Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Where do I begin? My heart is full of joy and gratitude to God for a mission in the slums of Mexico City that I am just returning from, but I will never be able to leave behind. We are all aware of the reality that most of our brothers and sisters throughout the world do not live with the expectation of fresh water, hot showers and, for that matter, clean food of any kind. Our hearts go out to them, and we give generously when invited by missionaries who make appeals from time to time. What I am privileged to share with you is an encounter I was graced with in the last five days with some of those good and humble souls that the world has forgotten.

The mission began with a flight to Mexico City where I was met at the airport by Eduardo and taken to a convent of Hermanas (Sisters) de la Concepciôn near the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There I joined a group of pilgrims from a parish in Baltimore who had arranged this mission with a blessed man — Craig Johring, who would reject that appellation — who has been organizing such occasions for encountering and embracing the poorest of the poor.
The work of the Christian faithful in reaching out to those in the margins is most commendable. There are no organizations more generous and reliable than those sponsored by the Catholic Church throughout the world by Catholic Charities and mission societies too numerous to name. The particular agency that sponsored my pilgrimage is Hope of the Poor (www.missionsofhope.org/craigjohring), which is unique in that its focus is not so much on relieving the suffering and poverty of the poor by bestowing various gifts and care packages as it is to encounter them where they are and to be transformed by them personally.

Our Catholic faithful have always been most responsive to emergencies and relief efforts to assist the poor and oppressed in crisis situations. And they have made a remarkable difference. So often the aid and assistance are delivered and immediate needs are addressed, but the chance to meet the poor where they live and work and play and can return the favors offered them is not something that we can experience. This is what I was able to enjoy on this mission and what I would like to share with you.

We began on the first day with a walk to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Most Catholics are familiar with the extraordinary apparition of Our Lady to a humble peasant, Juan Diego, on four occasions in December of 1531 at the site on which the blood of children had run down in sacrifice to pagan deities of the deeply religious Aztecs who believed that they were giving their best to the gods who ruled them. The gentle touch of Our Lady led to another outcome. Millions of converts to Christianity who came to learn of a God of love who desired not blood and human sacrifice but mercy.

The next two days were spent with a visit to the people who live, literally, in the city dump. Thanks to our mission director, we were able to spend a few hours with the children and adults who live in the most abject conditions imaginable, among the stinking refuse, where they sort out the garbage to earn a living from the waste products of the city, able to find valuables in the plastic and metal castoffs they can sell to eke out enough to feed their families — as an alternative to picking out scraps of food from garbage.

If ever there was an example of an economic caste system, here it is. Government offers few adequate social services for these people. After years of living in the dump, their flesh absorbs the putrid smell, so even if they attempt to escape, they will be branded by their stench. Our visit with them was not to “fix” their intractable plight, but to affirm and enjoy them as they are. Strange as this may sound, I was changed and blessed by their humanity.

On one site, I joined a group of men with a shot of tequila and watched children play a game of soccer with some of our more energetic young men, including two priests and a seminarian. A man named Reinaldo, we learned the first day, had never had a birthday party in his life. He was to become 52 the next day. We told him we would be back. And he showed up when we brought a chocolate cake and many of his friends and familiars joined us. Later we went to another part of the dump where three kids had birthdays this month — again not celebrated before. We brought two piñatas, one of Batman and another of Captain American. The kids came out and beat the living daylights out of the goofy effigies like kids anywhere, scrambling for the candies and goodies that gushed out of the paper maché figures. It was heartbreaking and exhilarating to see kids behaving like kids anywhere, just being kids.

The following day we went to a park in the city where homeless and derelicts often gather. They were prepped that we would be coming — it was a Sunday afternoon — by a remarkable woman, Sandra, who had been homeless, abused, lost in the margins, abandoned by her mother at the age of 2. Her story is itself a miracle of transformation to bring hope to anyone caught in the abyss of despair. I cannot describe here the witness she bore of her path from damnation to grace: it is much too graphic for these pages, but I feel I have met a saint.

We shared food and drink with men and women and children who were living on the street. Our joy came from looking them in the eye and thanking them for being alive and not losing hope. I had no delusions that we were “fixing” them. I could only thank them for being alive — staying alive — and accepting our desire to give them a little of our love. I felt privileged to bless them as they noticed my Roman collar and made bold to ask for my blessing. It was they who were blessing me. 

By our faith we are a people who believe in the dignity and equality of every human being, from conception to natural death. It is easy to feel more “equal” with people who share our economic, physical or intellectual status. I saw among the poor I encountered people who were intellectually, physically and perhaps even morally superior to me. All that made them “different” was purely accidental, quantitative — economic and geographical — not qualitative. They lived in a dump or on the street. What condemned them to these hovels, only God knows. They are as human and as beautiful and as loving as anyone else who lives in cleaner and safer suburban hovels. 

I will have more to share in future articles on what Hope of the Poor is doing to give our brothers and sisters caught in the vicious circle of poverty a way to healthier and more fulfilling lives. There is no question that they are making a difference and I will look forward to engaging many more to be a part of the mission (www.missionsofhope.org/craigjohring). 

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