Today being the feast day of Alberto Hurtado, recent Jesuit saint, I’m going to jump to the present day on the question of Jesuit poverty and its best examples. Little has changed since Socrates argued in his own behalf in the Apology: “I, on the other hand, have a convincing witness that I speak the truth, my poverty.” The same holds true today. Poverty is a powerful witness. To the present day Sophists who point to ulterior motives, we point to poverty and say: “This is our witness.” And we do this most effectively when we point to our best representatives. As recent stand out examples, I want to offer three brief reflections on Alberto Hurtado, Pedro Arrupe, and Rick Thomas, three recent Jesuits.
Pedro Arrupe, SJ
The final straw that got me into the Society of Jesus was Pedro Arrupe, particularly his writings on poverty. This particular statement struck me:
Why have we lost so much credibility as ministers of the Gospel? Because people no longer see us as poor men. It is the witness of poverty sincerely lived that will restore credibility to our apostolate, and by doing so make it more effective. It may sound like a paradox, but to be sparing in the use of things has become in our time more efficient apostolically than to acquire an abundance of means.
Alberto Hurtado, SJ
I’d like to recount a story about Hurtado that I particularly like. He speaks directly to us:
I have something to say to you. How can we go on with this? I didn’t sleep last night and I think you would have suffered from insomnia as well had you seen what I saw. I was arriving at St. Ignatius late last night when a man stopped me. He was standing there in shirtsleeves in the freezing drizzle. He was thin as a rail and shaking with fever. The lamplight was sufficient to show me that his tonsils were inflamed. He had no place to sleep and he asked me for the price of a bed in a hostel. There are hundreds of men like this in Santiago and they are all our brothers, and that is no metaphor. Each one of these men is Christ, and what have we done for them? What has the Catholic Church in Chile done for these sons of hers who walk the streets in the rain and sleep in doorways in the cold nights of winter, their bodies found frozen in the early dawn. This sort of thing is happening in a Christian country. Tonight a beggar may die in the doorway of any of your houses. What stupid oxen we Catholics are, how lost in our dreaming, how untouched by the need for social solidarity! We are held back by the possibility of difficulties, obstacles and scandals.
How can we be friends with Christ if none of his best friends are our best friends also?
Rick Thomas, SJ
I recount that last story because it leads directly into a story I heard from Fr. Thomas. Several years ago, during Lent, my province used a booklet to reflect on our own lives of poverty. The story above was in that booklet. Each Jesuit was expected to use it for private reflection and to share at some point with his community. Father Thomas met with his community in El Paso. This is the story he tells, a story that is also about how he began his early ministry in El Paso with poor youth in the mid 1960’s. It is a long story, but please persevere. What follows are his (almost) exact words from a recording with a lay missionary at the Lord’s Ranch. He was on his deathbed when he told this, so his words are a bit repetitive. But I have done almost no editing for the raw effect:
I don’t know if I’ve told you this story. Last year when the provincial came by for his visitation, the whole province was dealing with poverty. So it put out a little booklet, forty-five, fifty pages about poverty and this and that, and we were supposed to read so many pages every week or so and then discuss it in the community meeting. Ok, so I was reading it along, and they had a story in there about the middle of the book from some episode in South America, and I don’t remember the details [the story above by Hurtado], but this Jesuit, he was in some sort of a Jesuit institution, parish or school, and he tells his experience on one page. His experience was he was coming back to the residence and he met this poor person and the poor person told his story and so forth. And then he comes back to the reisdence and tells what happened when he met this poor person. I read that and I already had a move, “You need to go down and share at the commuinity meeting on Sunday night your personal experience and this one page story from the booklet.” Every night at [the local Jesuit Parish] they get together before supper and in a very informal and relaxed way they share what they got out of the Sunday readings.
Everybody was there. So [a Jesuit] says, does anyone want to share their reflections on the readings at mass? Nobody jumped in so I jumped in and said Yes. I said, “I read this in the booklet, and I read the same story out of the booklet. “I want to tell you what happened to me.” I said that [a particular Jesuit] was provincial for a time, he was sent our Lady’s Youth center to help me very early. And he and I worked very closely together. We met often and discussed how we were going to help the youth. We had a lot of discussions and a very good working relationship. So one of the things that we did on a regular basis, we would get ten or fifteen kids from Bowie [the local public high school in the segundo barrio in El Paso] and we would take them out to Camp Juan Diego and we would have a day of friendship and a day of marriage preparation. And we would go out there and discuss and have lunch and have supper, have mass and bring all the kids back so they could be in school on Monday morning.
On this particular day we did the same thing, went out there and did everything, and it was time to come home, cause the next day was a school day. So we come home and take the kids to their homes and [the other Jesuit] and I go back to the Youth Center cause we need to put away the vans and the food and all that. So we park in the Youth Center yard and he goes inside. He’s doing whatever he’s doing and I go out to the dumpster and I’m gonna dump in the trash that we brought back from the Camp Juan Diego. So i go over to the trash, and I’m about to dump our trash into the dumpster, and I hear some noise inside the dumpster. And I say “what’s that, who’s that.” There’s a boy in there, ten or eleven, and he says: “May I spend the night here?” And then we talk about that a little bit and I hear some more rustling round in the trash in the dumpster and I say, “What’s that?” and he says, “That’s my friend, can we spend the night here?” I don’t tell them anything. So I go in and I say [to the other Jesuit], “Hey go out to the dumpster and tell me what you think. So he goes out and he didn’t know anything, and he goes up to the dumpster and he has a similar experience. So he comes back in and says what are we going to do? We compromise and say these guys probably haven’t had supper so let’s give supper to them. We were postponing the problem. So we fixed them sandwhiches and they were glad to get them. Meanwhile he and I are talking, “What are we going to do?” It was clear we couldn’t take them [to the residence], so we came up with this compromise: we would let them sleep in the car. So we said to the two boys, “You can sleep in the car.” He and I we went to bed.
Next morning, we got together and said “What are we going to do. If we can get these boys a place in the orphanage in Juarex, Ciudad de Ninos.” He being a lot better with Spanish, it was his job to speak to them if we can put these boys in there. They say “We’ll take them.” Meanwhile in the morning, we fed the boys and off they went. That was their life in south El Paso, rooting around…. they came back in the evening, they had had their adventures all day and wanted to know if they could sleep in the car. “And how would you like to go to Ciudad de Ninos?” They said “No!” Every day was the same deal. We would send them off in the morning and then we wouldn’t see them till they were ready to go to sleep. And every night they wanted to sleep in the car, and we let them.
After a few days, the car began to stink. And there was no hiding the fact that we had these two guys sleeping in the car. We were told of course that they can’t sleep in the car, they’re stinking it up. And so that was the end of that. They couldn’t sleep in the car and of course they couldn’t sleep at the residence. And I said, “As I understand it, that was the apostolate Ignatius recommended early on, to teach poor boys christian doctrine.” I didn’t say any more. No one else said anything else either.
It was soon after this that Rick got permission to move out of the Jesuit residence to start a place for poor boys. It was clear to him that something had to be done with this situation. Things could not continue in the same way. This experience was the catalyst for his tremendous work with the poor in south El Paso. His work survives today in my parents and other volunteers, especially his uncompromising love for the poor.
May they become our good friends also.