Dean Brackley, SJ was an American Jesuit who started his career in education, a community organizer working for social justice in El Salvador. Brackley volunteered to go to the University of Central America in 1989, shortly after the murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter. In addition to his academic responsibilities, he also did pastoral work in a poor urban community in San Salvador and described life in El Salvador as, “a mix of economic, political, generational, moral and religious crosses and resurrections.” It is from this perspective Brackley offers the following insight on the gift of the poor to the "comfortable," perhaps especially, middle class.
The following are excerpts from "Meeting the victims, falling in love" which was reprinted in America Magazine.
The middle-class cultures of the North are newcomers to world history and have only existed for about 200 years. We’re not all bad people, we’re just a tiny minority under the common illusion that we are the center of gravity of the universe. The poor can free us from this strange idea. . . .
The problem for us is that the new freedoms and economic security have distanced the non-poor from the kind of daily life-and-death struggle that has been the daily fare of the poor of all times right up to today. Maybe 90 percent of all the people who ever lived have struggled every day to keep the household alive against the threat of death through hunger, disease, accidents and violence. By distancing the non-poor from the daily threat of death, the benefits of modernity have induced in us a kind of chronic low-grade confusion about what is really important in life, namely life itself and love.
...superior technology and the communications media induce us to think of our culture and perspective on life as the norm, and basically on track. The encounter with the poor stops us short; it recollects us. When we come out on the other side, we realize that the marginalized are actually at the center of things....
These people shake us up because they bring home to us that things are much worse in the world than we dared to imagine. But that is only one side of the story: If we allow them to share their suffering with us, they communicate some of their hope to us as well. The smile that seems to have no foundation in the facts is not phony; the spirit of fiesta is not an escape but a recognition that something else is going on in the world besides injustice and destruction. The poor smile because they suspect that this something is more powerful than the injustice. When they insist on sharing their tortilla with a visiting gringo, we recognize there is something going on in the world that is more wonderful than we dared to imagine.
It seems that the victim offers us the privileged place (although not the only place) to encounter the truth which sets us free. The poor usher us into the heart of reality. They bring us up against the world and ourselves all at once. To some extent, we all hold reality at arm's length -- fending off intolerable parts of the world with one hand and intolerable parts of ourselves with the other. The two go together. As a rule, our encounters with the world place us in touch with internal reality, as well. In particular, when the world's pain crashes in upon us in the person of the victim, the encounter dredges up from within us the parts of ourselves that we had banished. The outcast outside us calls forth the outcast within us. This is why people avoid the poor. But meeting them can heal us. We will only heal our inner divisions if we are also working to heal our social divisions.
source: James Martin, SJ. America Magazine. Oct 19 2011