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Enriched by the Poor

Selene Pera recounts missionary experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Reading the passage from Pope Francis’ homily for the Mass on the occasion of the Fourth World Day of the Poor on November 16, 2020, I had been struck by these words that keep coming back to my mind:

The poor are at the center of the Gospel; the Gospel cannot be understood without the poor. The poor are in the very personality of Jesus, who being rich annihilated himself, made himself poor, made himself sin, the ugliest poverty. The poor guarantee us an eternal income and already enable us to be enriched in love. Because the greatest poverty to fight is our poverty of love“.

For me, doing apostolate among the poor I think was the greatest richness that this experience in Congo could give me. The Democratic Republic of Congo has more than 90 million inhabitants, about 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and of these, more than 50 percent live in absolute poverty. It only takes a short walk of a few minutes to come across someone begging for charity.

If you move to the slum-dominated suburbs or villages populated by mud and tin houses, the situation is dramatic. People live in numbers in very small spaces, often shared with pets. There is no light, no drinking water, no sanitation. The water that abounds this season is rainwater, and often the heavy storms that characterize this weather are disastrous for those living in makeshift housing. Many, too many kids wander the streets trying to survive through selling a few puffs, collecting bits of iron buried by dust or, unfortunately, committing theft and joining gangs of delinquents. This, as can be imagined, leads to severe degradation in the lives of young people who alternate between times in and out of prison.

Accompanied by the sisters and volunteers, I have done apostolate in villages, in slums, in hospitals, on the streets, in prison and each time I prayed to Jesus to make me aware of the importance of living the Works of Mercy, to let myself be moved by compassion without prejudice and to transform my gestures and glances into moments of refreshment for those who live suffering.

I realized that in this country, battered by war and injustice, charity saves lives. The poor give charity to even poorer people by sharing the little they have. I have seen children as young as 8-9 years old take care of younger siblings because they were abandoned by their families to their own devices or abused, accused of witchcraft and therefore taken to so-called “revival churches” where exorcisms and even torture have become a real business. This phenomenon affects about 80 percent of the more than 40,000 children living on the streets.

I am increasingly convinced that the account of these realities cannot be fully comprehensive if certain situations are not seen with one’s own eyes and touched on one’s own skin.

There is, however, a sign of hope that does not translate into the presidential elections held on Wednesday, December 20, on which a lot of money was spent and had chaotic outcomes as was to be expected. Hope lies in Christmas. The Light of Christmas illuminates everyone indiscriminately, but especially the poor. Let us not forget that the fate of the world was changed by a child, born poor, in a manger among animals after Mary and Joseph were refused a welcome, and the first announcement of his birth was given to shepherds, humble presences accustomed to keeping watch.

Here then, with Christmas only a few days away, the wish is precisely that the poor, the children and the oppressed will be dazzled and warmed by this Light coming into the world.

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