Favela Jaqueline, São Paulo, Brasil. Photo by Dornicke via Wikimedia Commons

There I Discovered Something About Myself

"The word 'outskirts' summoned us to a responsibility that resides beyond calls to compassion." John Waters tackles how poverty should be approached as he prepares to curate the 2014 Rimini Meeting exhibit, "Generating Beauty."
John Waters

What, really, is poverty? We believe we know. We believe it’s a simple question. We may not always accept that the solution is straightforward, but still we think we know approximately where it lies. We may differ in the details: some of us talk about redistribution of resources, others about making markets more efficient and responsive. Yet, frequently such prescriptions appear to make things worse when applied. We give of our own wealth, out of sundry motives, and hope that it will be enough. But it is never enough. So we give more, and still it is not sufficient.

Often, the poverty we seek to treat becomes entrenched, soon new symptoms begin to manifest. In the place of outright deprivation, we have engendered a dependency that soon becomes, in its way, just as ominous as the conditions that preceded it. The poor remain “with us”–except, of course, that “we are not with them.” This really is poverty.

For the 2014 Meeting of Rimini, I have been asked to contribute as curator to the creation of an exhibition on the operations of AVSI in three locations: Quito in Ecuador, Nairobi in Kenya and Sao Paulo in Brazil. The exhibition will look at the educational projects that AVSI has built in these places, rooted in Fr. Giussani’s vision of an educative method that places the development of the person–the generation of a new subject–at its center. The title of our exhibition will be: “Generating Beauty: New Beginnings at the Ends of the Earth.

The title echoes the theme of this year’s Meeting. But what we follow is Fr. Giussani’s insistent voice that echoes to places where human circumstances are the most challenging imaginable, places that Pope Francis has called “the outskirts of existence.”

That phrase seemed immediately to gesture far beyond geography, or sociology, or ideology, beyond even the idea of allegiance to a faith. It summoned us to a responsibility that resides beyond calls to duty or compassion or even what is conventionally called charity. It struck me forcibly as a call to me in my personhood, as a human being, in my most fundamental essence–beneath everything I have learned, heard or come to believe– to call me to the question of who I am and what my destiny is.

A part of this call is the imposing question concerning what my responsibility might be to others. And then, immediately: who are these “others” and who am I for them? What does Christ demand of me?

It is not simple. It is not obvious. It is certainly not enough to stick my hand in my pocket and pull out a smattering of coins. This costs me less than nothing, because it quiets my soul’s guilt far more than it eases the grief or pain of the recipient, and so it leaves me also… wanting.

Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya. Via Flickr

"The word 'outskirts' summoned us to a responsibility that resides beyond calls to compassion."

THE INVASIONS. What then? Giussani shows us in his educative method, which places the human person at its center and offers not alms or aid or resources, the possibility of a total regeneration of the human person. This is what we were called to follow in our task of preparing this exhibit: how the call of Christ has given new leases on life in a series of human relationships in distant and diverse places, where the needs of man appear in one sense to be at their most basic and in another emerge as no different to the needs of human beings anywhere. In Quito, for example, we visited the “invasions” of Pisulí, one of the areas of the city which sprang up when people simply arrived from elsewhere and insisted upon a place, a home for themselves and their families, putting down their tents and guarding their space with a gun. In this area, today, two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, and most of these in extreme poverty. Many have been cheated over and over as a result of corruption, losing their properties again and again. And yet something in the spirit of these people has enabled them to survive and remain, to continue building what is a new civilization at the heart of an old one.

Into the lives of these people, through the work of AVSI, we saw the process of education not as a means of training operatives in an economy, but as a method for awakening the entire being. We went, then, to observe the process of faith becoming culture, which is what happens when the student (‘or anyone else for that matter’) meets an “adult” whose very presence is a proposal for an explanatory hypothesis of life in its totality. This, Giussani elaborated in The Risk of Education, “becomes a journey of recognition, a path of affection, and a process of appropriating and using reality for one’s own purposes.” Thus, the student too becomes an adult and a true protagonist in reality, capable himself of generating newness in history.

Along the way, we encountered many challenges to our certainties about what we already “knew,” many startling witnesses who confronted our preconceptions from the truth of their own lives. As to what I would now say that poverty is, I cannot say, not exactly. I see more clearly that the problem has for too long been bedeviled by easy analyses and explanations. But, in Sao Paulo I learned that it has something to do with a form of loneliness that I had not before focused on. The word ‘exclusion’ trips off the lips of politicians and philanthropists but what it conjures up in our culture is something partial and inadequate. It suggests a denial of participation in the economic life of the society but this is only the beginning. It is what flows from this that forges the vicious force that is poverty: the loss of citizenship, the dependency, the indignities, the self-hatred, the degradation of culture, the shame, the death of the person despite a body that continues to live. Poverty is a blow suffered, even though the society may not be aware of delivering it. And the pain and confusion occasioned by that blow can last a lifetime and be handed down from generation to generation.

One of the things I observed in Sao Paulo, through the work of CREN (Center for Rehabilitation, Education and Nutrition), which is supported by AVSI, is that malnutrition is not necessarily as clear-cut a condition as I had come to believe. We discovered that it has to do with the scarcity of good food, yes, or the wrong foods, but much more than that, it has to do with a form of amnesia. Mothers, displaced from their families in the countryside, come to live in the slums, marry, give birth–but then find that they have “forgotten” how to care adequately for their children in what are often desperate circumstances. Nurturing does not come naturally. It is a wisdom carried within a culture, and when cultures become ruptured by scarcity and displacement the carefully cultivated wisdom of previous generations becomes misplaced in a new place. This is one of the senses in which loneliness manifests itself as a core symptom of true, profound poverty.

"I learned that poverty has something to do with a form of loneliness that I had not before focused on."

VITAL COMPANIONSHIP. In this we can glimpse the importance of a human intervention–the radical act of regeneration that is education in its deepest sense. Such an intervention cannot be paternalistic for the very obvious reason that paternalism has already been seen to fail many times. It can only successfully occur as friendship, as a companionship in which an equality of need is acknowledged and made visible. We are all poor, but in different senses. We are all lonely, though not in ways that are immediately similar. The idea of companionship, then, is vital.

If poverty has an antidote then, it may well be beauty–beauty in its deepest truest sense: the echo of, or residue of, or nostalgia for some greatness in ourselves that we have forgotten. In Nairobi, we saw this most acutely in the stark contrast between the slums of Kibera and the freshness and lightness, of the classrooms at Little Prince and Cardinal Otunga schools. There the children experience the possibility of another life right where they live. To see these children growing before our eyes was moving beyond belief.

But the most amazing aspect is something else. And along the way–in Quito, Nairobi and Sao Paulo–we asked those we met to tell us what it has meant in their own lives to be invited to accompany and to be accompanied. What, really, does it mean to invite another to be himself, to help him to generate in himself a new human being?–“What is the method you apply to changing the lives of others?” Many times the same answer came back: “I myself changed.”