Friday, September 25, 2015

Helping the poor

There are, among some vocal Catholics, a distressing number of people who really don't like Pope Francis' emphasis on the poor.

I read something recently that really struck me, though: this pope is good at challenging all of us, not just those of us who think we're okay because we follow Church teachings on the big issues, oppose abortion and gay "marriage," and so on.

When Pope Francis speaks against abortion, for instance, some of us feel good about ourselves: why, we're pro-life!  We're on the right side!

But then when he speaks about abolishing the death penalty, or helping young people find work, or addressing the needs of the poor for food and shelter, or welcoming the immigrant--suddenly, some are not so comfortable.

Let's face it: except for the front-line workers who volunteer daily in crisis pregnancy centers or who pray outside abortion clinics on a daily or weekly basis (and I admire them with great gratitude), most of us can oppose abortion without having to do much.  We're against it.  We may, on occasion, send ten or twenty dollars to a pro-life ministry group.  Some of us were, for a while, suckered into thinking that "pro-life activism" meant giving time and money to wealthy politicians, but we were naive about that (alas, some still are).  It is easy to be a pro-life Christian in America.

It is less easy to be really concerned for the poor in a way that cuts into our own comfort level.  It is less easy to realize that our complaints about the material goods, most of them luxuries, we somehow think we are entitled to but don't have are a contributing factor in the poverty of our neighbors.  It is less easy to admit that we sometimes spend more on silly things like Christmas decorations or glitzy accessories (my own personal fault) than we do on relieving real suffering in our communities.  It is less easy to acknowledge that we've acquired some of the worst attitudes of materialism, attitudes like, "You should always buy the best (car, cell phone, computer) you can afford," or "It makes sense to spend a bit more to get good quality things that will last."

Pope Francis is asking us to do better than that.  And a priest I know is doing a really good job of living up to that challenge:
"He's again talked about the need to serve the poor," said the Rev. Bryan Jerabek, pastor of Holy Rosary Catholic Church. "That's been a great inspiration."
Holy Rosary church was founded in 1889, celebrated its 125th anniversary last year and has been known for decades as a focal point of Catholic outreach to the poor in Birmingham.
On Sept. 20, Bishop Robert J. Baker dedicated the new St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Learning Center at Holy Rosary Church.
"It was a happy coincidence that we had our dedication the week the pope was coming to America," Jerabek said. "I think we answered his call." [...]
Now run by the diocese, the opening of the learning center signals a commitment to continue serving the needy, Jerabek said.
"We recognized there was a need for literacy program to help the students in the area improve their reading," Jerabek said. "We had 3rd and 4th graders who had trouble reading."
The new learning center is in an updated office building. "It's a remodeled building with two rooms and bathroom, where children can do homework and receive tutoring assistance," Jerabek said.
This is a simple and practical way to help poor children.  To find out more about the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Learning Center, you can go here.

I know that Catholics in America are capable of great generosity toward the poor.  I also know that all of us--and I am certainly no exception--have a tendency to become complacent.  Surely, we think, we're doing enough!  But are we?  That is a question we can only answer as individuals, and on a daily basis.  Perhaps what we did yesterday or last week or last year is impossible today, because the demands of our vocations to our families or our current financial status are not the same as they were then.  But on the other hand, perhaps our closets are overflowing with barely-worn clothing and shoes, our kitchens are overcrowded with gadgets and appliances, and instead of being content we are dissatisfied because someone else has a nicer house and better furniture. That is, at its heart, a spiritual problem, but it is one that has practical ramifications when it comes to our commitment to help the poor.

As Pope Francis speaks of the poor, instead of harrumphing and wishing he'd talk more about abortion or gay "marriage," perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves if we're doing all we can (as individuals and given whatever current realities we face) to relieve the sufferings of poverty.  It is not enough to see Christ in the unborn if we can ignore him in the bad neighborhoods, in the faces of the homeless, in the child who is struggling to read because his parents can barely read themselves and have no time to help him, and in all the ways in which He is present to us in the little ones of the world.


bearing said...

I realize this is a bit of a derailment from the main point of your post, but I would take issue with the notion that "It makes sense to spend a bit more to get good quality things that will last" is really one of "the worst attitudes of materialism."

What good does it do to buy things that are cheap junk? Craftsmanship matters, and if I have to buy the same necessary doodad three times because it keeps breaking, I haven't done anyone any favors -- except rewarded somebody for making cheap junk instead of rewarding somebody else for producing a well-made item. At worst it's a difference of opinion regarding the prudential use of one's own disposable money -- and there's nothing particularly "materialist" about a judgment between a higher-cost item that's truly of better quality (as opposed to glitzier or with the "right" designer name on it), and a lower-cost item that's truly of lower quality. With five kids to keep in clothes and enough liquidity to be choosy up front, you bet I try to buy the older ones things that are going to last through a couple of cycles of hand-me-downs.

OK, back to the rest of your post, which is not primarily about this minor issue.

Red Cardigan said...

Bearing, interesting comment! I could (and probably should) write a whole blog post answering it. :)

For now, let me emphasize that I was criticizing the attitude of "spending more = quality," not the idea that one might wish to buy quality items at times. For some items (you mentioned children's clothing) it can be a good thing to research and buy quality (even if the brand that holds up best in consumer testing is a cheap brand sold at a discount store). But for other items "quality" is sometimes careful marketing--that is, the right combination of advertising, price inflation, and brand consciousness is used to create the illusion of quality.

