Almana Ger Yatom

Widows, Strangers, Orphans: Journeying with the Poor

How Do We Journey with the Poor?


How Do We Journey with the Poor?

What Do We Do When We Live Among the Poor?

Some purposely do immersion, not because they are poor but they choose to live among the poor to be in solidarity with the poor. When we do, the first goal must be to learn to journey with the poor. Journeying means we seek to enter into their lives, and find out what kind of spirituality they have.

When my students go there, I tell them not to bring more money than they need. They should only bring what a normal poor person would carry with him for that period.

A student called me one time asking how much should they allocate as budget for their food during immersion. I never thought of it and I just blurted out, ten pesos (22 US cents) per meal? My wife who overheard the conversation gave me a look that said she wanted to strangle me because of that horrible reply. So I had to defend myself quickly. I said, Allan, who used to live under the bridge, his house hanging on the bridge bottom, above the water, on the coastal road, a total of 5 in his family would need to have 50 pesos per meal and if they ate three meals, that would be 150 pesos a day. If we allot 20 pesos, Allan would need 300 a day for food but he only earns 300 a day and on top of his food, he still has to get from that money his transportation, water and other things. So, it can’t be 20 pesos, or else he will need to earn more than 300 but the truth is that he does not even earn everyday, only when there is a job opening which means he earns on the average less than 300.

I lived with him once there and we gave sneaky names to our food, adobo for example meant rice with soy sauce (normal adobo means pork belly slowly cooked in soy sauce).

It is far more important to learn to journey with the poor than it is to promote so-called development works among the poor. Helping the poor rise out of poverty is secondary only to our understanding of why God said the poor are rich in faith. It is also more important for us to see Jesus in them (Mother Teresa’s famous quote, “I can see Jesus in the poor, in the dying, in the sick.”).

(I was asked one time by one assistant dean of Azusa Pacific University about this, he said, to what end? meaning, what is the purpose of this journeying? It made me realize that for me it was quite obvious but for others, it is not. Westerners only bother mostly about work and outcomes which is why the question. Our chairman Rev. Leo Armas reminded us recently that in our ministry, the goal is to always see Jesus. In a very modern society, Christianity can be so cognitive that Jesus becomes just an idea. We go to the slums to offer Jesus as an idea. As a result, we find it necessary to emphasize in our community that we want to see Jesus, in ourselves, among ourselves, within the poor people and in our sacraments. To the question, to what end? This is our answer: we just dont want to see development among the poor, we also want to see Jesus.).

Paul in Acts quotes these words: It is more blessed to give than to receive. When we minister among the poor, we need to be able to receive that blessing he promised. We can give and give till we die but it is only when we give to Jesus that we will receive that blessing. Through solitude we will see the hand that receive our gift, the food to the hungry, is Jesus himself. Mother Teresa said their mission was a direct ministry to Jesus himself. It was to Jesus that they gave their food. She used the passage in Matthew 25.40: “What you did to the least of these brethren, you also did to me.”

When we journey with the poor, it is to know how they live. I tell our hosts in the slums that they should not buy anything special or prepare special food for us when we live with them. Otherwise, we will not know what they eat or their lifestyle.

Some enter the slums with a paternalistic attitude, to give to the poor. They are almost saying the poor cannot teach us anything and the poor have no spirituality. The poor are broken, dysfunctional and needy. This is hurting to the poor. Some also bring lots of food or money and when they are in the slums, they give a feast, buy much food for their hosts, and give everyone a treat. This is the reverse of journeying with the poor; it is in fact, making the poor to journey with the rich. We are asking the poor to journey with us and not us to journey with them. The poor will come to see how we live and how lavish our lives are. The worst part is that they are impressed with how much resources we have and begin to look up to us. And then they begin to feel small. To journey, we need to let go of our resources and live where they live, eat what they eat.

We should be clear about who needs who? It is the rich who needs the poor. 1 John 3 is very clear on this. He who has a surplus of the world’s goods and finds a brother in need and does not provide for him, does the love of Christ abide in Him. The logic of this passage can elude us. But here it is. If we have wealth and we don’t provide for the poor, then all our worship, prayer, quiet time, in other words, all our spirituality, is empty and meaningless. Unless we take care of the poor, God disowns our spirituality. In short, the way we treat the poor authenticates our spirituality. But this does not apply to the poor. They don’t need us to authenticate their spirituality. We need to go to the poor to make our spirituality real.

“Any focus on Christian discipleship which consistently neglects the needs of the poor is a defective form of discipleship. Any spirituality that misses the poor is inadequate, deficient, and needs correction.” – Roberta Hestenes.

God has made the poor His plumb line. If he wanted to castigate His people, he used the poor and when he wanted to praise them, he also used the poor. The first set of plumb lines was the orphans, widows and strangers (illegal migrants in America). The second set is found in the New Testament, used by Jesus, the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. Each time, the plumb line is used by God to set his people aright again.

African-American lawyer for death row convicts, Bryan Stevenson recently reminded us that God will not judge us on whether we have evangelized many people, or whether our churches are big and wealthy, but God will judge us whether we have clothed the naked, fed the hungry, treated the sick and visited the prisoners (the sheep and the goats).

It is the rich who needs the poor. There are those who argue that having the poor inside their wealthy church would not be practical. The poor would feel out-of-place. They would not understand the sermon which is in English. They will be embarrassed when they are beside wealthy matrons dressed in expensive clothes. Also, the poor smell. With an argument from convenience, the church has set aside God’s commandment to have the rich take care of the poor. But considering that it is the rich who needs the poor, perhaps the argument is already moot and academic. It is not the poor who should go to the church of the rich. Besides they have no money for transportation. It is the rich who should go to the poor. They have their cars. And they need to go there to authenticate their spirituality or else be condemned: does the love of Christ abide in them?

