“Learning to listen to those in extreme poverty requires great humility.”

Above: Joseph Sané interviewing Joseph Wresinski in Dakar, Senegal. 20 November 1987.

Extracts from an interview of Joseph Wresinski by Joseph Sané from Radio-Television Dakar, Senegal .
20 November 1987.

…the presence of a man, and then volunteers, who are there quite simply because for them, the human reality of extreme poverty is unbearable.

In their refusal of extreme poverty, the volunteers join forces with the families’ own refusal to accept it. But it not only this refusal that binds us together; it is also the immense hope that things will one day change, that things cannot not change – for it is unthinkable that they stay as they are.

A child said to me once: “You know, what we need is for the rich to come and live in our houses, just for a few days, and we will go and live in theirs. And then we would give their houses back to them. And then they could no longer find it acceptable that we in poverty live the way we do”.

That’s what seems so important for me: that men and women can say to the world, and especially to believers of whatever faith: “You impose a way of life on us, you accept that this is the life we lead, and for our part, we say to you: ‘This is how we live. This is how we experience extreme poverty, a poverty we reject and that you should reject with us. You cannot continue to pray to a God who is permanently offended by the life imposed on us, by the indescribable suffering we experience every day of our lives. The suffering we experience is not the lack of bread, even if bread is important. We are speaking about the indignity you subject us to’“.

The families have often told me and the volunteers: “You have done things with us that we would never have thought of, things that didn’t particularly interest us: a library, a playschool, family centres, a chapel.

We were hungry, and you gave us back our honour, and thinking about this afterwards, we believe you were right. Giving us back our dignity, you have given us back our future; giving us back our future, you have given us the courage to say ‘no!’. You have given us the courage to proclaim this ‘no!’, not in hate but by saying: ‘This is what we suffer. Can you really accept it?’”

In effect, we are all following in the footsteps of others. We have all inherited the love and struggle against extreme poverty experienced and borne by all those who have gone before us. I totally agree with Gandhi. In fact, I would go even further and say that we are all students of Gandhi. Students too of Martin Luther King, of Follereau* … and not only these. We are above all, students of the great prophets in the history of the world, and in my case, particularly a humble disciple of Jesus Christ.

The volunteers, even those who are not believers, all know that they are following in other people’s footsteps. Firstly, it is very important to see ourselves as people who are continuing the work of others, because it puts us in our proper place. We need great humility to live among people experiencing profound human misery, so as not to impose our own views and not to believe that we are always right. Also we need to learn how to listen.

Learning to listen to those in extreme poverty requires great humility. They have so much to tell us, much more than we imagine. People living in poverty need to speak to us about God in the first place, because their God is not the intellectual God of the learned or of our theologians. He is not the God as understood by liberation theology or other beliefs. The God of the poverty-stricken is the simple God they meet each morning when they wake up. He is the God of whom they ask: Father, what does today hold for us?, Will we have bread for our kids? Will the children come home from school in tears? Will my man find work?

The God of the destitute is a friend, truly a friend. They have so much to teach us about God, about justice. Those who have always been treated unjustly and rejected, can tell us so much about the access or denial of access to rights, about power and powerlessness and about hatred and love. In every aspect of our lives, it is not that they have lessons to teach us, but rather they have things to share with us that will help us discover what peace is and how to experience it, what justice is and how to apply it, and what love is and how to live it.

If we do not see ourselves as inheritors, we could start to believe that we are there to give lessons to those in poverty. Knowing we are following in the footsteps of others, on the other hand, we become conscious that it is we who learn from people in poverty about what is essential, in our own lives, in the lives of men, women and children who have such a deep understanding of the family, the last line of defense against human misery.

* Raoul Follereau was a French humanist, born in 1903, 14 years before Joseph Wresinski.  He devoted his life to the fight against poverty, and in particular the fight against leprosy.  His work is perpetuated through the Raoul-Follereau Fondation.​​

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