Two years of living among the urban poor in the slums on the outskirts of Manila changed me in ways that still today impact my life, even after nearly 30 years. This squatter community called, ironically, Commonwealth, grew up near one of the major garbage dumps of the city that provided a meager living for those able to scavenge through the refuse. Young children would run to meet the trucks as they turned, jumping up onto the heaping trash to get first dibs.
While this image of absolute poverty is seared into my mind’s eye and heart, the more powerful image I carry is of a community focused on their life’s mission. The lack of running water, sanitation and dependable electricity necessarily focused people on securing the essentials of food and shelter. And they focused on one another because, well, upon whom or what else could they depend? They needed one another.
The abundance and conveniences that I came home to at first jarred me. It even offended me. The extreme sense of community that I experienced among the poorest of the poor was in stark contrast to what I saw as self-sufficiency of my home country. “Who needs others when I can take of myself,” I asked.
When Jesus summoned the Twelve Apostles and sent them out to minister in his name, he said to them, “Take nothing for the journey…. Whatever house you enter, stay there….” Jesus is telling them, you will find what you need out there in the towns and among the people you will meet. Enter into their lives, share in what they have to give to you. You don’t need a second tunic or a walking stick or food or money. These are the things that might make the Apostles feel self-sufficient. Rather, go and find and build community. Isn’t that what he means by the Kingdom of God, to draw all into communion with God?
I do not romanticize poverty, not after what I experienced in the Philippines or what I see in the tough neighborhoods of Chicago. What I do see is how the “things” of our lives can insulate us, separating us from others and inhibiting the building of community. The Kingdom of God begins in the building of community, in knowing we need one another.
Robert Hotz is a consultant with American City Bureau, Inc. and was the Director of The Passion of Christ: The Love That Compels Campaign for Holy Cross Province.