I was lying on my friend’s couch, more than satisfied after a traditional Thanksgiving meal. But having arrived in the US only two days prior, I still had the people of Peru very much on my mind—particularly a family who was traveling home to another South American country. Their journey, though shorter than mine in miles, would take a month longer. Instead of three plane rides over a 24-hour period, they would take buses until the money ran out, and then proceed walking and hitchhiking.
We found out they were leaving the Peruvian jungle only a day before their departure. We would have helped them more had there been time to organize it, but we gave them what we could, gathering cash we had on hand and pulling money out of the ATM until the daily limit was reached. We didn’t understand all of their circumstances, but we felt called to help them.
As I lay on the couch I sent a WhatsApp message to these friends, wondering where they were and how they were doing. Their journey was rough, the kids were sick, and they were eating only bread and crackers so as to save money. Bread and crackers? I read this after having filled my plate and tummy only a few hours earlier with rich homemade foods and desserts. After all had eaten, the leftovers were abundant. I burst into tears. Perhaps one of the hardest things about being a missionary is seeing that, in spite of our efforts to live in solidarity with the poor, there exists a world of difference in the opportunities available to us and to them. Try as I might, I’ll never truly understand the plight of the poor. And that breaks my heart.
The poor don’t all live in far off countries. I recently heard that in the city I used to call home, there are 300 homeless on the streets. 300! Earlier this month I woke up to see that it was 11 degrees outside. I had to go start up my car in these temperatures after 10 months of living in the tropics. Woe is me! And these people who spend the entire night outside in below-freezing weather? How can that be?
A few weeks ago while in Louisiana, I was helping to feed the homeless in downtown Lafayette. I made an effort to speak to and look at each person who came through the line. One man, when I asked how he was doing, replied somberly, “Well, I’ve had better times.” His response struck me. He was tall, attractive, and looked fairly put-together. I wondered what life had dealt him that caused him to end up in the position he was in. We may never know how or why someone is where they are.
In a world where we have all that we need and most of what we want, poverty is unattractive. The world and the industry of consumerism constantly throws in our face more things that we need. Society tells us that we must have more, not less, to be happy. But in the mysterious plan of providence, Our Savior chose poverty. Though He could have come to us in a different way, He deliberately chose the way of scarcity, hiddenness, and even rejection. Can we wrap our minds around this? We say it so often and accept it as a fact, but do we understand the suffering and sacrifice of the Holy Family? Jesus, Mary and Joseph celebrated the first Christmas less like us and more like the poor. They were rich only in grace, blessing, and joy.
Let us not forget the poor. Let us reflect on the poverty of the Holy Family, pray for those in need, and perhaps even invite someone who is needy or lonely to our table. We can offer up our own sufferings in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters throughout the world.
“When we contemplate the Babe of Mary in the manger, God whispers to us: Don’t forget the poor.” – Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, SJ, Christmas Homily 2008
“‘The Light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.’ He seemed like other men to the multitude. Though conceived of the Holy Ghost, He was born of a poor woman, who, when guests were numerous, was thrust aside, and gave birth to Him in a place for cattle. O wondrous mystery, early manifested, that even in birth He refused the world’s welcome! He grew up as the carpenter’s son, without education, so that when He began to teach, His neighbours wondered how one who had not learned letters, and was bred to a humble craft, should become a prophet. He was known as the kinsman and intimate of humble persons; so that the world pointed to them when He declared Himself, as if their insufficiency was the refutation of His claims. He was brought up in a town of low repute, so that even the better sort doubted whether good could come out of it. No; He would not be indebted to this world for comfort, aid, or credit; for ‘the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.’ He came to it as a benefactor, not as a guest; not to borrow from it, but to impart to it.” – St. John Henry Newman, The Mystery of Godliness
(Cover image at top by Vickie McCarty from Pixabay)
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