I once walked among the stars of Hollywood. I now walk among the poor of the world. As I traveled down poverty road I saw firsthand how on the margins of society, hidden far from our sight, countless people live in agony and die in despair. In these countless prisons of chronic poverty, endless misery is an everyday reality. Since 1999, I’ve seen unimaginable suffering and witnessed kids with bloated bellies dying from hunger and treatable diseases. Before I began this journey with the poor, I had lived a life of relative comfort, security, and success. I didn’t even know any poor people.
Images from my time in Haiti immediately after the deadly earthquake in January 2010 still haunt me…the decaying foot of a little boy sticking out of the rubble of a collapsed grammar school, the charred skeletal remains of a man who was trapped in the entrance of a collapsed hotel which caught fire, a woman having the open, bleeding wounds of her amputated leg being treated by a team of Korean doctors, corpses that were lined up behind the hospital that had been eaten away by wild dogs. It was a non-stop nightmare.
As I traveled down poverty road, I was shocked by the unimaginable levels of overwhelming poverty endured by most of the people throughout the world. I had no idea that about eleven million kids under the age of five die every year from hunger and preventable diseases. A single child dying of hunger – hunger for food and hunger for love – is a tragedy; millions of innocent children dying from hunger is a sin of monstrous proportions, an unfathomable and unspeakable disaster. These children are crying out to us; sadly, we choose not to hear them, not to feed them, not to love them.
Due to unjust structures, a quarter of humanity lives on the edge, struggling to survive. Already excluded from the benefits of economic and technological development, the poor are victims of resource wars, climate change, and failing states. More than 15 million of them are refugees, and over 25 million have been internally displaced in their own countries. To make my film We Anoint Their Wounds, featuring the heroic work of Jesuit Refugee Service, I filmed in the massive Kibera slum in Nairobi, the largest and worst slum in all of Africa, as well as in the main garbage dump in the city, where hundreds upon hundreds of people, including numerous woman and children, shift through the rotting waste looking for anything they can recycle for a few pennies. I also filmed in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya, which is surrounded by endless miles of harsh desert and is occupied by 100,000 refugees squeezed together under the blazing African sun. Having seen the horror of these places, I can’t forget them…nor can I forget the faces of the vulnerable people I saw and photographed.
God took on human form as a vulnerable baby, the child of homeless refugees, needing human help in the ongoing work of creation. We are called to be God’s messengers, delivering food and hope to those living with hunger and death on what Pope Francis calls the “existential peripheries” of our time. But beyond dispensing physical and spiritual food we are also called to empower the poor with the practical means to become fully participating members of society.
Justice requires that people have a place to sleep, enough food to eat, and work that makes them feel worthwhile. It is not enough to be for the poor, to stand with them. We must also be against their poverty, a poverty created by injustice and selfishness. After years of deadly civil war, the fleeing Syrian refugees are flooding into Europe where resistance to them is rising. In America, talk of banning Muslim refugees is becoming louder and more insistent. The refugee’s life is a life of prolonged struggles…a struggle for survival, a struggle for dignity, a struggle for liberty, a struggle for equality. The Gospel compels us to share in their struggles, to share in their liberation. This has been my sole message for the last dozen years…and few want to hear it.
Perhaps the time is drawing nigh for me to stop walking among the poor and to begin living among the poor in Haiti.