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To the poor: the look, the time, the heart and the goods to live!

Author: Arlindo Pereira Dias, SVD
Subject: The poor
Language: English, Spanish
Publisher: VivatDeus.org
Year: 2023

Starting in 2020, even in the midst of the pandemic, the “Rede Rua” (The Street Network) project, an initiative of the Missionaries of the Divine Word, the Missionary Servants of the Holy Spirit, lay men and women, as well as other congregations religious, together with the social pastoral ministry of the Archdiocese of São Paulo and the Pastoral of Street People, was looking for a special way to live the World Day of the Poor, proposed by Pope Francis, in communion with the people who live on the street, who are the poorest of the poor in the city. It was one more opportunity to pray, live together, eat and celebrate together the brotherhood that unites us.

In our conversations as we prepared this day, we noticed that the use of the expression “Day of the Poor” was causing some embarrassment among many of the people who attend our projects. They claim that for them “Poor Day” should be every day. The impoverished person who lives on the sidewalk and sleeps on a hard floor, or on a piece of cardboard that softens his night’s sleep a little, barely wakes up and already has in his head part of the Calvary that he will experience throughout the day: finding where to have breakfast, lunch or have dinner, shower, wash some of the clothes that have not yet been abandoned on the road due to lack of conditions to reuse them, and engage in begging or go out in search of public or private spaces that offer these services. In the eyes of those who have things in abundance, it sounds like the poor are lazy people who spend their days lying around and sucking from society what they need to survive. And yet, the capitalist structure had already taken away their right to family affection, to the love of a father and mother, to work, to housing, to health and education, and to the dignity that God instilled in them.

In his message for 2023, the Pope affirms that this celebration is an opportunity for us to be “a fruitful sign of the Father’s mercy,” and gives us the possibility of “discovering more and more the central content of the Gospel.” This year’s theme, taken from the Book of Tobias (4, 7), is a challenge for the entire Church: “Do not turn your face away from the poor.” There are many views towards the poor that provoke verbal or bodily reactions and which can be welcoming and close or rejecting and eliminating, depending on color, origin, nationality or biological characteristics. These reactions mix with the institutional violence imposed by the State that denies the poor their basic rights: food, housing, land, work, health and education and even exercises violence against them. The absence of these basic rights takes away dignity and leaves a large number of the poor living on the pavement.

To reflect on the topic, Pope Francis proposes a “family life episode” from the Bible. He introduces us to Tobias saying goodbye to his father Tobit to embark on a long journey. The father, fearful of never finding his son again, from his own experience of poverty, blindness and deportation to Nineveh, leaves Tobias his spiritual testament: “Do not turn your face from the poor.” His situation of poverty allows him to recognize the poor that he meets along the way. “The color of the skin, the social status, the origin does not matter. If I am poor, I can recognize who is the brother who really needs me. We are called to meet each poor person and each type of poverty, shaking off the indifference and banality with which we shield an illusory well-being,” concludes the Pope. Without a civilization of austerity, where each person enjoys only what is necessary for themselves, where the vast majority can have their share of survival, we will be doomed to barbarism and disappearance.

By Jesus’ command in the Gospel, the poor who live around our parishes or convents must belong to us, be flesh of our own flesh. They must be the reason for our care, our affection and our friendship, since they are the same Jesus that we find in the Tabernacle and who await us on every corner, since we live in an opulent society that creates multitudes of impoverished people every day. It is no longer possible to ignore the poverty individually, but above all it is no longer possible to ignore the pockets of poverty caused by the concentration of wealth in the hands of privileged individuals or groups.

Pope Francis warns us that we live in a historical moment that does not favor care for the poorest, which is why every Christian is called to get personally involved. The impoverished knock on our car windows at traffic lights, snatch our cell phones from our hands, make us stumble over their bodies, wounded in body and soul, or knock on our door and scream for help. Some of the Christian churches have embarked on the path of prosperity as a magical formula to resolve the flagrant and violent social inequality, as if God would, by magic, remedy the millennia-old injustices that have brought us to this point. Prosperity does not correspond to the call to fraternity and austerity proposed in the Gospel and to the clear way in which Jesus lived and related to the excluded and marginalized of his time to the point of “having nowhere to lay his head.” Poverty is a value that we must cultivate, impoverishment is an anomaly that we must combat and eradicate from our environment. Voluntary poverty is evangelical, impoverishment is the result of selfishness and human cunning, which turns others into objects of interest and benefit.

