Where We Dwell In Common: The Poor as a “Locus Ecumenicus”

Rhoda & Frances

Below is the text of a paper presentation given at the Ecclesiological Investigations Assisi 2012 conference on the topic of ecumenism, the theme of which was “Where We Dwell in Common.”  While the text does contain some academic references, it is very blog-worthy and I am posting it as a memorial to my friend Rhoda, pictured on the above right with her sister, Frances.  This week marks the Yahrzeit of Rhoda’s passing.

Every so often, I visit an elderly friend, eighty-eight year old Rhoda.  Rhoda is a gentle, sweet woman, whose only wealth in life and reason for living is her older sister, Frances.  In a little more than a year, I have witnessed Rhoda struggle to live her life on her own terms.  She has overcome a debilitating stroke while fighting bitterly and successfully against tightfisted administrators to transfer herself out of one nursing home into another in order to live in the same facility as her sister.  Frances is ninety-two, bedbound, has dementia, and is effectively muted by the intubation and feeding tubes that keep her alive.  She cannot care for herself in any way, and is wholly reliant on the nursing staff.  It is unlikely that Frances recognizes the sister who has struggled so much to simply be with her.  When I visit Rhoda, I wheel her into the elevator and take her two flights down to Frances’ room where I rearrange the furniture so that Rhoda can be near enough to Frances to hold her hand, stroke her face, and speak to her, letting her know she is there. One visit, as I was leaving, I told Rhoda how much I admired her, saying she was a tough lady who has overcome so much to be near the person she loves most in the world.  One might not know it looking at her, but no one could keep her from accomplishing what she set about doing.  Rhoda tightened her grip on my hand, her eyes widening with tears, and nodded in agreement, and said to me, “I’m burning inside.”

I often recount this moment with Rhoda because it is one of the greatest gifts of my life: to have listened and articulated my friend’s life to her in way in which she felt deeply recognized and understood and then to have her reciprocate by opening herself up to me by expressing the life within her.  In both rhetorical and real senses, Rhoda matters little to the world because she is one of many poor old women in wheelchairs lining nursing home halls, and yet to me she is a friend in the actual sense of the word.  My friendship with Rhoda is a gift and one I would not have experienced had I not been asked and encouraged by my faith community, the community of Sant’Egidio, to enter into friendship with the poor in a very concrete way.

Theologies of liberation lift up the poor as a locus theologicus, a source and place for theology.  I offer here that the poor are also a locus ecumenicus and that this has radical consequences for Christian life and self-understanding.  To say that the poor are a source of ecumenism is to say that we dwell in common when we are oriented and committed to life with the poor in ways that are not simply charity or pastoral ministry or a way to pass time or to build our social image or ego.  For Christians, this orientation to life with the poor comes as a response to the God who calls us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to know the crucified God present to us in the world in the littlest, the oppressed, and the invisible.

In the thirteenth century, the patron of this city and this country, Giovanni “Francesco” di Bernardone, Il Poverello, the “little poor one,” responded to this call, giving himself to the imitation of Jesus, joyfully living the life of the poor.  Without spiritualizing poverty or romanticizing the poor into a class that strips them of their unique personhood, I want to be clear that this does not mean rejoicing in poverty or that poverty should form the ideal of truly human life as God wishes for humanity or that the poor should become a new elite by inverting current injustices.  To share in the life of the poor is a to suffer myriad forms of violence including but not limited to those of sociopolitical structures.  What the presence of the poor does mean for those that follow Jesus is that, absent the physical presence of Jesus, human persons know and participate in the joy of the resurrection and the Kingdom of God in and through friendship with the poor who are the crucified people of the world.  In accompanying the weakness and vulnerability of the poor we connect to our common humanity and to the presence of God and because of this love, come to despise the oppression of poverty and all the real forces of division that bring our loved ones to suffer.  More than bringing us to the presence of God and the brokenness of sin in the world, it calls us to act.

