11: Spiritual Poverty and Helping Hands

Switzerland is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and poverty doesn’t manifest itself in the same way as in other places. The numbers of people needing food and shelter are exponentially less, even when considering Switzerland’s size.

But there can be another kind of poverty, a spiritual poverty.

In this short episode of the Faith Full Podcast we talk a little about the poor in spirit, and the need for a bit more compassion in our approach to each other.

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The congregation of Sacred Heart Catholic Church gathered in the courtyard before celebrating Mass a week before Easter.

Children struggled to keep quiet the shakers that would flavor the music to come.

This parish is in the core of Zurich, serving a congregation that is mostly foreign from all parts of the world. Zurich itself is a city that is traditionally Protestant and incredibly wealthy.

I visited Sacred Heart in 2013 while reporting for World Radio Switzerland.

The church had invested 10 million francs—about the same amount in dollars—to build a new massive parish hall and community space.

It would have a kitchen, cafe, a stage, and meeting or meditation rooms.

Parishioners at Zurich’s Sacred Heart parish prepare to celebrate Mass. (Tony Ganzer)

Church leaders told me it was meant to help foster meetings with people who are distant from the church—not atheists or agnostics per se, just people for whom a traditional church experience didn’t fit.

This center also came at a pivotal moment in church history, when Pope Benedict XVI decided to become Pope Emeritus, and so began the tenure of Pope Francis.

Francis said he would like a poor Church, and one that works for the poor.

In Zurich, the Sacred Heart church leaders recognized how it might look bad to open a 10 million franc center when the pope says the church should be poor again.

But pastoral assistant David Hiendl told me the parish has a big responsibility. He said poverty in Zurich is different from in Buenos Aires.

Poverty is loneliness. It’s isolation.

And it seems it’s a focus on wealth over community, or even God.

Outreach workers Hamed Selim and Christa Gomez looking for people experiencing homelessness in 2012. (Tony Ganzer)

Homeless but not helpless

In the earliest hours Zurich is quieter, but still alive.

I rode along one night with members of SIP Züri (Safety Intervention Prevention), outreach workers trained to deescalate conflicts and connect people with social services.

The number of people experiencing homelessness is small compared to some other cities—workers Hamed Selim and Christa Gomez were checking 15 known spots during this shift until 3 a.m.

Much of their outreach work is just about connecting with someone on a human level.

“With every person you try to find his level. You try to get on the same level, so it’s a lot about feeling the other one. What is he thinking, what is he feeling? There is no recipe, in the moment you have to feel it,” Gomez said.

“The people who are homeless, they have dozens, hundreds of problems which led them to being homeless. These people are really like you and me. They understand everything, and look in your eyes, and they know you are good or bad. You have to treat them like you treat yourself,” added Selim.

During my time with the SIP Züri we checked behind logs at a lumber yard, checked under bridges, in public toilets.

The team knew the people we found, but who chose not to go to a shelter. They had gear, and they wanted to be alone, for one reason or another.

“The people who are homeless, they have dozens, hundreds of problems which led them to being homeless. These people are really like you and me.”

Hamed Selim

If anyone does accept help they might run into Bruno Burger, a social worker at an emergency shelter.

“For the people here it’s a good feeling if someone is here to say hello, how are you? We try to accept the people how they are, and the situation how they are. We hope we can give what they need, if that is possible,” Burger said. “I think that’s the most important, to be here for the people.”

Focusing attention

David Hiendl at Sacred Heart parish calls the church a patchwork parish, with the new center meant to strengthen the community within and outside the church…giving people what they might need, in a spirit of patience and humility.

Both from the social service side, and the spiritual side, the strategy seemed to try to strip away the things which might be an obstacle to genuine connection or if necessary, aid.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

There’s an idea that we need to be humble in knowing our dependency not on ourselves but on God, and our need to reject unhealthy attachment with things of the world.

St. Francis de Sales wrote that, “Your heart may be surrounded by riches; however, riches must never master your heart.”

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