Understanding poverty through conversion

by | Aug 17, 2013 | Justice and Peace, Society of St. Vincent de Paul

SVDP Voice of the Poor writes…

If you saw Christ sitting across your kitchen table, what would you say? Would you ask questions? Would you just listen?

One of my favorite movies was “Michael”. In the story, Michael the Archangel, played by John Travolta, has a number of bad habits that make you think that he’s not very angelic at all. He smokes, uses far too much sugar on his breakfast cereal, mesmerizes women with his charms, and shows absolutely no discretion or, as my mother used to say, “no couth”, when decided to let put a belch after a meal.

By most standards, he doesn’t behave the way we think an angel should behave.

Nevertheless, in the movie, he is clearly on a mission from God. That mission is to bring two crusty people together-to teach them how to love.

He doesn’t bring them together with lightning bolts or commands, although I guess he could have. Michael the Archangel finds very subtle ways to cause the couple to interact, each time softening them just a little more, until their hearts are finally converted and they find love.

I think of this story sometimes after a home visit. Very often, the person or family I visited isn’t what I expected. They may have or do things that I don’t think they should have or do. They certainly shouldn’t behave that way if they want help from us. I’ve been on calls that have resulted in my partner having to remind me that the big screen TV may be for sale on Craig’s List. I sometimes need that gentle reminder to not judge too harshly. Like Michael the Archangel in the movie, I sometime let the appearance or habits of those I visit keep me from the reason I am there in there first place—my spiritual development.

Then, every once in a while, the person sitting across from me will say or do something that reminds me that they may have been sent by Christ to convert ME! In fact, I am growing in my views that, if I’m not changed just a little bit by every encounter with those in need, maybe I wasn’t paying attention.

We frequently hear that our founders and Vincentian Saints were able to see the face of Christ in the poor. If I truly saw Jesus in those I visit, would I be so quick to judge their lifestyle? If Jesus asked me for $800 for his rent would I say, sorry, Lord, that’s above our conference limits? Most importantly if we truly believed that the people we visit in our service were the manifestation of Jesus among us, would we allow our friends and neighbors to characterize the poor as undeserving ne’er-do-wells who are leeching off of the public dole?

To be sure, we must be good shepherds of the money entrusted us by our parishes. And, practically speaking, we need to extend those resources as far as we can.

However, the spiritual foundation of our Society does not come exclusively from the prayers we do at conference meetings. Our spiritual development also comes from the conversions we have when we open our hearts during our visits.

The systemic change efforts that we are designing now will include training modules for mentorship. This component is designed to help Vincentians who choose to employee this technique, to help the person in need create a new vision for their future. A vision that, with our guidance, will keep them on the road to self sufficiency.
That longer term relationship cannot just be a one way street. Blessed Fredrick was a passionate about mixing the “two camps” of haves and have not’s so they both will gain empathy from each other. St. Vincent said “It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor…They are your masters.”
If you aren’t converted just a bit each time you visit someone in need, maybe you are listening too much with your head and not enough with your heart.

Once you receive the grace of this conversion, it becomes much easier to be a voice of the Poor. You no longer are debating others about a political view. You are explaining, from your heart the impact that a law or policy would have on a real person. And that is a message you can take to your parishes, your communities, and your elected officials.

Learn more about the Society of St. Vincent dePaul Voice of the Poor

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