Poverty in America affects more than 37 million people, but that reality can be too great to comprehend. If everyone in poverty lined up, how long would the queue stretch? If everyone living in poverty clamored into school buses, how many buses would it take? No matter how we visualize it, the number can simply be too large to be meaningful.
In his message for the Seventh World Day of the Poor, Pope Francis writes that “When speaking of the poor, it is easy to fall into rhetorical excess. It is also an insidious temptation to remain at the level of statistics and numbers. The poor are persons; they have faces, stories, hearts and souls.”
Despite our attempts to mask it in anonymous statistics, poverty is very real and we know it. We see it regularly when our neighbors pass us on the sidewalks or ask for spare change outside a grocery store. And when we see poverty, do we take action? Too often, the answer is no.
This Seventh World Day of the Poor, we reflect on how to connect with those in poverty and how to become personally engaged in the mission to end poverty.
The Book of Tobit’s Message on the Seventh World Day of the Poor
In his message, Francis reflects on the story of Tobit. Tobit led his life serving the poor and the excluded. He gave proper burials to the dead who had merely been discarded. Tobit was devoted to works of charity his entire life. Having been impoverished himself, Tobit was particularly gifted at recognizing those in need and doing what he could to help them.
Today, many of us are removed from poverty. We have constructed a world where we’re simply not exposed to it unless we seek it. Our schools, neighborhoods, and even our churches are often segregated by income. As Francis writes, “The poor become a film clip that can affect us for a moment, yet when we encounter them in flesh and blood on our streets, we are annoyed and look the other way.”
Many of the ills causing the poverty we see can be tied to the choices of those in power. The racism embedded in our environments, the poverty of millions, and the unending violations of workers’ rights can be easily tied to deliberate acts or willful neglect by our legislators, politicians, and businesspeople.
However, while looking for where to pin the blame for the plight of our neighbors may be intellectually satisfying, it doesn’t do our struggling neighbors much good. While we must work to hold those in power accountable, we also need to recognize that we can be agents of change too.
The Importance of Personal Involvement in Justice and Charity
This Seventh World Day of the Poor, Francis writes, “It is easy to delegate charity to others, yet the calling of every Christian is to become personally involved.”
For many of us, the call to take personal action is nothing new. Perhaps that’s part of what makes it so difficult to act on. We know that we’re called to act, as Francis writes, but when we encounter those who are struggling, we look away. Each time we look away, it becomes harder to face the problems in our communities and our country.
So, how can we extend our charity beyond donations, retweets, and Instagram posts? How can we get involved, not only in acts of charitable work, but of structural change by understanding the problems afflicting our communities and their roots? And finally, how can we empower our brothers and sisters experiencing poverty to address its root causes?
1. Learn About Poverty and Educate Your Neighbors
Poverty is reinforced and allowed to persist due to structural elements of our society. How can a family escape this cycle when forced to choose between paying rent or taking essential medications? Francis writes that when such a choice has to be made, “we need to pay attention to the voices of those who uphold the right to both goods in the name of the dignity of the human person.”
Inaccessible nutrition, unaffordable housing, and costly medical care are just a few parts of the complex web that makes escaping poverty so difficult. As Christians and people of goodwill concerned with poverty, we must educate ourselves and our neighbors about these influences, which range from education and food security to mental health and decades of discrimination.
When we develop a greater understanding of these complex issues, we can begin to implement change. While food banks and shelters are important parts of a community’s infrastructure, they aren’t long-term solutions to the structural problems of food insecurity and unaffordable housing. By learning about the root causes that lead people to utilize these services, we can identify areas worthy of our advocacy and action.
2. Connect With Those in Poverty
When our only exposure to those in poverty is through the TV, a phone screen, or a podcast, we are reducing individuals to a faceless mass. In reality, those who are disenfranchised are just as real as you. But to successfully empower them to be their own agents of change, we have to start with connection. Only when we cultivate those interpersonal relationships, Francis writes, can we “recognize the genuine needs of our brothers and sisters and not our own personal hopes and aspirations.”
When we build relationships that enable understanding and solidarity with those in poverty, we can take actions that are just, practical, and rooted in respect for an individual’s needs. For example, when we encounter those living in our community who are experiencing poverty, we might learn that some are previously incarcerated people struggling to find work. Or families trying to find permanently affordable housing. After learning more about the realities facing our neighbors, we can work together to empower them to access the systems and structures they need to thrive.
3. Put Your Hands and Feet to Work
In the Book of Tobit, Tobit reminds his son to go beyond prayer and be an agent of change. Francis invokes this lesson in his message, writing that "Those living in poverty must also be involved and accompanied in a process of change and responsibility.”
CCHD supports groups who embody this message, by supporting those in poverty and empowering them to change their situation. Just as there are many factors that influence poverty, there are many groups empowering their communities to address the specific needs of people in poverty. These groups help those living in poverty develop the skills and knowledge to overcome the challenges they face.
Take the Chicago Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, for example. They have advocated for better mental health services for low-income Chicagoans for over 30 years.
In Iowa, the Center for Workforce Justice is a coalition of low-wage workers and immigrants working for social and economic justice. Through their organizing and action, they educate vulnerable communities about their rights, preserve affordable housing, and advocate for workplace safety.
In New Mexico, La Cosecha Community Supported Agriculture helps connect community members to healthy food while supporting small-scale farmers. They also have a focus on establishing relationships with state agencies to drive further change.
No matter where you live, you can find groups like these and many more. From advocacy groups and community land trusts to worker-owned Co-ops and community development organizations, there are endless ways to get personally involved in your community.
To find a group in your community, check out this map of CCHD-supported groups across the country.
Support CCHD, Support Communities Across America
This World Day of The Poor, remember the story of Tobit and the power of taking personal action. Francis’ message reminds us that to act is the calling of all Christians and people of goodwill and that we can do the most justice when we take the time to engage and act in solidarity with our brothers and sisters experiencing poverty.
Get involved with a group making a change in your community. Or, if you can’t find a group, consider starting one of your own.
Finally, remember that the groups supporting and empowering those in poverty are nonprofits, charitable groups, and volunteer organizations. They make an incredible difference with very little. When you support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, it means that we’re able to help more groups take their mission further.
To support CCHD’s mission to end poverty in America, contribute to the CCHD’s collection in your parish. If your (arch)diocese doesn’t participate, you can support the collection online with #iGiveCatholicTogether or send your donation to:
Catholic Campaign for Human Development
USCCB Office of National Collections
P. O. Box 96278
Washington DC 20090-6278
Make your check or money order payable to: "Catholic Campaign for Human Development.”
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) was established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to carry out Jesus’ mission, "...to bring glad tidings to the poor...liberty to captives...sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18).
CCHD follows two main objectives. First, to help low-income people and those experiencing poverty participate in decisions that affect their lives, their families, and communities. Secondly, we seek to educate and enhance the public’s understanding of poverty, its root causes, and the systems that allow it to persist.
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