The New Friars

There is a group called the new friars from a book by Scott Bessenecker. I love all these people we call the new friars, and I have students also in the urban poor class who are Americans going to the slums all over the world and they are so admirable and inspiring. I myself came into this ministry because of one of them, Viv Grigg. They represent a new breed of Americans or westerners, not the top down kind, they are servants and they go down to journey with the poor, by being poor.

But their message is not to the poor but to the affluent society where they come from. What they are saying with their immersion among the poor is this, that their kinsmen should put a stop to materialism, excessive consumption, greed and insensitivity, especially of not being affected by the fact that 90% of the world are poor and 10% own almost all of the wealth of the world, and these wealth are concentrated in the countries these new friars come from. The new friar is almost like a revolt, like the Wall Street sit down strike. It’s a protest against the lifestyle and philosophy of capitalism and concentrated wealth.

The new friars have no message to the urban poor. We must remember that the poor in the poor countries like the Philippines are not the same as the poor in affluent countries like America. The poor in the Philippines are very healthy and their only problem is they have no money. The poor in Chicago or New York or Seattle are dysfunctional, depressed, addicts, parolees, etc. and you need a PhD in psychology to be able to minister to them. So the journey among the poor here is really quite a pleasant one for the new friars unlike if you journey in the Columbian communities in LA or the ghettoes of Lawndale in Chicago where you will probably get killed within two days after moving in. Journeying with the poor in these places can be unsettling and exhausting. I had occasion to watch them. I was in the worse slum in Chicago, Seattle, New York, LA and San Francisco, and in other parts of the world, Paris, London (West End), Pretoria, Cape Town, Amsterdam, etc.

Of course, there are also now a huge wave of poor who are migrants coming out of war torn countries or simply fleeing desperate poverty. Someone has said, while the bible seeks so much to protect these poor migrants, these countries are making them criminals. Many Americans hate these migrants for taking away jobs. These present a new problem and a new dimension to ministry to the poor. My country alone sends millions of these as migrants to Hong Kong, Dubbai, Berlin, Tokyo, etc.

I cannot forget meeting homeless people in Tampa and was curious why they were asking a specific amount of change all the time. Later, one of the staff of the Underground explained to me that the amount was how much they needed to take a bus from one point to the next, which was their food stations, where they get free food.

In the Philippines, the poor sometimes see these rich people or new friars in a different light, not new friar-ry. The urban poor here look at the new friars also as people who don’t do anything, they loiter, hang around with no visible means of support. They give the poor the wrong impression that one can become a missionary without having to work or earn a living. The new friars are also are very cliquish, exclusive clubs. It’s for the whites only or at least for those with foreign passports. These people hang out with the poor in the slums but in their core, only the well-to-do can become a member. One of our friends went to join them in Bangkok and this was recounted to us by a dear friend within the so-called new friar who told us sadly they could not accept him because he had no money. This clique were all of the moneyed class and if we added people who had no money into their movement, the whole movement would collapse.

In the Philippines a new friar group has worked in the slums for more than twenty years and they have only taken as regular members two or three Filipinos. In our group, the Companion with the Poor, the urban poor have taken over our mission, being the overwhelming majority, each one has one vote. Most Western mission will take the urban poor but in the end, they really keep them at a distance when it comes to finances and leadership. A member of a big foreign mission once asked me how we could recruit so many and they can’t even recruit one. I thought that their mission even though they have been working among the poor longer than we have been, could be keeping these poor at arm’s-length distance over finances and leadership.

Money can really keep communities from forming and keep people apart. The golden rule applies: he who has the gold makes the rules. This can be stifling when Filipinos work with Americans and the former has no money with the latter having all the money. The dilemma of Westerners is how to build community without destroying it with money matters.

Dr. Jumawan, one of the earliest Filipino leaders working with Americans in our country told many stories of his struggles with American missionaries. His greatest struggle was to have a desk inside the mission house. Americans will help you and when you become independent, they will leave you and they will never work under you or with you (except in my time, when some crazy people from Toronto decided to do it otherwise). So, in our country now we have white western missionary offices side by side Filipino offices (the OMF foreign side by side OMF Philippines, also with the Conservative Baptist Mission, etc.). The whites cannot afford to mingle their finances with the locals nor allow them one vote each.

The best way rich White Westerners can work with the poor is to empower the poor and give them ownership over their ministry. This can happen by being transparent with money, let the poor we work with know all about our money. If we are able to raise money for the poor or because of the poor or because we work among the poor, the poor must be told about it, and be informed about how much money came and why. The poor must also be given the power to decide with us how to spend or use the money. Most White Westerners wont do that and this pushes the poor away and make them feel even more weak.

We have several of the so-called new friars in our mission now, lovely men and women, with great stamina (after all the sickness and bad food) and we are helping them to see what their real message and mission is and we are hoping they will make an impact on their kinsmen.

Parenthetically, there is an almost reverse impact when Filipinos try to do incarnational ministry among the poor. When a Filipino from the upper class goes down to the slums, it is usually seen as a demotion. There is still so much colonial mentality in our society that a well-meaning Filipino Christian living in the slums can be looked down by the people in the slums, he is viewed as a failure and sometimes, even mocked or avoided. The poor, with their colonial mentality, wants to have friends who are powerful and successful. They want a lawyer friend or doctor friend but not a poor and unsuccessful friend, poor like themselves.

