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Blessed are the poor?

By Matthew Woolford

When church was reopened a few weeks ago to physical attendance at worship, I made my way to the Cathedral, Independence Square, Port of Spain for 6.30 a.m. Sunday Mass.

As I hurried toward the main gate, I was initially dismayed to see a homeless person, who clearly spent the night there, get up, stand in the drain between the road and the church premises and began to relieve himself.

This dismay was converted to enlightenment the following Sunday, when I left the church at about 7.45 a.m., following Mass, and heard this same and very sane man announce to the world in a loud voice, “I am the church”.

It was the first time in my life I was cognisant of witnessing a real-life prophet in action.

Miracles happen every day, and I thank God for the spiritual awareness to recognise this one.

When Jesus spoke of the poor being with us always, I finally understood what He meant. The poor are meant to guide us in identifying injustices that we are morally obligated to acknowledge, first of all, and upon assessment, eradicate from our communities.

In some situations, this may be hunger/famine, others violence, but I am also noticing homelessness to be a strong cry coming in from the cold.

On the Feast of Christ the King, I was invited to a World Youth Day Mass at the Roman Catholic Pro-Cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Harris Promenade, San Fernando. It was the first time that I had ever been inside that church, and I found it a delight to the visual senses.

On my walking up the hill, in transit, I noticed that Harris Promenade has statues of two well-known freedom fighters for the poor: Mahatma Gandhi and Marcus Garvey. I also noticed a fair number of homeless persons sleeping along this plaza and just like its fellow Cathedral up north, this southern sister church was squarely facing this same debacle.

I sometimes wonder, as a Catholic, if we are missing the mark. We want our churches to be spotless and even spectacular. We want technology incorporated in every Mass via livestream, amplified sound systems and electrical musical instruments but have we missed the first marker of genuine Christianity: how we treat and deal with the poor?

On more than one occasion I have heard Fr Martin Sirju, Vicar General, give homilies on the social injustice raging through the housing industry in Trinidad and Tobago.

The inability of most persons to afford or even access the financing to begin contemplating these purchases, compounded by the sheer inability of the local housing market to supply adequate accommodation for those living here.

And what of the law in this question of homelessness?

Lord Thomas Bingham (1933–2010), former Lord Chief Justice of England once wrote on the Rule of Law that “the core of the existing principle is that all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly and prospectively promulgated and publicly administered in the courts”. He subsequently identified eight sub rules, one of which is that “the law must afford adequate protection of fundamental rights”.


Stewardship and leadership

Since I could remember, there has been a popular refrain within local discussions that Trinidadians generally lack discipline. I personally believe this assessment to be incorrect.

As I have come to see things more through the organisational looking-glass as opposed to the individual one, what I see is more a lack of obedience.

Everyone wants to do his or her own thing, and scarce resources are often misaligned or lost in this proverbial battle for the soul of whichever group he or she is in.

I have found this to be disturbingly true of most organisations I have observed including the Catholic Church and this has made hymns, homilies, and hospitality more of a dream than a reality.

No wonder the poor are being neglected. The collective response needed to reach them simply isn’t there.

Humility may also go a long way in this stewardship. Wanting to help is all well and good, but there needs to be a willingness to suffer as well. Many want to jump on the back of angels as they are ascending, similar to Jacob in the Book of Genesis, but we must first allow ourselves to be broken, crawl on our bellies and allow God to fill the empty parts of our lives. Afterwards, the pain of service becomes tolerable.

Another popular refrain I have heard over the years, is that Trinidadians do not know how to manage or lead. On this point I have come to wonder if there is a sound collective understanding on what these two words actually mean or imply, in context.

Turning to the Harvard Business Review, ‘On Leadership’, Professor John P Kotter has this to say: “Management is about coping with complexity. Its practices and procedures are largely a response to one of the most significant developments of the twentieth century: the emergence of large organizations. Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic in ways that threaten their very existence. Good management brings a degree of order and consistency to key dimensions like the quality and profitability of products. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change… More change always demands more leadership.”

Are some of our parishes too large to render an efficient response to the poor? Are there too many committees, too many meetings and simply not enough management by walking around, encountering problems that are right outside our church doors?

And what of our financial institutions? Wherever there are banks in Port of Spain or San Fernando, so too is the homeless person to be found. Is there some vile connection to be drawn from this? After all, what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?