When I was in college, I took time to serve as a missionary in a diocese in the Caribbean that had less than 3% Catholics left.
The country is largely known for it’s bright blue waters, sandy beaches, laid back attitude, and tourism. It’s lesser known for its flavor of voodoo, extreme poverty, and suffering of the people. The latter was the reason I was there.
During my time there, I lived and worked among the poor in a mountain village helping the local school and church educate the children both in school topics and the faith. I was only there a few months, but in that time the people I worked with became my friends. I knew their struggles, their personalities, and more importantly the extreme disadvantages and sufferings they endured daily based on socioeconomic status.
I not only witnessed it in passing, but in living it in a very small way next to them my fellow missionaries and I began to be able to empathize as well. When maggots started growing in our rice, we chose to gratefully eat it anyway rather than go hungry or waste food. That is just how life is there and it wasn’t unique. The children at the school often went hungry or waited for scraps at the end of lunch from those who could afford the 25 cent meal.
The experience changed me in ways hard to describe. But more than anything it changed my perception of how things are based on my privileged American view of the world.
After my time there, I had a close family member comment in passing as she talked about her honeymoon there that “everyone is poor in that country because they are so lazy.” If they just tried harder, worked harder, or lived more positively and focused on wealth, they could just work their way out of the hum-drum life they lived. Her perception was based on the shortened snapshot she saw while riding on tourist buses to resorts and stopping at restaurants. I don’t blame her because it looked like that on the surface. People are often seen casually standing around in the streets. They shoot the breeze at rest stops waiting for someone to come buy a Coke. You don’t see the over-worked, production-oriented attitude you see here. Quite the opposite.
But all the same it pained me. Because I knew for the large number of the population, these people weren’t sitting around or poor because they were lazy. They were just trying to survive a harsh culture with no opportunities to move beyond that. High school students waking up at 3am to start breakfast for their family, then walk to the bus stop to ride 3 hours to school with leftover rice and beans for their only meal for the day just so they could get an education. Adults sitting around in despair because they couldn’t afford a 5 cent pencil for their child at school. (I had several in my class that would scour the dirt floors of the one room school building for pencil knubs and try to sharpen them just so they had something to write with.) Women, standing around with vacant eyes because most every woman is raped or sexually abused by the time they reach high school in that country. No, not lazy. Wounded, suffering, human beings just trying to survive.
These people weren’t waking up choosing to not make money and prosper. They were suffering deep and scary things most of us could never imagine. They were battling a corrupt nation with the odds against them.
I share this experience because it woke me up to something most of us gloss over in our country. Not everyone who is poor or unsuccessful is there because they are actively choosing to be lazy, negative thinkers, that can’t get it together.
Yet even among faithful Catholics, this is the message I hear over and over again in both obvious and subtle ways.
I see friends chanting that God will bless them if they just believe enough. That money and success in their businesses will be theirs if they root out the negative talk and declare their goals into reality. I’ve witnessed people teaching this and gossiping about others lack of success because they didn’t have enough “belief”.
The gospel is distorted into a “name it, claim it” belief system that has no real basis in the actual Gospel – namely that the poor are blessed, that the Church has a preferential love for the poor, and that suffering is a necessary part of life that we can redeem by uniting it to the cross of Christ.
But when the cult of positive thinking and the prosperity gospel seep into our psyches, we become the tourists on the air conditioned bus glancing out the window and claiming to know why all those people are suffering out there and if they would just get it together or believe more they wouldn’t have to live such an awful existence. It conditions us to assume those who don’t have enough are not trying enough.
Here’s the real clincher for me – the poor are some of the most joyful, trusting, generous people I’ve ever met in my life. They didn’t come to me and tell me what was wrong with my life. They came to me and gave me water. They shared their bread with me. They fed me as if I were Jesus Himself. They joyously accepted the help I offered and we prayed together. We became a true living Church where we built each other up in Christ and served those in most need.
When we buy into the trap of positive thinking and the gospel of prosperity, whether we realize it or not, we open the door to judgmental thinking. Suddenly, we judge other’s success or failure based on their personal belief of lack thereof. We stop looking at the individual as a child of God to help to heaven and instead analyze their life status and what we would do differently. We start to believe that we are somehow more than and the poor or those suffering are somehow less than.
We have to settle with the fact that the Good News is not simply a positive thinking mantra nor is it about worldly success or wealth. And if that’s the gospel we’re preaching we aren’t preaching the Gospel of Christ.
Jesus tells us to sell what we have and give to the poor. To become bread for others. To be salt for the world. To believe He is the Son of God. To have faith. To live as a pilgrim, ever ready for the world to come and sharing that hope and joy with others. The early Church gave what they had and lived in communion, tending to the needs of others with magnanimity.
The early Christians didn’t look to worldly success as the gauge of their holiness or fidelity to the Gospel. The poor were the face of Christ not a problem to solve with marketing schemes. Blessedness was based on the heart not worldly fortune or worldly success.
And I think we need to get back to that. As I reflect on my time as a missionary, I realize I didn’t do anything special at all. In fact, I was probably a pretty crummy missionary – selfish, uncomfortable, uncommitted. But regardless of if I gave anything to the people I went to serve, they gave me a hundredfold back by teaching me these lessons.
“The first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Lord, help us to have faith. Prevent us from abusing prayer for our own worldly gain. Give us the zeal of the early Christians to find joy in suffering and poverty. Protect us from the seduction of wealth for its own sake and the temptation to judge those not up to par with our worldly standards. Form us into saints set on the kingdom. Amen.