God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation is contrary to God’s will.

Gustavo Guttierez

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To speak with authenticity of the God of mission, the Reign of God or Catholic education, without a priority for the poor and the excluded, is impossible.

Some years ago, when I travelled with a friend to Sri Lanka to meet with theologian Fr Tissa Balasuriya.

“So, you’ve come to talk theology!” Fr Tissa said when we first met. He promptly led us out of the room, down the stairs, across the compound, into the street, into a rickshaw, and before we fully realized what was happening, we had travelled for 45 minutes to the outskirts of Colombo to a slum area in which he had built a school for the poorest. He took us to an area on the unfinished roof of the school, right in the middle of the slum, sat us down and said: “Now we can do theology!”

Fr Tissa’s message to us was so clear. We cannot be Christian or do theology out of the context of the poor and what the Gospel means for them.

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To say that we believe that God loves the poor, judges on their behalf, wills their deliverance but do nothing ourselves to free the poor, to hear their pleas, to lift their burdens, to act in their behalf, is an empty faith indeed.

Joan Chittister 

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The movie The Motorcycle Diaries tells the true story of the revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara’s early life. As the young man, recently finished his medical degree, Ernesto and a friend travelled around Latin America on the old motorbike. During the course of his travels, he grows into a deep appreciation of the plight of the poor of the continent of Latin America at that time who were victims of structural injustice. The movie is a study in change and conversion.

My favourite scene in the movie is when Ernesto is celebrating his birthday with priests and nuns in a leper colony on the banks of the Amazon in Peru. As a medical doctor, he specialised in the treatment of tropical diseases. The actual place where the lepers live is an island in the middle of the very wide river, separated from the world. At one point, Ernesto goes outside and looks towards the island. In a moment of decision, he dives into the river and swims towards the lepers on the distant island. On the riverbank his friends call him back because it is dangerous and he suffered from chronic asthma. On the shore of the island, however, the lepers are encouraging him to continue swimming towards them.

This is a wonderful image of conversion; of movement towards ‘the other’; of letting go of the ‘self’ and baptism into solidarity with the poor. He reaches the island and his life was never to be the same. He has made his option; he is with the poor; he has swum the river. All Christians need to leave the comfortable shores and embrace an option for the poor. There is no choice.

…we must keep repeating it: without the poor there is no salvation, without the poor there is no Church, without the poor there is no Gospel.

Dom Pedro Casadaliga

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Mission invokes what martyred El Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande called the ‘impossible neutrality’. Mission takes sides, becomes political and asks potentially disturbing questions. Mission is about the ‘God of the poor’ while many of us are not poor. It’s about ‘the view from the poor’ while we may know nothing of what that looks like. It’s about ‘Good News to the Poor’ and that can be bad news to the rich. It’s about challenging social structures that can produce inequality while those same structures may be very beneficial to us.

However, Archbishop Oscar Romero, another martyred El Salvadoran Jesuit, once warned:

‘… a church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a Gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, isn’t really the Gospel but rather, very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone!’

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The term ‘preferential option for the poor’ is commonly used in mission statements and the like.

In Spanish, the verb ‘optar’ implies making a significant decision according to one’s deepest values and priorities. The use of this verb by the Latin American theologians was deliberate and implies much more than a simple choice between alternatives. It infers that God makes a decision to stand with and for the poor.

He loves them preferentially but not exclusively. ‘The last will be the first and the first will be last’. God prioritizes the poor because God is love and compassion and wishes full humanity for all. Poverty and marginalization are an affront to God.

For us, the use of the term should refer to a fundamental orientation in our lives and our structures towards the plight of the poor; towards their needs and concern.

Unless we place ourselves alongside the poor, unless we look at reality through their eyes, we are unable to see, recognize, or worship the God who walks with the poor.

Gustavo Guttierez

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Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, retired Bishop of Chiapas, the poorest Diocese in Mexico, put it this way: ‘The only question we will have to answer at the end of time is how we have treated the poor.’

He based his statement on the story of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25). According to this Gospel, on the Last Day, we will be judged by God on one basis: did we care for the poor?  Did we give bread to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked?

There are no orthodoxy tests referred to here; no creedal formula to recite; no catechetical requirements to measure up to; not even questions about private morality. Only the question of how we have treated the poor.

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The Reign of God is brought through making this world a better place through committed action in the social and political spheres. Christian implies solidarity with the poor, and a commitment to denounce injustice and build a world based on the priorities of the Gospel.

It is not charity that the poor want. They want to be given a voice, they want us to be on their side, to help them set right an unequal equation, and to enable them to rewrite their own story. Mission is not a call for a generous action to alleviate misery, but a demand for building a more just social order.

We must find a way to talk about a God of love in the midst of poverty, marginalization and exclusion. As collaborators in mission with the God of love and compassion, the key questions that we must ask are:

  • Where is God in the reality of the poor?
  • How do we tell the poor and excluded that God loves them, and that the Gospel is ‘good news’ is also for them?
  • What does it mean to be a Christian and speak of a God of love in a world of suffering and oppression?

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I was walking in Delhi early in the morning, just as the city was waking up. I came across a family, mother, father and four children who sleep in an area of the city just beside an ATM machine. The reality for this family is that, in all probability, they belong to that growing population in our world who live on less than two dollars a day. I watched this family prepare for the day, cooking their breakfast and rolling up their bedding, in the shadow of this modern machine.

I wonder what goes through the minds of people such as these when they see others fronting up to the ATM machine pushing in a few numbers and all of a sudden, as if a miracle happens, great gifts of money flow from the machine to the lucky person who knows the code.

So many questions arise.

What must it be like to be a ‘two dollar a day family’ and not know the code? What must it feel like for that father to see other people so favoured by the ‘gods’ that great quantities of money flow to them when he, after preparing his family for the day, will have to go off to beg or work as a day labourer for a pittance just to keep his family alive? How do you explain to these young children that it’s not their father or mother’s fault that they can’t access this flow of wealth from the machine that adorns their living space, in the way that a painting sits on the walls of our living rooms? How does this father eventually explain to his children that they may never have a code for access to security and a dignified life?

How do we deal with this reality in the context of our education of young people in Australia? How do I go to an ATM and not be mindful of the extraordinary blessings bestowed upon me by the universe? How do we convince this family on the streets of Delhi that they are sons and daughters of the same loving God who has a commitment to the fullness of life for everyone?

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There can be a temptation, particularly in the West, to ‘spiritualise’ poverty; that is, to speak solely of the ‘spiritually’ poor.

It is clear that we embody mission to those in our society who suffer cultural oppression, have lost direction spiritually or who are searching for meaning in the context of a society dominated by rampant consumerism and secular ‘Gods’ and ‘idols’. However, these definitions of poverty cannot be used to ‘let us off the hook’ when it comes to our Gospel imperative to serve the materially poor.

These are those human beings for whom life itself is a heavy burden; those who have no voice, no dignity; many have no name, no recognized existence. They lack adequate educational and healthcare opportunities and are excluded from decisions that affect them. The poor are those who do not take life for granted, those for whom staying alive is their primary task and many die before their time.

It is our response to the plight of these people that determines our authenticity and fidelity to the Reign of God. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the catch phrase ‘Outside of the Church, there is no salvation!’ motivated the Church’s mission. However, now we suggest another take on the priorities of Jesus: ‘Outside of the poor there is no salvation!’

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