Caught Up in a Conspiracy of Hope

Article excerpt

Reflections on wealth and poverty from a Catholic Worker

"The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was nonetheless a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence. ... The habit of despair is worse than despair itself. ...

Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left but a series of present moments."

--Albert Camus, The Plague

Magdalena is a weary woman, not yet 40. She is thin, bordering on gaunt. Her shoulders and back are drooped. Her posture is demonstrative of the beating she has taken in this life. She seems resigned to her unhappy fate.

We first met Magdalena four years ago through her sons. She has four boys: Wilfredo (19), Thomas (17), Jose (15) and Raymond (13). Jose and Raymond once spent nearly every afternoon and Saturday with us and they came to our summer camp for a couple of summers. When we first met Jose and Raymond they were 11 and 9 years old. One Saturday morning Magdalena came with them to arts and crafts to help out. I remember commenting to Jackie how good she was with her boys and the other children. I don't recall her being carefree, but when we first met she didn't seem so broken. The woman I met four years ago is an apparition now. Two years ago the family moved a few blocks away, and we saw the boys less frequently. This last year we hardly saw them at all.

Magdalena's husband is horribly addicted to alcohol. When he is drunk he is dastardly and mean. Twice he has cheated death after staggering in front of moving cars. He has been in and out of jail since we have known the family.

Ray and Jose (and their friends, especially Kyon) openly despise their father. In the past he has stolen from them to get money to buy booze. One Thanksgiving their dad even sold the family turkey.

By the numbers Magdalena is a welfare reform success story. Magdalena has been employed for about three years now at a low-paying job in a suburban retail store. She takes two busses to get there and two more to get back; so that even though she works first shift she leaves before her boys leave for school and she does not return home until early evening. What the number crunchers in the governor's office and the pundits miss while they lose themselves in the ecstasy of "moving people toward independence" is that while Magdalena was toiling at a meaningless dead-end job her children were abandoned. When their father was not in jail he was either drunk or out looking for a drink. So though we were extremely disappointed, we were not surprised when Magdalena called us recently to ask if Raymond could do some court-ordered community service hours with us. She also told us that Jose was in jail.

Raymond and a friend had robbed another boy for a few dollars. I asked Ray why he did it. He at first said that it was his friend's fault. He then tried to make me believe that it was the fault of the boy they robbed. Finally, he said that he didn't know why he did it. I hesitate to add: He doesn't seem a bit remorseful over his actions. I asked Ray about his future, what did he want to do, to be, when he grows up? I asked him who his heroes are and what his dreams are. His response is tragic for both its frankness and its matter-of-fact delivery. With a shrug of the shoulders, Ray said to me: "What do you mean? I have no heroes. …