Today, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other–that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister. If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we would still need tanks and generals?”Mother Teresa
I have reflected on and often quoted a portion of this writing by Mother Teresa in letters to friends or posts on social media. This piece is part of a larger reflection from her regarding working toward peace in the world. In her reflection, she delves into the reasons for war and the idea that peace begins in the home. In loving our family, or those we choose as family, we promote peace in the world.
In my career over the last twenty-four years, I have kept close the idea that “we belong to each other.” I have heard arguments against the concept, particularly from individuals and groups with little or no experience outside of their circle or have not traveled beyond their locality. Raised in a sheltered environment and taught a particular theology, I grew to think that those in dire circumstances, in broken relationships, or in countries with unrest, encountered these challenges due to their choices. I believed there was nothing to be done about redeeming them other than praying for them, those far away people who were beyond my understanding and ability to see.
I had a wonderfully jarring awakening my senior year of high school when our choice for a senior project was to either write a twenty-page paper or do twenty hours of community service. I chose the community service and began volunteering at a free clinic providing medical, dental, and social services. Initially, I stayed insulated behind a desk, not sure how to interact with the clients. But when I began to see them as people, not just “the poor,” my mind shifted. I then had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua to visit relatives after high school graduation, and my bubble of ignorance was shattered. I began learning of a history, traditions, class discrimination, and a material poverty beyond anything I had seen, and I was hungry to experience more.
I worked at the free clinic and traveled regularly on short-term medical mission trips for the next decade. I began to listen to the stories of the patients at the clinic, how much they had overcome, how embarrassed they were to have to ask for help, how defensive they became when asked about financial capacities, and how ashamed they were when they were perhaps having their teeth cleaned for the first time. I sat with immigrant clients who described the wars they had escaped, the advanced degrees they held, which were not applicable in the USA, and the choices they made on a daily basis to eat food or pay the electric bill.
I listened as women and men entered the clinic, assuming they would be treated poorly and were immediately wary when greeted by our staff. They were so used to being chided, berated, and shamed that they did not know how to act when treated with kindness, given free medication and a follow-up appointment, and sent for no-cost blood testing and x-rays. They were amazed to be offered free laundry soap and an appointment to do all of their laundry for free. They cried when infected and abscessed teeth were healed and removed, when cavities were filled, and for many, a new set of teeth was made to fill a mouth where none had existed for years.
On the international front, I experienced even deeper transformation. Whatever I thought I could bring to those overseas, I was taught and given more. As I learned languages and listened to stories, humbled by the experiences of the men, women, and children I encountered, what I thought I knew about love was again, blown deeper and deeper. The sacrifices made, the torture experienced, the courage displayed, and the ever-present joy beyond understanding accompanied countless histories. The warmth, openness, patience, strength, and sheer goodness of those in situations we cannot fathom taught me how similar we are, no matter where we live or where we started in life. Those so impoverished materially were, and are, wealthy spiritually. I experienced the daily reality of another of Mother Teresa’s reflections regarding the poor “They themselves have nothing to give but love.” They cherish the time spent with their loved ones and do not fret about always being on time or keeping a perfect schedule. They open their homes, whether a small shack or part of a dormitory in an orphanage, to the visitor and share whatever food they have. They laugh and embrace and enjoy and end every meeting with, “If God wills, I will see you tomorrow.” They live with the knowledge that we have no promise of tomorrow and celebrate the width and depth of each day, not just the length of it.
So how is it that someone born in a foreign land, with different ideologies, different traditions and customs, and who may by all reports hate me, belongs to me? How do I belong to them?
It is easy to see a friend, a small child, a partner, or a spouse as made in the image of God. We look at the saints and those holy ones who have gone before us and venerate their memories. However, have you read the backstories of a few of those saints? Many of them were not easy to get along with and led scandalous lives before discovering or returning to Jesus. They were reviled by society, judged, and persecuted. Some of them persecuted others!
It is more difficult to see God in an irate client, a person with whom we do not share mutual values or opinions, or someone who has hurt us in the same way. But the truth is that everyone on this planet was uniquely brought into being and purposefully created by a Power larger than ourselves. We may feel no connection to a conflict on the other side of the world or a public figure we imagine has the perfect life. And yet, we are all loved individually, regardless of our choices and circumstances.
We defend ourselves against invisible enemies. We defend our political views, opinions, choices, career decisions, and those with whom we surround ourselves. How much time and effort do we put into defending the impoverished? Those who have no defense?
It is incredibly easy to pass judgment and draw conclusions about those with whom we are unfamiliar. We may pity them and, as told in the bible, wish our impoverished brothers and sisters well, saying, “Be blessed,” and continue with our days wrapped up in our own lives and problems. Yet, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. The common dictionary defines neighbor in several ways, one of which is “one’s fellow human being” (Dictionary.com; Merriam-webster.com). Today, let us not forget how we bear a responsibility to our fellow humans, to reach and listen and edify and love. Let us not forget that if we find a lack of peace in our relationships or communities, we must heed Mother Teresa’s invitation to “see the image of God in [our] neighbor” and to live out the truth that we all really do belong to each other.