I closed the door of an empty room and marked a “C” next to its number on the list. The staff of the retirement home did their best to make the building comfortable, but still had to contend with the need to keep furnishings easy to maintain and clean. The dullness of the rooms became comforting in the routine. The fluorescent lighting managed to dull further the darker shades of greens and blues that patterned most of the rooms, and only a few got significant direct sunlight, leaving the rest feeling like a homey high school science lab. I had a straightforward task: go through all the rooms, occupied or not, and find out if they had crucifixes in them. If the resident didn’t want one, or already had one, then I would simply mark “N” on the list.
I was living in St. Paul at the time, volunteering at a Catholic retirement home two days a week. In the mornings, I busied myself by escorting residents to the hair salon, a room tucked in the basement of the facility that was a hotbed of chatter and sass.1 In the afternoons, I would visit individual residents and learn their stories. The stream of activity would begin with mass, which served as the staging ground for getting coffee, and eventually lunch. I would sit in the assisted-living wing of the compound with this after mass crew, listening in on the scattered anecdotes of summers in the cabin up North2 and withstanding their occasional chiding for being from “The South.”3 Many took great delight in giving the history of the St. Paul area to someone who had just moved there. One told of the transformation of West 7th Street; another, who was the longest active Teamster in the state, preferred to talk about fishing walleye.
Going through that list, checking the rooms for crucifixes, though, I had the chance to introduce myself to residents I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I kept most of these visits short and cordial so I could move through all of the rooms on my list. One visit, though, glided right past these niceties to strike at my core.
I knocked on the door, the resident invited me in, and I began my day’s course of talk: this is who I am, this is which department I’m with, how has your day been, and, oh, by the way, I notice there’s no cross here; would you like one?
“No! I know I’m old and about to die, and I know you people want me out of here so you can give the room to a Catholic. Fine. I’ve had to look at them my whole life. No reason why now should be different.”
I could only reply as honestly as possible. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that …”
“And why should you! If I want to keep my religion my business, shouldn’t I be able to?”
I apologized again, softly closing the door behind me as I made a swift exit. I took a bit more time than usual in my amble to the next room – which I hoped was vacant. I was afraid that the next person would throw more daggers at me, yes, but I was also disappointed in myself for not being able to do the one task I had for the day. I wanted to think of someone to blame for the incident, but I knew that even if I could push these feelings off onto someone else, it would do no good. What’s more, as much as I wanted to dodge this sense of inadequacy and frustration, I couldn’t shake those stabbing words, “you people.” I felt that she’d been right to spurn my presence, damning as it felt for her to do so. She’d seen something in me I hadn’t even intended to conceal: that I had no real intention of meeting, even learning about, the her needs. And so she simply addressed me the same way as I had addressed her (and so many others that day), only with the veil of nicety removed.
We find it in mission statements across institutions. Newspapers and magazines use it as a barometer to gauge the moral health of the Church and the nation. Spirituality books intone it to redirect our innermost longings.
A notable population, though, has not taken to this terminology: the incredibly diverse swath of people lumped into that one, tidy category. People understandably have an aversion to it; it’s quite distancing.
I mean, think of all the other ways we use that word, “poor.” Teachers might talk about “that poor kid” who, though he has all of the help he could get and tries to do his work, just can’t figure out how to complete a task. At mass, we might hear someone offer an intention for the “poor souls in purgatory,” those people whom we can no longer help save for our well-intentioned prayers, and about whom we can learn nothing until we cross the great divide ourselves. When the next round of layoffs approaches, people inevitably start talking about that yet-to-be-named “poor son of a bitch” who is on the chopping block (not because of poor performance, but rather as a “cost-saving procedure”). We include another sweeping and degrading term in this last phrase because we want to push this person as far away from us as possible, reassuring ourselves that, surely, it won’t happen to us.
In all of these cases, the word “poor” connotes distance and separation. More so, it points to the lack of ability – or even the desire – to meet the person on the other side. At bare minimum, it demands fairly strict “us” and “those people” categories. This split can even entrench itself in the buzzwords and catchphrases of the institutions to which we belong, however well-intentioned they may be. I am most familiar with the jargon of schools and parishes inspired by the spirituality of St. Ignatius, which includes beloved buzzwords like “Men and Women for others,” and “Magis,” the Latin for “More” that often compels a spirit of ever-broadening voluntarism.4 This language, though it can greatly aid in motivating action, does not necessarily aim to cultivate relationships of depth.5
Before I joined the Jesuits, I worked with youth programs at an aid agency in south St. Louis. We had the checker board outside that day. Summer had not yet started, so we could spend time outside in the afternoon sun without battling the sweltering air that can cover St. Louis like cling-wrap on a bowl in the microwave. Instead of playing against classmates while waiting for a turn at double-dutch or an opening on the swings, my opponent often took to challenging adults to checkers. And I was the next adult in her sights.
The game started smoothly enough, each of us trying to gain the advantage on a certain section of the board. Before long, though, she saw through my strategy, made a triple-jump and, with a smart-aleck smile, proclaimed, “King me.”
Little more intense than I expected, I thought to myself. After dutifully re-purposing a captured marker for her king, I started my slow march to her defensive line of checkers. For her next move, she took the newly-crowned marker, brought it square across the board and removed the piece I had set to become a king.6
“You can’t do that! You so can’t do that,” I protested.
“This is city checkers,” she said. “We have different rules than suburb checkers.”
So I tried to make the same jump with one of my pieces. ” Nope. Regular pieces can only move forwards one space at a time. Duh.”
“Since when?” I asked.
“That’s the rules. I thought you knew that.”
The game ended quickly, and I fell among the ranks of conquered opponents. Other volunteers who’d shared my lot chuckled as I trudged by, defeated, to the kickball diamond.
Each of these brilliant women, whether at the retirement home or at the checkers table, could have asked, “Why are you here, right now, in my presence?”
I only wanted to help. I wanted to be a familial presence to that old woman whose family had made itself absent. I wanted to let that little girl act like a little girl, without worrying about gang violence or losing her home. It’s all I wanted. And still I brought an air of distance.
At the nursing home, I saw my host as part of a list. At that checkers game, I anticipated a fun few minutes that would leave me feeling good about myself. Years of Catholic schooling had formed me to hold dear the needs of others. Yet it has also trained me (or: I had allowed myself to believe) that I could meet all of these needs. The language that communicated these lessons carried with it a savior mentality.
Both of these women shattered that image. And thank God. They showed me something of no little significance, that I lacked both a helpful skill to offer and a listening ear that could also understand what it heard. Instead, I brought the kind of service that often surfaces in post-immersion reflections, the kind that says, “They have so much to teach us.” They teach us: them, those people, those poor people.
These women have taught me, but not in the fashion my catchphrases had led me to expect. They offered no insight into how the poor are veiled images of Jesus. No lessons on how I could learn from their simplicity. They offered me instead a more basic lesson: how I, a guest, ought to esteem my hosts.
When I enter someone else’s home, I must risk taking on a limp and, just as importantly, have the ability to laugh at myself (as others laugh at me) when I fail to take on my hosts’ perspectives. For such relationships to develop, they require a great deal of time. They require a departure from the slogans and catchphrases that allow me to elevate my stature. Only if my neighbors extend an invitation, only then can I offer what gifts I have. Then the relationship becomes one of mutuality, replete with fits and starts, and surpasses the all-too-often humiliating – and subordinating – exchange of “helping the poor.”
Cover photo: “Poverty from Afar,” by Flickr user Cristiano Oliviera
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