I used to live and work in the Irish Channel at Hope House in New Orleans. I worked with families who lived in the St. Thomas Housing Development. Over 1500 families lived in brick buildings stretched three blocks by four blocks in the area which is now the River Garden apartments.
Some Catholic Sisters who were living in the St. Thomas asked me to join them in serving the poor and I agreed. One of the sisters received a small stipend for teaching religion at Mercy Academy. She told me she would give me her stipend of $250 per month if I joined them.
I knew Catholic social teaching put a priority on helping the poor, so I joined them so I could help people.
I worked with these sisters and the neighborhood families for several years before going to law school. I helped when someone was sick and needed help to go to the hospital, with responding to bill collectors and with filling out government forms.
I also worked closely with the mothers and grandmothers who made up the residents’ council. These women were usually the head of their homes, mostly getting by little or no money from minimum wage jobs, public assistance or social security. They raised their children and frequently their grandchildren with very, very few dollars in a pretty tough environment.
As the months went by, I began to realize that the women I was helping were living heroic lives. They had hardly any money, no car, no savings account, and tons of responsibilities. Yet they were very prayerful, very active in the neighborhood, spent lots of time raising their kids and were very willing to pitch in and help others as well.
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Most people who didn’t know these folks thought they were bad people since they were African American and they lived in “the projects.”
Even after a full day of caring for little kids, getting bigger kids to school and back, searching for bargains to stretch their minimal budget, laundry, church and prayer services, cleaning and everything else, they were willing to go to a meeting at Hope House or St. Alphonsus to get a GED or work with others to clean up the neighborhood or march for better housing or voting rights.
I was assisting them because I could read and write better than they could. But I was also learning an awful lot about the importance of family, generosity, determination, courage, sharing, and spirituality.
I realized these mothers and grandmothers were teaching and inspiring me. I was certainly helping them out, but they were also helping me as well.
There is a saying among grassroots Australian people, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us struggle together.”
I came to St. Thomas to help poor people. But I stayed because I found that I needed liberation just as much as they did. By their lives, they taught me about liberation, hope and love. These mothers and grandmothers are the best teachers I have ever had. We ended up struggling for justice together.