‘Field hospital’ — or serving the priorities of the middle class?

The Church is today called to reach out beyond the church walls or, as the Bishop of Rome exhorts us today, the Church needs to be like a field hospital.

Jun 04, 2015

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
The Church is today called to reach out beyond the church walls or, as the Bishop of Rome exhorts us today, the Church needs to be like a field hospital. But, are our Churches in urban areas more like middle-class Churches that are out of touch with the reality of the poor?

Those of us who are better off often have little idea of what it must be like to live on the margins of society. Our parishes, especially those in the urban areas, tend to be dominated by the middle-class and upper middle-classes. The leadership positions of various ministries at parish and diocesan level may reflect that situation.

Why is that the case? Perhaps because the middle classes and upper middle classes have some leisure or free time to devote to church activities. If they are retired, they may have a pension or income from adult children to help meet their expenses.

There’s nothing wrong with the middle-class being in these positions. But let's acknowledge that their priorities and worldview may be influenced by their social standing. Today, with GST and rising food, fuel and utility prices, even the middle-class are beginning to struggle. (What more the lower-income group?)

Do our parishes reflect the concerns of the urban poor, the working class and the voiceless? Think of the production workers on rotating shifts, security guards on 12-hour shifts (often with few rest days, if at all), and the outsourced cleaners, street sweepers and gardeners. There are those who are housebound and carers of relatives who are seriously ill or bedridden. What about the victims of domestic violence and migrant workers who are often exploited?

Many of them work long hours and have little time for their familiies, or even for rest. So how can they attend meetings in church? Many of them may travel to work on factory buses. They may not have their own transport. If they are senior citizens or homebound, they may not be able to afford the taxi fare to attend meetings. Single mothers will have to balance their work responsibilities with raising small children. They may not even be able to afford proper childcare, a babysitter or a domestic worker.

So do you think many of the working class will not find it easy to attend parish planning or other church meetings. How adequately are migrant workers, who make up about 15 per cent of the population, represented in such meetings?

Some of us might think it is a pity that they are unable to attend such meetings, the middle- class and upper-middle class can plan and organise activities on their behalf.

But there is an important factor to consider here. The priorities and concerns of the middle class and those of the working class/urban poor/marginalised may not be similar. Because the latter group tend to be under-represented at church meetings, the priorities of the parish tend to reflect the mindset of the middle- and upper-middle classes. Some parishes may even have ballroom dancing, line-dancing or others sessions. Now, these may be healthy pursuits for those with leisure time, but are we reaching out enough to those on the periphery, beyond the church wall?

What are some of the concerns of those on the periphery? What if the poor and the working classes and the migrants are invited to list down what they think should be the concerns and priorities of our parishes? No doubt, their list of priorities woould look completely different.

Let’s try and think about some of their concerns:

Those who have to take care of the terminally ill and the bed-ridden, without institutional support. This can place a tremendous burden on carers. Not everyone can afford to hire domestic workers or part-time nurses to help out.

What about single parents who have to balance earning a living and taking care of children? How about those who cannot afford health care and medical bills for their serious illnesses?

How can our parish support those children from poor families who cannot afford private tuition or are in danger of dropping out from school? What about those undergoing a domestic, family or personal crisis? Are there adequate counselling resources in each parish? What if a family member is involved in drugs or has been thrown into prison? Who will support the family?

So how should we use limited financial resources in each parish? Should we focus on the hardware (buildings) or the software (carers, pastoral care workers, trained nurses)? Is there any way we can support the lower- income group who are starting out small businesses? What about conducting classes for book-keeping, computer skills and basic literacy? Do we have enough people to reach out to the migrant workers and refugees in our midst and listen to their stories?

The Bishop of Rome is right: the Church must act as a field hospital, reaching out to the periphery.

“This is the mission of the Church: the Church heals, it cures. Sometimes, I speak of the Church as if it were a field hospital. It's true: there are many, many wounded! So many people need their wounds healed! This is the mission of the Church: to heal the wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good, God forgives all, God is the Father, God is affectionate, God always waits for us.

One thing is clear: the poor and the marginalised are not likely to be coming in droves to church for handouts or avail themselves of the facilities on the parish grounds. Instead, we have to reach out to them, where they are, and some parishes are already doing that. But more needs to be done.

Francis himself showed the way when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. The then Padre Bergoglio would personally stroll through the streets of the slums, where many have to wait at soup kitchens for their meals, and talk to the people there, listening to their concerns. In these slums, teenage pregnancies, drug addiction and gang violence are rife. Francis listened carefully and it gave him a clearer picture of where the priorities of the Church should lie.

Are we going out to listen to the voices in anguish where they are located? Sadly, many of our present urban parish church activities remain very much centred within the four walls of the parish grounds, reflecting largely middle class concerns: endless meetings and talk shops. And in the meanwhile, many of the poor, the working class and the marginalised — those who most need healing and help — remain out of sight and out of mind, on the other side of the parish walls.

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