Book review by John Gillman
L. Susan Slavin and Coralis Salvador,What’s So Blessed About Being Poor? Seeking the Gospel in the Slums of Kenya.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013, 161 pages, $23.
In the epilogue to this book the co-authors identify their experience of the call of the divine: “If you are lucky enough to find a place that touches your soul, then you go” (p. 158).
Originally from the Philippines, having worked as an administrator of an investment banking firm, and having raised five children, Coralis Salvador left behind her way of life in San Francisco to become a lay missionary in Kenya in 2001, where she has served for over ten years. Susan Slavin, an attorney in the area of family law and women’s rights, became a Franciscan lay missioner and joined Coralis to work among the poor in that country as well.
Wanting to understand how the very poor could be called blessed, Susan searched public libraries of Long Island and found no answers. Coralis challenged her to “put down her books and come and see,” an invitation that echoes the apostle Philip’s invitation to Nathaniel in John 1:46. In this engaging, often disturbing narrative the co-authors tell the stories of the poor, orphans and women, whom they have served.
We hear firsthand from those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS what “blessed are the poor” means to them. For 23-year-old Joseph with a history of drug addiction and now working as a community leader, it means “every single moment passing is like a miracle.” One moment you are hungry, and the next you get some twenty shillings (about thirty cents). For Tabitha, whose father died and mother is HIV positive, “blessed are the poor” means you have faith in your heart and you do not take yourself to be very righteous (p. 141).
Not all has gone smoothly for Coralis. In 2009 she was fired as human resource director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, partly for being, she surmises, too intimidating in confronting those who mismanaged funds in a well-drilling project. Though feeling bereft and betrayed, she continued her work at the orphanage she founded for those with AIDS/HIV.
The authors find inspiration in liberation theology’s emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor, a development which has been viewed with skepticism by some church leaders. The recent meeting of Pope Francis with Gustavo Gutiérrez could mark a thaw in the tension between the Vatican and liberation theology.
Two other relevant books are On the Side of the Poor: Liberation Theology, Theology of the Church, co-authored by Gutiérrez and Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the current head of the Vaticans doctrinal congregation; and In the Company of the Poor, co-authored by Gutiérrez and Paul Farmer, a physician who co-founded Partners in Health and served as a plenary speaker at the NACC national meeting in Corpus Christi some years ago.
Inviting us into close conversations with those who manage with very few material resources, afflicted with loss and illness, yet not without hope, the authors bring us face to face with the lived experience of the first beatitude, blessed are the poor. I doubt that many will be untouched.
John Gillman is an NACC and ACPE supervisor at VITAS Innovative Hospice Care in San Diego, CA.