Building solidarity at the margins
In 1992, I was a Jesuit novice living in Jamaica Plain, Boston, and as part of our daily routine we discussed some of the essays from the series “Studies in Jesuit Spirituality.” None stood out quite like the article by Dean Brackley, S.J., titled “Downward Mobility: Social Implications of St. Ignatius’s Two Standards,” published in January 1988. Father Brackley—a New York Jesuit—was always concerned with the poor, and following the killings of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in El Salvador in 1989, he began an assignment as a replacement instructor in theology there. The change in scenery from the relatively calm United States to a terrifying war zone in the developing world must have given Father Brackley a lot more opportunity to consider his thesis on “downward mobility.”
Of course, the idea of downward mobility stands in stark contrast to the notion of upward mobility, itself an immensely popular idea, akin to the American Dream, and one that has conditioned many a mind from an early age. It certainly captured my imagination.
At face value, downward mobility may seem farcical; but when coupled with movements of solidarity and kinship, the idea begins to emerge as something of a counterforce to upward mobility. The draw of solidarity evokes a keen sense of justice, especially in relation to oppressed or forsaken people. It is a prevailing theme in Pope Francis’ encyclical on integral ecology and one of the core principles of Catholic social teaching. The experience of kinship is something else; it may or may not conjure an immediate sense of justice. What kinship seems to elicit more deeply than a sense of solidarity, however, is a growing intimacy and understanding among very different people, while realizing that in the face of difference, we tend to carry subconscious feelings of superiority or inferiority. In fact, many stories of kinship are described in the book by Greg Boyle, S.J., Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
Why is a thorough examination of downward or upward mobility important? If one considers the convergence of environmental and geopolitical crises destroying the basis for life itself—arable land and food, ready supplies of clean water or functioning global states—it may well be that the missing link for the survival of civilization is a kind of collective turn to downward mobility. Though beginnings of a materially lighter, clean-energy economy are well underway, our planet has been demolished by the sheer weight of the industrial-extraction economies of the 20th and early 21st century.
In his encyclical “Charity in Truth” (quoted by Pope Francis in “Laudato Si’”), Pope Benedict XVI prophesied against a “‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind that forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation.” Indeed, the World Bank has warned that unless humankind unifies around the challenges of climate change—caused by deforestation, mass production and emissions—and creates a very different kind of economy by 2030, some 100 million people or more will join the ranks of the more than 700 million people who already live in extreme poverty.
My taste of downward mobility began in the late 1990s. I had just left life as a religious in Spokane, Wash., and in my relative poverty I became eligible for food stamps. Years later, I received unemployment compensation after losing full-time work. This helped pay the mortgage on my new house in Trenton, N.J., but I was soon hit with life-saving surgery and a two-week hospital stay, without health insurance. A year later, after I found work in teaching and moved to Maryland, my realtor and I were unable to sell my house, whose value began to plummet. To keep up with rent and mortgage, I worked around the clock as a waiter. This affected my health and ability to teach at top level, so after six months I quit my weekend job. After 10 months making payments on a vacant home, the market value now less than my remaining principal, I applied for a “deed in lieu” (of foreclosure). Fortunately, it was granted.
When I left the Jesuits, I had no conscious desire or intention to experience downward mobility. I had no plan to experiment with economic hardship the way Barbara Ehrenreich did, as she reported in Nickel and Dimed. I had no interest in eating only cheap food, as Morgan Spurlock reported in his documentary Super Size Me. Furthermore, while my understanding of success has changed, I have always wanted “to be successful.”
Sometimes, though, life happens. I contracted achalasia, a disease of the esophagus that my doctor discovered while performing a routine upper endoscopy. While working in college campus ministry and enjoying some fun splashing around with Honduran friends, I had accidentally swallowed a bit of river water. That is how I contracted a parasite that I later learned is a leading cause of achalasia. The fact that my doctor mistakenly perforated my esophagus during the endoscopy, prompting the need for immediate, life-saving surgery, did not make my life any easier. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. My surgeon the next day was able to perform the long-term, muscle-cutting maneuver that is used to relieve conditions of achalasia.