In this sense, I also wonder if the westerners who do incarnational approaches may also suffer the same fate as Filipinos entering the slums, if these foreigners have no US passport and cannot afford a plane ticket home anymore. If they have completely given up their wealth and power to become a nobody like the poor, will the poor not also look down on them.

Incarnational ministry is still lacking one step. Americans or white in general are proud of saying they will help the locals become independent but they also in the process promote the independence that kills community and in many ways they are opposing the quest for interdependence which is the foundation of true community. I have met white Americans who have done the most radical thing, which is after our independence, they have elected to work under us, under the local leadership. This is very difficult for most white missions. They would rather stay away. But even the staying away does not create a total barrier. Once in a while they will admit a Filipino or two into their ranks, those who think like them and won’t cause so much problem financially. In the end, what is created is a new form of elitism and from the perspective of the many locals, those who have succeeded in becoming part of the white group are the fortunate ones, the new elites. All meanwhile dream someday of becoming part of that white group, someday…

This becoming a nobody is the journey on the road to obscurity that all who journey with the poor must take. It is means to journey till we become nobody because the poor are. There is the constant threat of the celebrity status that we must confront like demons that clings to us. We must be careful about becoming the expert about the urban poor and later we are invited to speak in prestigious fora and become a celebrity at the expense of the poor. This celebrity status, we need to cast out constantly and relentless seek to become a nobody. Mother Teresa fought this celebrity status fiercely in her daily life.

Those who journey with the poor for a long time will sense this obscurity. Do my friends still remember me? Does God know where I am? This is what Filipinos feel each time they journey into anonymity with the poor. It is only in this way do we finally embrace the poor because we have become like them, faceless and unknown except to God. The movement to anonymity begins with a movement towards simplicity, a lifestyle that can fit in a dime.

Viv Grigg told me once that the lower we go, the higher God will bring us. The church today has been deceived into thinking as the world does, that the way up is to become rich and powerful. Jean Vanier, a Canadian, talked about downward mobility which was to connect with the poor and powerless. It was ironic to him that he was sharing that message in 1998 in Harvard, a place where everyone is taught the opposite, which was, if you want to succeed, you need to connect with the rich and powerful.

We also see this downward mobility in Jesus who though he was rich became poor in order to make others rich. John the Baptist said it also, I must decrease and he must increase. Henri Nouwen finally left Princeton and joined L’Arche with Vanier to journey with handicaps and mentally retarded people. The whole journey though is seen best in Mother Teresa who though she tried hard to become a nobody, ended up always at the top, at the pinnacle of celebrityhood, and where she spoke to Kings, Queens, Princesses and Presidents and billionaires. The only way up is down, because God said, he would put down the rich and powerful and lift up the poor.

The new friar as a concept needs to grow also, the book seem to imply that only rich foreigners are “new friars” because they leave their affluence and become poor. On the other hand almost all our people in our mission are already poor and also live in the slums but they would never be considered as new friars in the way Scott Bessenecker has defined them. I was a missionary in China for a year and I was very poor there. I ate almost just two dollars a day (the Chinese Maling brand of Luncheon Meat). I went to minister in the inner areas of Xiamen because I could not afford to live in the city, where incidentally most of the white missionaries were already working.

We want to hold hands with the new friars, we hope that one day, their message to their countrymen will be heard, which is that they give up this wasteful affluence and greed and to give generously and live frugally like the new friars are doing now. Once they succeed in their mission, the true message of their countrymen, their own churches in America and Europe, will finally be heard. American Christians like the rest of the Western Christians, have a great message to us poor people from poor countries. And this message of America can be brought to the surface by the new friars living in the slums and speaking prophetically to their kinsmen back home:

America’s message to us poor in the Philippines and other poor countries is this: “hey, little brothers, we are your older brothers, we have journeyed ahead of you in materialism and capitalism. We have been there, gone there, done that, and all. We want to tell you that we have reached the top and there is nothing there, it’s all emptiness and isolation. Our message to you is this, stop wanting to become like us, stop wanting to be wealthy like us while you still can, while your communities are still intact, before your societies fragment, before you degenerate into isolation from each other, before you become like us, stop this journey towards materialism and capitalism! Don’t go there, we have been there and it is not where you want to go.”

We have some dilemmas in the urban poor ministry. When we have made the poor wealthy, will they suddenly come under the curse where in Jesus says, it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle?

Or, can we accept that many or even most of these poor, after we have become their friends, after many years of journeying with them, that still many will not rise up out of poverty, many will remain poor, grow old poor, die poor and be buried poor, despite what we do?

The Americans who come to the slums must also see that they are precisely the rich referred to here, they will have a hard time entering the Kingdom, says Pastor Francis Chan from San Francisco. All the Americans belong to the upper 10% of the whole world in terms of wealth. This is despite the fact that many Americans are complaining that they are poor, that they are suffering.

Frankie Schaeffer, son of the famous evangelicals, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, recently converted to Greek Orthodoxy. He said in his recent book, Crazy for God, that evangelicals give you the impression they have arrived. There is no journey. Frankie likes to look at himself as still a work in progress. And the Greek Orthodox church emphasizes this journey.

Different Worship.

The two approaches, evangelicalism and orthodoxy differ from each other. The evangelical protestant approach to worship for example is different from the orthodox churches whether Roman Catholic or Greek or Russian. The center of worship of evangelical churches is the sermon. The goal of worshipers going to church on Sunday is to learn. Their main tool is their mind or rational faculty. When a preacher repeats his sermon, he could be fired. The congregation says the service was not helpful when they don’t learn anything, meaning, did not learn anything new.

