The life of a pilgrim can be a precarious adventure. Of course, being an American and living in relative security, my voyages on the road have not been nearly as precarious as those traveled by many of our world’s poor, who flee their homes seeking security or prosperity or freedom. No, my flight didn’t have such a noble external virtue as its goal; my flight from my own security was in search of something that lies deeper inside my own heart, something that for all intents and purposes I cannot find in the ordinariness of my life in school. So, with the last real summer break of my life, I left my home. People often ask me where my funny inclinations to seek out the poor, to work with and for them, to live with them, come from. The short and easy answer can be found in the words with which Pope Saint John Paul II responded to the question, “How does the Pope pray?” The Pope responded, “You will have to ask the Holy Spirit.” Truer words have rarely been uttered; after all, who are we to try to figure out how the deep spiritual longings of our hearts arrived in their allotted place? But still, my yearnings do have some material beginnings. Let me try to explain.
In the spring of 2012, I studied public health in the African country of Botswana. Instead of experiencing the typical American shock and dismay at the observed poverty of those who live in destitution beyond our borders, I became enamored with the cultural virtue of “Botho,” which permeates every aspect of the culture. Botho quite simply means, “I am because we are.” It describes a people who find their identity in the spirit and well-being of the community. As I learned more of the immense depths of the teachings of the Catholic Church—especially the social justice teachings—I realized that Botho was a common theme, except the Church had a different name for it: the common good. But as I began to look critically on the American society in which I grew up, I found it difficult to find the spirit of Botho. Sure, there are great, life-giving communities in our country that exemplify Botho, but the larger society is often all too lacking in anything approaching reverence for the common good or Botho.
Shortly after my return from Africa, I stumbled upon a current issue of the Catholic Worker. An “easy essay” by co-founder Peter Maurin, along with a reprint of a Dorothy Day critique on society, hooked me. I found the selected writings of Dorothy Day in my library, and I read the introduction by Robert Ellsberg, which long-time Catholic Worker Tom Cornell told me was the “greatest introduction to the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day ever written.” By the time I finished the book, my life was changed, or as Dean Brackley would put it: my life was wrecked, wrecked for Christ and his beloved poor. From then on, I have found that my life must include the poor, the exploited, the oppressed–those whom Pope Francis has called the excluded, the outcasts, the “leftovers.” Perhaps this quote from Robert Ellsberg will pull you into this wild adventure:
We are called to recognize Christ in the disguise of our neighbors. He came disguised as a crucified Jew, and this was a scandal. He came disguised in the body of the poor, the diseased, the unwanted, and this was a stumbling block. It was certainly hard to see the face of Christ in the body of a sick, unwashed, lice-ridden old woman. It was harder still to seem Him behind the face of the one called “enemy.” This was true folly in the eyes of the world. But we were not told to love up to the point of reason, prudence, or personal safety—but to love unreasonably, foolishly, profligately, unto the cross, unto death.
To return to the “view from the road,” this summer might well be called my “summer with the poor.” Unfortunately, this is a trite title that places me among that all-to-naive class of people who blithely move freely between privilege and the poor at our own whims. However, a more accurate description is difficult to find. My travels took me on my first voyage to Latin America, to the impoverished country of Bolivia. A short walk through the capital city of La Paz reveals an infrastructure which is devastatingly failing its people. Buildings remain half-finished, awaiting funds for further construction; their naked iron crossbars are a striking metaphor for the barren infrastructure of this beautiful country. Trash is littered throughout the streets, adding to the smell of uncleanliness that rises throughout the city. A superficial viewer might blame the people for being careless about sanitation, but this is hard to accept as a description for the Andean people, whose tradition venerates the beauty of the environment. Nevertheless, a quick survey of the city reveals that trash bins are few and far between along the city streets—yet another sign of the failed infrastructure of the poor city. Houses are spread throughout the outskirts of the city and rise up into the mountains that surround La Paz. An early morning drive through these outskirts will find indigenous peasants climbing through the hills into the city to sell their various novelties, carefully crafted in the quiet of their homes; or perhaps one will find a bus peddler who will spend her day shouting through the station “SANTA CRUZ, SANTA CRUZ!” These are the lucky few that have managed to escape the treachery of the mines that are scattered across the more rural areas of the country, in which people can expect little more than servitude and an early death.
