Should We Care?

June 3, 2015 at 2:50 pm

As I consider writing about one aspect of the poverty in India, I am reminded of Mother Teresa’s challenge:  “ Do I know the poor?”   She spoke about how people love to talk about the poor when they really have no idea or experience of the poverty about which they speak so knowledgeably.  With that caveat, I proceed shamelessly.   

There is an unquestioning acceptance or inurement to the poverty in India.  It has always been this way.  People in some respects are accustomed or conditioned to living the way that they live.  In fact, after living in India for almost two years, Kathleen and I also share this insensitivity.   When folks first drop into India from the West, they are initially shocked.  After a time, we all adjust. For example, Kathleen and I noted how we had changed internally when we returned to a Sufi site recently which we had visited shortly after arriving. 

Kathleen and I went to a Sufi tomb early in our stay.  Our driver dropped us off on a busy street  in the dark of the early evening where we were to meet the caretaker of the tombHowever, he was not in plain sight and we headed down a very busy and brightly lit  alley surrounded by hawkers, people in Muslim garb,  and beggars.  We were sure that we were in the right area as we talked to the caretaker on our cell,  but were very happy eventually  to see him in the distance waving to us, the only Caucasians in the neighborhood.  He showed us where to buy scarves to cover our heads and we left our shoes with the same merchant for 20 rupees (33 cents) as we headed into a part of the city that is 800 years old through narrow passageways.   As we followed the walls snaking through the city,  we were stepping over and around crippled and deformed beggars for a quarter of a mile or more We were very uncomfortable.  We finally reached an open square wherein the Sufi saint is buried.  The square is an acre at most with the tomb of the saint in the middle.  It is sheltered by three walls and a ceiling.  There were hundreds of people present.  Many sitting.  Some touching the tomb.  Most listening to a quartet singing  ecstatic Sufi qawwalies which are very upbeat rhythmic songs.  We listened to the Sufi singing, spent some time with the caretaker who is Sufi scholar in his office lined with supplicants seeking prayers or advice, and then left.  As we waited for our driver on the busy thoroughfare, 2 or 3 insistent beggars kept hanging on us asking for spare change.   

On our most recent and last visit to Delhi, we decided to return to the tomb.  We did leave our wallets at the hotel since pickpockets are commonplace in India, but this time we felt no need to have a guide even though the caretaker would have been happy to show us the way again.  We recognized where the entryway was.  Put on the scarves we had retained; left our shoes with the same merchant as two years ago and headed into the narrow passageways.  The ubiquitous beggars did not bother us.  We enjoyed the singing for 30-45 minutes and left.   We are more seasoned travelers in India and more at home moving among its rich and varied texture that includes insistent hawkers and sometimes mutilated beggars who may be teaching their children the same trade. 

It is a bit discomforting to realize that we are becoming inured to the poverty much like a native of India. In fact, having personally experienced how one becomes accustomed to poverty,  I am increasingly impressed by our Catholic Indian brothers and sisters who fight the good fight and recognize the opportunity to see the Face of Jesus.  The gospel comes alive.  The relationship of Jesus with the poor comes alive.  He slept in a shanty or barn.  His father was a common laborer like so many India.  The message of Jesus speaks directly in India in a way that is generally missed in the US.   

We may hear his message, but are not touched by it.   In the West, we do not often encounter the poor who are ever-present in India.  We live in our suburbs.  Enjoy our country clubs and golf clubs.  We move in a bubble. We are fortunate and blessed to live in a country that  is rich in natural resources and has done a great job of providing a safety net not present in a place such as India.  Yet, In the midst of our materialism, the connection of Jesus with the poor and his advocacy for them do not resonate.   

Whatever poverty exists in the US tends to be out of sight and out of mind.  In India it is “in your face.”  The message of Jesus that “whatsoever you do for the least of our brothers and sisters, you do unto Me,”    cannot allow us view the plight of others from a detached and passive perspective.  Hinduism on the other hand encourages passivity.  I am struck that the various expressions of spirituality in the East frequently describe how active Christians are.  Some have even characterized Christians as social workers.  I have been puzzled by this comment and found it a bit condescending.  I thought these observations were a bit dismissive of our contemplative and mystical traditions.  Today I realize they contain a great compliment.  Perhaps without recognizing, the eastern teachers are acknowledging  that active Christians are living the message of Jesus.  Eastern passivity, on the other hand, is truly an issue from a Christian standpoint. 

For example, Kathleen and I recently went to retreat center an hour outside of Bangalore called Shreya’s.    Perhaps it is better described as a resort since it had a pool, unbelievably delicious vegetarian meals, air-conditioned bungalows, a beautiful yoga pavilion and an organic farm.  We went for a 7 day program that included 5 days of silence, 2.5 hours of yoga a day and a similar amount of guided meditation.  The yoga and meditation helps focus our minds and enables us to concentrate in the moment.   It manages the rambling thoughts that often accompany prayer while opening one to a greater awareness of God’s Abundance and Life that surrounds us.  After one of these meditations, the meditation guide made a comment that “people get what they deserve”. 

I immediately recognized what many in the East believe is an inviolable law of the universe that they call Karma.  Kathleen quickly interrupted and said “You are opening a can of worms.”  My voice changed and quavered; I could feel the words coming from deep within me: “There is no way that I have earned or deserve the incredible and unbelievable blessings that I have received.”  Kathleen added:  “That  kind of thought would say that the poor people living in shanties in the insufferable heat or pouring rain and in midst of rats or  stray dogs that bark all night are just fine.”  The guide was undaunted as he said that the poor have a lower consciousness and are happier there than they would be elsewhere.  He mentioned how some housing had been built for the poor who then rented it out and returned to the shanties.  This strikes me more as entrepreneurial and a reflection of their conditioning rather than indicative of a state of consciousness. 

The Catholic Christian perspective embodied in our gospel of social justice offers a wholly different view.  In the poor we see the Face of Jesus.  In our love and kindness to the poor, we are the Face of Jesus.  The voice of Jesus like that of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures is all the more critical these days as thousands died in the heat of India this past week.   Let us pray for our suffering brothers and sisters in India with The Indian Jesuit Rex Pai: 

God of life and love, we look at the wonderful world you made and find it ravaged and devastated;We look at our fellow human beings, the crown of your creation and see them distorted and mutilated beyond recognition.

With broken and indignant hearts we cry out:

‘This should not be!’

And we hear you telling us:

‘That is why I created you to change the ugliness into something beautiful.’

May the groans deep within us lead us to constructive action and to lives wholly spent that others may come to fullness of life.

By your grace and in your strength may our cries of pain and those of all people be transformed into cries of joy and victory.