The Orthodox Church holds mass and the center of the mass is the communion or the lifting of the chalice during communion. The goal is to connect with God, to enter into God’s holy presence. The whole mass is a carefully orchestrated drama to ensure that this entering into the presence happens. Even the reading of Scripture is preceded with very solemn invocations or loud bells, to remind the congregation that they are coming before something that is so holy. The main tool they use is not their brain but their hearts. If the priest repeats his sermon, he will likely not get fired. Learning can be repetitive, the sermon can be repeated, and the congregation is encouraged to revisit past lessons, over and over again. The sermon is usually just a short (15 minute) homily, with questions posed for reflection and at times, even left unanswered on purpose.

Some will argue that the evangelical church capitalizes on sermons because it is their way of being biblical and transforming their members through proper and solid teachings of the Word of God. The people who say this are actually misled or misinformed. The lowest learning happens during the sermon. Scientific studies have shown that the greatest learning happens not through the pulpit but in the small group bible studies.

And yet, the emphasis on the Word as well as on the Chalice are both necessary. We need, as evident in the way Dr. NT Wright describes the balance in the Psaltery as a transformative ritual in the church, to have a spirituality grown not only from the Temple worship but also from the worship through obeying the Torah.

Different Way They Enter the Slums

There is also a difference in the way the evangelical protestant and the Orthodox Church enters the slums or in a sense, journeys (or not journey) with the poor. The evangelical protestant typically does not journey. He has found Jesus. He is not looking for Jesus anymore. The orthodox on the other hand, are on a journey, they are looking for Jesus. Also, their theologies differ. The evangelical believes he is bringing God to the slums, to the poor while the orthodox (in this case, a priest) is going to the slums to find God. He believes God was there even before he arrived in the slums.

The evangelical, a pastor, has a goal, to plant a church in the slum community. His style is MBO, management by objective. While the orthodox priest is on this journey, his mission order is to be the parish priest of the community, and the details of his mission order says, it is where he will be all his life, he will grow old there, die there and be buried there. The priest is therefore not in a hurry. When he is in the slum community, he walks slowly. He is also quite contemplative. He is discerning, and he tries to see Jesus in the people, in the sick, the dying, or the hungry. The pastor has a fast stride, he needs to finish something and then move on, maybe to another community. He believes his only source of authority is the Bible, so he only sees Christ when he opens the Bible and does not believe Christ will reveal himself in the sick or dying or hungry.

When you visit them, the pastor is careful to explain to you that so and so are members of his church, they attend his bible studies. And so and so are not members, they don’t attend his bible study. The priest when he comes, he embraces the whole community. His mission order says the whole community is his parish, which includes all the people there, even the pastor, and the trees and the animals. We can say the priest unifies the community while the pastor divides it.

The Role of Solitude in Our Journey

How do we journey with the poor? When Mother Teresa says she sees Christ in the sick or in the dying, and when he ministers to the poor, she is ministering directly to Christ, this approach requires a lot of discernment and contemplation. To be contemplative requires a lot of discipline in solitude. Solitude is a spiritual exercise of attending to the presence of God. This involves a lot of silence, either alone or together in community (the concept of solitude is grounded always in community so even alone, solitude must be born out of community). Solitude is the key to learning to journey with the poor.

Solitude is not just silence.

It is always about listening, listening to the voice of Jesus, letting Jesus speak lovingly to us. Silence alone is not solitude. We need lots of honesty and integrity to enter into silence that it be done in order to listen to Jesus. We need to be present. Yoga wants us to empty our minds so that the evil spirits can come in and possess us. Christian contemplation is simply to rest the mind so that we are 100% present. When we are present, we can see a lot of things. When our hearts are not defensive, willing to receive pain and joy, we can hear everything. When we listen with our hearts and are present, we stop listening to words, we begin to listen to the heart of the speaker. It is this way that we can hear God.

Doherty even claims that even amidst noise as long as our posture is that of listening, we can still have solitude. Yes, I agree, even in the midst of the squalor of the slums, the filth and noise and congestion, we can have solitude according to Father Carlo Carretto. The slums can be our desert, the poustinia of Doherty. But we need to start with silence, rest and waiting to cultivate this listening solitude. It is hard to jump right away to solitude in the noisy places.

Solitude is the fasting of the mind when the winds of the mind are folded says Doherty. Fasting of food is hard but fasting of the mind is hardest. When we stop talking and just listen, we empty our soul and it is kenosis. When we are empty, not just in our stomach, then we can be filled, it is in our brokenness and emptiness that God can speak through us.

Solitude is principally a desert affair. Solitude is normally experienced in the hostile and uninhabited desert. The Old and New Testament narratives mentions desert many times. Desert is a significant theological construct in the lives of very important people in the Bible like Moses, David and Jesus. God gave all the laws to His people in the desert, while they were sojourning in the desert. David, who wrote many of the Psalms, roamed the desert for many years as a fugitive. Jesus had his desert, where he was tempted. John the Baptist went out of the city and preached in the desert.

The Monastic movement (preceded by the hermetic movement) brought this desert concept into the theology of the church. The church in turn glamorized this spiritual practice and instead of seeking solitude in the desert, silent retreats are now done in luxurious gardens. Solitude is difficult to practice in these modern times, I would say almost impossible. But without solitude, we will not be able to journey at all.

