Madonna House

One With the Poor

by Cristina Coutinho

“What are you doing here?” This story took place in Brazil.

“Going to the poor. Being poor.” This line of the Madonna House Little Mandate was pounding in my heart. I was in a village in the jungle, in the middle of nowhere, visiting a woman who was dying of tuberculosis.

I came into her house without knocking as is the custom in that area. She heard somebody enter so even though her body was wasted away, she got up.

She was only skin and bones, but she received me as a queen. That meant that even in her poverty she thought she should prepare me some coffee. As she did so, I noticed she was coughing up blood.

She gave me the coffee with a smile and trembling hands. I hoped she didn’t notice my moment of hesitation. Even though I was very afraid of getting sick, I drank it. The coffee tasted sweet and sour, and I tried not to think about the blood being swallowed by the dirt floor.

The next day my friend died. The only family she had was a daughter who lived by selling her body in a house of prostitution close by.

At the funeral, there were only a friend, myself, the daughter, and her co-workers. They stared at me, and in their eyes I could see the question: “What are you doing here?”

The fear of identification with the poor is a reality in our Madonna House life. But standing by the body of my friend destroyed by tuberculosis and by her daughter devastated by her wretched life, I knew that I was poor. I was crushed by the question of how to live in such suffering.

Then suddenly it was as if a tender Voice blew silent words in my ears. It echoed the pounding in my heart: “Going to the poor. Being poor.”