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Learning from the poor in a time of crisis

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We are perplexed at how briskly our lives can change in the blink of an eye.

Hosffman
Ospino

Moments of crisis are great opportunities of self-assessment. Crises often confront us with what philosophers call "existential questions." As our world faces the current pandemic that has halted our lives, literally, many ask about the why, how and where of life.

We are perplexed at how briskly our lives can change in the blink of an eye. We take so much for granted: life, health, the air we breathe, our families, others' company, the workplace, restaurants, financial systems, churches, social services, rights and freedoms, etc.

In only a few days, the opposite of that which we took for granted imposed new norms. Temporarily, we hope, but still new norms. Fear invades us when the natural act of breathing may bring us closer to death.

Desperation sets in when food and work become scarce. Suspicion rules as we witness our governments slowly impinging upon some of our hard-won freedoms, including freedom of religion (e.g., churches must remain closed), for the sake of the common good. Social isolation, voluntary or imposed, disorients us.

As I follow reactions and listen to conversations about our current situation, I notice a common thread: loss. Our awareness about what we are losing or what we have lost has exponentially increased. Will the lost return? Will life go back to "normal"? How long will this last?

We seem to yearn for a return to that stage when we could take things for granted. Life seemed easier and more bearable. We want to have as much control over our lives as possible. Unrestricted agency makes us feel more human, we think.

Once again, will the lost return? Will life go back to "normal"? How long will this last? I am suspicious of anyone who provides facile and too quick answers to these questions. Even if this is a short crisis, nothing prevents that we may not experience it again in the near future or something different places us in a similar condition.

For millions of people in our world, and in our own country, what many experience as (a preferably temporary) condition of loss is the de facto reality that shapes their everyday lives. The poor, the vulnerable and the dispossessed, the sick, the refugee and the imprisoned do not and cannot take life for granted.

When one cannot take for granted life, food, health, freedom, peace, work, company and even one's own space, one has no option but to hold on to the simplest and readily available treasures one has. When one lives without the privileges that characterize the lives of many in a rich nation like ours, one may be better positioned to critique the excesses that take our eyes from the essential.

Read me well. I am not romanticizing poverty or illness or suffering. I am simply suggesting that in a time of crisis, we need guides for the journey, women and men drawing from the wells of their own struggles and dispossession to help us navigate the difficulties of the present moment and help us to reencounter our own humanity.

The poor, the vulnerable and the dispossessed, the sick, the refugee and the imprisoned are often the people that when all is well many in our society ignore and reject. That is our social sin for which we need true conversion. Paradoxically, in a time of crisis, they are perhaps the people better suited to guide us. Through them, we may find surprising paths to encountering God.

Let us place ourselves at the feet of the poor and vulnerable to learn from them during this time of crisis. After all, Jesus invited us to encounter him in them.

- Hosffman Ospino is assistant professor of theology and religious education at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry.



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