The Pope’s appeal in proposing the World Day of the Poor is addressed in particular to all those who, in one way or another, live more comfortably in relation to the material and economic conditions of the majority. But it is also a call to churches to make the time, attention and structures available to promote life. The same must be said of legislators in their commitment to write laws and pursue public policies that eliminate the shameful gap between the rich and the poor. If we want to be true disciples of Jesus, we have to transform our parishes into welcoming spaces, into environments in which the gaze and attention of each believer and each community as a whole are focused on the poor who surround our territories. Each parish must consider and treat the poor in its territory as its parishioners. In addition to satisfying their material needs, find creative ways to integrate them into the spiritual and emotional life of the community, organizing them into similar groups so that public policies can be sought that, in the medium term, lead us to a less unequal society.

Often, the Pope says, we are too rushed with our worries and tasks and do not find time to act like the Good Samaritan – interrupt our agenda and help those who have fallen along the way. Everyone’s commitment to this urgent task is necessary so that we leave future generations a more habitable and sustainable planet. Francisco warns us that “Virtual reality takes over real life and the two worlds become more and more easily confused.” For him, the way to eradicate poverty is “acting with and for the poor.” And he warns us not to fall into rhetoric when talking about the poor or give in to the insidious temptation of “staying on statistics and numbers”: “The poor are people, they have faces, stories, hearts and souls. They are brothers and sisters with their qualities and defects, like everyone, and it is important to enter into a personal relationship with each of them.” The suffering, hunger, abandonment and violence that the poor suffer daily, both from public authorities and security forces, are real and not virtual.

Another aspect that Francis highlights is the need for a “serious and effective” political and legislative commitment. Despite the disbelief of a large majority in the political path of transformation, lasting and effective changes happen gradually.

Fortunately, the Pope reminds us that “there are many men and women who live dedicated to the poor and the excluded and who share with them”, people of all ages and social conditions who practice hospitality and are committed to promoting the sectors excluded and marginalized. They are the “neighbors at home” that we meet every day and who, in silence, become poor with the poor: “They do not limit themselves to giving something; they listen, they dialogue, they try to understand the situation and its causes, to give appropriate advice and references. “They are attentive to material and spiritual needs, that is, to the integral promotion of the person, providing many gestures of silent welcome present in the generosity of volunteering from all churches or people without confessional or institutional ties.

Unfortunately, the global situation is introducing us to new forms of poverty caused by war scenarios that are multiplying throughout the planet, depriving children of “a serene present and a dignified future.” “No one will ever get used to this situation; Let us keep alive every attempt so that peace is affirmed as a gift of the Risen Lord and the fruit of the commitment to justice and dialogue,” the Pope insists.

In one of the visits of the Cardinal of São Paulo, Dom Odilo Scherer, to the Rede Rua project, José Carlos (Zeca), a member of the Chapelaria Social project, who already lived on the street, very accurately defined what he understands by the mission of the Church.

“The Church has to be the mouth of God in the world to walk, speak and fight, confront the authorities against the injustices done to the poor in the streets, to people in need, to the sick, to the bedridden, those who are lying on the sidewalks, dirty, urinated on, with those people that society wants to kill. The Church has to be the mouth of God in the world to fight, because that soul that is there lying on the ground is something very precious, it is something from God! To the person who is lying there on the sidewalk, one day when she was born, they said, “Wow, what a wonderful thing! What a beautiful thing from God! What a perfect thing from God!” She was not born to misery. She has to fight for social justice, for the wounded and sick. Do you even know what a shower for a ‘boy’ on the sidewalk is? I have experienced this in my own life, in my own skin, it is very good, very good, the word of God says: “Happy is he who cares for the helpless: the Lord will deliver him on the evil day” (Ps 41, 1) .

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