Thursday, June 14, 2012

Other Kinds of Poverty

Ministry today at Via Christi. I am one of a team of eight brothers that goes to the Catholic rest home in Hays. This morning we brought the residents to the chapel for an ecumenical Christian prayer service led by a United Methodist minister from the city of Ellis. For the next hour and a half we made visits around the residential units, called "neighborhoods" by the staff and named for local towns (Catherine, Munjor, Pfeifer, Victoria, Vincent, Walker). I chatted with the residents of Pfeifer throughout their midday meal before having lunch with my brothers. Another round of visits for an hour, followed by bingo with residents, staff, and volunteers. Tomorrow we will have Mass in the morning followed by recitation of the rosary; these services are going to be well attended. Visits in between chapel and lunch, and more visits in the afternoon, pending special activities.

We cannot provide direct care for residents -- we don't feed them, we don't lift them out of their wheelchairs, we don't administer first aid. Rather, we offer pastoral care through conversation, both small talk and spiritual talk. We offer prayers. We play games. We take residents to and from religious and social activities. With us, the eight Capuchin volunteers, and other local volunteers making the rounds, no resident who seeks companionship should be deprived. Indeed, there appear to be more listening ears than persons to meet! We do quite a bit of meandering through the neighborhoods and the assisted-living unit, where the more able-bodied live more independently. Indeed, we make several circuits throughout the day.

This is the right time for me to experience a ministry such as this, as I am making a transition from an activist apostolate in postulancy to a "mission" of cloistered prayer in novitiate. Here, I am learning about forms of poverty other than the material -- and attempting to accept the irremediable helplessness that attends these forms.

I am accustomed to fighting the evils that cause material poverty, deploying the "weapons of the spirit" in faith-rooted community organizing. This is what I did with Interfaith Worker Justice and the New Sanctuary Movement in Boston, and more recently at Neighbors Together in Brooklyn. And in spite of their material poverty, the women and men I worked and prayed with possessed great riches, physical and spiritual: inner freedom, strong will, and sound mind and body to exercise both freedom and will to witness powerfully against injustice and build a better world reflecting the glory of God.

On the other hand, the women and men who live at Via Christi have all their material needs met -- they have a safe home, they do not go hungry, they are not lacking medical care. But all the material resources in the county cannot remove the physical poverty of immobility, decline, and dying; the emotional poverty of loneliness and sadness; or the spiritual poverty that comes with loss of freedom, or the anxiety and despair over death and the unknown.

Every Thursday evening the brothers gather to reflect on their experiences in ministry. Four brothers speak during each session. My turn to speak will come in two weeks. By then, I hope share some seasoned thoughts on aging and poverty, drawing on one or two encounters with these kindly souls who, being emptied of earthly life, are being filled with eternal life.

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