Why I Didn’t Fall In Love With The Poor

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I think you can tell a lot about what a certain area of the world considers as its “treasures” by the kind of merchandise they display in their airport gift shops. Spend some time in the JFK International Airport in New York City and you’ll find Yankees memorabilia, photos of the city’s skyline, and shot glasses with the Statue of Liberty on it. Peruse the shops of one of Jamaica’s international airports and you’ll find steel drums, Bob Marley wigs, and mugs that read: “Keep Calm and Jamaica On”.

As I went through the airport of Honduras a few days ago, I noticed multiple paintings of the country’s landscape. It’s hard not to be awe-struck by the gorgeous mountains, the entrancing valleys and cliffs, and the gorgeous beach shorelines. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like the gift shops were implicitly suggesting, “Want something to remember the treasures of Honduras by? Get yourself a picture of those incredible mountains.” While I was indeed captivated by the landscape of Honduras, the gift shops didn’t have me sold. I, like St. Lawrence, had encountered treasures far greater than anything you could find in a National Geographic magazine.

St. Lawrence was martyred in the year 258 by being grilled alive. He’s usually known for his famous words, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” Yet the story as to how he got into that predicament is not as well known. In the year 258, Emperor Valerian of Rome was persecuting Christians, demanding that bishops, priests, and deacons be killed and that all money and possessions owned by Christians be confiscated. One day the Emperor ordered Archdeacon Lawrence to gather up and hand over all of the treasures in the Church within three days. Lawrence promptly distributed the Church’s wealth and property to all of the widows and orphans in the area. Three days later he entered the Emperor’s palace and was asked to hand over the treasures of the Church. St. Lawrence gestured to the back door to the crowds of poor, handicapped, and suffering people streaming in. “These are the true treasures of the Church,” he proclaimed.

Last week I had the opportunity to encounter the true treasures of Honduras, the true treasures of the Church: I encountered over a thousand orphans at a ranch just an hour away from what is, statistically speaking, “the murder capital of the world”. Some seminarian brothers and I were involved in numerous projects throughout the week as we lived in solidarity with some of God’s most pure and precious children. The purpose of the trip, according to our rector, was “to fall in love with the poor.” I understand the kind of vision our rector was trying to express, but I still have a problem with that phrase. I would say that, in a certain way, I did not “fall in love with the poor” during my second trip to Honduras. Let me explain.

Blessed Mother Teresa is widely known and praised by people of all faiths for her work serving the poorest of the poor in India. Yet many people feel a sense of inferiority when they compare themselves to her, saying things like, “I’ll never be able to help thousands of people like she did.” Ironically, even Mother Teresa once said something along these lines. She noted, “If I look at the mass [of people] I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Encountering one person at a time was a major driving force in Mother Teresa’s work. She was most concerned with the person right in front of her. She didn’t look out at the world in despair, thinking, “I’ll never be able to save them all.” Instead she went out and sought to serve one person at a time. She added, “I never look at the masses of my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time-just one, one, one…I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty two thousand. The same thing goes for you…Just begin-one, one, one.”

This is why I hesitate to say I “fell in love with the poor” this week. “The poor” seems too abstract, too distant. I’m sure many of us would say we love “the poor”, but in the words of Mother Teresa, “Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately it is very unfashionable to talk with them.” It is not enough to fall in love with “the poor”- we must fall in love with one poor person at a time.

I once heard a priest state: “You love the poor? Name them.” At the orphanage I visited there was a big emphasis on names. Each child would ask you what your name was and would tell you their own at the beginning of the week. They remembered your name and called you by it throughout the week and expected you to remember theirs. I still remember a gorgeous little girl who came up to about my knees looking up at me one day and asking, “Mi nombre (My name)?” I recalled, “Carmen”. Her face lit up and she hugged my shins as she let out a gentle, “Si”.

I could sense that their name gave them a profound sense of identity. Their name was all they had. When you called a child by their name, you were showing them that they as an individual stood out to you as a unique child of God.  Their name prevented them from becoming a mere statistic, just another orphan, or one of “the poor” in the abstract.

With that said, I repeat that I did not merely fall in love with “the poor” last week.

I fell in love with Carmen.

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I fell in love with Esther.

I fell in love with Elizabeth.

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I fell in love with Albert.

I fell in love with Kevin.

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I fell in love with Caesar.

These are some of the true treasures of Honduras. These are some of the true treasures of the Church. These are some of the true treasures I will always carry in my heart.

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