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Notes from India’s margins

Oct 8, 2017 by

In the 1970s members of Catholic religious congregations held often heated conversations about poverty. The reasons were complex. The heat was understandable.

Andrew Hamilton –

Tony Herbert Disturbing the Dust

Catholic spirituality is the following of Jesus whose life, mission and way of death were bound up with poverty. This was normally interpreted in terms of simplicity and austerity of life, a guilt-inducing enough topic of conversation when community arrangements were put into question.

Discussion became more complex when Catholics recognised that the poverty of the many was not simply a fact but was imposed on them by the choices and attitudes of the few. They resonated with Anne Sexton’s address to Jesus, ‘Skinny man, you are somebody’s fault’. Many religious privileged ministry with and to the poor and the advocacy that it required. The discussion then turned to the relative value of different works to which people had given their lives. It became a conversation best avoided.

A recent book by Fr Tony Herbert, Disturbing the Dust: Notes from the Margins, invites a return to this conversation. A Jesuit priest who has worked for over 30 years in India with the poorest villagers, he grapples with three questions: what to make of poverty, what happens when you commit yourself to people who are indigent, and how, in living, the three aspects of poverty — religious poverty, material poverty and its injustices, and personal emptiness — come together. He builds his reflections around encounters with villagers on his own journey.

His story begins when his religious ideal of serving the poorest of the poor leads him to enter their dusty reality. He finds himself a stranger there, unable to read situations, to understand people’s lives or to lead them to better themselves.

Social analysis helped him to understand the nature of their poverty and its effects. They were of lower caste, in debt to higher caste landlords who underpaid them and took their land, abetted by the judicial and administrative system. Young people who protested against the injustice were savagely beaten by higher caste thugs and came to see themselves as naturally inferior and worthless. If they stood in the way of coal mining in the area, they were simply pushed off the land. They were not seen as inferior: their humanity was not seen at all.

Any foreigner who wished to associate with Dalits was naturally suspect and unwelcome in this world. When disturbing the dust of poverty by encouraging people to stand up for their rights and accompanying them to see landlords or officials, he was humiliated along with them, as their fear made them revert to subservience.

“He allows us to enter his terror as he rides at night with a villager on a motorbike along unfamiliar roads searching for the body of a fellow Jesuit murdered for his advocacy on behalf of his people.”

Constant failure, loss of the security, social place and power to persuade that had undergirded his self-respect and the fears attendant on his work confronted him with his own inner poverty. He allows us to enter his terror as he rides at night with a villager on a motorbike along unfamiliar roads searching for the body of a fellow Jesuit murdered for his advocacy on behalf of his people.

His path also inevitably led to tension with his fellow Jesuits and church leaders who worked with less impoverished groups, mostly through education, to better their lives. It was hard for them to understand a sustained ministry to a small, powerless community apparently with only repeated failure as its badge.

In his case tension did not become a breach. Like others who worked among the Dalits, he was supported by his religious congregation. He was sometimes helped to find support in his advocacy for his people through well-connected alumni of Jesuit educational institutions.

The deeper source of tension, however, lay in the difference between the personal depth of his commitment and the nature of institutions. Institutions, educational or social, are properly concerned with effective service, with sustainable programs, with evidence-based research, with winning battles and with a life-work balance. These qualities make them powerful allies in the struggle for justice of people who are poor.

The personal commitment to the indigent, however, leads people to stay with people and to sift through the ashes of the latest failure or dispossession to find there grains of possibility. With the commitment to the poor, as in the following of Jesus, there is no balance, whether on the scales of justice, between life and work, or between defeat and pride. If the miners destroy your people’s land and living, you help them find work in the mines.

There is a tension between Catholic institutions and the radical following of Jesus, but it is a tension between commitments that need one another. The nature and depth of the commitment to following Jesus along the path of poverty is a gift both to the people who are served. It is also a gift to Catholic institutions. It helps keep them honest. Tony Herbert’s book brings that gift in a powerful and non-combative way.

Source: Eureka Street

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