By Bishop James Conley
Almost seven million people live in and around Nairobi, Kenya, in a river valley north of Mount Kilimanjaro. Nearly half of Nairobi’s residents live in slums—in makeshift houses and tents, surviving on less than $1 a day, where HIV, prostitution, and crime run rampant. Open sewers and garbage litter the streets. The ground is often a muddy mix of decomposing trash and human waste.
The slums of Nairobi are populated by families and children who work to survive amidst terrible conditions. They often find creative ways to work together. They are often people of faith. They often, in ways we cannot imagine, have not lost sight of their dignity, and have not lost the joy of human life. Still, no one should have to live in such terrible poverty, and it is a profound injustice that they do.
In Laudato si, Pope Francis says that those living in such abject conditions remind us that “in the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable; the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.”
The Gospel demands, Pope Francis says, “an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers.”
We have an obligation to prioritize the needs of the poorest, in each of day of our lives, in response to Christ’s call to love him in the service of the poor.
Early in my priesthood, I had the opportunity to spend 10 years working in an office of the Vatican, and living in Rome. During that time, I was often invited to celebrate Holy Mass and to hear confessions for the Missionaries of Charity, St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta’s sisters, in their various houses throughout the city of Rome. On several occasions, I was asked to give retreats and to celebrate the ceremonies of Holy Week for their communities all over the world.
In the year 2000, I was invited to the Missionaries of Charity community in Nairobi, Kenya, for Holy Week, to serve more than 200 sisters, novices, and postulants. I was astounded by the lives of these sisters, who lived with the poor of Nairobi, and who worked each day to love them, to treat them with dignity, and to reveal to them the love of Jesus Christ. Their work was very hard. But it brought them close to the Lord, and helped them to bring the poor of Nairobi close to Him as well. I will never forget going with the sisters to visit families in makeshift houses made of corrugated metal scraps. I’ll never forget how neat, clean and tidy they kept their hovels. They were proud and honored to host a sister and a priest in their home.
There are doctors, dentists, nurses, and other medical professionals, as well as teachers and ordinary families, who choose to spend time working alongside the Missionaries of Charity, in Nairobi, in Calcutta, and elsewhere. Their work has profound impact on the lives of the very poor: they provide simple surgeries or procedures, or medications unavailable among the very poor, or simple treatment of difficult diseases, to those who might otherwise die from easily curable illnesses. To those who suffer from more grave problems, like HIV, medical missionaries often provide some modicum of treatment they might not ever otherwise obtain.
I left Nairobi knowing that I could never do enough to solve the complex problems of global poverty. But I also left knowing that the Lord had called me to visit the sick, and feed the poor, and clothe the naked, and I had tried to do that. I left knowing that I needed to use the opportunities given to me in this country in order to maintain and support the dignity of the very poor around the world.
Most importantly, I left Nairobi, like many people do, having been transformed. I left with a deeper desire for solidarity with the poor. I left with a deeper desire to join people in their suffering—to love, as best I could, with the love of Jesus Christ.
Mother Teresa often said that each of us could “find Kolkata all over the world if you have the eyes to see.” This is, perhaps, the most lasting fruit of missionary work among the very poor—transforming our sight, to help us see the need for the love of God—the loneliness, illness, and sin—among the people we encounter in our ordinary lives.
Not all of us have the opportunity to serve the very poor in some far-flung locale. But all of us can find those who are longing for God’s love in our midst—those in need of generous and charitable service. May we pray to have sight to see, to find our own Calcuttas, and to respond as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.
Related column: How Mother Teresa welcomed my parents into the Church