Q: Archbishop J, how should we respond to the growing poverty in T&T?
The pandemic has been a wrecking ball to the financial stability of many families in Trinidad and Tobago. Consider its impact on breadwinners with businesses closed three times in the last 20 months. People who were doing reasonably well before the pandemic have been plunged into poverty.
Consider the plight of those in small business—the taxi-driver, the hairdresser and barber, the mason—among many others. These persons had no income each time the economy was closed. Most will pick back up their lives, after having spent whatever savings they may have put aside for a rainy day.
Now consider those working in businesses that closed permanently due to the pandemic. They are out of work with little chance of getting a job in this environment. Many who lived in relative ease up till early 2020, now find themselves in financial distress.
An article in the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian, August 10, 2021, claimed 6,000 businesses faced permanent closure and would not be reopened. This was based on a survey by the Confederation of Regional Business Chambers.
World Day of the Poor
Pope Francis initiated a World Day of the Poor as a fruit of the Year of Mercy. Its purpose is to draw attention to the plight of the poor and challenge us to a response. This year, the day also launches our Justice, Peace and Community Week of our Archdiocese.
These two events are designed to focus every Catholic on his or her response to poverty, and to the fraternal responsibility we all have to our brother and sister in need.
Let us explore the Pope’s message for the World Day of the Poor 2021.
The poor you will always have with you
While at a meal in Bethany, a woman anoints the head of Jesus with pure nard, costing a year’s wage. This was a source of scandal for Judas who saw this as a waste of money that could have been given to the poor.
To this Pope Francis responds: “[I]t shows those who do not respect the poor betray Jesus’ teaching and cannot be his disciples”. He adds: “Jesus was reminding them that he is the first of the poor, the poorest of the poor, because he represents all of them. It was also for the sake of the poor, the lonely, the marginalised and the victims of discrimination, that the Son of God accepted the woman’s gesture. With a woman’s sensitivity, she alone understood what the Lord was thinking” (1).
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus responds to those scandalised by the act: “Truly I tell you, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mk 14: 9).
Says Pope Francis: “This powerful ’empathy’ established between Jesus and the woman, and his own interpretation of her anointing as opposed to the scandalised view of Judas and others, can lead to a fruitful reflection on the inseparable link between Jesus, the poor and the proclamation of the Gospel” (2).
Rather than dismissing the notion of serving the poor, the text is setting in motion a direct connection between Jesus, the poor and the proclamation of the Gospel. The Pope says: “The poor will always be with us, yet that should not make us indifferent, but summon us instead to a mutual sharing of life that does not allow proxies” (3).
Here he describes the poor as, “brothers and sisters whose sufferings we should share, in an effort to alleviate their difficulties and marginalisation, restore their lost dignity and ensure their necessary social inclusion”.
The relationship between the poor and us is not as between donor and receiver, but as brother and sister of one family, the family of God. When we see the poor one, we see a brother or a sister. This is the core of our spirituality. More than this, the Holy Father says, “The poor are a sacrament of Christ; they represent his person and point to him” (3).
The poor are our brothers and sisters, the ones who point us to Christ and show forth His face to us in the world. This is a vital lesson we all need to learn.
I have been conned by some of the best poor people in Trinidad and Tobago. It is easy to disconnect, to become hard-hearted and to avoid the poor. This is a serious temptation that is injurious to the soul, one that needs to be avoided at all costs.
I constantly pray that for all the great con artists that I have met who have duped me and that I may not reject the genuine article when he or she appears. The only way to live this prayer is to be generous, once you have a doubt this person might be genuine.
The Holy Father says: “Behind it (Jesus’ saying about the poor), we can glimpse the ancient biblical command: ‘If one of your brothers and sisters … is in need, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand to them in their need. Instead, you shall open your hand to them and freely lend them enough to meet their need … When you give to them, give freely and not with ill will; for the Lord, your God, will bless you for this in all your works and undertakings. For the needy will never be lacking in the land’ …” (Deut 15:7–8)
A call to action
In so far as we can feed our families, we need to thank God for our good fortune. We also need to reach out to the poor in concrete ways. They do not need to be morally good; they only require having a need for food, shelter, or clothing.
Pope Francis is pushing our conscience to action on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.
The poor are our brothers and sisters. They are a sacrament of Christ. Their need poses a moral obligation on us to respond and support them in tangible ways.
If you know someone who is unemployed or down and out, call them and speak with them, buy some groceries, and drop them off. Accompany them during this difficult time.