Why we need a special day to see the poor

Just in case you missed it, Umbrella Day this year took place on February 10. It celebrated everything from the enormous umbrellas you see in sidewalk cafes to those pesky little paper ones that sit in cocktails. Not long after, on February 13, it was International Radio Day. World Chess Day was on July 10, Checkers Day was on September 23 and, for those who prefer cards, World Bridge Day will be on December 12. In fact, practically every day is dedicated to something or other. International Crochet Day is on September 13. This is not to be confused with World Knitting Day on June 10. Nor with World Doll Day which is the second Saturday in June. World Bonsai Day is May 8. Origami Day is Nov 11, which coincides with Armistice Day. Are you marking these in your calendar?

Sadly, by the time we get to November, we are worn out with so much celebrating and commemorating. This is a pity because one day that really should stand out is the World Day of the Poor which, this year, is marked on Sunday, November 13. It deserves special attention because, as we all know, the rich get 364 days. There is just one for the poor.

Caritas Australia, where I work, does not always use the word poor as it can be disabling and dismissive. Sensitivity to language is part of the subtlety of our work. Language both shapes and reflects attitudes. When I started at Caritas Australia a little less than two years ago, I had a two-dimensional knowledge of what the agency does. I associated it mainly with Project Compassion and, sure enough, had done my share of urging people to put money in those little boxes during Lent. More recently, I have been on a steep learning curve, not least about the diversity of what we do and, just as important, how we do it. Numbers are one thing. In the last financial year, Caritas Australia directly reached hundreds of thousands of people across 32 countries.

Stories are better. This year, to take a single example, I became aware of Ms Kaswera who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an enormous country with such fragile infrastructure that outsiders are discouraged from visiting. The Australian Government urges travellers not to go there. People like Kaswera simply fall out of sight. She is 55 and has nine children. Her husband is too sick to work full-time. Her house is in danger of collapse and there has been little money to buy food let along get the children to school. She is one among many.

Kaswera says that one of the dangers she experienced was that because she was considered ‘poor’ she was very much underestimated. Caritas Australia has supported projects in her region based on what is known as Asset Based Community Led Development. This involves looking at the possibilities of a situation, building towards the most positive future. Kaswera received training in agriculture and also participated in a program that helped explore models of positive masculinity, providing tools for averting domestic violence. She commented that as things began to improve, she was held in greater esteem by both her children and husband. As a result, she was able to expect more help from her partner.

As a former teacher, I am aware of the way in which people grow into your expectations of them. If you treat somebody as dependent, that is what they become. If you treat them as unreliable, they become even more unreliable. On the other hand, if somebody experiences hope, they just grow. Kaswera, in her own words, is confident not just that her situation is changing but that she is changing it.

On a recent visit to East Africa, our Australian staff were confronted by communities literally on the brink of starvation. Their situation was desperate. It is our responsibility to share stories with integrity and respect for the dignity of all whilst at the same time letting people in Australia know what is really happening.

You may recall a photo called ‘The vulture and the little girl’ that was taken by Kevin Carter in 1993 and published in The New York Times. It showed a raptor simply waiting for a child to die and won a Pulitzer Prize. The picture broke hearts and told the story of the entire Ayod region of what is now South Sudan where, at the time, death from malnutrition was rampant. Yet many people wondered if such an image was in keeping with the dignity of the child (whose name, Kong Nyong, was not known until 2011). Susan Sontag asked if a picture like this turned the viewer into a passive voyeur. Carter did shoo the vulture away but I don’t know if he stayed long enough to see Kong arrive safely at a UN relief camp. Should that photo have been published? It’s a good question. Ethics is integral to what we do.

Many of the questions we encounter have deep roots. On the one hand, some thinkers look to what has been called ‘a theology of disaster resilience.’ On the other hand, others prefer to start with a ‘theology of vulnerability.’ They argue that the truly marginal have often done everything humanly possible. But the deck is so stacked against them that they are tired of expectations that somehow, with a bit of help, they can get onto their own two feet. They are sitting ducks in the face of climate change, drought, famine, war and God knows what else. They are invisible on the global stage. One word to describe them is vulnerable. Another is resilient. These two perspectives can support each other. Our partners want us to see them and tell their full story.

There are many special days in the year and there’s no harm in celebrating umbrellas, origami or crochet. But surely the World Day of the Poor has a special place. It asks us to see the world for what it truly is and it is not always a pretty picture. Oddly enough, on November 3, ten days before World Day of the Poor, you may have noticed the International Day for Drawing God. It is celebrated with a great sense of fun and creativity. How do we see God? What image could we use? Most of us know the line from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables: ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’. God is difficult to see. So too are the people closest to God’s heart.

- Michael McGirr, Mission Facilitator at Caritas Australia.

This article was first published in Eureka Street.