Joining the Poor on the Road to God

A Maryknoll sister (center) with children in Bolivia. (Foy)
A Maryknoll priest spoke recently about the hospitality of his neighbors in the communities he serves, noting that when he visits people's homes, they are always quick to offer him gifts, such as food, that they cannot really afford to give away.  He says they will even borrow items from neighbors just to have something to offer a guest. He compared this to his own cultural tendency to keep for himself. As an example, he mentioned receiving a box of candy bars in the mail, which he promptly hid in his home.

I, too, struggle with my attachments to the things that I "own." My family is continually trying to simplify our lives and find contentment with what we have, but we can't help but run up against our limitations. "Well, we NEED a house that is big enough for x, y, and z." "With our schedules, we NEED two cars." Furthermore, the tension between how much of our earnings, our belongings, and our time that we give to others vs. how much we keep for ourselves is ever-present. I know that I personally question how strongly I internalize the lessons learned from the stories and even experiences of radical generosity of spirit from around the world.

But one of the strongest through-lines in Scripture is a fundamental message about what we actually need in this life. We have in the very opening chapters of the Bible God's vision: that we live in harmony with God, our neighbors, and creation. In fact, our understanding from the story of Adam and Eve is that our problems stem exactly from breaking this harmony: instead of relying on God, we seek the security of knowing what God knows; instead of loving and serving one another, we deceive for personal gain; instead of seeing creation as providing for our needs, we exploit it for our desires, and in the process lose the garden that provides for us.

Is it any wonder, then, that when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he replies that we should love God and love our neighbor, and that everything else depends on this? (Mt. 22:36-40) Is it any wonder that Jesus tells us not to worry about food and clothing, that we will be fed and clothed just as the birds and the grass and the wild flowers? (Mt. 6:25-30)

As we often do, we may wish to water down this essential message to fit our lifestyle. After all, we know that so many of the world's poor have much faith and also suffer greatly. But this was true in Jesus' day and for so many to whom he preached; it was true in the time that the Hebrew people first reflected on the stories of Genesis. The challenge is that the Kingdom of God relies on ALL of us living in harmony with God, neighbor, and creation. Many of the world's poor live in harmony with one another and creation in ways that we can barely comprehend for ourselves, yet we their brothers and sisters by virtue of our very lifestyle break those same bonds. Their suffering, then, is not a matter of God breaking a promise, but of us lacking the faith to live up to it.

Just as our lack of faith, our lack of willingness to live in harmony, reaps consequences for our brothers and sisters, we too suffer. We suffer through a lack of closeness to God, we suffer through failing to experience the joy of solidarity, we suffer through depleted natural resources that will increasingly effect us directly, we suffer from the anxiety of seeking to maintain the wealth we have built up, the fear of losing what we cannot control. We fear our nakedness before God and one another.

So many of our brothers and sisters on the margins live in tribute to the greatest commandments by virtue of circumstance. Do we dare join them? Do we walk with them knowing that the fullness of God's promise will likely never be experienced in our lifetime? Knowing that just as it cannot come to fruition for others without our participation, so too it will not be fully realized for us if others do not also choose to follow this path of their own free will?

The desire to possess - and the false security that we find in that possessing - prevent us from drawing closer to God and our neighbors. But we are made to find true meaning and joy by drawing closer to God, neighbor, and creation. Everything else, no matter how much pleasure we may derive from it, is ultimately an obstacle to joy.

Kevin Foy is Associate Director for Mission Education and Promotion in the Western US.