March 2008 - Vol. 17


Marlene, acrylic painting by Yvette Rock, Detroit, Michigan, USA

IS IT SELFISH OF ME TO WORK WITH THE POOR?

We’re too poor to save the world. We need more love, more time, more of Jesus.

By Ed Conlin

I never felt called to work with the poor. 
Mother Theresa made it look holy and even romantic, but I was called to a community, a people focused on building the kingdom of God through evangelism, community life and service. The Sword of the Spirit mission and way of life is different from Mother Theresa’s. The Calcutta focus on loving and serving the poorest of the poor is inspiring, but our call is also a call to love and lay down our lives in sacrificial service and mission. 

Of course I naturally felt comfortable serving God in my familiar first-world environment. After all, I was raised in one of the wealthiest societies of all times. I grew up in booming success-oriented city dominated by a success-driven university. The missionary brotherhood I joined is full of gifted achievers, eager for missionary work. Our communities in the Sword of the Spirit are blessed with many resources, including many families and numerous children. And we can boast of productive services, outreaches, and missions in other lands. 

Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arch community, once said, “Many visit our community to work with the poor, but the ones who stay are inevitably the ones who realize they themselves are poor.”

This is the key for me. 
As I work with the addicted person, the homeless, the mentally ill, and the prostitute, I have been very humbled. There is a powerful dynamic at work when confronted by the humiliated. The truly humble ones. It exposes one’s pride, one’s self-sufficiency, and one’s comfort zones.

I am daily confronted by my repulsions, prejudices, lack of fortitude, lack of faith. Yet I am daily on my knees asking for grace a little more desperately than before. I am so often aware at the end of my day that I have been with Jesus – all day in the distressing disguise of my poor people.

“How are you?” I ask well over 100 people, individually, in our Capuchin soup kitchen every morning. “I am blessed” is nearly always their response. I once asked one of them (who had barely survived a frigid night under a bridge) Why are you so grateful? His answer was, “Because I have a choice.”

Since then, I have sewing and reaping gratitude much more than ever. 
My chaplaincy, my counseling skills, and my material provisions for our “clients” are really a drop in the bucket. I try to make a difference, but I know I’m never going to save Detroit. I’m too poor to save Detroit. 

Still, something wonderful is happening as I try. There is a grace in my service that flows to others. I am changing. Poor people are finding real community and hope. I know I love God more than ever. I am surprised.

The Sword of the Spirit is called to a specific mission. It is a mission clearly beyond our capacity. We’re too poor to save the world. We need more love, more time, more of Jesus.

Perhaps God is trying to give us help by bringing us close to the poor because we need the poor in our lives to accomplish this mission. You see, the body needs all its members. The eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you.

I am a poor man preaching good news to the poor at Jesus’ request. God is dealing death to my pride (and the entitlement I didn’t realize I had). I am loving beyond my capacity, suffering their sufferings in a way that partakes of and shares with others his passion and death. I am loving my neighbor, feeding the hungry, and warming my own cold heart. I am loving Jesus more than ever.

Someone said, “The world is too cold a place. So God has allowed suffering in the world to draw out our love.” 

“Worse than the poorest beggar alive
 is the homeless man, the smelly woman, the angry addict, the crazy old man.
Why do you do this to us O Jesus of Nazareth?
-standing in my face, asking for my time, my attention,making me uncomfortable.
 I am too busy for you.

You stand on so many corners, broken and humbled.
“Excuse me mankind, could I trouble you for your human heart?”
 (Jessica Powers)

Ed Conlin is a member of the Servants of the Word, a missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He lives in community in the inner city of Detroit, Michigan, USA, and works as a licensed substance abuse counselor and chaplain with the Capuchin Franciscan Ministries in Detroit.
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(c) copyright 2008  The Sword of the Spirit
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