The parish that opted for Solidarity with the Poor

St Anne’s Church in Bukit Mertajam may be better known for being the major Christian pilgrimage centre in the country.

Apr 09, 2015

Anil Netto
St Anne’s Church in Bukit Mertajam may be better known for being the major Christian pilgrimage centre in the country.

Within the parish, there is always plenty to do, the stuff the usual parish is involved in and more. But at the end of 2013, something happened.

Parish priest, Fr Henry Rajoo, raised a question during a parish pastoral council meeting, “Do you see any direction we are moving towards?”

“We were all ‘blur’,” he recalls. “We were just doing things for the sake of doing them. We were not taking the parish in any direction.”

With Pope Francis moving the Church towards the poor, and Henry’s personal conviction drawing him in that direction, the priest asked, “Why don’t we, next year (2014), move towards being in solidarity with the poor? Maybe that will change our whole parish.”

And so it came to pass: the parish adopted a theme along those lines. For the Kulim-born Henry, the journey toward this solidarity coincided with his own personal epiphany.

The eighth child among nine siblings, his father a taxi-driver and his mother a rubber tapper, Henry was no stranger to poverty. “I know how we suffered when we were young. But I never felt a lack of facilities. Though we went through a hard time, there were no days when we were without anything to eat.”

Entering the seminary at the age of 20, and now seated inside comfortable quarters, Henry has come a long way. “I am here now (at St Anne’s). It’s a nice place, isn’t it? It is like living in a bungalow. It’s a huge place...26 acres … a Security Department.” A battery of about a dozen cctv monitors with flickering images from all around the premises hangs on one side of his hall as if emphasising his point. “

I can run my life as I want. It looks like I am king of the kingdom! I realised one thing though: How am I to go on with this? Is it meaningful to live like this?”

“There are plenty of poor in BM, and I never really reached out to them.”

A visit to the home of one of the church workers, however, changed all that. Henry recalls in vivid detail his trip to the low-cost flats where the family lived. “That’s a terrible place to go. The flats were not properly maintained. These people have no money to pay the maintenance fees. The water tank is leaking because someone had stolen a bronze device that stops the water from overflowing. ”

The home was almost bare. The man of the house had run into difficulties with loan sharks after standing as a guarantor.

Yet, he also pointed Henry to another home in the next block where someone in a household had committed suicide. The grieving widow, a homemaker, had five children. What would happen to the family? The question haunted Henry.

“You see the reality? Well, something told me, what am I going to do with this? There must be a reason why all these things are coming my way.”

He decided to visit the Hindu family bringing along some red packet money, which parishoners and pilgrims had handed to him, and some provisions. “I went inside. They were very respectful. I was from St Anne’s Church, living in a bungalow. And they were living in a simple home.”

The bread-winner had used a hosepipe and hanged himself inside the bathroom. Why he died, no one seemed to know.

While Henry was there, a stranger knocked at the door. “Hari itu, paper kata ada orang mati sini, kan?” he said. “Ada orang cakap, you banyak susah? Saya boleh tengok sekejap?”

The stranger came in and looked around, and then asked the widow. “Apa you mahu? You cakap sekarang.” He jotted down what the widow said. Completing his list, he said, “Esok saya bawa.” He left and the next day, brought what she needed.

Henry was amazed. “I didn’t know who he was. And I was thinking to myself. “What is charity, man? You come to help those who are struggling. He came in, he saw the need, and he addressed the need.”

Thus began Henry’s journey, as he started helping the family. “By then I was telling stories of poor people in Mass and saying these are the real struggling people in our midst.”

The money for the poor started flowing in. I told myself, “If I am not accountable, it is dangerous.” He started preparing his own accounts.

The widow Henry helped put him in touch with another woman who had fled from domestic violence from her husband. She too had five children. They started putting him in touch with more people in need.

Soon others wanted to join in the ministry. “We started buying more and more things. I was already helping 25 families. The group was getting bigger.”

A structure was needed and a group was eventually set up, dubbed the Care and Concern Group. Henry decided to park this group within the Parish Human Development Committee headed by Dr Mary Fernandez, so there would be a layer of monitoring and accountability.

Eventually, he told those handing him cash for the poor to hand over the money to the parish office, where a clerk would issue them with official reciepts. The accounts would be tabled monthly.

The reaction of the parishioners was interesting. “Some of them, we can mould to help the poor; some of them would ask, ‘Why do we have to help the poor?’ Some of them have been ‘hit’ by the poor – perhaps a snatch thief.

“I told them we can stand aloof. You can say, ‘I don’t want to help the poor.’” There was a lot of argument in the BECs though many of them cooperated, he recalls.

“The participation from the parish is there. And I think people are seeing the difference. I find that people who resisted helping the poor in the beginning are now donating. Something must have touched them.

“I realised one thing: the whole feeling when you reach out to the poor, there’s some kind of calmness, some kind of peace inside. I don’t know how to explain this. “

People will start realising how much they have and how much others don’t have. And that itself calms people down from the competitive mentality in society.”

Henry then told those interested to bring their children along when they visit the poor. In the process of helping the poor, “have a chat with them and let your children listen. They themselves will learn how blessed they are in all that they have.”

“My life has also changed,” says Henry. These days, he feels compelled not to waste and now opts to live a life of simplicity.

The youthful-looking priest stresses the importance of personal contact with the poor, visiting their homes, and interacting with them — much like how Matthew 25:25 exhorts us. Motivating them and drawing them out of Poverty Land is key, he realises, though he concedes there are cases of high-dependence, where people are unable to work for various reasons.

A realisation dawned. “I have the power to change (things). Today I can walk on the street and see one poor man, he has no money to eat lunch. I can buy lunch for him; I can change his life. Telling him somebody cares for him. I can’t do that for the rich, they don’t need me. But I can do that with the man on the street.”

But it is not just a one-way traffic. “I realise also, spending time with (the poor man), communicating with him, it opens my mind, it challenges me to think what he is thinking and also to show him a kind of outlook of life that I want to listen to you, what’s your problem.

“I personally feel this is what Christ was doing. He was giving life to the poor, when he was talking to them, when he was relating with them, when he was spending time with them. And I think that’s what Pope Francis has gone into.

“If the Church goes into this, I tell you, it will make a big difference in the world. It is already happening...”

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