansap of Thailand, made their work for development into a search for justice and poor people’s participation.

Giving Priority to Work With the Poor

Church people who work with the poor, from pastoral and social action at the grass roots to the highest policy levels, believe freeing people from poverty should be the church’s top priority, not only in fulfilment of the basic Christian duty to love our neighbor, but as a way of renewing the whole church. They believe work with the poor is the surest way to reach someday the world of peace and justice we all want.

There is general consensus among people concerned with the poor that efforts to end poverty must include empowering the poor themselves and giving them an influential voice in the decisions that affect their lives. Many other things must be done, but empowerment is the heart of antipoverty work, and other services should support this central thrust. The church is one of the few international institutions that can truly help empower the poor, because it enjoys freedom from political and financial powers and possesses a powerful message of people’s freedom in its Scriptures.

All significant change in social, economic and political matters involves conflict, and only the poor have the motivation to work through the sacrifice and pain involved in bringing an end to poverty. The need to support organizations of poor people in their struggle for a better life is deeply entrenched in the church’s more than 100-year-old support of labor unions. Putting an end to poverty requires a wide range of approaches, including research, finance, job creation efforts and government policy; but empowering the poor is essential.

As communities of poor people come together to solve their problems, they will discuss social values. What kind of community do we want; what do we do about our poorer neighbors; what kind of leaders do we want; how will we deal with one another when there are arguments? Will we respect the opinions of individual persons first of all, or will we respect only politics and ideology? The values engendered within the struggle will remain far longer than the values taught by outsiders. They will become national values in time if the people will continue to work for them. If the church is wholeheartedly involved with the poor, it will have great influence on the values adopted. If it is not involved, it will have little real influence.

Dialogue With Other Religions

Working with the poor is probably the surest way to have meaningful dialogue with the other great religions of the world, including Islam. Experience shows that the core social beliefs of all the great religions are similar: they all believe there are limits on private property and that no one should have more than he needs while others go hungry; they all want justice, equality, fairness and respect for individual dignity. If church people are engaged with the poor of other religions they will find that when it comes to discussions about values, there is general agreement.

But I do not believe this is possible in discussions of dogma. Through dialogue with other religions on community and social matters, on the other hand, we become friends. After that, all kinds of discussion may be possible. While in India, we attended the 25th anniversary of Proud, the oldest and largest people’s organization in Bombay, which is famous for bringing together Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsees and Jains in work for water taps, letterboxes, sanitation, housing and reconciliation between Muslims and Hindus after the riots in 1990. People live in peace with one another and trust one another. They celebrate one another’s religious holidays. Joint social action was the starting point.

Direct work with the poor in the slums and villages may be the first need, but the church also has vast influence in the Christian West, which it can use to persuade governments to condone the debts of poor countries, end wars, eradicate disease, open markets for the exports of poor countries, provide funds for schools and irrigation. It will have even more motivation to do this advocacy work and be much more credible if it is known to be fully committed from top to bottom to the alleviation of poverty.

Spirituality/Theology

The church’s increased involvement with the poor will demand a spirituality and a theology for such work. In poor Catholic countries it is necessary to link the people’s deep spirituality with work for justice. Now these two currents often flow in two different directions. The linking of spirituality and theology should assist the poor who face conflict in their struggle for a better life, since change inevitably involves conflict. In the West this may help middle-class people, caught up in the round of more work with less security, to recognize the need for a simpler, prayerful yet productive life.

Giving priority to the problems of poverty will help us understand the mysteries behind some expressions the church has used for years, like church of the poor, preferential option for the poor, God’s special love for the poor. As an Indian Jesuit, Samuel Rayan, used to say, we must be with the poor not because they are good, but because God is there. What do these words and phrases really mean? Is there a solid reality behind them, or are they rhetorical flourishes? We are more likely to discover the reality or, better, have it made known to us, if we work with the poor. These phrases will have no special meaning if church people do not focus on poverty. Priority for work with the poor may renew the church. Who can tell now what changes may occur?

A Two-Way Street

Fortunately, work with the poor is a two-way process. Church people may help the poor, but the poor also enrich those who help them. A young Jesuit scholastic from China told us about his recent 25-day stay with a family in the urban slums in Baseco, Manila. Four other scholastics were there as well.

I did nothing for them, but they did a lot for me. Their life became my life. Their condition changed my life, my way of living and my attitude towards life and people. After a fire in the area, we helped the people distribute food packages. We also worked digging drainage canals in the heat of the sun. It was very hot. We were not able to do great things for the poor, but we were able to enter deeply into their life. April and May are the hottest times in the Philippines. This is my fourth year in the country, but only this year did I experience the heat of the Philippines. It is very, very hot. In the past I stayed in the novitiate, where the rooms had very high ceilings and the buildings were surrounded by trees. In Baseco I suffered from the heat, but the people were used to it. No problem at all for them, so there was no problem for me also. I can live with that. I can adjust to this very hot weather. We had a saying for all the problems, like the heat: You sweat, I sleep, meaning, I’m not going to let a little heat bother me, or any other such problems. I did nothing for the poor. They did everything for me.

In a church committed to work for the poor of all religions we will all be changed for the better in ways we cannot foresee. We will be encouraged, for example, to lead simpler, less materialistic lives. In this regard, the people of the West will benefit as much as anyone. Is it going too far to suggest that if priority is given to work with the poor, the church will find that it has come to grips with all other possible priorities also?

Denis Murphy is coordinator of Urban Poor Associates in Quezon City, Manila, Phillipines.