THESE BOYS STAND IN THEIR DORM ROOM AT A SCHOOL FOR CHILDREN OF VICTIMS OF LEPROSY IN BIHAR STATE IN INDIA. AT A REGULAR SCHOOL THEY WOULD BE SHUNNED. HERE THEY GET THREE MEALS AND AN EDUCATION.
EACH BOY HAS A METAL BOX AND A MAT TO HIS NAME.
FATHER GUIDERA, THE JESUIT IN CHARGE OF THE SCHOOL, WROTE RECENTLY OF A SIMILAR DORM INTO WHICH TWO OR THREE SNAKES CRAWLED ONE NIGHT WHILE THE BOYS WERE ASLEEP. TWO BOYS WERE BITTEN AND DIED OF THEIR POISONING. IN SUCH DORMS NOW, THEY ARE BUILDING A SECOND FLOOR AND MOVING THE BOYS UPSTAIRS. THEIR CLASSES WILL BE ON THE FIRST FLOOR.
AT LEAST THESE BOYS HERE PICTURED WERE SPARED THE DUTIES OF THIS ONE BOY I MET IN CALCUTTA:
FROM THE MASS FOR SEPTEMBER 10:
Did not God choose those who are poor in the worldto be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?
Not many years ago I traveled with a group of fellow Jesuits and colleagues to India to see the Jesuit works there. We visited Calcutta, a perplexing place where the trappings of contemporary life meet teeming crowds of men, women and children who live simple lives of hardship sleeping on the streets and existing from day to day. One afternoon we took a cab to a craft shop that catered to tourists; some of us wanted to purchase gifts to take home. I finished my shopping first and decided to wait for the others outside on the crowded street hoping to find some rhyme or reason to the riddle of Calcutta. I found something that surprised me. A beggar boy of about ten, no doubt carefully trained and rewarded for his skill, began to pester me for a handout. I resisted and decided to go back into the store knowing that the guard would prevent him from coming in.
But as I sat inside waiting for my companions the boy kept up a vigil within sight of me through the plate glass doors of the entrance. He kept staring at me and every once in a while our eyes would meet. No doubt his handlers trained him in this stare hoping that it would finally shame the target into making a donation.
It worked. But in this unexpected way. Sitting there I heard the eyes of that beggar boy telling me that I was no better off than he. In the great scheme of things, his eyes said, we are both beggars lacking the means to a secure destiny. And I heard Jesus’ question from the scripture: “Which of you by worrying can add even a cubit to your stature?” His stare said to me: “you are poor like me; we are all poor; and the poor always share what little they have.”
Myself and my companions as well, we all gave him some money as we left that fancy shop and it was all we could do to tumble into a cab before other beggars came to besiege us. I have no illusions about that boy…. His only future was the hardness of the street. At best when he got older he could use his skill to get other boys to work for him the way he himself was working in some syndicate of beggars.
As his face lingers in my memory, so, too, does the lesson I learned that day. We are all poor beggars. I feel like the lad in the parable of the king, the king on parade without his clothes. The lad hollers out for all to hear what noone else will say, that the king is naked. In this case, I holler out: despite our clothes, maybe some of them fine like this vestment, despite our houses and cars and bank accounts, despite our skills and talents, we are all poor, we are all beggars.
Fortunately we learn in the good news of Jesus Christ that this universal poverty does not leave us hopeless or condemned. On the contrary. But more of this in a moment.
The poor teach us many things. Our Jesuit friend Dean Brackley, a professor at the University of Central America in El Salvador, encourages all of us who experience a relative material security to encounter those who have relatively little. Here is how he puts it:
“Engaging the outcasts puts us in touch with the world, with ourselves and with divine mercy. They draw us into life’s central drama, disclosing that the world is much more cruel than we supposed, but also much more wonderful. When they insist on celebrating life, no matter how bad things are…, they communicate hope. [Our engagement with them, then, gives hope and] heals those parts of ourselves that we had banished into unconscious exile…When the poor welcome [us and] are disposed to forgive, they mediate an acceptance greater than their own [placing] us before the mercy of God.”
The poor put us in touch with the world, that real world where billions live, with ourselves, with our real selves without pretense and posturing, and with acceptance, by them and finally by divine mercy.
In our prayer together here at this Mass, in our private prayer, it is well for us to have some faces of the poor to bring to mind. We do not need to go to Calcutta; one can find these faces right in our backyard. Twelve million children in the USA are poor. About a third of African American and Latino children in the USA are poor. These kids are right in our backyard and they stare at us and challenge our identity. Some smile with us and share with us something that they have. Others suffer in a sadness that none of us can do very much to ease. Across the world there may be 500 million children who are poor.
Many religions of the poor have benevolent gods that embrace and protect these children so that they never feel entirely abandoned. Our own Judaeo-Christian scriptures read today reveal a God who embraces the poor and lightens their burdens. We read in the letter of James:
“Did not God choose those who are poor in the worldto be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom…”
Our scriptures read today reveal a God who reaches out to the marginal, to those whose physical problems prevent their participation in full human life and cause them to be beggars in this world. We read in the prophecy of Isaiah:
“Our God comes to save us. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”
In our gospel read today Jesus interacts personally and directly with a man who is deaf and unable to speak clearly. We read in the gospel of Mark:
“And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him.Jesus said to him, “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.”
Some of us can conceal our poverty and disabilities from others. A beggar boy on the streets of Calcutta learns to project his poverty in public, even to make it more dire than it really is. But most of us have the means and the desire to hide our poverty and even to hide some of our disabilities. Be that as it may, the scriptures suggest an entirely different course of action. The scriptures urge us to name and to own our poverty and our disability and turn them over to the Lord for transformation. The scriptures urge us to name and to own our doubts and our regrets and turn them over to the Lord for resolution.
In this way we can become like the poor whom Dean Brackley describes, we can become the people who put others in touch with the world as it is, put others in touch with themselves as they are and put others in touch with the divine mercy.