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Poverty means being free

· A conversation with the Polish Małgorzata Chmielewska, Superior of the Bread and Life Community ·

Suor Małgorzata is concerned with the homeless and the poor. She only came to Rome for a few days. When we met her, she had just been to the Mass celebrated by the Pope at Santa Marta and had met Archbishop Konrad Krajewski. She is radiant and it shows. She answered our questions in a practical and exhaustive way and every so often, as if by habit, asked us whether it was really true that we weren’t hungry.

How did you become acquainted with the Bread and Life Community?

By chance. Together with my friend, still during the Communist period, we did various things for the marginalized which at that time were barely legal. We sought a place or a community suited to our needs, in other words so that we might live together with these people: someone gave me the address and we went to France.

In Poland today Bread of Life has various houses, workshops and even an on-line shop.

The Community has existed in Poland since 1989 when the first house for the homeless was opened. I organized it together with my best friend and Maciej Rayzacher, an actor. It was not long before we integrated it into the Bread and Life Community. Its mission consists in living with the poor around Christ in the Eucharist. We want to live with the poor because they are not people we assist but rather brothers and sisters. This has an essential importance in our reciprocal relations – and we seek to point out Christ in the Eucharist as Lord and Saviour, as the only one who can heal our wounds, show us the way and give us love. We had no plan. The people who appeared on our path with their problems were questions for us. And so it still is today. The first home came into being because we met some homeless people. At a certain point a girl came to us in the country to borrow 50 złoty (approximately 12 euros) for her school; if she didn’t pay she would be expelled and it was her diploma year. We gave her the money and we began to care for other people with similar problems. So it was that a scholarship fund was set up which currently supports 600 young people. When they came to us, in the same place in the country, they were unemployed and, embarrassed, were asking us for something to eat: they wanted to work and so we began to wonder about how to find it for them. Little by little the workshops and building teams sprang up. There are many very sick people among the homeless and they need specialist treatment, so we opened a home for the sick. Mothers with small children could not be put with other women who had psychological or alcohol problems: we had to set up a house especially for them. This is how it works.

Do you also work with disabled people?

The great problem of the disabled exists, especially in the country. They live in squalid conditions. If a farmer kept his pigs like that he would be sent to prison. So it was that we started restructuring or building houses for families in difficulty in which the parents or children (or both) had some form of disability. Young people with mental disabilities that are not serious are also numerous. They are too intelligent to merit a disability pension but too unskilled to live independently. In any case they would all like to work: in our workshops they find a possibility. Among them there are frequently young men or women who have grown up in orphanages and have never had a proper adult life. They live in rooms with others, they always depend on someone, while with our discreet assistance they could function very well and even have a family.

Do you believe that over and above declarations of principle the Church truly accepts disabled people, especially those who are mentally disabled?

No. Of course, there are places, communities and priests who work with the mentally disabled, but they are a small minority. Recently in a parish there was reluctance to let a disabled boy receive Communion: a priest of ours went there and gave it to him because the boy was on the point of dying. For me these people are VIPs in the Kingdom of God, and yet we marginalize them. Do we find the weak, elderly women and the disabled in the first places in our Church?

How do you understand poverty?

Poverty is not wretchedness. I do everything I can to see that people in our houses, which are very modest, can live with dignity, that the place is clean, the atmosphere pleasant and the grass cut. Poverty is not a relative concept because it concerns billions of people in this world and is a real and sorrowful predicament. It means uncertainty about the future, powerlessness and anguish for dear ones and the impossibility of satisfying their needs. Poverty also teaches us trust in God’s Providence, because we tangibly experience that God truly exists. In our community we are very often left without anything and then we start praying: after a little while someone comes, bringing us something. In practice poverty means being free.

Blessed are the poor: are the people who live in your houses sometimes happy?

