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Notes from India's margins



In the 1970s members of Catholic religious congregations held often heated conversations about poverty. The reasons were complex. The heat was understandable.

Tony Herbert Disturbing the DustCatholic spirituality is the following of Jesus whose life, mission and way of death were bound up with poverty. This was normally interpreted in terms of simplicity and austerity of life, a guilt-inducing enough topic of conversation when community arrangements were put into question.

Discussion became more complex when Catholics recognised that the poverty of the many was not simply a fact but was imposed on them by the choices and attitudes of the few. They resonated with Anne Sexton's address to Jesus, 'Skinny man, you are somebody's fault'. Many religious privileged ministry with and to the poor and the advocacy that it required. The discussion then turned to the relative value of different works to which people had given their lives. It became a conversation best avoided.

A recent book by Fr Tony Herbert, Disturbing the Dust: Notes from the Margins, invites a return to this conversation. A Jesuit priest who has worked for over 30 years in India with the poorest villagers, he grapples with three questions: what to make of poverty, what happens when you commit yourself to people who are indigent, and how, in living, the three aspects of poverty — religious poverty, material poverty and its injustices, and personal emptiness — come together. He builds his reflections around encounters with villagers on his own journey.

His story begins when his religious ideal of serving the poorest of the poor leads him to enter their dusty reality. He finds himself a stranger there, unable to read situations, to understand people's lives or to lead them to better themselves.

Social analysis helped him to understand the nature of their poverty and its effects. They were of lower caste, in debt to higher caste landlords who underpaid them and took their land, abetted by the judicial and administrative system. Young people who protested against the injustice were savagely beaten by higher caste thugs and came to see themselves as naturally inferior and worthless. If they stood in the way of coal mining in the area, they were simply pushed off the land. They were not seen as inferior: their humanity was not seen at all.

Any foreigner who wished to associate with Dalits was naturally suspect and unwelcome in this world. When disturbing the dust of poverty by encouraging people to stand up for their rights and accompanying them to see landlords or officials, he was humiliated along with them, as their fear made them revert to subservience.


"He allows us to enter his terror as he rides at night with a villager on a motorbike along unfamiliar roads searching for the body of a fellow Jesuit murdered for his advocacy on behalf of his people."


Constant failure, loss of the security, social place and power to persuade that had undergirded his self-respect and the fears attendant on his work confronted him with his own inner poverty. He allows us to enter his terror as he rides at night with a villager on a motorbike along unfamiliar roads searching for the body of a fellow Jesuit murdered for his advocacy on behalf of his people.

His path also inevitably led to tension with his fellow Jesuits and church leaders who worked with less impoverished groups, mostly through education, to better their lives. It was hard for them to understand a sustained ministry to a small, powerless community apparently with only repeated failure as its badge.

In his case tension did not become a breach. Like others who worked among the Dalits, he was supported by his religious congregation. He was sometimes helped to find support in his advocacy for his people through well-connected alumni of Jesuit educational institutions.

The deeper source of tension, however, lay in the difference between the personal depth of his commitment and the nature of institutions. Institutions, educational or social, are properly concerned with effective service, with sustainable programs, with evidence-based research, with winning battles and with a life-work balance. These qualities make them powerful allies in the struggle for justice of people who are poor.

The personal commitment to the indigent, however, leads people to stay with people and to sift through the ashes of the latest failure or dispossession to find there grains of possibility. With the commitment to the poor, as in the following of Jesus, there is no balance, whether on the scales of justice, between life and work, or between defeat and pride. If the miners destroy your people's land and living, you help them find work in the mines.

There is a tension between Catholic institutions and the radical following of Jesus, but it is a tension between commitments that need one another. The nature and depth of the commitment to following Jesus along the path of poverty is a gift both to the people who are served. It is also a gift to Catholic institutions. It helps keep them honest. Tony Herbert's book brings that gift in a powerful and non-combative way.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Tony Herbert, India, missionary work, disturbing the dust, jesuit



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Existing comments

I have just finished reading Fr Tony Herbert's "Disturbing the Dust", and would recommend it highly for several reasons: the impressive integration of faith, philosophy, theology and spirituality from one who "walks the walk"; its clear articulation of contemporary or post-colonial missiology; and the dedication, courage and integrity of its author, who would, I imagine, be the last to regard himself in these terms.

John Kelly | 04 October 2017  

I am sure Fr Tony Herbert is a good man and trying very hard to do the right thing in a situation where the odds seem stacked against his achieving the social justice his faith seems to impel him towards. I note that the Jesuit mission he works out of is in Jharkhand in Eastern India, which is not in the traditional Christian heartlands such as Goa or Kerala. Problems of exploitation of the lower caste landless peasants by their traditional upper caste landlords have been chronicled by Indian authors such as Rohinton Mistry,a Parsi (Zoroastrian) who now lives in Canada. Interestingly, Mistry was educated at a Jesuit school and his ethnic community are very Westernised. One of the things Westerners need to realise is that India is 79.8% Hindu and 2.3% Christian, and, in these times, non-Indian religion is a bit on the nose and Christianity is seen as a hark back to the Raj and an attempt to culturally recolonise the country if it comes with specifically Western people. Catholic and Protestant missionaries outside the traditional Christian areas have been murdered. What to do next? Work through local Indians, Hindu and Christian? That could be a good strategy.

