Mev. . . now what kind of name was that? Iâ€™d heard the name Maeve, which is an Irish name, but Mev was Sicilian on her fatherâ€™s side and German on her motherâ€™s. Plus, she spelled and pronounced hers differently. Where did â€œMevâ€ come from? She informed me early on that it was a nickname a grade school friend had given her, short for Mary Evelyn — Mary for her aunt and Evelyn for her mother. It had stuck ever since seventh grade. Even after being around her only a few times, it was clear she acted more like a â€œMevâ€ than a â€œMaryâ€ or even â€œMary Evelyn,â€ as â€œMevâ€ was original, short, and brisk. She later informed me that the scientific abbreviation mev stood for a million electron volts.
One morning, I observed Mev and Gustavo GutiÃ©rrez walking together through the outdoor dining area at Maryknoll. She had first studied with him in 1985 at a summer course at Boston College. Suzanne mentioned to me that Mev had secured an interview with Gustavo. It wasnâ€™t such an unusual experience for Gustavo to be interviewed that summer, since there was so much hoopla surrounding him, including a press conference and write-up in the New York Times. But for Mev, it was a major opportunity to ask her most pressing questions to someone whose theology had been nurtured amid poverty and suffering, as opposed to academic conferences, air-conditioned seminar rooms, fax machines and ever-expanding libraries.
The 1988 Maryknoll Summer Program was intended to celebrate several anniversaries. First, we honored Gustavoâ€™s work on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Second, we took note of the 20th anniversary of the Latin American Bishops Conference at MedellÃn, at which they gave voice to the need for a preferential option for the poor. And third, we marked the 15th anniversary of the English publication of A Theology of Liberation, Gustavoâ€™s most famous book and one updated for publication that summer.
Gustavo lived in Lima, worked at the Bartolome de Las Casas Institute, and served as a pastor to the poor in the slum of Rimac. Although he had become one of the worldâ€™s most well-known theologians, he was quite humble, taking all the festivities and testimonies in stride, appreciating peopleâ€™s affections but also remembering that his work made no sense apart from his struggling people back in Peru. To those folks, he was simply Padre Gustavo. He didnâ€™t appear prey to the kind of self-important individualism of our usual American celebrities.
Later that summer and into the fall as I got to know Mev better, I learned that she â€” peripatetic photographer, devotee of the poor, interviewer of liberation theologians â€” had been born into an affluent family, the fourth child of a middle-class mother and a father who had lived the rags-to-riches ascent of some Sicilian immigrants. She had grown up in a fashionable suburb of St. Louis, gone to preppy Catholic schools, and traveled to China, Africa, Europe and Latin America on vacations. Yet after university studies, she moved into a poor neighborhood in North Saint Louis and tried to bridge these distant worlds of the rich and the poor. For someone with all of her advantages and privileges, Mev had been more committed to experimenting with downward mobility and voluntary simplicity than being ensconced in an upper-middle-class enclave. In her interview, Mevâ€™s questions to Gustavo were those of a passionate young woman concerned, anxious even, to find her place in this world of gut-wrenching poverty and soul-numbing wealth.
Mev: In recent years people are talking more about the spirituality of liberation theology. How would you describe this spirituality?
Gustavo: First, we have to say that spirituality is a â€œwayâ€ to be Christian. Spirituality is more important than reflection. Or, to be more exact, all reflection on faith (theology) is inside of something more important: the way to be Christian (spirituality).
What I just said is true for all theology. It seems to me that behind liberation theology there is a spiritual experience of a liberating God, the experience of innocent suffering, the experience of the hope of the poor.
Mev: Why do you describe the suffering of the poor as â€œinnocentâ€ suffering?
Gustavo: I believe that here â€œinnocentâ€ doesnâ€™t mean â€œnot a sinner.â€ Every person in some way is a sinner; that is, at some time he or she rejects the love of God and neighbor. Innocent in this case means someone who suffers a situation that she doesnâ€™t deserve. I think of children in my neighborhood, for example, who are malnourished and spend their days in the street. They donâ€™t deserve this kind of life. They donâ€™t deserve to live in such small houses and sleep with the whole family of six or seven people in only one room. This is what we call the suffering of the innocents.
And itâ€™s not only the children: This is true for adults as well. There are people who can never eat what is necessary to live humanly or have a house with enough room to live with dignity. These are great sufferings â€” sufferings of innocent people because they donâ€™t deserve this suffering.
Mev: You speak from time to time about humor. What is the role of a sense of humor in theology and in ministry with the poor?