Everyone is on a spiritual journey, even the unbelievers. It is a journey of our whole life and the journey becomes a conscious journey when we realize Jesus accompanies us on this journey. I have asked many of my students to plot their spiritual history, starting even before they were born. Some will say, their mother wanted to abort them while they were in the womb. And so, their journey begins even from there. As they plot out their history, and mark out the significant milestones of their life, I ask them to divide the milestones into good and bad ones. I also ask them to mark out a milestone for when they were saved or met Jesus. What is startling is this, when I ask them where was God in their life history, many will point God being present in their bad milestone as much as in their good milestone. God was there when they graduated college (gratefulness) but God was also there when they were imprisoned for stealing or when they failed their board examination. And the most surprising is that all of them will say God was there even before they were born again.

God was there even before we were born. Psalm 139 tells us that God looked at us when we were in the womb. God formed us there. In fact, even before that happened, God marked out all the days of our life already.

In the Road to Emmaus, we notice two things about our spiritual journey. The disciples did not recognize Jesus who was walking with them, even talking with them. And second, when they recognized Jesus, Jesus suddenly disappears. These are the two marks of our spiritual journey. We are constantly discerning Jesus, seeking him, practicing the presence of God. Also, we see him only fleetingly. When we do, in the next moment he is no longer there.

The Orthodox Church continued the old tradition of ringing bells. In the Roman Catholic Church, the bells are rung twice in the day, the Angelus, and when people hear the bells, they stop, and pause and make the sign of the Cross. It is a way of being conscious of God’s presence. This is difficult for many evangelicals who are more cognitive than experiential in their faith. Many would not have an awareness of God’s presence throughout their entire year. Attending to God’s presence or entering into His presence seem absent in the evangelical spirituality. The Muslims actually do it five times in a day! The muezzin shouts or calls through the loud speakers, to remind the faithful to kneel down and acknowledge God’s presence. If we could do this in our churches, it would help our people to journey.

Solitude from the Garden to the Desert

Solitude can be done these days only in the garden. We need to transport our paradigm of solitude from the garden, to the desert. This may only be possible theoretically as very few could go to an actual desert. The famous desert experiences of our modern times are with the monks of South Dakota, in America. The most popular one in the last century was in the life of Father Carlo Carretto, and his journey in the Algerian desert is recorded in his book, Letters from the Desert. But before launching into the desert, considering our weak spiritual state, it may be necessary to begin our practice of solitude first in the nice garden of large monasteries. Once we have grasped solitude in the garden, we may have a chance to engage solitude in the desert as our next step.

The desert is the normal context for solitude. The desert is blistering hot in the morning and freezing cold at night. It is harsh, filled with rocks and sand, snakes and scorpions. There is no wifi or mobile phone signal, and nothing can grow there. It is hard to find shade to protect one from the scorching sun. There are no people or trees. No work can be done there. Desert creates the contrast that highlights God’s absence and our intense desire for God. The ultimate desert is Christ death on the cross when he cried, Father why have you forsaken me?

Alone but Not Lonely

Nearing his death, Jesus warned his disciples that they would also abandon him and he would be left alone. But, he assured them that he would not be alone because the Father would be with him. This aloneness is the entry point into solitude. There is a big difference between loneliness and aloneness. Loneliness means being isolated, estranged from others. Hell was created to isolate people from God permanently so that even their prayers do not reach God. Loneliness is not just running from other people (being isolated from society), but loneliness happens also because we are running from ourselves.

The need to be alone is something all Christians need to do. We need to be able to embrace who we are, stop running away from ourselves. As Carl Jung would put it, how can we so easily and quickly offer ourselves to others when we cannot even tolerate our own selves? To be alone then is to be willing to embrace ourselves, the way God sees us.

In the book, the Cloud of Unknowing, the humility spoken of there is equivalent to our modern concept of self-awareness, the ability to see ourselves honestly, the way God see us. We cannot come to God except as we are, not as we want to be. If we cannot embrace who we are, then we cannot come to God, or journey with others.

Solitude and self awareness
We dont want to make people introspective for that would lead to much self centeredness but self awareness is very different from introspection. Doherty wrote in Poustinia (desert) that introspection is us coming to ourselves, speaking to ourselves. The old word for self awareness (see Cloud of Unknowing) was humility, it is being able to see ourselves as God sees us, warts and all. Self awareness is humility or being unselfconscious. In solitude we want to encourage people to be aware of God’s looking at them and to begin to see themselves the way God sees them.

There is also a big difference between confession and repentance. Imagine a person living in a dark cave all his life. He is dirty but he does not know it because it is dark and he cannot see. When one day he comes out of the cave, for the first time he sees he is dirty now that he is under the light. This is the beautiful message of 1 John 1. Confession opens fellowship with Jesus. We are not even saved yet at this point or soon will be. When we confess we are sinners, God can now hold us and spank us and embrace us. We are now real, authentic and concrete.

In Genesis, when we sinned, God said something so mysterious, he called out to Adam, “Where are you, Adam?” as though He did not know or could not see. But God could see all things and even if we hide in the darkness, the darkness will be like light to him (Psalm 139). The reason is Adam has entered into his false self and not even God could see him anymore, Adam was hiding and God says in 1 john 1 if anyone says he is not a sinner he is a liar. Confession is simply coming out into the light where God can finally see us and we can see ourselves as we really are, sinners.
Repentance is entirely different. It means taking a 180 degree turn, away from sin, away from our addiction, away from our lust and to walk towards God and to follow Jesus. This is what it means to be saved. Introspection makes us self centered and self awareness makes us humble. Just imagine, when one knows he is humble, he is no longer humble.

