More Than Money: Poverty As a Spiritual Problem

I spent the first two weeks of 2016 at the middle of the world: Quito, Ecuador. Specifically, I volunteered at the Working Boys Center, a full-service Catholic organization that serves some of the most impoverished families in the nation’s capital. During my brief sojourn, I had the opportunity to interview the founder, Padre (or John Halligan), and Madre (Miguel Conway). As Christians, and as Americans who have been working in Ecuador for 50 years, they had a lot of insight to offer me regarding their work, and the pervasiveness of poverty to a people.

Here are segments of the conversation that ensued. Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

OJ: How would you describe the work of the Working Boys Center (WBC) to someone who has never heard of it before?

Padre: We’re inspired by the gospels. We work with families of working children to transform their lives from misery into prosperity, [which is service] work we’ve been doing for 50 years.

Madre: If I were describing the work to people who have never heard of it before two essential things for me are the person [a]s the focus, and enabling that person to have self determination, be in charge of his own life–not be a charity program, giving him what I got and then he becomes dependent on me. The second thing, is the focus on the family. [That] is the most necessary part of our work because you can’t win the individual as if he wasn’t born into a family.

In a family there is love and understanding. In an organization there are privileges and obligations. This is not an organization, it is a family. A family of families.

OJ: What brings you to this work at the Center? What was like before you lived in Quito, Ecuador?

Padre: I had a vocation as a kid to be a Jesuit…I became a Jesuit…so I felt the desire to go overseas and work with poor people. When I was in theology in the last stage of training, I came with the idea of working with the Indian communities in Chinbura…a guy put me in contact with kids in the city…I was 32 when I came here, 34 when I started the center.

Madre: I also grew up in a Catholic family, I had the good fortunate as growing up as a teenager in the 50s, there was a positive feeling in the United States, and while there was a conflict in Korea, the economy and country…we grew up believing everything was positive. We were a very positive thinking generation. Kennedy created the Peace Corps. I was a math teacher in high school. I requested… any kind of involvement in Latin America, and in 1967, Padre approached our community and we responded. We were welcomed here. Ecuador was a country with a lot of virtue and a lot vice, the vice being the poverty in which many of the people did and about which most people weren’t doing anything. I came here to help [Padre] to help him with the work. It’s easy to fall in love with the work because it is all about the kids…I just remained here after I came because my religious community missioned me here. I’ve been here since 1967, 49 years.

OJ: One thing you mentioned to the volunteers at the center is the idea of poverty as both a economic and spiritual problem. Could you expound more on that?

Padre: I would be very happy if you broadcast the fact that poverty is a spiritual problem rather than an economic one. There is a movement, even among Christians, to consider the works with poor people some kind of a business that has to be organized according to how many assets we have to allocate to changing the situation of poverty, as if there were something on the market we were buying such as education or money or health. [T]hen it becomes some sort of weird human endeavor, almost like making money…or running a successful business. The church is very much into that heresy when Christ just told us to love one another, and by love I mean care for one another.

And so poverty as a spiritual problem is what’s going on in the souls of the poor people, and the souls of the people who let poverty continue. For instance, if our families… have never had the experience of prosperity, they’re going to continue that kind of life. They will be glad for a handout, a business…a bargain on food. And they stay the way they are. Their attitude is not a need for change in order to glorify God, to become better so that they can love… so they can to try to get to heaven by helping others.

Most of the rich people in the world are apparently satisfied with the little bit they can do for the poor because that is all they can afford. [They believe] “I can’t be sacrificing [a college education, a decent house, and so forth] to spend money that I don’t have on poor people, huh? I don’t want to give people false promises. I’ll help you get an education, kid, I’ll help you feed your kids everyday. I don’t want to commit myself unless I can really make it a go”.

That is what we have listened to. Reinterpreted Christ’s message to “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. And the great commandment is “Love God, and love your neighbor”. It’s not, “Get a budget and act according to a sustainable program for loving others.”

Madre: Anyone of us can say, “Well look at the church, or look at the government, or look at the other guy.” I think that you and I, and Padre all suffer from our own grade of spiritual poverty. And we have an obligation to examine ourselves and to see to what extent that is true, because if I can really face myself I am going to stop pointing the finger at you, because I have something to deal with in myself. To what extent do I seek really the good of poor people at some sacrifice to myself? Those people who have done great works for the poor have had to face themselves first. Don’t call yourself Christian if you’re so focused on yourself that it is about “me first”.

Padre: We talked about the rowboat [analogy]. [A man] is sitting there [in a rowboat] watching the scene. He has one rowboat and there are thousands out there [at sea]. If he puts that rowboat down to the middle of them, the rowboat is going to go down. Everyone is panicking, and he is going to go down with them. Does he have a right not to row out there? [After all] he’s got to save himself. That’s a reinterpretation of “Love God and love your neighbor.” “I’m saving number one and I have a right to do that. I have a right to be sustainable. If I set myself on fire we’re all going down to the bottom of the lake!” But if I obey God’s command, maybe…I’d send 1000 rowboats out there following me. But all [God] wants me to do is to get that boat out there.

Madre: I think that is the important thing; do your part.

OJ: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your service work at the Center?

Madre: I’ve learned the great power of loving because it transforms people’s lives. The Center is all about loving the people who come to you.

Padre: I’ve learned that God is amazing. He even takes evil and turns it into some kind of good. The poverty that is all over the world is a huge opportunity to show love.

OJ: What advice would you have for undergraduate students interested in doing work like yours?

Madre: Come!

Padre: Do it! By doing it, God will reward you with more lights in the darkness.

Madre: In line with our belief that God puts us all in a place at a time for a reason, that’s a good question to ask God. “How and why did you bring me here”? Think about it. You gotta figure it out.

OJ: Finally, what is your life verse?

Madre: Matt 11:25 , John 16:15-16 At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. (Matt 11:25, NIV) All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you. A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me because I go to the Father. (John 16:15-16, NIV)

Padre: “Don’t be afraid,” because my temptation in life is to criticize and do nothing.


Olugbenga Joseph is a senior concentrating in Education.


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