For instance, some children's orthopedic doctors believe that the "best" shoes for a child's developing feet are actually quite soft and unstructured--and relatively inexpensive. But what are usually promoted by retailers, trade writers and others as the "best" shoes for children are expensive, sturdy shoes with thick soles and (sometimes) arch supports (and that latter is something many orthopedic doctors think shouldn't be in kids' shoes at all). True, the soft, unstructured shoes won't always last long enough to be passed down to siblings, but then again, some foot doctors think that wearing someone else's already-worn shoes can cause problems of its own. The question: "What is 'quality' when we are talking about children's shoes?" becomes even more complicated when you realize that the vast majority of children's shoes are being made in factories in China by workers who are being paid very little. Consider this:

Okay, I'll stop for now. :) But the question of quality, and what constitutes quality, in a global economy where third-world workers are being exploited in many instances is a complex one. And the reflexive idea that "spending more" equals "quality," which was the materialistic idea I criticized in my post, can be a contributing factor.

Susan Foley said...

Good point on the "quality" issues. Of course good quality goods are sometimes an economy in the long run, and certainly put less trash in the landfill; but we need to be careful that it's real quality we are talking about, not something some ad has talked us into.

I am fully compliant with the Church's teachings on sexuality. Rather than congratulating myself on this I am inclined to think that I've had rather an easy time of it: long marriage to a good man, not someone who mistreated me, stable economic situation and so forth. So many people are confronted with so many challenges in this area that I have never had to deal with! I'd like to think I'd have done the right thing under those circumstances, but I really don't know, do I.

We have to realize, I think, that Jesus did not talk a lot about sexuality. He was interested in seeing people do the right thing in that area, but he had a lot more to say about caring for those who are less fortunate than he had to say about sex. It would be the worst mistake for me to sit here and say, well I'm good, I have not divorced, I have not had affairs, I have not had an abortion or used contraception, so I'm finished, I don't have to share any material wealth with those who have less than I do. Sounds a little too much like the Pharisee in the story, yes?

Elizabeth said...

I like the way your post challenges smug self-satisfaction, Erin. Caring for the poor is not just something done once, or with one donation, and then we can forget about it.

The issues around ethical purchasing are many.

As for the quality issue, agreed that figuring out what the means, exactly, is a challenge. I choose slightly more expensive organic food (though since retirement we shop more at Costco than the co-op) because I know the impact of ag-chemicals on both farm workers and the environment. The organic growers I know (and my job kept me up close with them for three decades) both pay their workers as much as they can and are not living large themselves. I could buy a bit cheaper and make a few more donations, but I'm trying to use my meager contributions to the food economy to make good work and environmentally friendly farming pay.

On the issue of lasting products vs, cheap ones, just one example. My parents routinely bought cheap, crappy kitchen knives that held a sharp edge for a week or two and never could be sharpened at home back up to a level that made them more than a bruising threat to tomatoes. They replaced them regularly and we had a drawer full of useless knives. I bought a few high quality knives and we have not spent far more money on lots of lousy items that would fill drawers or landfills. Ditto with all the kitchenware and cookware. These are items that we use to produce decent meals from scratch, as such are almost a form of household capital.

Our first world status means that our purchases ripple in big ways around the globe.

Cheap bananas? They seem like a good deal until you learn directly about the lives of banana growers (never a day off) and how they get treated by the name fruit-growers. So I buy the organic fair-trade bananas, because our produce buyer visited Peru and spent many days with them. The fair trade premium went in to a social fund that paid for a clinic and a school, and pay a teacher. Growers who are contracted with the big name companies may not have such basic amenities.

This all goes way beyond charitable contributions. I know you don't care for the support for the Immokalee tomato workers in Florida because the words 'reproductive rights" were in public statements. Erin. But until the workers had a union contract, the growers were spraying while pregnant women worked in the fields, resulting in many hideous birth defects that are incompatible with survival outside the womb. It is also a form of reproductive right to be able to work without risking the life of your fetus from chemical poisoning.

The world is a web of interdependency. Being ethical requires deep inquiry.

Svar said...

I'm 100% for helping the poor and helping the young worker find a job (I'm a Fr. Coughlin socially right, economically left "social justice" Catholic). But the Death Penalty? When did that become a pro-life issue? When I realized that pro-life meant that every life was valuable regardless of circumstances, I realized that I was only anti-abortion and anti-infanticide. The Church has been completely fine with the death penalty until V2 and even then, it is okay to support and even perform the the death penalty, it was Pope John Paul's contention that we have the means to keep certain criminals alive and therefore the death penalty isn't necessary. Regardless, it's a common misunderstanding to think that death penalty is wrong now.

As for immigration, the Pope has no right to force any nation to violate it's national cultural integrity and sovereignty by taking in immigrants. No country has the obligation to take in any group. And just look at what these "Syrian" "refugees" have been doing in Europe: the same thing they did in the ME. The Pope looks bad by browbeating European countries for a good year to take in these violent aliens.

Of course, I have no problem with taking in ME Christians, they have suffered enough. Maybe even non-Christian allies of our Christian brethren there like the Alawites.

But how is it helping our working men if we constantly bring in illegals who big business ultracapitalists use to dilute the American working man's wages so that they don't have to pay him a living wage? Why must a country give so many amends to a group that is here illegally against the laws of this country? It's not inhumane to send them back. Mexico does it to Central Americans and no one says a thing but when an American even talks about wanting to do it to Mexicans it becomes a thing.