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On the Feast of the Assumption: Hoplessness in the Church of Privilege

August 17, 2007

I have been thinking a lot about hope lately. Thus I was particularly happy that our pastor’s homily on the Feast of the Assumption on Wednesday focused on hope: Mary’s Assumption into Heaven as a glorious fulfillment of our hope for salvation. But, as is so often the case when attending mass in an affluent parish, I was ultimately struck more by what was not said, what hopes were not articulated.

To illustrate the importance of hope, Father told a compelling story of an encounter with a poor child that must have occurred back in the 1970s. It was the summer after his ordination, and he was living in Washington D.C. to finish up some coursework at American Catholic University. He was staying with some priests in a religious order whose house was in a slum neighborhood.

One day, walking home from the university, he found the usual group of kids playing stickball in the alleyway to the house. But one boy, eight or nine years old, was sitting quietly on the curb, and Father was moved to sit down and strike up a conversation with him. After exchanging names and chatting for awhile, he asked the boy what he thought he would be when he grew up.

The boy glared as though the question were crazy: “Father, you know, and I know, I’m going to be a bum, just like all the other bums on this street.”

And that is all we were given of this boy’s story, a nameless boy who thus becomes for us merely a symbol – the embodiment of hopelessness, a vivid illustration, an abject fate to be escaped. Father concluded his homily with the warning that without hope, we too will end up sitting forlornly on the curb. Fair enough. I appreciate the warning.

But sitting in our beautiful, air-conditioned sanctuary on a hot August morning, comfortably distant from the sweltering ghetto where this nameless boy grew up, I could not help feeling that his story poses a deeper challenge.

First, we must ask ourselves what happened to this boy’s hopes? What confluence of social and personal circumstances so blighted his sense of possibility at such a young age? And above all, we must ask ourselves how our privilege is connected to this kind of despair, and how is it that we allow these circumstances to persist decade after decade?

In the face of such despair, we are not called to pull back into our comfort: “there but for the grace of God go I;” or, to be more honest, “thank God I’m not like that!.” Rather, we are called to change those circumstances, to reach out and lift up rather than turn away.

More profoundly, this story challenges to consider what we hope for. The story shocks because, living in a socially and economically privileged community, we nurture in our children a sense of bright possibility for the future. And when they are asked, our children readily spin dreams of success.

But if that is all we hope for, our sense of the future is at least as impoverished as that of the boy in Father’s story. Do our children believe they can grow up and do something to end the blight of poverty and discrimination, the horror of violence and war? Or do they, at a tragically young age, resign themselves to grow up in complicit isolation? What confluence of personal and social circumstances leads us to accept this evil in the world, to let it all go by without question, without protest, without any hope of change? Asked how we plan to change the world, can we honestly answer much differently than that impoverished boy?

Lord, you know, and I know, our children are going to grow up to be selfish bums just like us, and just like all the other selfish bums on this street.

If we have no hope for bringing justice to our world, we are sitting hopelessly on that curb already.

That’s the challenge I heard in that nameless boy’s words. And that challenge, after all is central to the Gospel and clearly articulated in the Magnificat. Yes, Mary sings of the great things that God does for us. But it’s not about our worldly success; it’s about vanquishing the rich and the haughty and lifting up those in hunger and despair.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty….

This is truly good news to the widows, the orphans, and the poor. But it is woe to the privileged.

Our only hope is humility; our only escape a commitment to justice and peace.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. loweb3 permalink
    August 17, 2007 10:24 am

    After a tour in Vietnam I became a caseworker, but felt being a welfare worker was more like treating symptoms than addressing the causes of their poverty.

    After 30 years of teaching, I’m not sure I feel much different. Even sacrificing personal wealth to help others doesn’t make much of a difference in solving the problem of poverty and human hopelessness.

    One begins to wonder if what is really needed isn’t more wealth for all but, rather, new ideas on what it means to be happy and how we can best attain that happiness.

  2. August 20, 2007 12:31 am

    Thanks loweb3

    On the idea of an alternative to wealth as route to happiness, see the post on Civilization of Love about voluntary poverty:

    http://civilizationoflove.wordpress.com/2007/08/18/what-gospel-poverty-is-not/

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