National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Summer Books
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

By Gary Smith, S.J.
Loyola Press, 191 pages, $17.95
In 10 Years among Portland’s poor, Jesuit heard song of Christ

Reviewed by JOHN DEAR

Gary Smith is a Jesuit priest who spent the last 10 years among the poor and homeless people in Portland, Ore., a journey he has chronicled in his memoir, Radical Compassion.

This is a beautiful book with captivating stories, lessons and vignettes from the anonymous, voiceless suffering people crushed by our society and surviving the gritty reality of life on the streets.

Last year I moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the desert of Northeastern New Mexico, the poorest state in the nation, and No. 1 one in military spending. While serving four parishes and five missions, I daily witness both terrible poverty and the stunning landscapes.

If you work among the poor as I do, Radical Compassion will affirm and confirm your insights and convictions. If you don’t, it will inspire you to get out there and walk with the poor. Smith’s testimony invites us to live and work among the poor and broken, to serve them, listen to them, befriend them, love them and discover Christ in their midst. The deeper one goes into this living solidarity with the poor, I find, the closer we come to God’s reign and the more we find ourselves defending them, and resisting the unjust structures that oppress and kill them, at home and abroad.

“People with no power, no money, no exterior beauty have nothing to prove,” Smith writes. “Stewart [for example] is non-threatening. He crashes through my defenses, brings out what is good, whole and deep down in me: the ability to love tenderly, speak truthfully, receive openly and face gently my own weaknesses.

“The reality of homelessness, inadequate housing, and the lack of affordable housing is a national disgrace,” Smith writes. “The crime is that homelessness exists. The church has to take a stand, and it has to be indignant.”

This is not one of those feel-good spirituality books. It’s about the life and death struggle of the poor, about reality, and so it is a spiritual experience to read this book. It is like reading a new chapter of Acts, or the memoir of Jesus among the poor and broken in Galilee. It is a book full of wisdom and love.

It is rare these days to see such love in action toward those at the bottom of our culture, to witness passion and compassion for those who have nothing and no one, to hear about the gospel in full play. Gary Smith offers all that, a testimony, invitation and reminder that each one of us can enter the world of the poor, and discover there not only the meaning of life and compassion, but Jesus himself.

Radical Compassion has been a source of encouragement to me, in these times of radical compassionlessness (to put it ungrammatically). Smith inspires me to pursue the words of Jesus, from Matthew 25:40, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me.” This book helps me to stand among the poor, to see Christ in their faces and in their stories, and then from this living solidarity, to stand with all the poor of the world, especially the people of Iraq. If we can stand with the poor here at home, and learn compassion from them, we will not only become the community of compassion that Jesus hopes for, but speak out with greater integrity against U.S. warmaking and nuclear weapons and help transform our country into a channel of compassion for the world’s poor.

“When the church becomes poor and internalizes the suffering of the poor,” Smith concludes, “it understands compassion and the demands of justice. The just and compassionate church becomes the incarnation of the heart and song of Christ.”

Jesuit Fr. John Dear’s latest books are Mary of Nazareth, Prophet of Peace (Ave Maria) and Mohandas Gandhi (Orbis).

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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