Looking back on my previous post, Conversion through Unity, I noted that life-changing experiences are opportunities for spiritual growth. This is true for both the individual and the whole community. In these last few months, I've experienced quite a bit of spiritual growth since my summer assignment in East Africa. For the first 10 days of the assignment I was with three other Dominican brothers taking part in the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) immersion trip to southern Tanzania.
Since 1962, CRS has been involved with a variety of projects to help foster a spirit of solidarity and creating self-sustaining initiatives that the people of Tanzania can further develop for financial independence. One project we Dominicans were exposed to was the implementation of micro-financing in rural community settings by means of Savings and Internal Lending Community (SILC) groups. These SILC groups work within existing households to develop strategies to protect their assets, provide a consistent cash flow, and a means to increase income. CRS provides some recent statistics (as of 2013) for Tanzania:
Population: 48, 261, 942
Size (sq. mi.): 365, 755
People Served: 1, 428, 615
Yeah, so what? During that eight day stay, it only took one individual to leave an impression on my soul. That individual was a crying baby. The mother did all she could to keep him calm, but to no avail. She was also trying to listen to the CRS group visiting her village that day. CRS was installing one of the villagers as a primary services provider (PSP)--someone responsible for the education and monitoring of the SILC group’s activities. Watching this celebration and ceremony unfold, I took it upon myself to relieve the poor mother for a few minutes by entertaining her baby on my lap. I could tell that the baby was teething as he kept grabbing onto my shirt prompting me to give him my handkerchief to chew on.
In that moment while holding him, my spirit felt truly at peace and everything else melted into the background. I felt in that moment that I was really part of the village rather than an outsider CRS group member. This feeling was characterized very clearly in what Fr. Albert Nolan, O.P. says in his article, “Spiritual Growth and the Option for the Poor.”:
Real solidarity begins when it is no longer a matter of we and they.
In light of this, why not take a moment and ask yourself: how is it that the poor have touched me? Was it the moment I saw them crying? Was it the moment I felt their frailty? Whatever the case, your experience with the poor becomes paramount. It is in that moment that our spiritual life becomes desperate to seek communion with them. It is not necessarily to fix their problems, but to simply be with them in their struggles of daily life. In the same article, Nolan describes the four stages of spiritual growth when one works with the poor.
The first stage is compassion, where an individual is moved by what they have seen or heard. This compassion continues to grow through exposure to others' suffering, and this compassion begins to last. One is further exposed to factual information, where statistics enrich the specific context of that lived reality. Compassion, as result, leads to two types of actions: relief work and the simplification of one’s own life.
The second stage is realizing that poverty is a structural problem. Poverty is not an accident. Rather, it is created within political and economic structures. This second stage is characterized by "anger" against those who put unjust structures in place which advance the agenda of the rich and leave the poor defenseless and destitute. Yet this "anger" does not imply hatred towards the rich and powerful. Rather, Nolan describes "anger" thusly:
My suggestion that we need to share God’s anger means not hatred, but rather, as we say so often, not a hatred of the sinner but a hatred of sin. The more we all understand the structural problem as a structural problem, the more we are able to forgive individuals involved. It is not a question of hating or blaming or being angry with individuals as such, but of tremendous indignation against a system that creates so much suffering and so much poverty.
The third stage is growing in humility, realizing that the poor are the ones who have to save themselves. There is a temptation to think that we who are well-to-do are charged to solve the problems of the poor, seeing them solely as helpless people in need. This stage is characterized by shock, realizing that the poor know better than we do how to address injustice and identify what these injustices are specifically. The poor are in fact capable of solving such political or economic problems, as they are the instruments by which God communicates his acting presence. Nolan states, however, that it is important that the poor not be put on a pedestal in some form of romanticism, where the poor are the absolute authority on how to address contextual poverty.
The last stage is being in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. This stage is initially marked by getting outside of one’s preconceived notions of the poor. The poor are not be romanticized as people solely of heroic quality, where God only works through them to champion the values of the Christian life. Nolan explains, “They make mistakes, are sometimes selfish, sometimes lacking in commitment and dedication, sometimes waste money, are sometimes irresponsible.” The point is that, as with all people, the poor reflect the human frailty of being susceptible to sin. As mentioned previously, solidarity begins when there is no more distinction between “the poor” and the “rest of the world.” Here we come to terms with the fact that we are created to be in relation with one another, which is essential to the understanding of exercising the cardinal virtue of justice.
As with any spiritual path or model, Nolan stresses that spiritual growth in working with the poor is not necessarily experienced along a linear ordering of these stages. Rather, an individual may encounter these stages in a mixed fashion or begin with a different starting point.
For me, holding that crying baby, my eyes were eventually met with a smile. Looking behind me, I noticed a continuation of this smile in the rest of villagers. Even though a language barrier existed between us, their smiles became the language that comforted me. In that moment, they understood that I was here for a good intention: to be there for them.
What seemed like a dream in those eight days is now roughly four months past. CRS challenges us, in the manner coined by Patrick Geddes, a prominent thinker in the fields of sociology and urban planning, to “Think global, act local.” It is fitting that the plight of our Tanzanian brothers and sisters continues to challenge us this day to put the needs of others before our own in this journey of Christian discipleship. CRS, as a leading humanitarian effort of the Catholic Church, provides many opportunities to assist in those global struggles such as promoting Fair Trade or participating in campaigns such as Catholics Confront Global Poverty. What will you do TODAY to help?