By Robert R. Schwarz
POOR: Having few or no material possessions; wanting
means to procure the comforts, or the necessities of life;
so destitute as to be dependent upon gifts or allowances
for subsistence. ( The Oxford English Dictionary )
There's a sense in our culture that those who
have [ more possessions and education ] are in
someway superior to those who don't.
( James Bannon, deacon )
I'm turning 81 soon and will have eliminated a top bucket list item that has dogged me for decades as a retired journalist: It's a deeper understanding of those who live in poverty. Had I been graced with less journalistic detachment , I would have assigned my staff more stories about poor people. I regret that I did not .
In writing this report about the subculture of race track "residents" less than two miles from my upper middleclass suburban home in Arlington Heights, Illinois , I am grateful, however, for certain memories of poor people with whom I have interacted during past decades. I can vividly recall "hard times" of people in a high crime neighborhood while a young police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau and also the poorest of the poor in Calcutta when with Mother Teresa during my global trek, as leadership development manager for Lions Clubs International. Other insights come from a tour of the hellish Soweto slum in then apartheid-afflicted South Africa; sharing soup with a widow in her South Korea hut; a rag-dressed child in the middle of a downtown Manila intersection holding out her hand to me as my taxi paused at a traffic light; and a dirt-poor family in western Arkansas whom I knew for several months when they helped my retired father renovate our family's falling-down barn and house which never had had plumbing indoors.
|"Maria" , as all Back Stretch residents, is required to|
cook outside her dwelling.
Something began to hound me the next day; it was engendered by the simple yet ominous question I had heard , on television, posed to a huge outdoor audience by Pope Francis as he stood in drenching rain during one of his recent world visits.
"How can the poor help you?" the pope asked a crowd composed largely of middleclass people. Presumably among them were critics, as there had been in several Western countries—the United States included—who thought the pope's stand on giving a higher priority to helping the world's poor, bordered on Socialism . Apparently Pope Francis that day did not offer an answer to his curious question .
It was Pope Benedict's address in 2005 to the Roman Curia (which a friend handed me ) that started me interviewing the people you'll read about here . In his rather grim " state of the union" address, Benedict stated: "The very future of the world is at stake " and , following his comments about world's current vulnerability to social, economic, and spiritual collapse, came his prophetic utterance : "The sun is setting on the West. " He really meant it.
My ageless hound had caught up with me. I now wanted very much an answer to that elusive question , one which would likely take me into waters over my head, for I was no sociologist. But I sought to know—then hopefully report—what we can and must learn from the poor if we Americans are to cope with our country's future. It was the thought of an apocalyptic sun dipping behind the horizon of Western civilization which now impelled me to visit the Back Stretch .
Making Life a 'Little Less Miserable'
For Maria , a Back Stretch Resident
"Your chaplain is expecting me," I told the security guard at the end of a private road leading into a rear area seldom seen by patrons of Arlington race track, known nationwide for its classy architecture, dining and cocktail facilities, and annual million dollar purse. The guard waved me in, and I drove to a short distance to the track's Internet Café, a fast-food oasis for the track's 1,800 itinerant, mostly Mexican residents whose homes change with the racing seasons.
Walking through the café towards the chaplain's "office", I entered an active environment of excited shouts in Spanish from four men playing pool and several others watching a live-streaming Arlington race on each of three elevated televisions sets . A few feet away were some telephone booths for placing bets. I wondered how much of their weekly minimum wage they were betting.
Luis Trevino, a 73-year-old Catholic deacon, met me and escorted me into a colorless, all-purpose room that reminded me of a large closet . There were a few mismatched chairs and cafeteria-style tables crammed together to make room for whatever was currently scheduled. I was naturally anxious to hear what Luis had to say about what can be learned from poor people. He pulled out a couple of chairs and a table and we sat down. Luis was cheerful and appeared eager to talk about the Back Stretch residents . All of them , he said, had a working role here : dads groomed and fed the horses , their sons walked them between 3 and 4 a.m. and moms did what most moms do—with one-star rated appliances, of course—they cleaned, cooked, and washed clothes . "My mission, " Luis said, "is to make life a little less miserable for them."
Luis has been a deacon here 23 years—without compensation, he said—officiating at weddings and funerals and assisting a priest, when one is available, the 7 p.m. Sunday Mass held in this room. " The faith of the Hispanic people is really strong, " he said. "We'll soon have 65 children confirmed ." A month ago he and his wife attended a world conference for race track chaplains in Rome , where Pope Francis blessed him on his 50th wedding anniversary. The Trevino's have three children and three grandchildren.
I perceived Luis to be a work-weary man , especially when he said, " My biggest challenge here is that I'm getting old. I would like to start lining up a few candidates to take over for me. " He once was sponsored by a nearby church but now, he said, " I'm like Noah , just floating. " Luis was born in Monterrey, Mexico , immigrated to Chicago to join his father and two older brothers help run a small printing shop. " I was just a puppy of 18 then , " he said.