Edward Fido | 04 October 2017  

A fine review of an important book: challenging, disturbing and hopeful. My understanding of "Blessed are the poor in spirit," has been enriched.

Brian Keogh | 05 October 2017  

a thought provoking and conscience raising commentary. In many ways "Disturbing the Dust" seems a world away from our lives here. But then a walk around the streets of Melbourne almost invariably raises such conscience issues as we pass by fellow human beings. Always a tension.

alan roberts | 05 October 2017  

Andy's piece reveals Tony Herbert as yet another Skinny Man, like He who was crucified for doing much the same thing. Some thoughts: Tony is in a long line of Aussie Jesuits in India, two of whom I knew in my youth in Calcutta: Frs Lachal & Grogan. (In fact, I first met Andy on the Broad, when he, Bill Uren & Brendan Byrne shepherded Fr Grogan around on his richly-earned sabbatical in Oxford). They were exceptional men, firstly because they differed so categorically from European missionaries who had to overcome the scourge of imperialism and who were too easily co-opted into the life-sapping arms of Indians who replaced one form of colonial oppression with another that was nativist. Secondly, India's elites have turned their attention, not unjustifiably, against the proselytising aims of Protestant evangelists with no commitment to the justice project. Thirdly, there ARE allies and broad-based coalitions in existence between like-minded Christians, Hindus, Muslims and others, as in the work of the Christian Brothers who, like India's Jesuits, are almost completely indigenised. I suspect that one of Tony Herbert's most powerful messages is to reawaken the conscience of Australians who have eau-de-cologned our own Skinny Man to extinction.

Michael Furtado | 05 October 2017  

The St Thomas Christians of Kerala claim an ancient provenance to well before the arrival of the Portuguese. There are stories that St Thomas himself visited India and founded churches in the north and Kerala. Certainly trade between the Mediterranean and the latter go back to Graeco-Roman times and earlier and there is the distinct probability that Syrian Christians travelled there very early after Christ was crucified. The historic Christian links with this area were through the Nestorians in Persia. The arrival of the Portuguese wrought havoc with this channel and there was persecution of the indigenous Christians and many of the early records were destroyed. The Dutch and later British were more interested in trade and tended to let the indigenous Christians manage their own affairs.The St Thomas Christians have, sadly, split into many groups but still recognise their own individual ethno-religious culture. Arundathi Roy, author of The God of Small Things, is a member of the Mar Thoma Church through her mother. Even the St Thomas Christians allied with Rome are in distinct Eastern Rite Churches and preserve their own traditions. They remind me very much of the Melkites in many ways. Western, including Jesuit, influence is minimal.

Edward Fido | 06 October 2017  

Since Xavier, the Society of Jesus has worked for justice & welfare in India. Fr Ferris SJ in 1950s saw proselytizing as anathema "I see myself as a servant of Man. My first duty is to a child without food, a field without water." Many well-digging and village irrigation projects. Inherited debt had kept lower castes tied in feudal bondage. Ferris (ii never saw his namme written) had them buying freedom. Ruling Class (master race; ARYAN is an Indian word, like SVASTIKA) had him expelled "for activities against the Indian Nation". Now they shield mob rapists. Mandatum novum do vobis; ut diligisti invicem sicut dilexi vos.

james marchment | 14 October 2017  

There is a story of two secular priests visiting Rome and looking over the Gesu, the Jesuit headquarters. One remarks, "If this is their poverty I would like to see their chastity". Tony Herbert and other missionaries pose serious challenges. When Jesuit schools produce such national political leaders as the current crop of their alumni one has to wonder what happened to the Jesuits who stayed in Australia. Have the staff been taken captive by the culture and politics of the parents who can afford to send their children to such elite places. In my experience they do not realize their privilege because it is just there. They did not realize their contribution to inequality. Now there is the highly questionable practice in such schools of taking Aboriginal young men and 'educating' them. No Herbert type of education for the staff here. Or taking students to third world countries for the experience; fine if you can come home to privilege.

Michael D. Breen | 14 October 2017  

James Marchment, you appear to have an extremely rudimentary knowledge of India; Indian History; the History of Christianity there; Hinduism and the horrific misuse of Hindu religious thought by European occultists and race theorists (often German/American and British) in the 19th and 20th Century on which you base your comments. The Jesuits who came with the Portuguese colonists were a mixed bunch and some of them were just as bad as any other colonisers. The history of their work in the different parts of India covers volumes, often in Portuguese, some in India and some in Lisbon and I doubt whether you or I have the many abilities and time to search and read them. Modern Australian Jesuits such as Frs Herbert and Ferris are superb and underplay their own work. As far as the Indian caste system and religious symbols - such as the original non-Nazi swastika go - they are incredibly complicated. These days Indians and non-Indians of all sorts - including some very high caste Hindus - are doing all they can to remedy the abuses of casteism and the rural poor. Indians - over a billion of them - come from a mixture of races. Not all high caste Hindus can claim 'pure Aryan descent'. In fact I don't believe anyone can. That theory is bulldust.

Edward Fido | 25 October 2017  

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