It was another balmy, humid Sunday morning at our Redemptorist parish in Bangkok. The Liturgy of the Eucharist completed, it was the customary time for the lector to read the week’s announcements. Instead, quite surprising to all, the pastor of our parish -- who had not said Mass -- ascended the ambo. Even more stunning were his words, which, contrary to customary Thai etiquette of indirectness and non-confrontation, were potent, straightforward, and decidedly forceful. What he did was as central to the Gospel and Catholic faith and praxis as anything from Jesus’ life. He defended the poor and the stranger.
The Beauty of the Poor
To understand the surprising beauty and power of my pastor’s words that Sunday, some context is necessary. This parish, located in central Bangkok, has become a haven for refugees and asylum seekers mostly from Pakistan, but with contingents from elsewhere in Asia and Africa. For years now a lay parish movement, enjoying explicit support from a few of the parish priests, has provided all manner of foodstuffs to more than 400 such families, collecting donations from willing parishioners most Sundays. This charity, though praiseworthy, is unfortunately not enough for many of these poor wayfarers. Many require medical treatment, especially mothers with young children and the elderly. God knows what kinds of living conditions many of them suffer in.
Many such Sunday visitors anxiously await the end of Mass as an opportunity to impress their needs upon potential benefactors. Their persistence, their lack of tact, and their sometimes aggressive tactics are often jarring, particularly to those unfamiliar with the parish. Indeed, typically the only success the destitute have are with sympathetic Western visitors. Which brings us to the most salient response these refugees elicit: disapprobation. it would seem that many parishioners don’t like these people, and would prefer they be excluded from the church’s life and practice.
Some of this disfavor may stem from a certain justified resentment: many Thais, and certainly many Thai Catholics, live in poverty, particularly in the country’s more remote provinces. Moreover, parish often hosts a “missionary of the month,” usually a priest ministering to one of the poorer communities in the Thai hinterland. Yet with the recent significant demographic shift in Bangkok’s Catholic population, Thai Catholics may feel a certain pique toward South Asians and Africans who effectively distract the Church from the needs of the country’s own poor.
This resentment appears even to have reached the level of the parish’s Thai clergy: a few months ago I observed a new sign prominently displayed in the vestibule alongside Mass times and other parish news. It read:
“Announcement for Safety and Security Issue: Due to many incident reports from our parishioners that there are groups of people who come to our church ground and request for financial assistance from our parishioners, many felt threatened and disturbed when they were approached by these people in the toilets, parking lot, underground parking as well as in the church while they are praying and during religious services. We are aware of this issue and are handling it in due process. In the meantime, please watch out for your own safety and security.”
A number of observations immediately struck me when I encountered this notice. The first was how members of the parish community were being described: “groups of people.” Such a characterization seemed to abstract them in an unnecessary and uncharitable way -- were they not our brothers and sisters in Christ? Secondly, it seemed odd that parishioners were complaining of feeling “threatened and disturbed” by people asking for money. Certainly there is a reasonable frustration with being approached while in the restroom or while praying -- I myself have had this happen to me and was a bit nettled. Yet never have I or my family felt our lives in danger from such strangers. Indeed, almost all of such people are abject-looking mothers, often with their young children in tow. Such concerns for personal safety seemed grossly disproportionate, and, I would argue, implicitly prejudiced.
Who But the Church?
Yet more to the point, for poverty-stricken Catholics, where, besides in the Church or outside in the parking lot, could they expect to have an opportunity to beg for money? Whenever my wife and I are approached, which happens practically every Sunday, we simply smile and decline, or, if time permits, we attempt to engage in conversation. This is an approach I credit to my wife: she helped me understand how the poor must be not only validated as created in the image of God but individualized as each carrying their own unique talents, and, conversely, needs. Much to the consternation of our prideful vanity, we require the same from the poor. As we have gotten to know some impoverished Pakistani families who attend the parish, it’s been humbling to recognize how often we have needed them. For other interested persons, we have demanded the same: “we’re willing to consider giving you money, but who are you? Where are you from? Are you willing to see us and talk to us as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, or do you just see us walking wallets?”
Reflecting on the contents of that tacitly discriminatory notice to the congregation, I found myself losing faith in my church leadership: were they more concerned with kowtowing to the appropriate influential individuals and families at the parish than they were with heeding Christ’s call to care for the poor, the sick, the widow? Where was the attitude of St. Ambrose, who so famously exhorted the Church: “If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you and the other to the man with no shirt.” Such was my demeanor when my pastor rose to the ambo that recent Sunday, and started talking about “people coming to the parish asking for money.” Yet I was in for quite a surprise. The following is a loose transcription of what he uttered that morning:
“Many people have complained to me, sending me emails, writing texts, calling on the phone, visiting my office, about the people begging for money. I understand that it can be frustrating or uncomfortable. But in this time of war and suffering, this is the lot of every big city in the world. There are refugees and asylum seekers everywhere in need of help. Jesus told us that the poor would always be with us, and that is how I see this crisis. But you should remember that these people come not only for money, but they also come to pray, to receive the Eucharist, for fellowship. I will not refuse these to them. If you want, please help them. If not, you will have to suffer through and endure it. The poor will always be with us and they are not going away.”
When so many Christians are suffering persecution and deprivation around the world, this is the message we need to hear. The poor and stranger place upon all of us petitions that are often inconvenient, frustrating, or even rude. But they are fellow members of the mystical body of Christ, and we will be judged for how well we sought to care for them. Moreover, as Jesus told us, they are manifestations of Himself: “Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me’” (Matthew 25:44-45). The risen Lord we love identifies Himself with that baptized wayfarer outside the vestibule. If you haven’t already, it might be time to befriend him.