Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reflections on Social Justice p.3 - The Personal Touch

Sometimes, the use of numbers and statistics is mind-numbing.  For example, 1.3 billion people worldwide live on less than a dollar a day (from Bread for the World).  In the media, you may hear something like 100 people who died in a bombing in the Middle East.  

Yet, I think people are touched not by numbers and concepts but by personal stories. When we put a human face to the suffering, we are more able to place ourselves in the other's shoes.  Your heart is more likely to go out to the child who lost his parents in a bombing than upon hearing a high number of people who died in an attack.  

Before I entered the Society, one of the Jesuits I had a great deal of admiration for was Fr. Gary Smith. I knew of him through his book Radical Compassion, in which he journals the time he spent with the poor and the homeless on the streets of Portland. What I loved about his writing was that he was real; he told stories as he witnessed them.  

When I was in the midst of my 30 day silent retreat as a first year novice, I remember reading his book again during the 3rd week of the Exercises. There was one particular story I remember reading--it was his story about the Leper. The Leper, in this case, suffered from AIDS. I remember lying in bed in tears as I read through that story again. Gary told and reflected on his experience of walking with this man as his health continued to diminish. Yet, by the end of that story, my tears were genuine--his story touched my heart at the deepest level. In a different world, the story of the leper may have been my own story.  

Last year, Gary came out with a new book: They Come Back Singing- Finding God with the Refugees. His very first paragraph reads:
"This is not a book about Africa. It is about my years in Africa with Sudanese refugees. It is not a sociological study of refugees; it is a portrait of refugee hearts. It is not a book about what I gave to the refugees, but a book about what they gave to me. It is not a theology of mission, but a story of mission."
I do not think we should underscore the importance of story and narrative in addressing the problems of the world. It allows the ability to connect with our brothers and sisters around the world in ways that would not be possible otherwise.  We are then not simply talking about "the homeless" or "the poor".  We are talking about real people with real stories.

All of us have a story. But, we are not simply part of our own story--we partake in each other's stories.

What is your role? How do you hope to shape the story?  


Michelle Halm said...

Thank you for your post Ryan. I love your question "What is your role?" I remember seeing "The Last King of Scotland" & then reading Gary's book "They Come Back Singing." It really hit me that these people are my brothers & sisters & (forgive the double negative) I can't not do something. I had a fundraiser for Gary's ministry & began to realize more & more how I am part of such a bigger family. It changes how I see things - what I'm grateful for, how conscience I am of my actions & the consequences of them.... And Fr Gary is so amazing that he really enlightens the reader's story & you can't help but want to make a difference like he did & does.

Anonymous said...

The March issue of Praying with Refugees features Gary Smith, and notes that God reveals himself to us through nature, human reason, and divine revelation, but the most immediate encounter we have with God is often through the men, women, and children we share our lives with.

'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'

Ryan Rallanka, SJ said...

Thank you for your posts! They certainly augment the Spirit here present

Joe said...


This post reminded me of the verse from Genesis: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

The answer to which is: "Why, yes...yes you are."

I spent my childhood growing up in Colombia and Ecuador, often driving by places that make post-Katrina New Orleans look like Disneland. That stuff was seared into my consciousness and now [mumble-mumble] years later, it's still fresh and sharp in my mind.

What motivates me is my faith in Christ, and that his call to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, etc. was a direct and personal command that I do something. Something active on behalf of others. Not just spout platitudes or "advocate for X."

The operative words from Mt. 25:40 are "you" and "did." In the case of the "you" it means an individual call...not to the guy next to you, or teh lady next door...YOU. The "did" is just as important, as it summons us to direct action to relieve a problem we encounter. We are to quench the thirsty...not tell someone dehydrating "Be of good cheer, young man, for I have strongly advocated an increase in funding for studying ways in which greater potability of water might be effected for the underclass."

Therefore, we all have an individual command, from Christ Himself, to roll up our sleeves and DO something. After all, at the Seat of Judgment we will be judged more for what we did than for what positions we took.