Recently I lived a beautiful experience while on missionary work in Peru. A group of 20 volunteers from the Oratory MSSP community came together with the intention of living and supporting our Paulist missionaries working in Peru for a few weeks.
Today I thought of sharing with you some personal reflections on this beautiful experience. St Thomas Aquinas wrote that in order to change the world we must change the images through which we perceive the world. One of the main misconceptions of many people about missionary work is that by manual labour and material help we make drastic changes in the life of these poor people.
What we experienced a few weeks ago in Peru was the fact that change happens while building relationships, meeting people, seeing faces, learning names and their personal stories. We soon came to realise that our presence was more important than anything we could give.
In reality, poverty is more than just lack of funds. Poverty mainly is the experience of people who, because of their poor situation, are treated as unimportant, a number in a system, an individual whose life is not as valuable as that of others.
Definitely, our first mission was that of a simple offering of presence; of being with; of entering in the humble houses of poor people with an open heart and ears as we listened to their painful stories. Poverty is not just about economics but about powerlessness, and neglect.
God redeemed us not by giving us spiritual advice, but by becoming one of us
Most certainly, our very presence had greater impact than the rooms we built and the goods we distributed. Genuine care is what really touched these people. People were totally amazed at how someone from across the ocean could actually decide to spend their vacation leave, at their complete personal expense, to visit these poor places, the very places that they wish so much to run away from, rather than go for a luxurious holiday or some exotic cruise.
The very heart of our faith is that God saved us not by giving us gifts or solving our problems but by the very fact that He took our humanity upon Himself, becoming one of us in total solidarity.
This is what we call the mystery of the incarnation: God has redeemed us not by giving us spiritual advice, not by eliminating poverty and suffering, but by becoming one of us, by living the experience of compassion and solidarity. This is what makes Christianity unique and theonly context in which Christian charity leaves lasting effects.
In our limited experience in Peru we tried hard not to trip on people in our attempt to help them. We tried hard not to have the heroic mentality that we know better but tried to support and appreciate our missionaries, and to be a drop of love, respect and solidarity in the ocean of indifference, poverty and pain. We were astonished with the sense of gratitude of the people, by their hospitality and the love shown to us in different ways and by them making us feel loved, welcome and respected.
At the end of this experience, a poor mother commenting on my concluding reflection, told me: “Father, if this is a drop in the ocean for you, for me and my family it is the ocean itself.” As we were leaving this mission we all experienced in the depths of our hearts the truth of the words of the Lord: “The one who gives is more blessed than who receives.”
Fr Martin Cilia is a member of the Missionary Society of St Paul.
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