When I lived among impoverished people in Peru, I was initially shocked when my neighborhood friends would go all-out for a celebration of someone’s birthday or baptism. They would serve food I thought they couldn’t spare to guests who came to pray with them as they waked a deceased family member in the front room. Didn’t they understand the need to conserve, to save for tomorrow?
Slowly, I learned about a different set of values. A good party proclaims that the person we celebrated — whether alive or dead — is of incalculable value, while money is only money, and, more often than not, it was in a spiral of devaluation.
in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Additionally, people who live hand to mouth know too well that tomorrow is never guaranteed. You might save a few cents, but who’s to assure that you’ll be here tomorrow to enjoy it? Just ask the people of Haiti who survived the earthquake of 2010 and got hit with Hurricane Matthew in 2016! A country that can “boast” of an entire Wikipedia entry just for its natural disasters will understand Jesus’ assertion that guests can’t fast while the bridegroom is with them, but they’ll probably shake their heads at the saying, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Somehow, poverty can teach people that when you face an unknown and uncontrollable future, you should make everything possible of the moment at hand. They don’t go out naked with the hopes that God will cause clothes to grow on them, but they also understand the futility of worry — it adds nothing to the quality or expanse of life and health.
There’s another bit of wisdom hidden in the tendency to party in spite of poverty: Celebrations create community. Folks participate in one another’s lives and become more and more bound to one another. The Spanish phrase Mi casa es su casa becomes even truer as the whole neighborhood watches out for the kids playing on the street and everyone knows when the old man on the corner will go without dinner if somebody doesn’t do something about it this afternoon.
Another thing that I learned slowly among my Peruvian friends was a recognition of God’s bounty. When that elderly gentleman down the block received a dinner plate, he would say, “God provides.” Now in my book, the provider was Señora Mendoza, who had cooked and delivered the dinner, but somehow the venerable Señor Quispe knew that God was behind it all, and Señora Mendoza would agree.
Another one of those generous women once commented, “If we have an acre of corn, we mustn’t harvest it all. If we did, where would the poor find food?” If that’s not God’s providence at work, what is?
Impoverished people who live as neighbors creating community seem to have found the blueprint for building up the reign of God. They ask, “What kind of world are we creating?” If Señor Quispe had made his home a fortress with locked gates, on the day he was too weak to provide for himself, nobody might have known, and if they had, they wouldn’t have been able to get in to help.
Jesus told his followers not to worry about life, food, drink or clothes, but rather to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness because everything else would come in its stead. It seems that the more we have, the more we tend to count on our own ability to procure and keep what we need. Are we putting more faith in IRAs, insurance policies and good locks than we do in God?
The answer to that question might be found in how much we are willing to risk to help a neighbor, be that the person across the street or the refugees pleading for a place of safety now that their homes have been destroyed by warring factions over whom they have no influence.
When my friend talked of leaving some corn in her little field, she was teaching that if we watch out only for ourselves, poor mothers will not be able to feed their children. And like a mother, she saw every hungry child as somehow her own.
Jesus not only told his disciples to trust in God, but he also promised that those who left the security of home and family for his sake would receive a hundred times more in return. That promise comes true as we create the sort of community that can celebrate just because life is good and can share the little we have because we know it is all a gift.
[Mary M. McGlone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the U.S.]