Kinship and Solidarity
I first heard about Father Greg Boyle and his ministry with gang members in the mid-1990s. As a campus minister, I was thrilled to hear him speak to our packed conference center in 2009. Warm-hearted and funny, Father Greg is a one-of-a-kind storyteller. Equally engaging, weaving stories with their own kind of relish, were two “homies,” as he calls them, who accompanied him. Father Greg’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, recounts dozens of incidents of unspeakable anguish and surprising joy in some of the toughest areas of Los Angeles. With a graced rawness, Father Greg draws the reader into each encounter as if it were speaking about your own loved ones and so unveils the depths of equality in a beautiful word: kinship.
Coming to know and embrace a kinship beyond that which comes naturally—among family and friends—has been a learning process for me, to be sure, but a series of conversations between 2011 and 2014 seemed to quicken my education.
Shortly after moving to Trenton, I joined a faith-sharing group at New Jersey State Prison, just around the corner from my house at the time. At our bimonthly meetings, my new friends helped me to see myself as not being any better, or worse, than any of them, just one man among equals. Notwithstanding their wounds and struggles, they shone with a rare kind of joy and serenity, giving a commanding witness to their deeply forgiving and liberating God. At one point, a few of the men took turns leading discussions of Jesus’ parables, like the story of the good Samaritan or the prodigal son. In sharing snippets of their lives before sentencing and since, they prompted altogether new meanings of kinship in the former parable and mercy in the latter. I now see the markings of infinite goodness in those who may have to spend the rest of their lives in confinement.
As a Jesuit in training, and years later as a campus minister, I was able to travel to Central America on several occasions, for weeks and months at a time. My companions and I discovered varied reasons why so many Central Americans have risked life and limb in their journeys to the United States. These include a strong desire and will for advances in safety, education or employment. In recent years, social media have allowed me to reconnect with Honduran or Salvadoran friends, a few of whom are now living in the United States. Their courage and humanity defy the odious label “illegals.”
If kinship is the feeling, what, then, can be said of the action—solidarity? For one thing, the work of solidarity is never fleeting or simplistic. Solidarity seeks lasting, effective relief from hardships brought on by the effects of climate change and extreme poverty, like worsening terrorism or war. Compassionate sharing among individuals and communities is always and everywhere needed. But just as impressive are expressions of solidarity at the level of systemic policymaking. Through economy-wide investments in renewable energy, comprehensive immigration reform and the expansion of fair trade (to name just a few), citizens of the world are urged to build a more humane and hopeful future.
Nonetheless, universal kinship and the accompanying need for political and economic solidarity may never come to pass if we do not open ourselves to the gift of downward mobility. Consider small samples of compassion. If I had not been stricken by achalasia and lost 40 pounds and almost died, would I really care to know what it is like for people wrestling with some rare disease? If I had not lost my job, health insurance and home, would I really want to know what it is like for the millions of Americans in the same situation? It is certainly possible, although earlier I never gave it the same attention as I do now. And while I have not lived on an island or in a tropical nation for the length of time required to know the existential terror of climate change, I can stop and listen to my Central American friends and consider what it might be like.
At the very least, downward mobility means sustained attention to first things first, and the brilliance of Pope Francis’ encyclical is its approach to putting first things first—water, food, shelter and safety—in a systematic and transformative way. We can build not simply a short-term solidarity that brings relief to people who face the direst circumstances of the global economic order in the age of disaster; we can also build a real, long-lasting solidarity that is mutually empowering. Such relations reward the deep sharing of land—“For the earth is the Lord’s and all therein” (Ps 24:1).
From the standpoint of the Gospels, downward mobility (as with kinship and solidarity) is nothing new. Jesus’ words are straightforward. “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Mt 6:33). “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink.…” (Mt 6:25). “Whatever you have done for the least of these.…” (Mt 25:40). And, “Follow me” (Mt 4:19). Notwithstanding how these touch the hearts of individuals, Jesus’ words ought to speak to nations and economies.
Especially working together, downward mobility, kinship and solidarity orient our decision-making as if we are one. With haste, then, let us break open and activate these gifts, thereby stemming the tide of needless suffering and death in the 21st century and awakening the kind of community that Jesus and the prophets envisioned.