Speaking from the context of the Latin American church, Ignacio Ellacuría names the church of the poor as an historical sacrament of liberation.  Ellacuría writes in his essay “The Church of the Poor, Historical Sacrament of Liberation,”

One can say that the true historical body of Christ, and therefore the preeminent locus of his embodiment and his incorporation is not only the church, but the poor and oppressed of the world, so that the church alone is not the historical body of Christ, and it is possible to talk about a true historical body of Christ outside the church.

In a very real sense, to know the body of Christ, Christians will be called out of their churches and of out of Church in the broadest sense as the whole of the Christian faith.  Christians are not called to live only with the poor of one’s own church or even the poor of all Christian churches, but simply to live with all the poor as embodied persons needing incorporation into the whole of the world—full stop.  While the notion of the body of Christ existing outside the bounds of the church in the poor is open to the same criticisms as Karl Rahner’s notion of the anonymous Christian as patronizing and inclusivist in diminishing the savingness of other religious traditions, Ellacuria paves a way for Christians to know and love God as always calling us to transcend our limitations, even religious and ecclesiological ones. Like finding treasure hidden in a field and joyfully selling all one has to buy that field, life with the poor opens up glimpses of the Kingdom enough to call us beyond our own beloved trappings of God and of Church.  Ellacuria understands the church not as an end in itself but as a means of serving and growing the Kingdom of God from two points outside itself that become one in the Kingdom: Jesus and the world.  The orientation of the church must always be non-self-centered.  I offer that such an orientation impacts the self-understanding and conscience of the ecclesial community.  If we can speak of personal conscience as the whole person coming to know, discern, and act in accordance with their most authentic self, and of theological conscience as the same as regards the conversation of God in the world and as a response to the God that calls us in our particularity, ecclesiological conscience is to know, discern, and act authentically as an ecclesial community in service of the Kingdom.

There are practical consequences for Christians and churches that take life with the poor seriously.  In an effort to advance the self-understanding of my own Roman Catholic church in the world today, I look at two modern ecclesial entities known for their global efforts to integrate the nature of the church with service to the poor—the World Council of Churches (via its Ecclesiology and Ethics study program) and the Community of Sant’Egidio, an ecumenical lay movement under the auspices of the Roman Catholic church.  Using the WCC and Sant’Egidio as lenses for interpreting the other, I find that the WCC recognizes Sant’Egidio as an ecumenical and interreligious movement that is a koinonia-generating experience—a human space for the Gospel, diverging from the latter in how it defines membership but converging in liturgical practice.  Using Sant’Egidio as a lens for interpreting the WCC, it offers the latter three facets toward renewed ecumenical praxis: faithful friendship with the poor, life as a community of Pentecost disciples, and fidelity to Word of God.  Finally, all the recommendations of Sant’Egidio to the WCC can be applied directly to the Roman Catholic church while additionally calling the Roman Catholic church to work for unity amidst difference among the many disparate groups under the umbrella of its membership through taking up its own internally conciliar movement.

Life with the poor calls Christians to humble their lives and their churches to the service of the Kingdom, because friendship with the poor continually breaks down and rebuilds our understandings of Christian mission in the world.  When my friend Rhoda passed away a few weeks ago, I was one of five friends of Sant’Egidio to attend her Jewish funeral service, organized and paid for by a charitable organization that respectfully buries the Jewish poor.  As a community, we were moved by the welcome of the minion of volunteers, the otherness of the service, and the invitation to participate in her burial through shared prayer, petitions for forgiveness, and the work of shoveling earth onto her simple coffin.  In a very real way, my friendship with Rhoda continues to be a blessing in my life and the life of Sant’Egidio for breaking open a space to receive the gift of being a guest of the Lord, to be humble and vulnerable before the generosity, welcome, and practice of another community of faith.  The experience is one of gratitude for being continually surprised by the mystery of God in the discipline of friendship with the poor—the praxis of living life in community with our ears to the heart of God.

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