In what was billed as the Romero Day of Commitment, business and civic leaders joined Archbishop Charles Chaput on Monday, March 23 to see homelessness and the face of hunger close up.
They fanned out to the streets of Philadelphia and across the river into Camden, N.J., to tour facilities that serve the homeless and programs that address poverty, especially food insecurity — so dubbed because while families may not be starving, they do not know from where their next meal will come.
At a meeting Monday evening at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Philadelphia, more than a dozen participants gathered before heading out to the street. They included Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Jay Devine of the public relations firm Devine & Partners and Sister of Mercy Mary Scullion.
In total, about 20 leaders visiting projects earlier in the day included Richard Clark, former chief executive of Merck; city councilman James Kenney; Camden Mayor Dana Redd; federal Judge Gerald McHugh; and Rev. Agnes Norfleet of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, among others.
Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden visited the lunch program at Camden’s New Visions homeless shelter.
Archbishop Chaput and Sister Mary Scullion toured the streets of Kensington Monday evening to speak with poor people in the gritty neighborhood in North Philadelphia. Sister Mary had earlier visited the St. Elizabeth Recovery Residence based at the former North Philadelphia parish, and Hub of Hope, a shelter located in the Suburban Station regional rail concourse.
In her remarks, Sister Mary said the archbishop some time ago had asked her to “protect the rights of the poor during the World Meeting of Families and to raise the issue of hunger and homelessness before the pope comes,” Sept. 26-27.
She traced the reason for the day of awareness to the 35th anniversary on Monday of the death of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was murdered while celebrating Mass on the Monday after the Fourth Sunday of Lent in March 1980.
Known for defending the rights of poor Salvadorans especially during the country’s civil war, the archbishop last month was declared a martyr for the faith by Pope Francis. Archbishop Romero will be beatified — declared “blessed” — May 23 in San Salvador.
“We want to build real relationships with the hungry and poor in our midst,” Sister Mary said. “That’s why we picked this day — to honor his solidarity and building community with the poor.”
Her work with homeless people has gained national prominence through Project HOME, the ministry in the city’s Fairmount section that she leads as executive director.
She takes inspiration from Pope Francis, who calls all people to “uphold the dignity of the human person in pursuit of the common good,” she said, adding his vision “calls us to help shape our economic policies.”
That means providing dignified work, health care and housing for everyone in society, she said.
Archbishop Chaput reminded everyone that during the papal visit in September, more than a million visitors will be flooding intot he city, during that time, “we must protect the poor,” he said.
“As members of the church we’re called to serve the poor and love the poor. But you can’t do that unless you know the poor.”
For that reason the day of visiting the poor fits well with the anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s death, who today offers “testimony as to how we should act,” Archbishop Chaput said. The late archbishop is a “symbol, a call to action for the poor,” he said, adding we are not only called to love and to know poor people, “but we’re also called to be poor ourselves.”
The archbishop reiterated his hope that if any money were leftover from running the papal events, he wanted to make a “legacy gift” to the poor in the name of Pope Francis “to commemorate his presence among us.”
While he thought every bit of the money raised would go toward the papal visit, Sister mary said, “I guarantee we will have a gift for the poor.”
Perhaps the greatest such gift would not be a single monetary sum, but the end of homelessness in Philadelphia.
“We do believe we can be the first city in America to end and prevent homelessness,” Sister Mary said.
In might be a tall order, but Mayor Nutter, who earlier on Monday served lunch to homeless men on the line at St. John’s Hospice in Philadelphia, set the roots of his hopes for doing so in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the passage, Jesus said when he was hungry, naked, sick, in prison and lonely, people cared for him. And when they did these things for the least of his brothers and sisters, they did it for him.
“That must be our goal and commitment — to eradicate homelessness,” Nutter said. “We have the land, the property, but not the funding or the political will.”
The visit of Pope Francis is a great opportunity, the mayor said, “to tell him of our challenges, and our solutions, that we all face. We have the opportunity to show the good work being done on the streets of Philadelphia.”
Achieving that goal may be a stiff challenge in the six months ahead of the papal visit, but a start begins with recognizing and getting to know poor people in the community, the speakers agreed.
“We see God’s people and serve them regardless of their faith or if they have no faith at all,” the mayor said. “But they’re here and we have an obligation to these folks, to offer a safe, clean and warm place.”
He also said that besides the efforts of government services and private social outreach such as Catholic and other religious ministries, “children and adults go to bed hungry, or with food insecurity, not knowing where their next meal will come from,” he said. “There’s no reason anyone should go to bed hungry in America.”