After returning to the United States, I ventured to Philadelphia, where I met the House of Grace Catholic Workers. I stayed in a house of hospitality with a family of Burmese refugees and a Haitian refugee. While there, I worked in the free clinic that is run by the leaders of the house. The poverty of this country seems much more complicated and difficult to understand than in a place such as Bolivia. It is so strange to see these people in absolute destitution in the midst of such great wealth and material success.
“Stories are all we have,” Medcins Sans Frontiers doctor James Orbinski once wrote. And stories are how we can come to understand poverty a bit more clearly. One man I met in the clinic was a veteran of the Iraq war. He was kept up at night by the voices of those he had killed and by the pain of the bullet wounds that never really seemed to heal. As if these hellish memories were not enough to keep him down, he endured the loss of his wife to cancer upon his return to the U.S. The shell of a man that I talked to had lost everything. And yet, as those tears came down his face, and despite all that had been lost, there was hope in his face–inexplicable, yet present.. Then there was the man wearing nothing but an open hospital gown, sitting in the corner and reporting to anyone who would listen the breaking news that LeBron James decided to bring his talents to the city of brotherly love. How did this one come to find himself sitting in this clinic, I wonder? I find some solace in the words of Thomas Merton: “No matter how ruined man and his world may seem to be, and no matter how terrible man’s despair may become, as long as he continues to be a man his very humanity continues to tell him that life has a meaning.” I have also spent time in the South Bronx, which has become somewhat of a second home for me. The Franciscan friars who have made their permanent residence there are a light in an increasingly dark neighborhood. The South Bronx is one of those areas that seems to exude both hope and despair in one paradoxical moment. One of the housing projects has a sign plastered to the top floor that reads “Rebuilding the South Bronx,” although half of the letters have fallen off or faded from view. The building which bears the sign is no better, complete with broken windows and hallways that smell of human feces. Surely not every building meets this description and not everyone in the South Bronx lives under these conditions. But how many do? How many children are raised here? What type of life is this?
If the poor in South Bronx have a narrative, it is the narrative of drugs. At St. Anthony’s Shelter, where I lived and worked, there are few guests who do not struggle with a narcotic or alcohol addiction. If anyone believes that the drug addict is simply a drain on society who has somehow discarded the dignity that would make him worthy of charity or even welfare, he should come to these slums and listen to the story of the boy who was molested by his stepfather and raised by a gang leader and who in his darkness turned to drugs to numb the pain of growing up in fear and shame. She should come hear the story of the teen imprisoned for petty theft, and who emerged from his prison sentence hardened and primed for gang life. Here is how my friend characterized these experiences to me: “Drugs detach you from the inner turmoil going on inside you. Addicts are in denial that this turmoil exists and the world can’t see it until it is too late.” These stories matter. These stories are real. And what have we done to alleviate this pain, this poverty? Where is solidarity?
If I had a better name for this summer, perhaps it would be “my summer of solidarity.” I have so little to give. I find it so hard to leave my own securities, to break free from the demands of a life lived in a consumer-driven society, where striving for the next achievement or form of recognition tends to dominate my actions. But, as Dorothy Day often said, “It is by little and by little that we are saved.” True, indeed. If I ever hope to follow the narrow path of Christ, there is no doubt that it will be through acts of solidarity with the poor, both small and large. This summer was a small act. But I know more can be done, more can be given. And I pray that the Lord gives me the courage to heed the mystical words of the Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan: “Before mystery, we stand perpetually before an invitation so merciful, in fact, that our submission before it as well as our powerlessness to possess it is our greatest dignity. To stand under that waterfall whose music is the promise, ‘More, I will give more!’”
Thomas McHale is a medical student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. He has studied in Botswana, lived as a volunteer in the St. Anthony’s Shelter for Renewal in the Bronx, and worked with Catholic Workers at St. Joseph’s House in Manhattan. He hopes to continue accompaniment with the poor and working for social justice during his medical career.