“Walking, Talking Social Doctrine” in Mission
Growing up in the upper middle class of a big city in lndia, it was easy enough to look away from the needs of the poorest of the poor. The young people of my parish devoted themselves to their studies, to football, to parties, to romantic relationships, to singing in the choir, to dressing well. Some of the “holier” ones attempted a closer walk with Christ through reading the Bible, personal prayer time, and attending retreats.
Meanwhile, not ten minutes away from our wealthy Cathedral, lay a vast, crowded slum housing thousands of families who had migrated to the city looking for work. The main interaction most of our wealthy parishioners had with the slum dwellers was an employer-employee relationship. The slums provided maids and cooks for the homes of many parishioners. Some of the families were Catholic, and we occasionally saw their children at Sunday School, but we otherwise had little to do with them.
The local prayer group visited homes in the slum for a while, and once when I was a child, my parents took me with them. I was scared and uncomfortable with this unfamiliar world, with its tiny, crowded homes, narrow alleyways, trash everywhere, smells and smoke from wood fires. I was relieved to return to my comfortable home.
As a teenager I dealt with my discomfort with poverty by largely not thinking about it. I had a desire to do some kind of ministry, but was attracted far more to my own world – the world of English-speaking urban Catholic youth.
“If a Christian in these days looks away from the need of the poorest of the poor, then in reality he is not a Christian. […] When I invite you all now really to get to know the social doctrine of the Church, I am dreaming not just about groups that sit under trees and discuss it. That is good! Do that! My dream is something greater: I wish I had a million young Christians, or even better, a whole generation who are for their contemporaries ‘walking, talking social doctrine.’ Nothing else will change the world but people who with Jesus devote themselves to it, who with him go to the margins and right into the middle of the dirt.” Pope Francis, Introduction to the DoCat.
At the age of 21, God gave me a jolt as He introduced me to some American missionaries from Family Missions Company who seemed far more interested in the poor than in our youth group. FMC took to heart the call to have a “preferential option for the poor” and had travelled across the world to find them. (DoCat 94).
Three years later I joined FMC. Two years after that, I returned to my hometown with a team of missionaries. God gave me a second chance with my neighborhood slum.
“I want you to be in charge of our parish tutoring class in the slum,” said my parish priest.
“But, Father, my Hindi is so bad; I won’t even be able to communicate with the parents or the smaller children!”
“It doesn’t matter. I need you to be the loving presence of Jesus there, so the children remember we are there because He loves them.”
Our parish was a center of many activities, but Jesus wanted me to go to the margins. In the two years that followed, I saw many beautiful things happen in that slum. Despite the alcoholism, family fights, violence, and poverty there, we were able to show young boys and girls their dignity and worth in the eyes of God and the kind of life He was calling them to live. We visited their homes and sat on their floors drinking chai (tea) and chatting with their parents. And we found that they were not so alien to us, but brothers and sisters. We raised money to fix homes and buy school supplies.
But the joy of my heart was taking other young people from privileged homes into the slum with me. “Are you sure it’s safe?” How cautious their protective parents were, but with what love they loved the little slum children.
They hugged them, kidded around with them, taught them maths and art and biology. They became their didis and bhaiyas (big sisters and brothers).
Some of those young people have left their jobs and are now devoted full-time to serving the poor and sharing the Gospel. Others are choosing careers that can enable them to serve the poor.
I am beginning to see Pope Francis’ dream become a reality in myself, my friends, and other young people from different parts of the world. We are young Christians who are becoming “walking, talking social doctrine.” We are changing the world as we step out of the bubble of a self-centered, comfortable life, and head “for the margins and right into the middle of the dirt” – with Jesus.
We are still far from the million Francis envisions though. Will you join us?