Reflection by Jean Koning

As I re-read this piece almost 30 years later, I believe what Bishop Ruiz said then still rings true for church people today, except we are in the minority and I don’t know how many people in the secular world really care. Is this the “wilderness” in which we wander today, as predicted by Bishop Ruiz? –

Jean Koning, Peterborough, ON – February 28, 2011.



(later “Anglican Magazine” – now archived with The Anglican Church of Canada)

Everybody’s business

by Jean Koning

How do we give up power?

“Tell us how to listen to the poor,”, the sister asked Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia as we sat at lunch in the Windsor, Ontario Third World Resource Centre.

It was early March. Bishop Ruiz, whose Roman Catholic diocese of Chiapas, Mexico, borders on Guatemala, was visiting Canada at the invitation of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP).

Later, in an evening forum in Windsor, Bishop Ruiz would tell of the more than 70,000 refugees who continue to flee the horrors of civil war in Guatemala to camps within his diocese, increasing the pastoral responsibility of caring for the poor and the dispossessed.

But lunch-time was an informal occasion for some 20 people representing groups working at social justice and human rights issues, feeling at ease with this swarthy, stocky man of God who eschewed episcopal purple for a well-worn brown pinstripe suit and old-fashioned patterned shirt and tie.

In broken English, sometimes aided by a Spanish-speaking member of our group, Bishop Ruiz spoke of his ministry among the poor in Bombay, and then in Mexico, which has led him to conclude that “poverty is involuntary”. Most people want to provide for themselves and their families, he said, but are prevented by structures which dominate and exploit them.

The Latin American bishops “have not in the past been on the side of the poor,” he said, but at recent councils they decided “an option for the poor” was an “evangelical necessity,” even though that decision means “political involvement.”

The challenge for the Christian, he added, is how to change the structures.

You’ve heard it said if we give a man a fish, he will eat for a day but if we teach him how to fish, he will eat for life. But there’s more to that story, Bishop Ruiz said. If the river he tries to fish in is “out of bounds” and the market where he goes to sell the fish is controlled by prices set without his consultation; if he needs a hook and has to buy it from someone who “fishes him first”, then he is not free to fish and therefore he can’t support himself.

“The answer is liberation,” Bishop Ruiz said, which poses difficult questions for the church.

“As a bishop, I have had to struggle with how we can be a church for the poor – a church in poverty,” he said. “How do we give up our power?”

Listening to the poor means looking at injustices within the structure of the church. If the bishop doesn’t hear the voices of his lay people and isn’t willing to change, then “where’s my credibility?” he asked.

Not everyone is pleased with these changes – the chance to “manipulate the people” is lost, he said, and there are “confrontations”, but bishops are called to be servants. Understanding development must precede attempts at evangelization.

How can we in Canada work from within our structures and organizations to effect change, someone asked.

“Jesus Christ gave us the commandment to love God and to love our neighbour,” Bishop Ruiz replied. “Jesus Christ is fully God (divine) and fully Man (human) – thus within the personhood of Christ is both God and my neighbour. To love my neighbour is to love Jesus Christ.”

He continued: “Loving myself – that is, others who are exactly like me, from the same social class, for instance – is loving only partly. I must be able to love persons who are different from me; therefore, I must ask: who is the neighbour that I should love?”

Canada must ask: who is the neighbour which Canada needs to love, he said. For if I love only others like me, I am not obeying the commandment to love God and my neighbour.

“Thus, in seeking to love the neighbour who is different from me, I must look at the structures which prevent that sharing of love”, he concluded.

“There is hope when I see the solidarity here with you in a rich country,” Bishop Ruiz added. As he finished off his lunch with some grapes and a cookie, he offered a note of hope laced with humour.

“When the people of Israel heard the call to leave Egypt and head for the Promised Land,” he reminded us, “they wandered 40 years in the wilderness before they reached their destination, but at least they started out.”

His final word to us: “We must at least begin to pack!”

Filed in: Spirited Reflections


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