Joven , como está ? " (youngster, how are you ? ) . Outside, he pointed at a nearby tree. " Years ago we did our church services under that tree " , and smiling, added, "with the smell of horse droppings from that pile over there ."
|Deacon Luis making rounds as he has for 23 years .|
I told Luis I had a silly question about the crime rate here. " Zero, " he said. " But when I came here there was a killing or two every year. Now, since they have allowed me to give them some spiritual help , everything is okay. "
We walked down a long dirt corridor , past a single, two-level row of small , barrack-style dwellings. Outside, children were playing with a variety of inflated toys and a soccer ball or two. At a long table sat several families eating and making merry like those families on television commercials for Italian food. " Most families have three or four kids, but everybody has some kind of a job here, " Luis said. "They move out when the horses do ," he said, referring to the track's May to September season .
Rent is included in whatever small salary they make , he said . When asked for a dollar amount, he replied, " I don't want to get into that , but they are very poor. " People drop off clothing for them, which Luis hands out.
I hesitated to ask but did: " Luis, tell me, how are these people different from you and me. " He obviously welcome the question, especially when I told him his comments would be read on my Exodus Trekkers blog in several European and two African countries.
" For starters, " he began, "we don't pray the same way. You and I might pray for a lighter load in life; these guys will also pray to Jesus but ask for a stronger back. They don't want God to give them anything except to place them somewhere where they can work for it. They don't need to go on any ego trip. But one thing they do have is family unity . For them, family comes first, then their job, and then church. The biggest thing to give these people is education. Most can not read write even Spanish. "
We continued to walk and talk about poverty. " To me," Luis said, "a rich person is someone who doesn’t need much to survive. These people here are on a survival mission, not only for themselves but for their families back home [ in Mexico ]. There is a unity here; no one is more important than the other one. "
We paused at a door and Luis knocked . " I'll show you poverty, " he said. A woman named Señora Maria , perhaps 50 years of age , opened and immediately welcomed her amigo Luis. She spoke no English . My Spanish was rusty but usable. Luis asked if we could come in , that I would like to ask her a few questions take some photographs for an article. " Claro, que si, " Maria, replied quickly.
|The younger set of the Back Stretch 1,800 "residents "|
We entered a cement floor dwelling with a single room no larger than twelve by twelve feet. Alongside a simple bed at the far wall was a small table with an unlit candle next to a sacramental of the Virgin Mary. On the opposite wall a small sink and equally small refrigerator had been squeezed in . Near the door was the home's only widow, on which hung a clean but tattered curtain, and next to that was Maria's closet: a pole of some sort on which hung two or three clothing garments. I saw neither toilet nor stove.
" Where do you cook?" I asked Maria , glancing quizzically at Luis.
"You saw the grill outside the door, " he said. "They are not allowed to cook inside. "
"No one ? " I asked.
Maria nodded. We talked for several minutes . In spite of some leading questions , Maria had nothing negative to say about anything in her life, though I'm sure she too had a bucket list. Maria apologetically said she had an appointment with an ill neighbor and invited us to return later.
Outside, I took a photograph of three small, well cultivated vegetable gardens growing beans and tomatoes . Their organic beauty seemed to be defying what encircled them :the nearby tall weeds , a battered metal fence , and a tidy pile of various junked items, none of which, I imagined , would ever become absolutely useless. Beyond the horizon of the racetrack compound and less than a quarter mile away cars streaming by on Illinois 53, and a few hundred yards southeast of this toll way was the towering Randhurst shopping center. Again I thought: What can we learn from these people?
" What can we learn, Luis?
"I learn more from them than what I can give them, " he said. "ow t How to be humble. How to appreciate what God has given me. " Luis expression remained serious. " Why don't you come and see more at next Sundays' Mass ? We'll have a priest "
When Wall Street stocks later began plummeting historical lows, I made an effort to focus on Maria's humility and apparent fortitude and on Luis' belief that a well-functioning family should be one's highest life priority . I also reflected on the Back Stretch men praying for a stronger back , not a lighter load. Would my own future prayers ask for more humility and a willingness and fortitude to live with less ? Honestly, maybe not . Would I now be just a bit more prepared to cope with that "setting sun"? I think so.
Mass in Spanish by the Irish Priest
I met Fr. Matt Foley at 6:30 p.m. outside his parish office, and he drove us to the Back http://exodustrekkers.blogspot.com/2014/07/fr-foley-at-generals-mass-in.html
|Fr. Matt at the 7 p.m. Sunday Mass|
We parked in front of the Internet Café and took a walk before meeting Luis in his"office" , which had become a chapel. As we strolled down the long row of dwellings, Fr. Matt, dressed in priestly black, greeted people continuously—he speaks fluent Spanish. Many of the kids appeared shy of a priest, but Fr. Matt's smile invited them to interact with him. When they did, he beamed. Fr Matt was obviously in love with his ministry and wanted everyone around him to know that here was an outsider, a priest who really cared for them. I once had asked Fr. Matt what stirred his heart: "I get moved by the Holy Spirit when I see beautiful things, like when children pray for family and friends. That moves me to the core of my being. "
When we at last entered the chapel, paper hymnals were being handed out . The room was packed with people of all ages; I counted 35 adults and 15 youths. Fr. Matt and Deacon Luis were, of course , disheartened to once more see this usual number of Mass attendees . Still, every chair was taken, and one family had to stand and another to sit on the floor. Families wore a variety of clothing , clean and ironed .