Aloneness is a posture of openness, to self and to God. We are afraid to be alone because we cannot bear our own selves, we cannot tolerate ourselves. But when we are able to be alone, it means we have embraced ourselves. When we are alone, we also know that we are not really alone, God is with us. Many contemplative people will say that we only find Jesus in our solitude through encountering our true selves. We first see our real selves before we can see Jesus. That which we fear so much, our real selves, comes before Jesus. We must ask ourselves then, who was it who went to Jesus? If we are so afraid to embrace who we are, who was it then who knelt and prayed to Jesus?

Hosea describes a very strange scene in Chapter 2. After God punished His people, he saves them and comforts them. Instead of bringing them home, God brings them to the desert. Desert may mean, alone with God, exclusively with God.

3 dimensions of desert
We have been doing silent retreats for more than a decade now and it has always been an act of going to the desert, the desert of John the Baptist, Jesus, Moses, Elijah and others.
I have always seen desert as the path to aloneness versus loneliness. Jesus said, a time is coming when you will all abandon me and i will be alone but i will not be alone because the father will be with me. Silent retreat is a direct refutation of loneliness. In loneliness many sexualize their desires and go into pornography and prostitutes not realizing what they seek is intimacy not sex.
Now here are 3 dimensions of desert by some of the great praying people.
It is kenosis according to Doherty. Just imagine Jesus in the womb, God inside the mother for 9 months. In Philippians where we learn of kenosis, Jesus emptied himself of his being God. Silent retreat is about emptying in order to be filled and also to experience the emptying of Jesus.
Desert is also according to Jean Vanier of l’arche, a downward mobility, a going down to the poor, the broken, the helpless. it is to walk the path of obscurity. Father Carlo Carretto explains that one day our solitude in the desert must transform, as we journey, we need to see the slums as our desert and how the slums can like the desert provide for us solitude so that we see the Christ among the poor.
The final dimension of desert is brokenness. It is seeing ourselves as we really are, the way god sees us and yet are loved. It is not just seeing but embracing who we are, our real selves and finally moving away from our false selves, giving up our sinful strategies, our anger, our defense mechanisms, in order to embrace weakness.

Transforming Our Desert into the Slums

Studying desert in the bible as a theological construct for solitude is essential for journeying with the poor. We must transition from the garden solitude to the desert solitude. Father Carretto, adds further, with loving encouragement, that after the desert, we must also learn to transform our desert into the slums, see the parallel between desert and slum, see the slums as our desert where we can do our solitude.

Our restlessness and driveness is what we give to the poor

Without solitude we offer the world nothing but our restlessness and drivenness, in short our false selves, our anxieties, our desire to control. We have a ministry called razzle dazzle where we make people in our church jump so many hoops, attend so many fellowships, we get them so busy, and noisy so they never realize they are in the wrong place and or are doing the wrong thing. We do this so they never see that God is simply calling them to rest. 90% of all that we do in ministry is really just done with our own strength, our own flesh. If we learn to discern the 10%, we could just rest 90% of the time, rest by entering into solitude.

6 out 10 people now live in cities. By 2050 there will be 9 billion people on earth and 7 out of 10 of them in urban areas. Millions migrate each year to the cities and majority land in the slums.

After being assigned in the mountain region of Italy working in a youth ministry, Father Carretto spent some years in the desert where he wrote, Letters from the Desert. From there, he was assigned to a highly urbanized area, Hong Kong, where he wrote the sequel, Desert in the City.

The slums as a desert is a wild and imaginative construct and many will fail to enter it. I had hoped Father Thomas Green would write about it but he died already and he would never have written it though he was most qualified to, because he was not based in the slums nor called to the slums.

Father Carretto tried, mechanically, to transform his desert into the slums (in his book,Desert in the City). Father Thomas Green though not in the slums was the one who was able to give us the dynamic link of desert and slums that Carretto could only do mechanically (by walking the streets of Hong Kong at 2 in the morning).

Father Green wrote in his book, Darkness in the Marketplace: The Christian at Prayer in the World: “There is a passage in a recent book of Carlo Carretto (The Desert in the City, Collins, Cleveland and New York, 1979, p.21) which is very much to our point. The author, speaking to busy people who say they have no time to pray, writes, ‘Try to look at the reality in which you live – your work, your commitments, your relationships…-as a single whole from which you cannot disengage yourself, a whole which you have to think about. I shall say more: a whole by means of which God speaks to you and through which he guides you.’ As Carretto’s book makes clear, however, he is really concerned with a different question from ours. He is speaking to the urban man and woman of today, and he is seeking to show them how they can create, or discover, a desert (of contemplation) right in the midst of the city where are they called to live. By contrast, our concern is to discover how the ‘city’ itself is really an integral part of the ‘divine desert’ of contemplative transformation.” (St Pauls, 1981, Philippines, p. 18).

Father Green, in that book, takes us one step forward, after Father Carretto stops. In it, Father Green describes our spiritual journey as the City entering the desert (versus Desert entering the City in the case of Father Carretto). Instead of a mechanical interface between desert and slums, as what Father Carretto did, Father Green gives us the dynamic interface between desert and slums, how the marketplace penetrates into our solitude and how we may survive in that condition.

A dynamic transformation of desert into slums requires more than just waiting for the rush hour to end. The slums are like the desert in many ways. Deserts are hostile and uninhabited. Although slums are not uninhabited, people who live in slums live in subhuman or inhuman conditions. We may say, living in the slums is not living at all. Sores are oozing with black gangrenous fluids, and children are abused, exploited and abandoned. Like the desert, slums are harsh, with loud karaoke blaring at night, unbearable through thin walls made of cardboard.