The level of satisfaction of the clients in various services in Warsaw was recently assessed, including our clients in the homes for the poor, for in Poland those who receive social assistance are called “clients”. Thus a young pollster came to us and asked a 35-year-old homeless person ill with cancer: “are you satisfied”? This is of course absurd. Poverty in itself does not give happiness: I would say, on the contrary, it makes for unhappiness. The inhabitants of our homes are either people who were well-off and had a family or are people born already underprivileged, who never had anything: life in the community and feeling that they are loved gives both these categories happiness. I therefore think that for the most part they are happy, of course in the deep sense of the word. In our houses, despite great suffering, there is joy, people laugh and joke. Certainly this blessing works when man discovers that love really is the highest value and that God loves us without bounds, in an acritical way, just as a mother loves her child independently of what he or she is like. Indeed a mother loves most the child of hers who suffers most. I have five adopted children, one, Artur, is autistic: even though he is a difficult boy, he is the house’s favourite. He loves cigarette lighters, he collects them and pushes them into empty bottles. Everyone in the house has a lighter in his pocket to give to him so that even he can be happy for a moment. Poor people find the happiness we don’t see because we’re busy seeking it elsewhere. For them, perhaps, it’s easier to discover true happiness: the greatness of the people consists in this.

Helping the poor requires money. Are there rich people among those who support you?

Margaret Thatcher said that to be a Good Samaritan it’s necessary to have money. This is true of course. We seek to earn our bread by ourselves as best we can: in our houses all those work who are able to do so. The first thing we do to preserve the dignity of new arrivals is to ask them to set the table. The money and material things we receive are of course a gift of Providence, but obviously it is people who give it to us and they are often not well off! One day I called a lady: she asked me if I wanted a car. I answered “yes”. It was a four wheel-drive, perfect for the country but a most luxurious model with leather seats. We immediately attached a notice to it on which the word “donation” was written. Usually, however, for rich people it is more difficult to share because from the elegant offices of multi-nationals in the centre of Warsaw, Paris, London or Rome it is harder to see those at the bottom of the ladder. Instead, those who face life’s difficulties day after day understand better. When we reach a certain level of wealth, we distance ourselves from the sources of human solidarity and from bonds with others: this is the risk that many rich people run. I know some of them. They are full of goodwill but incapable of understanding “the other”. Their poverty lies in this. We live in a competitive society that immediately teaches children that they must be better than others. Are the children of poor people chosen to welcome the bishop to the parish? Is it they who recite the poems?

What can be done? Should the system of social assistance be changed?

There is no doubt that the system of social assistance needs perfecting but the problem is that the weakest people, those who are born in disadvantageous conditions, are unable to function in a system where it is essential to know many things, how to use a computer, how to fill in bank forms, how to speak a language they don’t know. In creating such systems we exclude them. They are not even marginalized, for to marginalize a person it is necessary to see him or her first. They are quite simply people who don’t exist. The role of us Christians must be to “see” the problem, because many people don’t. Nothing can replace meeting with another human being: relations, sharing and mutual support. The inhabitants of our houses not only take: they also give us very much. Relationships are created, exchanges without which there is neither love nor respect. No one can be assisted for life; rather, this is precisely what modern systems of assistance do. The excluded are given the minimum conditions for survival but are not permitted to reinsert themselves into the system of normal economic, cultural, educational and spiritual life. It is far harder to put people in a condition to be able to function on their own, to live dignified lives, to earn their bread and their family’s keep.

Sr Małgorzata Chmielewska is superior of the Bread and Life Community founded by a French couple, Pascal and Marie Pingault. Converted in adulthood, in 1971 they decided to live the Gospel radically with a group of friends. After thirteen years the community was recognized by the Church as an association of lay faithful. Its members, consecrated lay people, live together with the poor. In Poland the community manages homes, dormitories for the homeless, for the sick and for single mothers. Its foundation, Bread and Life Community Houses, organizes work for the sick and the homeless in production and awards scholarships to children from rural areas.

Dorota Swat

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