Though I am well-acquainted with the geography and history of East Asia, I never encountered the word ragpicker in my studies or travels. This changed when I read Fr. Paul Glynn’s The Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara, Convert and Servant of the Slums of Tokyo.
At the heart of this biography, Satoko Kitahara is born and raised by her well-to-do Japanese family. She enjoys an education, and cultivates a love of poetry and fine art. However, the Second World War decimates the Japanese landscape and morale. Satoko, who once believed that Japan was the crown of the world, now sees her fellow countrymen defeated and in despair. After the war, day-by-day she drops her sister off at a local foreign, convent school. There, Satoko meets the Mercedarian sisters and develops an interest in Christianity. Sataoko, convinced of the truth of Christ (and to her parent’s dismay), converts to Catholicism.
Because of her new-found faith, Satoko becomes interested in the people living in the local slums (called Ants Town because the people who lived there “worked like ants”).
She visits Ants Town to volunteer a few hours per week, but soon, she realizes this is not enough. Satoko wants to mirror Christ who took on our humanity and also became poor. Because of her strong conviction, she eventually becomes a “ragpicker,” someone who sifts through garbage for scraps to sell. Leaving behind a life of wealth, comfort, and security, Satoko plunges into Tokyo’s most destitute neighborhood, only to die penniless and of tuberculosis at the young age of 28. Today, the young woman known as the “Dorothy Day of Tokyo” is on her way to sainthood, currently bearing the title Venerable Satoko Kitahara.
After reading Smile, I was left with many convictions churning in my heart. I thought for many days about God’s mercy and the mercy I offer to others. Often, as Christians, we are quick to say that “Yes, I show mercy to those who need it the most.” After all, it’s so easy to say we are merciful. We throw some coins in the can of a homeless person, we serve an hour a month at a soup kitchen, or we go to Mass regularly. We’ve gone on mission trips to other continents, painted walls, held children for a few hours, and then headed across the ocean to our own comforts.
I say this not to disparage volunteering in soup kitchens or participating in foreign missions, but rather to cast a light on how we think about mercy. In my personal experience, I’ve found that it’s much easier to show mercy to those with whom I don’t have a close relationship. For example, when I was in college, I went on a mission trip to Texas to conduct vacation Bible schools in low-income housing communities. It was easy for me to show mercy and “love on” those kids during that week because I didn’t have the baggage associated with them and their lives. In a similar vein, it’s easy to love kids in a slum living 5,000 miles away because, whether we want to admit it or not, we will eventually go back home to our normalcy.
But, it’s hard to love those who are closest to us. Simply put: We know too much about them. When you’re spouse is insufferable, it’s hard to love and show mercy to him or her. Perhaps there’s a co-worker who grinds your last gear, and you’d rather be sick than share an office space with him. Or maybe it’s your parents, who you think don’t listen to you enough or are maybe too overbearing. It looks like a brother or sister who takes advantage of you, or the family next door that has three kids who are just too loud. In these cases, mercy is very, very difficult.
When reading about Satoko’s life in Japan, I thought about how she served as a conduit of Jesus’ mercy to Tokyo’s most destitute. It would have been easy, effortless even, for her to ignore the plight of Ants Town. After all, she was educated and lived in a comfortable home. If she wanted to do good, Satoko could have easily went to a “proper” mission and sacrificed an hour or two a week.
But, she didn’t.
Rather, Satoko was wholly invested and merciful to those in her own backyard. While others in her elite neighborhood looked down on both her work and the citizens of Ants Town, Satoko gave her physical and spiritual life up for the most poor of Tokyo. But, though she was materially poor at the end of her life, Satoko experienced the richness of the many conversions to Catholic Christianity as a result of her witness. Ultimately, she was known as a “Japanese for the Japanese.”
I ask you: Today, to whom will you show mercy? Think about where you’re from and where you live. Will you be a Californian for Californians? Maybe you’ll be a brother to your sister, or a wife to your husband. A Canadian to Canadians. One does not need to venture very far to show mercy, or even to make an impact. Like Satoko, your ministry of mercy may be next door or down the street. Our Lord does not require a journey of thousands of miles to show His mercy to others. Today, I pray that we may take the love that Christ has given us, and pass it along to those who are closest to our hearts.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. // Luke 6:36
O Font of Life, unfathomable Divine Mercy, envelop the whole world and empty Yourself upon us. // The Chaplet of Divine Mercy