“Once upon a time…”, so go fairy tales. What I wish to share with you is not a fairy tale but I believe it has the best of all possible endings. So I hope you will indulge me for just a few minutes as I unfold the story of a life in poverty.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 2444 “The Church’s love for the poor . . . is a part of her constant tradition.” This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor. Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to “be able to give to those in need.” It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty.
I knew a young girl who grew up in a large family of 13 in southern Iowa. Her parents were farmers and she was born during the Great Depression. Born into poverty, this little girl had one dress. Not one for church and one for school …just one dress. She did her farm chores and helped keep watch over her younger siblings while her parents worked in the fields. Like her brothers and sisters she went to a country school for a time. Her family moved often as they lost one farm, then another. Eventually the children were enrolled in public school at a nearby town. They found themselves thrown into a mix of children entirely different from the one they had grown accustomed to.
In the country schools they were more or less among equals. Their farm neighbors, like so many everywhere, struggled to reach subsistence. In town things weren’t easy either but there was a little more opportunity and the depth of poverty didn’t run quite so deep. As a consequence this little girl found herself one day the poorest of the poor; no longer the poorest among the poorest. A fine distinction maybe, but a significant one it turned out.
There was little consolation or relief from the harshness of her family’s poverty. School offered no solace because her classmates were unsympathetic toward her poverty and treated her harshly. By all measures these children were not well off, but their parents could afford a few school clothes and managed simple things that her family lacked; like regular baths. How hard is it to approach someone who hasn’t bathed in a while, let alone draw near them in friendship.
The change wasn’t all bad- in the beginning. At first the little girl was able to enjoy the company of two other girls- twin sisters. They belonged to the bottom rung also and the three girls developed the bonds of friendship and found some consolation in not occupying this lowly place alone. Old sayings are sometimes mocked but so often true at their core. Misery does love company. To be in misery alone is to be on Calvary without the Christ.
Unfortunately the safe harbor of their friendship did not last long. The mother of the twin sisters met and married a man who was financially secure. Virtually overnight the twin sisters found themselves well off and were attending school in new dresses and shoes. With this new-found wealth came a new-found poverty of spirit among the twin girls. Who knows what was in their hearts- only God. Whether they truly lost sight of the little girl’s personhood or they simply wanted to win the approval of their new peer group, they had no friendship or warmth left to
share with her. It was a double cruelty to lose their friendship; she found herself alone and isolated.
Eventually this little girl grew up into a young lady, never experiencing the love and kindness of friendship the rest of her school days. And the in-between years brought other sorrows and hardships. She was present when her baby sister died of tetanus. When her alcoholic father left her mother and their 10 living children, her greatest consolation was that the physical and mental abuses would leave with him. But greater financial hardships followed in the wake of his departure.
By the time this little girl was in eighth grade her heart had born as much pain as it could and she dropped out of school and entered the adult world as a laborer. It was hard work but she was finally free of a culture that was blind to her inviolable worth and dignity. The work world may have been sterile, but at least she was being judged objectively on the merit of her work and not on meager state of her person. Perhaps she never lingered in pain and anger because she was so self-aware that dignity isn’t something we give to, or take away from, another. We are our own merchant of dignity and hers was never for sale.
CCC 2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. the goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”: When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.
This little girl never asked to be born into poverty. No one ever does. If her impoverished family had come into being in the 1970’s her parents would have been ridiculed for being selfish and burdensome on society. Most likely she and eight of her siblings would never had been born. Some people today sincerely believe it’s better that way. But not this little girl. The only fruit of the poverty and hardship she bore was a greater appreciation for life and the lives of everyone around her. She expressed that appreciation to God in prayer and in the way she lived each moment. In her later years, her husband would ask her why she prayed so fervently every night for her family and friends who were struggling. Her husband would say to her, “Why do you pray for this person or that one? God’s not going to answer your prayers.” Undeterred and without malice she would simply reply in faith, “He might!”; a gentle work-warn finger pointing upward to both emphasize her point and to acknowledge the Father.
That little girl of poverty is my mother. Her name is June. She passed away on March 9, 2007. During her life she poured herself out like a libation for her family. She never turned away a soul who crossed her doorway. She didn’t expect charity when times were lean for our family, but she never turned away a kindness when it was offered in sincerity. Mom donated to schools and children’s hospitals. She donated clothing and food, time and resources to help others who were poor in money and who were spiritually poor. By our standards she lived an austere life but she found nothing lacking in her life except maybe a little more time. I know my mom never read the paragraphs above from the Catechism but she lived them. She never gave from a
position that she was doing anyone a favor. She gave because she had and they did not. She gave because she recognized their humanity and longed that they should experience someone affirming their dignity and self-worth. Something that was denied to her in her childhood. She gave because she loved. St. John Chrysostom’s words may be very challenging, but in living up to that ideal we more closely conform our lives to God. That is the witness my mom gave to me.