Monday, September 22, 2014

Radical Compassion

I just finished a book by a Jesuit priest who has spent his life working among the urban poor, Gary Smith.  You can read about him here.

It was a moving book that brought me to tears a few times and convicted me as well.  As usual, here are some notes from the book, "Radical Compassion:  Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor."

Pg. 4
I write this book so that the reader will have a better understanding of the poor.  I write it, too, to keep out in front of me a fundamental chord in my song: that the church, when it becomes poor and internalizes the suffering of the poor, understands compassion and the demands of justice.  The just and compassionate church becomes the incarnation of the heart and song of Christ.

Pg. 24
There is something wrong.  The reality of homelessness, inadequate housing, and the lack of affordable housing is a national disgrace.  This reality undermines the life and dignity of so many of our brothers and sisters who lack a decent place to live.  It destroys lives and families.  The crime of homelessness is not that people live in filthy camps under bridges, or that families sleep illegally in their cars, or that the homeless and the near homeless panhandle.  The crime is that homelessness exists.  And the reason people are homeless or that people pay three-fourths of their income on housing is that there is not adequate affordable housing.  It’s nuts.  How can a city countenance the development of off-the-charts-expensive condos and allow housing for the poor to diminish?  How can politicians back tax cuts when the infrastructure of affordable housing is falling apart?

Pg. 31
When I observe our culture’s treatment of those who suffer mental illness, I have alternate feelings of shame and anger.  I am ashamed of a culture where people are discarded and neglected like trash, where helpless human beings are routinely discharged into a hostile community.  And I am angry that this culture makes weapons defense, big-business interests, and opulence its priorities, while allowing its mental health system to be powered by a minimalism of care.  Mental health programs are, in my experience, understaffed and underfunded, and mental health workers – for the most part, dedicated and caring human beings – are swamped with caseloads that diminish time for individualized support.  It is madness within madness. 
Pg. 55
First of all and last of all and most of all, we are into a relationship with Jesus.  It is a relationship that changes our lives.  His dreams and passions have become ours.  He makes sense of our life and our commitments in a world that thinks what we are doing is naivet√© at best and folly at worst.  He has turned our world upside down.

Pg. 57
Jesuit Jon Sobrino was a housemate of the six slain Jesuits but was in Thailand when the murders too place.  He wrote, “A poor Church is, by its very nature, more compassionate, and a compassionate Church, is by its very nature, poorer.
Among the poor, we learn to internalize their suffering, and we are transformed into the heart of Christ.  We adopt a viewpoint that forever passionately directs our behavior.  Sobrino said: “Our compassion is a very specific form of love: love in practice, which arises when one is confronted with the unjustly inflicted suffering of others and acts to eliminate it for no other motive than the very existence of that suffering – and without being able to offer any excuse for not doing so.”
The poor teach us to be truth tellers: to speak to what must be done to transform oppressive structures even as we are meeting individual needs.  The poor teach us of compassion:  to feel another’s heartache even as we are creating concrete practices of relief.  The poor teach us to embark on the sacred search for indignation: to discover our anger in the face of the greed, malice, and human indifference that give birth to suffering and to speak to it.  Now, we must yell about it.  As Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero rebuked his government, “If you strike my people, you strike me.” 
Pg. 72
Roe died last night in the Foster Hotel.  Forty-three.  His death was probably a result of his chronic alcoholism – he had a seizure that led him to choke to death on his own vomit.
He was an introvert who kept his distance from everyone, yet whom everyone liked.  He was good, thoughtful and kind.  People were at ease around him. But he had this soul-wrenching pain, too, a pain that hurled him into dark cynicism and, periodically, into raging bouts of drinking.  His nervous system was under attack to much from the drinking that he constantly lived under the shadow of seizures.  He lived also with the inner ghost of Vietnam, which he referred to as his “psychic black hole,” an experience that he would talk about only with me, and only in his most communicative days.  Whatever happened in that war left him emotionally scarred.  Not an uncommon story for most Nam vets.  Many, like Roe, stuffed memories inside themselves.  It was like burying too many corpses just below the surface of the ground; eventually all that awful poison would eat its way out.  When the poison of Roe’s buried memories leaked out, it led to another attack of self-destructive behavior.

Pg. 97
Among the poor, the church learns to be indignant at the sight of discarded human beings, and it is taughtto passionately challenge systems and structures that produce such human beings.  It is one thing to practice charity, to give a poor person some bread or to treat the same person with respect.  It is quite another thing to challenge a system in which people are hungry, in which some can be so rich and many are poor.  As Cardinal Sin of the Philippines once said, “Love without justice is balony.”

Pg. 120
Sometimes the church, out of its duty to advocate for the poor who are incarcerated, must take stands that run at right angles to the methods of the state, whether it is fighting for proper diets or challenging abusive policies… The imprisoned are the poorest of the poor.  If the heart of God is to e found anywhere, it is to be found in the hole.

Pg. 173
I was asked by one of our staff persons, who is gay, if I would consider officiating at the annual Memorial Day service that the gay community holds down at Riverfront Park in a designated are overlooking the Williamette River.  I agreed to do the service, thinking how ironic it was that I should be doing it – given my latent homophobia.  As a priest, of course, I knew I should be there with these men and women.  As a child of our homophobic culture, I had mixed emotions.
For most of my life I had my own versions of the stereotypical prejudices toward homosexuality, a result of the usual macho-guy baggage.  I told dirty jokes, made snorting observations of gay couples (“Look at those fags”), and was indifferent to the theological and existential questions of gay men and women.  Questions may be the wrong word; how about agony?  In my guy-talk world, Jesuit and otherwise, I had a repulsion for any kind of romantic relationship that was not clearly defined as heterosexual.
I am not sure at what poing my attitude began to change; it could have been the result of any number of things: the close friendships I had formed with a couple of gay men and women, the long talks with gay Jesuits, the acquaintance of street people who struggled to understand themselves as homosexual.  Whatever the catalyst, I came to find it less and less possible to relate to my gay friends on the basis of past viewpoints, I was unwilling to be seduced by homophobic attitudes.  So, as I joined the crowd at Riverfront Park on Memorial Day, I was conscious of both my history and my care and appreciation for the brothers and sisters who had asked me to be there.

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