Monday, January 31, 2011

On the Spot Experience of Poverty

Writing in a newsletter for priests, the writer recounts  a visit to one of the poorest sections of Manila. He wanted to experience  poverty  first hand, and tells us he did it with  'pure motives,' although he did put a question mark after the word. His plans were to live with three families during a period of 15 days. In retrospect, he  confesses that he had a romantic notion of poverty  and  a very immature mindset. He was not able to last a week before he raised the white flag of surrender. Poverty, he now realizes, is not the simple back-to-nature condition he imagined but tends to create hopelessly difficult living conditions.

The life of poverty for this Korean, an 'alien' in a foreign land, meant not only being deprived of food, shelter and clothes, but being affected in spirit as well--he was frightened. One of the houses was built on water with logs used as piles for a foundation, making a four-square meter small house. Eight people lived in the house. Drinking  water, which looked whitish, from a nearby well, was  bought for 10 cents. The toilet, a square hole in the floor at the water's edge, was open to the sight of all.

He changed his plans  not because he didn't eat well or wasn't able to sleep in the small quarters. The decision came because he feared a  typhoon would sweep the house into the sea. He left because he was afraid.

That he was not able to live up to what he had planned did bother him.For him now, poverty is an impossible dream. It's no longer the ideal he had envisioned. However, he knows that not all react in the same way to poverty.  He remembers the laughter of the inhabitants of a poverty-stricken village. The poverty he saw there did not make the villagers miserable, maybe a little uncomfortable, but it was not the cause for making them unhappy.

Seeing the life of these people living like they did, he realized the falseness of the belief that money makes for happiness and the more you have the happier you will be. He acknowledges that even though he's not living the poor life, he can appreciate the life of poverty of many who are. In his own value system he does not want poverty for its own sake, but for the peace and freedom it can give. Jesus said, "Happy are those who are poor in spirit." Is this, he asks, really the case? This will be his topic of meditation for some time to come.

In Korea, there are many who want to experience the life of those with whom they are not familiar. Bishops go to farms and mines for an on-the-spot experience. Seminarians come to Korea to see what mission life is like. German bishops have been here to experience the small community group meetings. This learning experience is acknowledged as the best way to understand a way of life foreign to one's own--better than reading, hearing, or seeing pictures about it.  There is nothing  like an on-the-spot experience to move the heart and to change the way we see reality.