Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Christmas was hard. It’s supposed to be- being thousands of miles away from your friends and family, from the snow and eggnog and pasole, etc… But it was for a different reason. In the middle class lives we lead, Christmas is looked upon as, at best, utopia, at worst, a reprieve from whatever struggles we are fighting off. But walking the downtown streets of Quito on Christmas Eve, I saw no utopia, nor felt any reprieve. I found mothers with babies in tow, begging for change. I saw little kids in tattered clothes, working like they would, any other day of the year. I walked aimlessly through these sad streets, my mind attacking my senses from time to time with only one preoccupation, one seemingly little question: why?

It all started on December 22nd as I stood in a crowded cafeteria overlooking a crowd of poor families waiting anxiously for potato sacks of used clothes and a second-hand toy or two. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great gesture from the center to its participants. But there is something indescribably sad about watching people get excited about a potato sack of what is, if we are to be honest, nothing more than some other person’s junk. I thought about my own family and the Christmas they had given me for years. The seemingly limitless presents, of which only a few would manage to entertain for more than a few days before becoming considered “junk.” Again, I could only wonder: why?

With all that on my conscious, late on Christmas Eve., I loaded into a bus of festive volunteers reveling in a “Joy to the World” like holiday cheer I felt so distant from. The world was suffering on Christmas Eve just like it did the day before and just like it would continue to do the day after and the day after that. It seemed preposterous to even pretend like I could partake in the same old Christmas jingles and cheers as we snaked our way into a wealthy expatriate area community. It was “Gringo Mass” and it was there I thought I might find resolution to my questions.

Forgive me for saying this, but the Mass just stunk. You’d think being around people who were foreigners living abroad or hearing Mass in your own language for the first time in over a year would be great. But instead, I felt nervous, uncomfortable and horribly out of place. There were no upbeat Latino Church songs with off beat clapping. No chorus of little voices shouting Amen after each prayer. I tried to concentrate on the Mass and the songs, convince myself again and again that I should feel at peace- this was after all my culture and my language. How was it all that different from Masses I used to enjoy at LMU? But something wasn’t right, and again and again the voice haunted me with a question that seemed to symbolize so much: why?

And so I left the church and sat outside on the steps. Just beyond the guarded fence of the chapel grounds, two indigenous elderly women, small children swaddled up in their arms, waited in the cold for the opportunity to beg the Gringos for a bit of change. I sat in the darkness and locked eyes with one women. “A bit of change” she seemed to beg with silently pleading eyes.” I came here with the goal to do just that,” my eyes pleaded back, “and look how far it’s gotten the both of us.” Again, the question surfaced: why?

I’m fighting this losing battle day after tired day, not because I’m convinced I’m gonna beat poverty anymore. That part of me seems to have died a long time ago. The ideals and the causes are gone, and all I have left to lean on is conviction. Anymore, I am doing what I am doing, because it feels right and like it NEEDS to be done, not because I really see myself as an agent of change anymore.

Saint Catherine of Siena supposedly said “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze.” I don’t really believe that anymore. But from somewhere deep within, a voice I hardly recognize anymore instinctually rises to plead with me: why the hell not?

But then there is this, "Letter to a Young Activist" which more and more, provides great consolation in this work that I have undertaken.

"Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people." READ THE REST HERE OF THIS WONDERFUL QUOTE HERE


David said...

I just read this quote in one of my books I'm reading and was thinking, "Man, I wonder if he has stumbled upon Merton at all?"

I'm with you, Patrick. The quote says it all :)


jasper said...

Patrick:"And so, in the spirit of that urging by Cardinal Bernadine, I support Barack Obama with the belief that the value and dignity of human life DOES NOT END at conception, and I believe when I look at the issues holistically, Barack Obama is the best man for the job."

Are you saying Republicans leave poor people to the wolves? Barack Obama my friend voted against helping BORN babies who were aborted alive. One who cannot stand up for the most defenseless and innocent among us does not deserve to be dog-catcher.

Patrick Furlong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristin said...

