I remembered visiting a coffee plantation town in Guatemala and speaking with the plantation owners and their daughters about life. Without any reservation, the doña (boss lady) said: “These people (the poor) have the best quality of life because of their simplicity while many are unhappy because they want too much.”
Sadly, the short conversation manifested a very big ironic and complex issue, a giant blind spot that the plantation owners had chosen not to see. Perhaps they live with their own poor workers for so long that they had become different or had been blinded to the reality of poverty right in front of them. Perhaps it was easier to ignore as to ease the conscience and not be bothered by empathic compassion! Those who work for them live with little to nothing, suffering so much, yet they said that they are happier than them. Nevertheless, perhaps in a very simple and real way, these poor are probably more happy than their masters because they are filled with a simple joy that is hard to understand by many. The poor teach us so much because they see much more than the people who are so preoccupied with the envious and self-centered rat race. I think those who have little are very rich in their humanity and love because that is all that they have, therefore they do not have to be pretentious to anybody except to give the real, personal, and intimate gift of themselves to others. Therefore, I would like to spend this time to reflect on our search for joy and its paradoxical finding of simple happiness.
First, it is very important that we get out of our own comfort zone in order to truly know what we are really talking about or how our brothers and sisters are really living. While it is very easy for us to talk the talk about poverty, compassion, mercy, and love, they often times remain indifferent nice-sounding words or detached actions because we tend to only do the things that make us feel good, yet remained within our own self-created, egocentric walls. Our charity has to be connected to the reality that is all around us, not just as an isolated or random action that is sentimentally euphoric or psychologically satisfying. It has to be connected and grounded in higher love, especially the love that comes from the Lord. That is why Saint Peter in his Second Epistle wrote:
“His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and power. Through these, He has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love.” (1:3-7)
The love that Saint Peter talked about is more than just words or random acts of kindness. It is based on our personal and intimate relationship with the Lord as to love Him. This divinely inspired and given love then has the power to change and motivates us to be instruments of grace to others who are around us. Personal, enlivened Christian love is grounded in faith, the life of virtues, knowledge of the truth and reality, self-control in order to choose the highest good, endurance in what is right, devotion to our own vocation and calling from the Lord, mutual affection and care for those who are around us, and especially enriched by our true love of Him.
We are all guilty of knowing about the poor but passive about our care for them. We have heard many people talk about charity and many have given to charitable organizations, but so many simply give money without really taking further steps to really know the people. For a better lack of words, we do a poor job of taking a personal interest, knowledge, and understanding of our brothers and sisters who have less than us. Spiritually and ecclesiologically speaking, we have a poor sense of communion and solidarity with one another. We can read and have a head, intellectual knowledge of poverty, and many are motivated to end manmade injustices, but not many have taken a personal investment and giving of one’s self to actually step into the shoes of those who are poor. While I understand that not many will have the opportunity to spend time with the less fortunate and experience poverty, I believe we can take a pro-active step in order to truly embrace the pains and sufferings that they are going through. Therefore, I am asking each and every one of us, as the first step, to make a personal effort to understand poverty and stand in solidarity with those who have less than us. This particular investment of time and energy helps us to be better connected to the reality which many of our brothers and sisters who are living every day around the world. It moves us from lip service or idealization of things toward a prayerful and personal stance in solidarity and communion with the greater humanity and fraternity beyond our immediate circle.
I believe we often times idealize and patronize poverty as if we know what they are truly going through because we have read brochures and give some kinds of monetary supports to charitable organizations because it makes us feel good. Nevertheless, even charitable organizations — as with any man-made institutions — are prone to complacency and bureaucracy, creating programs and projects that look good on paper without truly understanding the people they are serving. I have seen so many charities who have many projects that look good on paper but fail to empower the people that they are serving because they either lacked the initial efforts to truly know the people or stopped being creative in following up with what they had created. I had seen those good-intentioned efforts gone bad with my own eyes! This goes back to knowing the people that we serve and are sent to serve so that a project is not just meant to be used as a proof but a real effort of solidarity and care that empower others. Hence, there is a big difference between enabling people and empowering them, a big difference in making people depending on money handout and tempted to play the system instead of truly willing to work and be proud of the works and sacrifices of their hands.
I remembered hearing an actual personal account that Madre Anna Maria of the Missionary Carmelites of Saint Teresa in Guatemala once told a group of missionaries who kept handing out things to poor villagers and children: “Please do not turn the children into beggars.” That is a very powerful statement and she meant it in a very respectful way. Within that short statement lies an important reminder that there is a difference between empowerment and enablement. The Missionary Carmelite Sisters always try their best to empower the poor families and their children through education and meaningful projects. They personally interview and get to know the people that they serve so that the monies given by donors are not wasted nor a project and assistance effort is rubber-stamped. That is why I respect them! This is what we should do as benefactors and givers as to know where our hard-worked monies are being spent and how they are helping and empowering our brothers and sisters in need. I am not advocating entitlement or control on our part, but a greater and personal interest so that we can pray, discern, and be a voice of awareness. All of us, individually and communally, as givers and organizations, always need to find new ways to understand the situations and creatively assist those who are entrusted to us.
Last of all, I would like to invite you to consider to become a voice of advocacy and awareness by getting in touch with the people that you help. Please do not assume what is happening because it is so easy to be stuck behind our natural, first-world presumptions, preoccupations, and prejudices without really knowing the truth. Please do more than just giving money by connecting a personal effort with that action. We can all begin to pray, learn more, and become more aware of what is actually going on around the world. We can all connect our charitable actions with prayer and personal commitment so that we truly live out the given call to love (from the Latin word, caritas, which is a deep sense of self-giving love). Therefore, if we understand it rightly, to give and do charitable works is to simply live out the vocation and invitation to love.
Just as the Lord has loved us, we are all called to love one another, and that is why we participate in charitable works and missionary efforts. We do all these things because we want to share and help all to come to know of His love. Nevertheless, we are also challenged by the love of the God to let our actions be united with the selfless gift of prayer and communion so that our words and actions are holistic, humanly and spiritually connected. The poor have their own unique struggles just as we do in first-world countries. Yet, even in our hardest days and times, we are not alone! God has given us the Church as this family of faith; therefore, let us make the effort to strengthen this sense of communion and appreciate the solidarity that unites us in and through Christ. We can all do a better job of understanding what our brothers and sisters are going through, be a voice for them, and raise greater awareness of what is going on around the world so that all might come to know that we care and that they are not alone. Let us not be blind-sighted with what is going on around us or only get stuck within our immediate, inner circle but to be able to embrace all through Christ Jesus who died, not just for you and I but for all, so that we can truly love all with His loving heart. We care for them (humanly-speaking) and pray for them (spiritually-speaking) because everyone, even those whom we might have prejudices or reservations, has been loved into being and redeemed by Christ. He has died for each and everyone of us, so let us therefore, choose to care and love everyone by getting to know and pray for them so that all might come to know of His loving redemption and the salvific joy in knowing Him. All of that can be done in us and through us when we choose to let our charity be enlivened with both words and actions, humanly and spiritually speaking, as to become the love and voice of those who have little. This is, I believe, the end result of our search for happiness, knowing that we are not alone but are so blessed to be united, loved, and able to love others in and through the love of Christ.