Maria (I have given her this name after many years) sat on a blanket next to her mother. They sat on the sidewalk selling small bags of pecans in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. It was the family’s livelihood. I was six-years-old and on a day trip with my parents. I pulled my dad’s hand and made him stop to buy a bag of pecans. As my dad paid the woman for the pecans, I looked deep into Maria’s eyes. I continue to carry the image of those mysterious black eyes and will never forget them.
Panchito stood in front of me smiling from cheek to cheek. He waited with anticipation for me to take his picture. The only difference between Panchito and any other child of five was that he looked more like a three-year-old due to malnutrition. He stood on the dirt with only a pair of dusty underpants; no shoes covered his young and already calloused feet; no shirt protected his small chest and back from the sun.
“Nunca me han tomado una photo (No one has ever taken my picture),” he told me. I proudly snapped my Polaroid camera, as I stood engulfed in 10 by 14 foot cinderblock homes which housed families of 8 to 10 persons in the ghetto of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. I will never forget Panchito’s smile.
What was it about these two children that affected me so deeply? It was something beyond that they were children living in poverty.
The option for the poor
I had been taught that the option for the poor was “the moral test of how a society treats its most vulnerable members” (Catholic social teaching). Also, that the poor have a unique way of looking at the world. The option for the poor is not to be understood as fomenting dualism, putting the rich on one side and the poor on the other. Rather, when the needs of the poor are not addressed, the entire community becomes wounded.
After sitting with the thought for many months, I realized that the option for the poor does not only mean that I, as a person from the “first world” who consumes 80% of the world’s goods, should be frugal with my goods, so all may have the necessities to live beyond today. There is much deeper meaning here.
It is through their vulnerability that the poor come to know God and the divinity within themselves. In special moments they invite us through a look, a smile, a conversation, a favor, a prayer…so we may truly see the face of Jesus in our sisters and brothers. If we are able to drop our facades and make ourselves vulnerable to accepting the invitation, then God works through these persons to grace us with a further understanding of our own human-divine connection.
She walked into the church with a bag of pennies. She spoke directly to me, “I came to visit the Santo Niño. I have a favor to ask him. Is there somewhere we can write petitions?” I showed her the papers and pencils. She picked-up one of each, then walked over to me. “I do not have my glasses. Will you write the note?” I accepted with a nod.
“Dear Santo Niño,” she began. She did not watch over me like other elderly women had in the past as I wrote. She continued, “Please take care of my son as he is in jail. Be with him everyday. And guide my daughter who has run away. Please bring her back to me.”
I finished the note and handed it to her. I found it strange when she did not try to read it. She handed the bag of pennies to Jorge, and asked him to take enough to purchase one candle at $2.00. Then she handed me the bag, and asked me to count out 50 cents. When I was finished, she told me to keep the 50 pennies. And, out of respect for her graciousness, I have.