Michael GRIFFIN and Jennie Weiss BLOCK (Editors),  In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013. 206 pages. $24.00 paperback.  ISBN 978-1-62698-050-1.  Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI.

          In October 2011 Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez came together at the University of Notre Dame for a series of formal and informal conversations centered around accompaniment, poverty, liberation theology and medicine.  Out of these conversations has come this book packed with sentence after sentence calling the reader to pause and carry on her/his own conversation with the text--and beyond that with the one world in which we all live.  We are continually reminded by both Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutiérrez that the worlds of Boston, Massachusetts, and Lima, Peru, are intimately connected; they cannot be divided up into a first world, a second world, a third world.  Rather we live in one world and need to ask the question with Paul Farmer, “Okay, what can I do to make a contribution on both sides of these socially constructed borders?”  And with Gustavo Gutiérrez, how do we say to the poor person “God loves you?”  In other words, how do we make a preferential option to accompany  the poor?  What does it mean to walk “in the company of the poor”?

          The central conversation during these days at Notre Dame was a symposium hosted by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies: “Reimagining Accompaniment: Liberation Theology and Global Health.”  The first two chapters of this book reproduce Farmer’s and Gutiérrez‘ contributions to this symposium.  In “A Doctor’s Tribute to Gustavo Gutiérrez” Paul Farmer recounts the influence of liberation theology, lived and written, on his life, especially the experience of reading A Theology of Liberation while working with the poor in Haiti.  (The mission statement of Partners in Health, co-founded by Farmer in 1987, begins, “Our mission is to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care.”)  Gutiérrez reiterates the theology and spirituality that has been at the heart of his work as a theologian and a pastor: “Theology is a reflection about life in light  of the reality of God....to stand with the poor is to be against poverty, to reject poverty.”  Together they make it clear that accompanying the poor is not simply a charitable act, but rather that real service with the poor means (1) understanding global poverty, and (2) working to end it.  (The entire ninety-minute symposium is available online and includes conversation with the audience.)

          Chapter 3, “Health, Healing, and Social Justice: Insights from Liberation Theology,” reprints a chapter from Paul Farmer’s book Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor.  In essence it applies the principles of liberation theology to modern medicine, while examining three approaches to poverty: charity, development, and social justice.  Hopefully this selection will encourage the reader to read the entire book from which this essay is taken.

          An especially interesting and valuable essay is Paul Farmer’s “Conversion in the Time of Cholera: A Reflection on Structural Violence and Social Change.”  Written for this book at the request of the editors, it revisits Gutiérrez’ We Drink from Our Own Wells--specifically his thoughts on conversion.  (The editors include chapter 6 and part of chapter 7 from Gutiérrez’ classic book as the preceding chapter, “Conversion: A Requirement for Solidarity.”)  The essay took shape on a work trip to Africa and offers Farmer’s thoughts on how conversion shapes the social change needed to address unjust social and political structures.  Like this essay, Paul Farmer’s conversion took place in the company of the poor: “And so did the rural Haitians--with their turbulence and God-talk, their suffering and jeremiads, their vivid history and ways of recounting it--become part of my own conversion, informing my medical practice but also my understanding of both suffering and responses to it.” 

          Another gem in this conversation can be found in Gustavo Gutiérrez‘ essay, “The Option for the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ,” reprinted here from Theological Studies.  It extends his own ongoing reflections on the preferential option for the poor, insisting on the essential social dimension of faith in Christ.  “A theological language that neglects unjust suffering and does not loudly proclaim the right of each and every person to happiness remains shallow and betrays the God of whom it speaks, the God of the beatitudes.”   The reader will find here a challenging summary of Gutiérrez‘ theological analysis.  

          This conversation concludes, appropriately, with a conversation--or rather with a distillation of the many conversations, formal and informal, that Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutiérrez had during their days together at Notre Dame.  It is a wide-ranging dialogue on walking in the company of the poor--with thoughts on gratuity, hope, suffering, listening, accompaniment--a dialogue that began with Paul Farmer reading A Theology of Liberation many years ago in rural Haiti.

          The book is intended for a wide audience: theologians and medical professionals, persons working with oppressed and marginalized people, and “as a resource for students of medicine, public health, anthropology, political science, philosophy, theology, community development, and economics, as they prepare for their own life’s work.”  And it can serve as a hope-filled resource for anyone seeking a faith that does justice.  In Paul Farmer’s words, “It is always the time of cholera somewhere in our world.”