One of my seminary students panicked and run to the church, to seek refuge, when during the first night of our immersion he heard the couple next door, separated only by a cardboard wall, having sex, at three in the morning. Slums are harsh because there is no privacy, there are no amenities – no toilets, no running water, no electricity and so much epidemic and malnutrition. When it floods, desperation turns into blank stares by those who have no hope. The snakes and scorpions of the desert are replaced by huge rats and crawling maggots that creep from every nook and cranny of your sleeping area (no beds), or crawl over your body when you lie down at night.

In the slums like in the desert, you sense your aloneness, the only human in that small patch of ground. Like Elijah you complain that the champions of God have all been decimated and only you are left (God does not agree though). Where are the Christians who are called to protect the oppressed, help the poor, and feed the hungry? In the slums, we are immersed in poverty, we are also challenged by injustice, the heavy burden imposed on the shoulders of the poor.

Our journey to the slums also opens to us our own redemption. Jesus learned obedience from the things he suffered (Hebrews 5.7). And we do too with the things we suffer when we go to the slum. The poverty of the slums exposes us, exposes who we are, exposes the poverty and injustice inside of us. Being in the slums also shows the slums inside our own hearts.

Jean Vanier poignantly describes this in his article on the downward mobility God calls all of us. Vanier saw the irony of delivering that message inside of Harvard, to elite students, called everyday toward upward mobility, to seek connection with the rich and powerful but here, Vanier, delivering a speech in that university, felt out-of-place, telling Harvard people that instead they need to seek connection with the weak and poor. When we are with the poor, the cripple, the handicap, Vanier argues that their ignorance, weakness, and incompetence eventually exposes the hatred and anger within us.

When we journey with the poor, not only do we seek to understand their spirituality but we specifically want to experience in what way they are rich in faith. We want to be infected with that richness. And only as we hold on to our solitude will we be able to see that, to see Christ in the poor, the dying, the sick, and ultimately, to see their faith.

Unfortunately, we have a Christian faith that long ago was hijacked by the rich. We read the bible from the perspective of power and wealth and so, when we look at that verse, that the poor are rich in faith, we argue that rich in faith there does not refer to the poor who are economically poor but it refers to the symbolic or figurative poor, meaning the weak, humble and meek (so that it now means everyone, rich or poor, no distinction).

James by this interpretation would no longer be referring to the poor then despite the fact that the entire context of James is about the literal poor, not the symbolic poor. I have so much respect for Pastor Rick Warren and just to drive home a point, even he interprets James the same way. I have a copy of his bible study guide of the Epistle of James and it is basically denying that it is a book about the poor.

We need to see in what way the poor are rich in faith. We also need to see the descent of Christ to poverty. We need to let in this slum into our own spirituality with a goal of being set free, to also become rich in faith like the poor are. Jesus, although he was rich, became poor in order to make others rich. This is the reason we journey with the poor. The model of the City in the Desert of Father Green is similar to the descent of Christ, who clothed himself with humanness, becoming incarnate and became poor, and worked with the poor.

How do we let the slum enter into our solitude and expose our nakedness? How does our solitude fare while we live in the slums? Are we still so patronizing in our spirituality that we hold our noses high at the poor, we look down on their spirituality, and we say, I will block out this stench, I will block out this dirty place, and enter into my solitude, and enjoy my time with Jesus among the poor? But the poor do not block out the smell and dirt. It is part of their spirituality.

A Downward Mobility

When Jesus, although he was rich, became poor in order to make us rich, did he experience this poverty we now experience in the slums? In what way did he experience this poverty? Was it similar to having the slums enter into our solitude? What would our spirituality look like if we bare ourselves naked before human deprivation and cruelty? Is this downward mobility a calling of God for all his people? Should the church aim to become poor and be in solidarity with the poor, the way Jesus did?

When we get older, no matter how wealthy and powerful we are, we notice gradually that our riches and wealth begin to slowly slip away from us as though once more, we are becoming poor. We brought nothing into this world and we will bring nothing out. God is making all men poor, in the end, we will grasp nothing. We shall return to dust. Ageing means to slowly lose our faculties, our strengths one after the other, until we have nothing but our faith.

Modern Christianity is so rabid about helping people avoid death and ageing. True spirituality however is about how we can prepare for death and ageing, gracefully and learn to see Christ as our faculties fade (which is why the title of St John the Cross’ book is The Dark Nights of the Soul).

Where we are going however, none of these faculties or senses will be helpful, none of our strengths, none of our intellect will help us, and only faith will work for us. When we are in heaven, with God, only faith will work, our legs, our arms, our eyes, will not do.

When I bring my students for immersion in the slums, we basically have only one rule: “what can we live without?” Can we live without our bed, our toothbrush, a sink, running water? Can we live without our wifi, phone signal, our deodorant, our favorite food, our medicines, our vitamins? Can we live without a door to our room a door to close the toilet when we are inside, or a toilet, can we live without a toilet, just a hole on the floor and our poop splashing noisily on the water below, heard across the house at 2 in the morning when we tried to relieved ourselves in the cover of night, when we thought all would be asleep and no one would notice?

What can we live without? The moment we stop, our journey with the poor also stops. When we say we cannot live without our toothpaste or without being able to wash our hands, then our journey stops. The poor will continue on and leave us behind. The goal is not ascetism or stoicism. We are not called to be Spartans. We are called to freedom. Paul said he knew how it was to live in affluence and how it was to live in abject poverty. The goal is freedom, to be free of our inordinate attachment to material things, to things we know we will eventually be dispossessed of by ageing and death.

