Poor Britain!

10th July 2017 - by Mauricio Silva

Mauricio addressing an interfaith gathering
Mauricio addressing an interfaith gathering

‘Britain is a wealthy nation, a developed country, and a society which offers multiple opportunities to some of its people. But, ‘don’t forget the poor!’ Mauricio Silva, Columban Lay Mission Co-ordinator, shares his experience of mission in Britain.

Every now and then I take the time to write about what I spend my time doing as a missionary among the people of Birmingham. Although writing is not my favourite activity, I recognise that the mere effort of doing it makes me reflect – even re-enact the struggle – concerning what matters most to me these days: my decision to remain as a Columban lay missionary serving in this complex and challenging context.

Britain is a locus for Columban mission today

I don’t want to elaborate any further nor convince anybody about the why Britain is a locus for Columban mission today. What I know is that I accepted to be sent here nearly 15 years ago, and that throughout that decade and a half many things have happened: I had my second child, my children have been educated here, I have been to many new places, I have made new friends and so on. In a nutshell, I learnt to love the reality I found myself in. And I mean love in the deepest sense of it, which implies embracing both what I enthusiastically like and also what I absolutely dislike about missionary life in Britain. My wife and companion knows very well what I mean!

But, ‘don’t forget the poor!’

Yes, Britain is a wealthy nation, a developed country, and a society which offers multiple opportunities to some of its people. If you visit, you would certainly be a satisfied tourist, happy to have spent your money and time in a place where big decisions – those affecting large proportions of humanity here and overseas- have been and are being made. But, ‘don’t forget the poor!’ was the advice given to dear Pope Francis at the very beginning of his pontificate by Brazilian cardinal Hummes. By the way, he hasn’t forgotten them!

The following is a daring but relatively true statement about myself: I was born and grew up among poor people. Like most people in this planet, I experienced painful hardships associated with poverty. I am not complaining about it, and nor would I make the missiological case for the benefit of poor southerners preaching to the rich ! What I will say is this….

‘everything depends on the pain of the beholder’.

I believe that an option for the poor is a mysterious personal calling; it is an inclination, a leaning, a perspective. The always-inspiring Latin american author Mario Benedetti, paraphrasing a well know Spanish saying writes, ‘todo es segun el dolor del cristal con que se mire’….which, can be loosely equated to a phrase like ‘everything depends on the pain of the beholder’. And that is what I mean, the pain of the poor (together with their many joys too!) makes them look at life in a different way. And I’d say that this perspective can be learnt and lived out here in Birmingham as well as in Puente Alto, Cagayan de Oro or Lahore. As a Christian missionary you can opt to live as a poor person among the rich, just as many opt to live as rich people among the poor.

I always pray that my children learn and appreciate this perspective of the poor, and that I myself never lose sight of it when making not only the small, but above all big life decisions. ‘If you learn to accept the limitations of poverty, you will never take any of Gods gifts for granted’, as parents we tell our son and daughter. When they were babies I used to sing to them, as a lullaby, a Latin-American song which goes ‘vuele bajo, parque abajo esta la verdad, eso es algo que los hombres no aprenden jamas’ (‘glide low, because down below there is truth, that is something that adults never learn’). This refers to the truth of the poor…. the painful and joyful truth.

Leaving aside all traces of romanticism, I admit that nowadays my kids (12 and 16 years) often grumble at this option of being poor, for not being able to access the latest technology, not having glamorous holidays, renting in a unattractive migrants-filled area, not wearing fashionable clothes, not having a car, and so on. This has taught me that we can only fall in love with poverty, and for that we gradually need to learn to embrace it wholly, with its joys and its pains. Love for poverty cannot imposed.

So, what have I done for the past 15 years as a missionary? Alongside many others, I have felt the anguish of asylum seekers who are denied status for years, and the cry of the old man whose only company is a TV. I have cried alongside victims of domestic violence and migrants feeling homesick. I have truly struggled to make people believe that those of other faiths are God’s children and God’s gift to us all. I have felt the marks of pain of young people feeling there is no hope. I have felt overwhelmed and fearful that my own children may be victims of the deprivation which surrounds us. But that list should go alongside the many joys the very same situations and people have given me (which may be a theme for my next article!) .

I have experienced the ‘dolor of the poor’ in Britain. Therefore, I say in here we have not forgotten the poor either.