Learning from the Poor

by Albert S. Rossi, Ph.D.

Spring/Summer 1997

   Who are the "poor?" Well, where I go to Church there are a few families who don't have health insurance. That's materially poor. Also, one of my colleagues simply won't, or can't, believe in any reality beyond science or what is verifiable. That's spiritually poor. Again, I know someone who lacks social skills to the point of not having anyone to eat with, weeks on end. That's emotionally poor. Or, my Uncle Martin, could not read, was seriously retarded, and could not hold a job any more taxing than a night watchman at a fruit stand. That's mentally poor.

   The dictionary defines "poor" as "wretchedly lacking, meager." The poor, therefore, can be anyone who is "wretchedly lacking" materially, spiritually, emotionally, physically, or mentally.

   Jesus came to save the "poor," not necessarily to save those who serve the poor. Somehow, my task is to learn that I am the poor.

   How can I learn this? Some of the best teachers are those who are obviously, and unabashedly, poor. Some of my best teachers are those who have no choice except to be poor.

   The dictionary defines, "learn" as "to acquire knowledge or skill by study, instruction or experience." In this sense, I can "learn" by my experience with the poor, by seeking out the poor for my sake, as well as theirs. I can "learn how to learn." The language of this learning is "we" not "them."

Uncle Martin

  As a boy growing up near Pittsburgh, I had many uncles. One uncle, Paul, was rich. He owned his own coffee company. Another uncle, Tony, was a cigar smoking salesman. Another uncle, Mark, had an army medal, a car and a wife.

   Then there was Uncle Martin. Uncle Martin never went to school, was severely retarded, was seriously overweight, had no teeth, and worked as a night watchman at a fruit stand, occasionally. Martin smiled a wide welcoming, smile much of the time. He called me, "Willy," for reasons known only to him. Martin spoke his friendly few sentences to virtually everyone, regardless. Martin was courteous, and warm, to every person he met. On the streetcar, everyone knew, and said "Hello," to Martin.

   He lived the life of a "tolerated but embarrassing" relative to most of the family. My mother was about the only one who cared for him, and looked after his needs. Uncle Martin was rather much a social outcast in our family. He knew this.

   Uncle Martin suffered bitterly at the hands of his family, who were also my family. As I grew up, except for my mother, Uncle Martin had no one who wanted him to be alive.

   Years later, I visited Uncle Martin at the old age home before he died. He secretly pulled me aside, took me to a window, and pointed to the moon which we could see in the daytime. He whispered to me. I knew I was about to hear Uncle Martin's heart speak.

   Uncle Martin said, "Some people here don't believe in God." He paused and looked around suspiciously. Then, continuing, he said as he pointed to the moon, "They can't tell me there's no God. I see the moon. Mommy died and she's with God. Soon I'll die and I'll be with her." Martin had shared with me all his entire philosophy and theology. His simple, solid outlook put my understanding to shame as I realized his wisdom. Uncle Martin taught me faith, like no book or class ever could. It took a long while, but Uncle Martin taught me that I am the poor.

   When he died, the Church was so crowded that people could not get into the Funeral Mass. Today, more than 25 years later, the most oft quoted uncle in my family is Martin. His famous line, now quoted by a number of us is, "What's a fella gonna do." Martin had a deep, deep faith in life, in God.

   We all knew that his sentence, "What's a fella gonna do," included an unspoken peace, an unspoken joy, an unspoken acceptance of his life, as is. His sentence included an unspoken faith in the God who made him. We all intuited that. And we leaned acceptance from Martin. No one in my life could have possibly taught me acceptance better than Martin. He had much to accept. And, he did accept his poor lot, extremely graciously.

Jesus and the Poor

   Jesus said, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard...the poor have the good news preached to them." (Luke, 7:22) My vocation is, first, to receive the good news of Jesus. But, He preaches this good news to the poor. Where does that leave me, who in many ways is blessed, and has a rather cushy life in America? For starters, this leaves me with much to learn, about me and about God.

   The poor have the good news proclaimed to them. They hear it and then proclaim it. If I want to really hear the goods news of Jesus, I can look to the poor as my teachers. However, I will only hear and listen to the extent that I am one of them, to the extent that I know and am poor. For many of us, that is a lifetime endeavor.

   I hope that I have learned that in the difficult moments of life, to look at God, and say with faith, "What's a fella gonna do."


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