The altar was a small white table covered with a white cotton cloth. On it would soon be the communion sacraments of a chalice of wine and a container of wheat hosts. Propped up against the altar table on the floor was a large print of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the title of the Virgin Mary associated with a celebrated pictorial image housed in a basilica in Mexico City ). The print was flanked by two vases with long stem roses and pink and white flowers.
First Communion sacrament and blessing from Fr. Matt. The Mass ended when, after dollar bills were tossed one after another into a wicker basket passed by a teenage girl everyone sang Vienen con Alegri ( " They Come with Joy " ) .
|Confirmation day for these three at their bare-bones chapel|
And in Tanzania…'Giving Joy and Peace Is All about Friendship'
Gazing at a setting sun one evening from my backyard lounge chair, I began to worry—as was expected—about the unrelenting Wall Street tsunami currently hitting stock prices. My worries eventually incited me to answer Pope Francis' question about what can be learned from the poor. It was one of those insights I get when my analytical thinking isn't concealing a simple truth like: The poor can teach us how live with less.
But I needed someone who could expand on this ; and who better than the African-born priest residing in the St. James rectory, Fr. Gilbert Mashurano from Tanzania .
We met in his parish office. Fr. Gilbert is 34 and hails from the Haya tribe and was raised in a village ( near Lake Victoria ) of an estimated 30,000 people . His priestly studies at the Salvatorian Institute in Tanzania included Aristotle, Plato, and saints Augustine and Aquinas. His priestly formation , he told me, actually began with his grandmother teaching him the virtues of honest labor in the home and on farm land.
" In my village of Bwajai," he said, " poor people tend to do more things together. They walk together, work together. They live good lives because they depend on one another . The spirit of the poor is : I need you and you need me . " He added, though, that the beauty of this spirit often diminishes as poor people gain affluence.
" We are mostly farmers and don't get to see our neighbors very often, " Fr. Gilbert continued. "So, on Sundays our church becomes a community center. But we also acknowledge God during the week while doing ordinary things. We see blessings happening all the time. " He pointed out that his village has no homeless people and that its residents don't lock their doors or have any need for police.
He returned to the topic of people needing people to be happy. " I think personal friendships in Tanzania are stronger than here. We share things with our neighbors, like giving them a melon or piece of clothing we have just purchased at the store. If our neighbor is ill, we knock on his door and inquire about him. And if he has died, one or more of us will spend a week living with the family in support ."
The bond between parents and their children is stronger in his native country, Fr. Gilbert believes. " And the kids obey and respect their parents more. We don't push our children to be independent . "
Our talk ended with Fr. Gilbert making a philosophical observation. "Poverty is not what you possess in your hand but what you have in your heart or mind. " Changing people and giving joy and peace to their lives is all about friendship, " he said.
I didn't know at the time that a few weeks ago Fr. Gilbert practiced what he preaches about friendship when he brought a group of St. James students to the Back Stretch for a face-to-face visit with its children there. http://exodustrekkers.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-priest-who-wants-to-be-known-he.html
' Greater than Any Treasure the Emperor Could Possess '
Well, I've learned how the poor can help me . For one thing , if the stock market crashes as it did during that Great Depression of 1929-39, I won't leap off city skyscrapers—which several despairing people actually did . Nor will I moan if I can't buy a certain software app for my computer or be unable to take my wife to our favorite restaurant on a holidays. And if my particular life trek gets very bumpy , I'll l try hard not to complain about the absence of all those can't-live-without amenities . I might think, however, of those murmuring ancient Hebrews being so ungrateful and forgetful about being miraculously rescued at the Red Sea and then promised a future land of milk and honey.
Along with the Back Stretch people, Luis and Frs. Matt and Gilbert and I will probably stumble more than once during our own Exodus toward our final freedom. But, hopefully. we'll keep in mind words from Pope Francis like: "Poverty is precisely at the heart of the Gospel…[and ] the mystery of Christ who lowered himself, was humiliated and made himself poor in order to enrich us."
In 258 A.D. , the Roman emperor Valerian demanded that a deacon named Lawrence bring all the treasures of the Christian church to him. Lawrence, who was later martyred and made a saint —he was roasted alive on a gridiron— responded by bringing to the emperor all the widowed, the maimed, and lepers, proclaiming that these people " were greater than any treasure the emperor could possess. "
|Deacon Luis and wife ( on left ) receive a blessing from Pope Francis|
on their 50th wedding anniversary in Rome.. They had been invited to a world
conference of race track chaplains.
All comments are welcome.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz