WelCom December 2017: India 6.20am and I’ve just glanced at my emails. Mercifully few, but one is my prompt to write this column with a reminder that the World Day of the Poor [19 November] is on the horizon.
Poverty, part of every culture and nation, takes many forms. Certainly where I am now, poverty of housing and possessions is prevalent. Last night I was in a one-room home for a family of five and, in the afternoon, I was at a street-side chai shop catching up with a family – whose boys I’ve got into a school – in their adjacent roof-iron hut. Smiles and laughs were plentiful because friendship brings hope.
Tackling poverty is perhaps something we tend to do for nameless others. Yes, we are concerned but in the main our lives go on unaffected.
Another way to see the poor is to befriend them: talk with not about ‘them’. When this happens our language changes, our radar screens become more attuned, and slowly our hearts and minds expand.
As I volunteer in India I think about the poor in New Zealand too. Here, being among the poor seems easier than at home. My family, my street, my brother priests and many of my friends in New Zealand are poverty-free. That, though, doesn’t make me smile or laugh more. Similarly, satisfaction in life isn’t about accumulation – it’s about transformation. So I can say, thankfully I do have experience of the poor not only here but in Aotearoa too.
For me that has come about through knowing some migrant families, some mentally not always well people on benefits, some minimum-wage families in rental accommodation, and some who are in debt to their ever-eager-to lend bank. With these friends, my heart is warmed and perhaps their horizons are lifted.
There is another category of poverty prevalent in New Zealand. The poverty of neglect. Here, smiles and laughs are few. I’m thinking of the growing number of children and teenagers in our country who wake up every morning to a parent(s) incapable of care and responsibility because of the effects of last night’s use of dope or P. Some political parties wish to dress dope up in respectability, yet no High School Principal or community leader in our country is saying what our neighbourhood needs is even easier access to marijuana. The St Vincent de Paul Society, not few of our teachers, Marist Youth neighbours, Challenge 2000, some Religious, most of our mental-health workers all encounter the poverty of neglect every day. Slowly they – we – defuse it through trust and care, and the hope of friendship.
Transformation for the good is of course two way. Pope Francis has put it this way: “the experience of poverty changes our goals and our understanding of happiness; it enlarges our responsibility”. That immersing oneself in poverty can make you feel good can only be explained spiritually.
Jesus’ observation that the poor will always be with us was not a declaration of defeat but rather an invitation to the adventure of compassion and justice, and most of all a new circle of friendship.
For more than 25 years, Bishop Charles Drennan has volunteered for a month every year at the Raphael Ryder Cheshire Centre in Dehra Dun, India, where he works with tuberculosis patients, special-needs adults, and children whose parents have had leprosy.