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"The Florida Project" and the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

"The Florida Project" and the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

The “option for the poor and vulnerable” means that the needs of those who do not have food and a place to live come before our needs.

 

This principle of Catholic Social Teaching has a history of controversy because it can be said to be the mantra of Liberation Theology. This expression and practice of theology arose in Latin America (including Central America) in the 1950s. It was after World War II and the fear of the spread of communism was pervasive. Liberation Theology expresses a concern for and seeks to liberate the poor and marginalized from oppressive systems and institutions and ironically, this would include communism. Because it was interpreted and often wrongly labeled as being Marxist and Communist-inspired many of the developments of Liberation Theology were considered suspicious and erroneous.

 

Archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil from 1964 – 1985, is often quoted as saying, “"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

 

Pope Francis, however, has shone a new light on the understanding of Liberation Theology by his continual emphasis that the Church’s preference is for the poor and marginalized and clearing the way for the causes of beatification for Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ and Archbishop Oscar Romero who were previously considered proponents of a Marxist-inspired theology and praxis. Pope Francis shows us that the liberating salvation that Jesus brings to us is for the whole person, body and soul and that we are to work together to transform the structures that oppress people – even in the shadow of Disney World as “The Florida Project” film directs our attention.

 

 Directed by Sean Baker and written by Baker and co-producer Chris Bergoch, “The Florida Project” tells the story of the hidden homeless who inhabit the pay-by-the-week cheap motels within sight of Walt Disney World Resort in Kissimmee, Florida. The resort was originally called “The Florida Project” by Walt Disney when he developed it in the 1960s to supplement Disneyland (opened in Anaheim, CA in 1955) but with its own specific vision.

 

In the film, Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince) is the six year-old daughter of the young 20-something unemployed Halley (Bria Vinaite), who sells cheap perfume and finally resorts to entertaining men to pay the rent. Moonee hangs with her pal Scooty (Christopher Riviera), whose mom works as a waitress and gives the kids food from the kitchen. These two mother-child pairs live at the purple Magic Castle Motel managed by the kindly and often exasperated Bobby (Willem Dafoe). The children, including Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a child from another motel, go on their daily, unsupervised excursions to find something to do, including major mischief, during Florida’s long hot summer.

 

The film is a visceral experience of hidden homelessness in the shadow of “the happiest place on earth” where families go to have fun and make warm memories. Halley is both a poor excuse for a mother and a loving nurturer at the same time. But this doesn’t mean she can prevent her precocious “mini me” little girl with a smart and foul mouth from setting an abandoned motel on fire.

 

When we bemoan the state of the family today and consider how we will minister to families, do we seek out the hidden poor and homeless who live on cheap food and barely have the skills to survive from week to week? I wondered where Halley’s own mother was and where the fathers were in this heartbreaking narrative of patchwork love and survival on the lowdown.

 

These are people who do not have any security beyond a week at a motel. Bobby, who does not own the motel, tries to help. But he cannot let people live there long enough to establish legal residence and this makes them ineligible to receive welfare benefits. Without a legal residence they technically don't exist. Bobby devises an arrangement with another motel for a cheap price for Halley and Moonee (and others) for a night away – and so housekeeping can clean the room. Eventually other motels don’t want to help. The poor inconvenience them.

 

Bobby does what he can but it is not enough.

 

The “option for the poor and vulnerable” means that the needs of those who do not have food and a place to live come before our needs.

 

What, then, are we to do? Luke 3:10 and Matthew 6 are good places to start.

 

 

 

 

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