What would life feel if we for a moment can live without these material things? When we go back to our safe homes, we are able now finally to see in what way are we free? Free from our bondage to material wealth. How fearful are we to have no money in our pocket? Where is our security? Again, the goal is not to be poor, the goal is to be free. God can bless us with so much material wealth but the key is to be free from bondage to it.

During our immersion, when we insists on our comforts, insists on our ways, the poor will oblige us. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that, when we do, when we ask the poor to take us to MacDonalds so we can have a proper sink with running water, the poor are taken out of their way. When we insists on using one pail of water, the poor will not complain. Only later will we realize that our host uses only two pails a day for all of them and we have, alone, used up half of their supply. The life of the poor will go on and so will their spirituality, even without the pail of water, even without going to MacDonalds, which often, for them are unwanted distractions to their worship of God.

I was working for a senior lawyer many years ago. He had just bought a new car. When we were desperately arguing our case in open court, half of the time, his eyes were darting towards the window, down to the parking lot, where his new car was parked. I thought aloud in the car after that on our way home, that he does not own a new car, the car has a new owner. It was the car that owned my senior law partner.

Wealth needs to be redefined. When we come to the slums preaching a prosperity gospel, we can be doing real harm to the Kingdom of God. The prosperity gospel is one-half right only and maybe, like all half-truths, it is also why it is so popular. The one-half truth is this, that when we have faith, when we pray, for wealth, God will give it to us; he will answer our prayers, he will make us rich without resentment and hesitation. The other half of the truth is this, that when God makes us filthy rich, he expects us to give more. The goal is to be a channel of blessing. When we receive, we need to quickly give it away. That is why the bible says, it is more blessed to give than to receive. Wealth is never defined in terms of possession, or accumulation of worldly assets or hoarding. It is not about having many cars, many houses, and many cellphones. Wealth is defined as being able to give to many and so much.

When we work in the slums, our definition of success is this: that the poor becomes not just a receiver but also a giver. It is so easy for the poor to attend church on Sundays, to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, to repent of his sins. But giving is different. The poor will think you are insane if you preach to them to give. But that is precisely the mark of their rebirth, that now that they are in Christ, they will give so much. This is what the slum Christians have taught us over the last 28 years. When the rich becomes bankrupt, he will most likely stop attending church on Sunday. And yet, the poor, will continue, whether he has money or not.


The practice of solitude takes years to master. We begin to grasp it from the garden and take bold but cautious steps into the desert. While holding on to our solitude, we finally make the transition to the slums. What is the solitude we hold? It is the presence of Jesus.

What we learn in the silent retreat is we learn to identify and become familiar with the presence of God. In time, after many such retreats, we grow in our familiarity with that presence, and with more practice, we will be able to hold it as we make the difficult transition to the slums. The aura around God is what we experience; we don’t really enter into his presence. We simply come close to the border where God is. The Holy of Holies is still a forbidding place even for the greatest saints.

In solitude, we sense this presence primarily through His peace. Almost all of the benedictions or blessings include His peace.

With solitude, we learn to reach out to others from our centre, which is Christ in us. The goal of the journey is to be able to see Christ in others, to be able to see with the eyes of Christ. In this particular journey, it is to be able to see Christ among the poor. This was the main belief of Mother Teresa, that she would see Christ among the dying, in the sick and in the poor. Once we have taken hold of solitude (which takes years), we will be able to continue on moving from the garden to the slums. As we journey in the slums, we may lose that solitude we had carefully nurtured in the garden or in the desert. It is difficult to remain a contemplative in the noisy and smelly shanties. We may need to keep going back to the silence of the chapel or the garden and with persistence; we will be able to hold it. In solitude we will be able to see Christ among the poor. It is at this stage our journey begins to gain meaning.

Brother Lawrence, may have through his book, The Practice of the Presence of God, created the greatest revolution in spirituality, since the middle-ages. Spirituality was hijacked by the rich. Worship could only happen in cathedrals reeking with opulence. In that period, when one wanted to become a nun or priest, it would matter much if one was rich or poor. A rich woman entering the monastery can have many servants, people who will wash her laundry and cook her meals. When a poor woman enters the same monastery, she will likely be the hand servant of that rich nun.

Brother Lawrence entered as a poor man so he was assigned to the kitchen and the menial work of cleaning and washing. Because of his book, spirituality has been effectively removed from the rich cathedrals of the wealthy Christians and made accessible to the poor. Brother Lawrence repeatedly tells us that there was no need for him to wait for chapel worship to enjoy God. Whenever he was washing the dishes, he entered into the presence of God, he enjoyed God’s presence.

I have adopted this form of spirituality in my own life. In a way, you have to fight me to be able to take away the chore of washing the dishes in our house. I have commandeered the chore and it is for me the most sacred time of my day, a time when I am not disturbed (no one wants me to stop washing the dishes, we don’t have an electric dishwasher, we wash manually).

It is also a time to see and think clearly, like the examen: where was God today? It is this kind of spirituality that helps us to journey with the poor, one that dives into the menial work, the manual labor, of which the poor are so familiar with and which characterize the poor so much. It is embracing the hard life of poverty and still seeking to make it a sacred moment in spite of the poverty, that we finally enter into the richness of the faith of the poor.

Mother Teresa’s group had this rhythm of going to the chapel to attend to the presence of God and then going out to the minister to the lepers, and then back again to the chapel. She had 8 hours of chapel and 8 hours of time with the poor. We need to create this rhythm while we are in the slums – going in and out of the chapel and going in and out of the world.

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