Back in college in the Philippines, I was a member of a religious organization that was aimed at opening the eyes and immersing its members in the truth of poverty in the city, while internalizing the Gospel values of love and compassion for all people but especially for the poor. We had weekly visitations with our adopted squatter communities near the college, and had a quota of several hours per week. Mostly it was just sitting with certain families, and talking, getting to know their issues, their lives, their hearts.
I didn’t last.
In my pride and blind vanity, I looked at myself, saw no positive outcome in my heart, and worse, got to thinking that our weekly visitations with these families were more an intrusion than a help. These people were washing their clothes, and gathering water at the water pumps when we came around. We were butting in on their lives for what? Small talk. Or so I thought. I quit after a while, not being able to see any real good that we — the members of the organization — could bring to these communities.
How limited my vision was.
The point I see now was not to help the poor communities as much as it was to help us members grow in compassion and memory. So that poverty could have a face in our hearts, instead of remaining an abstraction in our heads. So that maybe one day after graduation, when we reached whatever positions we were meant to reach, we would remember Aling Nene in the Rona’s Garden squatter community, who lost a child to polio and subsisted on less than 50 pesos a day ( < $1 USD) in her rickety shanty built right next to a sewage canal. The point also was that people like Aling Nene needed to know that us students were willing to volunteer in small ways to help their community, and in doing so maybe galvanize them to feel that yes, they were worth this attention and this assistance.
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I quit that group. I decided instead to stay on with my original organization, the College Ministry Group, and serve in the college Masses as server, as choir, as instrumentalist. It was much easier. Much softer. Much more comfortable. I didn’t have to face poverty in the eye every week. I didn’t have to go outside the gates. I didn’t have to come down from the hill. Like Peter in Matthew 17:4, I wanted to stay on the mountain of Transfiguration, and build altars, instead of going down the hill and serving the poor.
One of my college friends recently asked me whether I was still active with my music now that I’m based in the States, and I proudly answered that I was, except my “gigs” were no longer about me, but were in the service of the most important person of all: the Lord. In short, yes, I was still active, but now as organist for the morning Mass in my parish. To which he jokingly replied: “Amazing! You’re still doing the College Ministry Group thing up to today!”
First reaction: amusement. Second reaction: horror.
Because maybe, despite all this talk about poverty and justice and faith coming to fruition in works, I am still only taking the easier, softer, more comfortable route and not allowing the Holy Spirit to guide me forward to where He wants me to go.
IMAGE CREDITS: “Squatters”. Photo by Mon Solo on Flickr. Released via Creative Commons.