Review of ‘Beauty through Broken Windows’ on the World Day of the Poor

Today is the ‘World Day of the Poor’, observed in the Catholic Church since 2017 when it was established by Pope Francis. It’s a day to remind Christians of their obligations to follow Christ’s example to pursue justice for the poor.

A new book, Beauty through Broken Windows: Empowering Edmund Rice’s Vision Today, edited by Aidan Donaldson and Denis Gleeson, is an excellent resource for learning more about how Christians around the world are living out such a vision.

The book is inspired by and orientated around the life of Edmund Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers. The title of the book and many chapters in it reference the story of how Rice got his vision for this work, as described in Gleeson’s chapter on ‘a world and a church spiritually impoverished’ (p. 29):

‘Over two hundred years ago Edmund Rice, standing beside his friend Mary Power, looked through a window in Waterford and saw street children squabbling in the gutter. The Holy Spirit moved him to respond with compassion and he set about feeding, clothing and educating those children so that they could claim their dignity as human beings and choose to respond to the God in whose image they were made.’

In a post-abuse scandal Ireland, it may be easy to forget the Christian Brothers’ positive contributions to society. Gleeson’s chapter acknowledges those sins and also critiques the church for failing, in many cases, to encourage Christians to pursue justice for the poor. Gleeson does not pull punches: ‘Our Church remains a sinful church’ (p. 33).

The authors of each chapter present pursuing justice for the poor as essential to Christianity, and examples abound from Belfast, from Ireland, and abroad. Each chapter is relatively short (10-12 pages) and concludes with three questions for reflection, which could be discussed in small group settings. In most cases, the writing is clear and the stories are compelling enough to appeal to adults and younger readers, including secondary school level.

Donaldson and Gleeson both have connections with St Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar School in Belfast; Donaldson as a former teacher, and Gleeson as a former headmaster. The foreword is written by Jim Deeds, a former St Mary’s pupil whose story grounds the book very much in Belfast. My own chapter (conflict-of-interest alert!) on Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard Monastery details his witness against a divided Christianity during the Troubles. Maria Garvey’s chapter draws on her experience with the L’Arche community in Belfast.

But Beauty through Broken Windows is very much a global book. It includes contributions from Michel Camdessus, a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and one of the most prominent lay Catholics in the world; and a postscript by Angela Miyanda, a former deputy first lady of Zambia and director of Kabwata Orphanage in Lusaka. All royalties from the book will support this orphanage and the Maternal and Child Health Support Programme in the Ruben Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

Some chapters address the global crisis that is climate change (Lorna Gold, Sheila Curran). Other chapters take readers to Australia, Israel/Palestine, Zambia, and Cork. Donaldson and Dublin’s Fr Peter McVerry remind us of the homelessness on our own streets, while Una Agnew raises questions about how we treat the elderly.

There are numerous moving and memorable stories throughout the book, but the one that sticks with me is Pádraig Ó Fainín’s account of ‘playing God’ as he faced the heart-breaking and overwhelming task of choosing which children would be chosen to attend Sables Nua school in Kabwe, Zambia. His own pain and frustration leaps off the pages (p. 57-58):

‘It’s not a case of choosing who lives or who dies but it’s not far off it. So I pick out some from the many, including a tiny little girl called Joy who looks like she’d break if you hugged her. My eye was drawn to another little girl named Martha who had a tuft of grey hair (a sign of severe malnutrition) and who somehow has great English. A scrawny boy with huge pleading eyes who stares straight through me, daring me to say ‘no’ to him perhaps; a girl who got dressed up in her finest to come beg for a chance for a decent future (her finest is a ‘Snow White’ dress, obviously discarded by a child in the so-called developed world, but this castaway party outfit is her best, probably only dress); and a boy with special needs gets the nod.’

When those who were not chosen file out, Ó Fainín observes:

‘… one little lad, thinking I’m not looking, sees his chance and darts around the back … and slips into the group of the chosen ones. Of course I pretend not to see him. God loves a trier, and I am playing God after all.’

Christians don’t always see justice for the poor as their central task; and if we are honest (as Gleeson is in his chapter) Christians often don’t think of it at all. Beauty through Broken Windows is an invitation to learn from, support, and join others already engaged in such work.

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