Why Catholics care about people living in poverty
"Would you like your toast buttered or dry?” This important question was key to my early-morning ministry to men and women experiencing homelessness on the streets of London, England. I had traveled 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to live in community with my British Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace during my novitiate ministry experience. Each morning I left the comforts of our house at the crack of dawn in order to have the tea ready and the toaster warmed up when our first clients walked in the door. As I struggled to get out of my warm and toasty bed while it was still dark outside, I would think of the men and women waking up on park benches or, if they were lucky, in an overnight shelter. I may have been preparing to profess a vow of poverty, but these people lived real economic poverty each day.
The Passage Day Centre for the Homeless, a collaborative ministry of London’s Westminster Cathedral and the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, provides far more than a hot breakfast to men and women “sleeping rough” on the city’s streets. Staff and volunteers help clients find housing, seek employment, gain literacy, and learn computer skills. Counselors and health-care workers provide mental and physical care. Chaplains offer spiritual care, daily Mass, and common prayer. Combined, these efforts treat the whole person with dignity and empower these men and women to rebuild their lives.
The preferential option
Of course I did not need to travel 3,000 miles to find people experiencing poverty. Here in the United States the poverty rate is increasing at an alarming rate. In 2010, 46.2 million Americans were living below the poverty line—a $22,314 annual income for a family of four—the largest number since the U.S. government began tracking such data more than 50 years ago. Globally more than 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day.
The Catholic faith calls us to live out a “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.” What that means in the simplest of terms is that we, as a society, must put the needs of people living in poverty and vulnerable situations first. By option the church does not mean “optional” but rather that we need to opt, or choose, to act on behalf of people living in poverty.
Caring for people who are poor has been part of what it means to be a Christian from the very beginning. Since its earliest days, the church has drawn inspiration from Old Testament prophets and none other than Jesus himself in discerning the Christian response to poverty. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus began his public ministry, he was handed a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and read these words aloud in the synagogue: “ ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord’ ” (Luke 4:18-19).
As anyone who has read the rest of the story knows, he went on to do just that. Jesus lived in solidarity with, and ministered in loving action to, people who were poor and vulnerable in his own time. As Christians following in his footsteps today, we are called to do the same.
Shoes on the ground
The recent economic crisis has only increased the number of people turning to parishes and nonprofits for help. In 2011 Catholic Charities USA, with its network of more than 3,000 local offices across the nation, reported an 80 percent increase in requests for assistance from the “working poor”—people who are employed yet still living in poverty. Requests are also on the rise from families (66 percent), people who are homeless (60 percent), and the middle class (59 percent).
In the face of such rising poverty, those of us who count ourselves members of a church committed to loving action have our work cut out for us. Perhaps this is why Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that “justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it” (encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, no. 6). We can think of charity and justice as the “two feet” of Christian discipleship. To follow Jesus we can’t only hop on one foot, either providing charity or acting for justice. We need to do both. Otherwise we as a society will fall over, while those who are poor and vulnerable will fall into, and through, the cracks.
Charity is very important. As the pope writes in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, the “church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word” (no. 22). For one thing, charity is often quite literally a matter of life and death for those in need. If a mother in a drought-stricken region of the world does not receive emergency food assistance, her child might die of starvation. Providing charity is also an essential part of what it means to be a Christian. When we volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, we remember the words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
The call to loving action, however, does not stop at charity. Remember the two feet. We must also look closely at the root causes of poverty and seek to change them through actions for justice. For example, let’s say you are a regular volunteer at a shelter for pregnant women. In conversation with the women, you learn that many have been approved for government assistance that would help them get into permanent housing, but the waiting list is more than one year long. What can you do? You are already walking with the foot of charity by helping at the shelter. As you step with the other foot, the foot of justice, you might call your elected representatives and share the story of the women. You can advocate for legislative or policy changes to increase access to affordable housing.
As the U.S. Catholic Bishops said in their pastoral letter Economic Justice For All, the preferential option for the poor calls us ‘to speak for the voiceless” (no.16). Something powerful happens when people come together to speak on behalf of justice. For the past four years I have joined more than 350 faithful citizens—women religious, clergy, parishioners, and Catholic service and justice organizations—for Catholic Advocacy Day in Washington State. We journey to the state capitol to speak with one voice on behalf of people who are poor and vulnerable.
Blessed Pope John Paul II observed that in these times the preferential option for the poor “has to be expressed in worldwide dimensions, embracing the immense number of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and those without hope” (encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 42). Our call to loving action extends beyond our own communities and even our own national borders.
How can you respond to global poverty? Taking a step for charity, you can support the efforts of groups like Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community. CRS is on the ground in more than 100 countries serving more than 100 million people in need. Taking a step for justice you can join Catholics Confronting Global Poverty, an effort of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and CRS that seeks to mobilize 1 million Catholics to pray and advocate to end global poverty. You can sign up for electronic advocacy alerts on their website, crs.org/globalpoverty.
Ultimately the call to preferential love for people who are poor and vulnerable stems from the reality that each of us, no matter our economic status, is created in the image and likeness of God. We have inherent human dignity and the right to life. That means we also have a right to those things that are necessary to live a dignified life, including food, shelter, education, employment, health care, and housing.
That became very clear to me as a novice when I ministered at the Passage Day Centre. In addition to my toast duties, I sometimes helped out on the hot breakfast line. One day I served an elderly woman a large helping of porridge, or as we Americans like to call it, oatmeal. A few moments later she returned, her bowl barely touched. “I’d like to speak to the chef,” she declared in a very dignified voice.
I went back into the kitchen and relayed the message. The gentleman who had been cooking that day’s breakfast put down his spatula, smoothed out his apron, and walked out to the front counter. They engaged in a lengthy and civilized discussion on the preferred qualities of porridge. Apparently in her opinion that day’s batch of porridge had been far too runny.
A few hours later after we closed down our breakfast operation I went back into the kitchen and spoke to the chef. He thanked me for interrupting his cooking so that he could speak to the woman. “Sometimes they just need an opportunity to speak their truth,” he said. “After all, she doesn’t have control over much in her life. Listening to her opinion on the quality of our porridge is the least I can do for her.” He clearly recognized that she was not merely a homeless woman but a person with inherent dignity. In choosing to listen to her so attentively, he exercised his option for the poor and vulnerable.
For more on the riches of Catholic social teaching go to “Catholic social teaching: A guide” on VocationNetwork.org.
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