During a Holy Week service trip in Camden several years ago, five students and I had the graced experience of visiting one of Camden’s “tent cities.” Accompanied by the director of an organization with close ties to the city’s homeless population, we were welcomed as guests into this community – a community with rules and standards, a group of people who cared for one another, and who shared what they had. As the “mayor” of tent city took us through the community and people shared their stories, it was easy to see Christ suffering in our world today. Fr. Peter Hans-Kolvenbach, S.J., in speaking about Jesuit education once said that, “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection.” At the margins we find the clearest calls to love our God by loving our neighbor.
The Society of Jesus, and therefore Jesuit education, has a strong tradition of going to margins, of being with the most vulnerable. In 2008, in his first homily as the Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, S.J. said “Why do we want to love the poor, to help the lonely, to console the sad, to heal the sick and bring freedom to the oppressed? Simply because that is what God does. Nothing else.” Eleven years later, “Walking with the Excluded” is one of the four recently promulgated Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus, a reaffirmation and a deepening of an already existing commitment. (https://jesuits.global/en/about-us/universal-apostolic-preference) As an Ignatian community we are called to go to the margins – and in going to the margins of our world, we go to the margins of our own hearts. For if we truly walk with those who are excluded, if we learn their stories, if we try to understand the world from their perspective, we cannot help but be transformed by their dignity, their courage, and their resilience.
At the end of Mass during our Camden trip this January, the director of the Romero Center pointed out a man seated in the front pew. “Do you remember Anthony?” I did. Anthony was a homeless man who used to show up at the door of the Romero Center regularly, asking for some food. No longer homeless and several years older, Anthony bears slight resemblance to the man I used to encounter; he now travels a significant distance each week to celebrate Mass with the community that supported him when he needed it. Pope Francis has said that Christian joy lies not in a feeling of happiness, but in Christian hope, even in the midst of pain. Anthony and I chatted a bit after Mass and parted ways with an embrace, and in that embrace I better understood both Christian joy and hope. A prayer often attributed to Pedro Arrupe, S.J. declares that what you are in love with decides “what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.” By truly accompanying the heartbreak at the margins we can also be amazed by the joy of hope and the gratitude for our shared humanity— inspired to work with and for others to create a more just world.
By: Sue Baber