The greatest aid we can give "the poor" is to encourage them to become self-sufficient. The liberals want to give hand-outs so the poor will become dependent on them, thus they can exert more government control over them. They are not helping them get ahead, they are holding them back. Before you label me a heartless conservative...read my story.. I grew up poor. My father left my mother when I was six, and my mother was left to support and care for me and my disabled brother all by herself. I am not against all forms of government aid. I recognize that there are people who legitimately fall on hard times, like my mom. However, there are others who are poor as a result of poor choices in life. By and large, we live in a country where if you work hard, are honest and resourceful, if you get married and stay married, you will achieve the American dream. Should there be help for people for people like my mom? Yes. Can we ignore the fact that there are moral issues (like father abandonment/breakdown one the family) that underpin issues of poverty? No. If our country restored it's moral foundation, many economic and other societal ills would be alleviated.
Hence, moral social issues and concern for the poor are not separate ententes. but are closely intertwined.

In short---Welfare should be temporary. A stepping stone, not a way of life. The government is not our Savior, Jesus Christ is.

Patrick Furlong said...


I don't see where the basis of your argument is. I work as a volunteer in a center in Quito where we try everyday to train our participants to reach a level of self sufficiency that has otherwise been unattainable in their lives.

The American dream is a myth for the majority of poor people in the United States. Around the world, it becomes even more apparent that many factors play into the poverty of the population that can barely afford to sustain themselves. I think we do a grave injustice to advancement in this world when we pretend that we all started on equal footing. It's hard to catch up when you start x amount of steps behind someone else.

As for the blog you published about me on your site (flattering by the way), I still stand by my comment that to be truly aware Catholics we must follow our consciences and take into account the variety of issues presented to a modern day voter: War and peace, immigration, tax cuts, housing, the death penalty, economic justice, welfare reform, the federal deficit, civil liberties, education, health care, crime, etc..."

In so saying that, I follow Cardinal Bernadine's methodology of the seamless garment. I'd like to say we can choose to agree to disagree, and that I can respect your decision and views no matter how much I disagree with them- but I just wonder if after what you have said on your blog and on this page, you'd be able to do the same.

Kristin said...

Why do we have to start on equal footing? It is not unfair that some people are rich and some people are poor. For example, I live in a rather old, modest, home in Northern NJ. About 3 blocks away, are some huge mansion style homes. Do I believe it is unfair that they have a big fancy home, and I live in a rather run-down one? No, that's life. If I want the big mansion, I know that I better choose another career path. But I'm content with where God has placed me.

How exactly do you define "poor"? I define "poor" as people who do not have the means to provide food, shelter, and clothing for their families. Most of the "poor" in our country do not fit that definition. The "poor" in our US have cable TV, their kids have Xboxes, they own cell phones,etc.

Welfare should not be a way of life. However, unfortunatly many people view it as such.

Patrick Furlong said...

“Clean water and health care and school and food and tin roofs and cement floors, all of these things should constitute a set of basics that people should have as birthrights.” Paul Farmer

That is the basics in my opinion. But after that, we must ask the tough questions. How good is the schooling, how accessible the health care?

And in the richest nation in the world, to only reach for the absolute minimum is a slap in the face to the ideals of justice and equality as set out among Catholic Social Teaching.

As for your view on poverty in the United States, it could use a bit more practical experience and less theory that sounds like a Ronald Reagan sound-bite re-run, but that's just my very personal and invested opinion after seeing a lot of poverty, from the United States to Latin America and beyond.

Kristin said...

Practical expereince? Besides the fact that I grew up poor, I am a teacher in a public school. I know that there are children in our school that get free lunch, yet have cable TV, and a host of other gadgets. Where are the priorities here? Talk the satellite dish off our house and feed your kid. You know you live in an affluent society when the greatest health risk among the nation's poor is obesity and television is considered the 4th basic need.

I agree that all children should be insured. And they are, at least in NJ we have NJ Kid Care and a host of other programs that help kids in need, from free glasses to dental care.

But adults, unless they have a severe disability or other impairment, are on their own. It is not the goverment's job to meet our needs. We need to plant our own garden, so to speak, less we create a welfare state. I know many people who continue to work only so they can keep their health insurance. And I think that's a good thing. If we are handed everything, why work for it?

Kristin said...

And how do you define peace? Being "nice" to people who want to annihilate us? Like I said, in order to have true peace, you have to confront evil.