Gustavo: I talk about not taking ourselves too seriously. I believe that humor is something that allows us to take a certain distance from things so we donâ€™t feel too much in the center of everything. I often fear that living in the midst of such severe problems we understandably tend to think that ours are the greatest problems of humanity. We even tend to take theology and people doing theology too seriously. I also consider humor important in life because it helps us not to be closed to other things and persons. I believe that one of the greatest victories of those who oppress the poor is if they can make the poor bitter. Bitterness makes us closed to other people. One thing I see and admire in poor persons is that they know how to keep up a certain capacity of happiness, and humor is an expression of happiness. The joy of the poor is not superficial.
The poor have a sense of humor, though not intellectual or refined humor. The children in my neighborhood have a great sense of humor. The intellectuals, on the other hand, tend to think they are the center of the world. Also, people who are worried, tense and busy tend to think that the whole world revolves around them. For people like this, humor is great therapy.
Humor lets us laugh at ourselves and the events in our lives. I donâ€™t mean we should laugh at other people. Humor doesnâ€™t mean making fun of others. Iâ€™m impressed by the Bible with its many expressions of humor. Taking ourselves too seriously is an obstacle to the Gospel.
Mev: Are there different kinds of â€œpovertyâ€?
Gustavo: For me, the poor is the insignificant person, the non-relevant person. No one pays attention to the poor person in society or even in the church. A great majority of these â€œinsignificantâ€ people are poor, in the economic sense. To be discriminated against as a woman, for example, is to be poor, insignificant. But, you know, the great majority of insignificant women are poor, economically speaking as well.
Now there are human problems besides poverty â€” old age, loneliness and alienation. Not all suffering is from poverty. But real poverty is characterized by death. Real poverty is people with no means to live with human dignity.
Mev: We are sometimes criticized for our consumeristic lifestyles and the influence of our culture abroad. Do you notice this in our context as well?
Gustavo: I believe that this is the nature of a rich country. Consumerism is to consume for mere pleasure more than is necessary. This is exactly the contrary when you come from a poor country. The things I notice the most seem like a joke. That is, here in the United States the most sought-after foods are low-calories. The most valued food in poor countries is food with calories. Itâ€™s understandable, but itâ€™s an incredible contradiction. Here, the people want to eat food with as few calories as possible to not gain more weight and people in poor countries try to eat food with many calories to gain at least a little bit of weight. We come from very different contexts. Consumerism is certainly a very great human deformation. Furthermore, it brings a permanent search for money and buying, encouraging us to forget the needs of other persons. Consumerism truly blinds people. This is very strong in this country, as in all rich countries. Itâ€™s also strong in Europe, Canada and Japan.
The United States does have a very big influence. I believe that through the means of communication, such as the TV, the North American way of life is very present among other peoples. Some of the positive values are present here, but also many limits, such as when people from our cultures want only to imitate the North American way of life.
Mev: What are your own hopes, then, for people who are born rich?
Gustavo: I love to answer this remembering a sentence of Dom Helder Camara. He was in Switzerland many years ago criticizing the Swiss banking laws. You know, there is more Latin American money in Switzerland than in Latin America. Dom Helder was very critical of this. He finished his speech affirming in a very simple way, â€œIt is more important to be Christian than to be Swiss.â€ The next day a daily Swiss newspaper asked for the expulsion of Dom Helder Camara for insulting the country.
Very frankly, I think that for Christians in this country it is more important to be Christian than to be North American, just as itâ€™s more important for me to be Christian than to be Peruvian. Thus, Iâ€™d desire that the rich people of a country such as yours have a big consciousness of their responsibility as human beings and as Christians before the poverty of this world. Also, it seems to me that there are things that will not change in Latin America if things donâ€™t change in other parts of the world â€” in Europe, the United States or Asia. I believe that our problems today are more universal and planetary. I come here to teach because itâ€™s good for persons in your world to know more directly the voice and reflection of the poor of Latin America. Also, we need the solidarity of people in this country. Solidarity from other Christians is really important for the poor of Latin America.
Eventually, Mev shared her musings with me. â€œThe poor of the Third World are often said to be voiceless. But thatâ€™s not true. Theyâ€™ve got a voice, but weâ€™ve just got to hear it. Iâ€™m going back to Latin America next summer.â€
I asked, â€œTo Brazil?â€
â€œYeah, Iâ€™ve got friends in Brazil, and Iâ€™m going to interview them and their friends and see what they have to say about faith and hope and love. Who knows,â€ she chirped, â€œmaybe Iâ€™ll go to Peru and see Gustavo.â€