The poorest of the poor confront me every day. I don’t know the names or the life stories of the men and women who ask me for money as I leave a downtown Philadelphia Wawa with my snack or coffee.
What would it cost me to ask a man his name, shake his hand, look him in the eye? But I don’t do that. I shrug off his plea for cash, telling myself he’d probably only use the dollar I’d give him for drink or drugs or other personal destruction. I’m forced to encounter him. But I don’t know him.
I do, however, know poor people. These proud friends and acquaintances aren’t homeless beggars on a street corner. They are young and single, and they are husbands and wives, some with children. They are working as hard as they can to keep things going – the mortgage or rent paid up, food coming in, heat and lights turned on, an older car to get around.
They may not be in the official ranks of the 5 percent of unemployed Americans, but they are among those cobbling together part-time hours and seasonal or intermittent work. They represent about double that official joblessness rate. A job here and there helps pay some of the bills, sometime, somehow.
Americans at or near the poverty line don’t want to be told, “things could be a lot worse.” Of course they could – look at the situation in Zimbabwe — but can we make them better at least in our own neighborhoods, and in the Philadelphia region?
We sure could, and we can look to our Catholic tradition of concern for social justice and works of charity for inspiration, if we need any.
Pope Francis has often derided an attitude of indifference people hold in the face of human suffering, and in refusing to know the people who are poor. Too often in America, we like to tell ourselves that struggling is not the same as suffering, that it could be worse, or that somebody else will do something about it.
There is suffering in not finding work, in worrying over every bill, in living with anxiety over raising one’s children, in skipping meals to stretch the budget and in recognizing the deterioration of one’s health. We cannot be indifferent toward it.
Pope Francis calls not for a program of action that a government agency should take up. He offers a personal challenge: “What will you do?” That was his challenge here in Philadelphia as he spoke in the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul last September.
What will you do; what will I do personally? I know I am going to contribute to the annual Catholic Charities Appeal this year, as doing so together with thousands of other Catholics in the Philadelphia region supports the good works of the church for everyone in need.
I also am encouraged about a little-known initiative by diverse representatives of 12 Catholic parishes* across the archdiocese, in city and suburb, meeting to discuss and plan action on the issue of poverty.
Acting in a “Year of Encounter with Pope Francis,” about 50 concerned Catholics are meeting Saturday morning, Jan. 30 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (beginning with Mass and including lunch) at St. Thomas of Villanova Parish’s Rosemont Chapel.
The group, an outgrowth of the local ecumenical group POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) and the national PICO network, is meeting throughout the winter and spring to discuss and pray about major issues of social justice, with the hope of concrete action after Pentecost.
“We are excited the Holy Father visited us in the United States,” group member Mary Laver told me this week. “We are called with eagerness as American Catholics to respond, in the grace of this time, to the suffering of many people excluded from society.”
Future monthly meetings to explore the ways people are excluded in society include racism (with a program in early March at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Philadelphia), immigration (a program in early April at Our Lady of Hope Church, Philadelphia) and incarceration.
“Building a sustained response in our parishes” is the group’s goal to address “systemic change to reduce the number of people in need of charity, and to make a more just world,” Laver said.
This initiative and others won’t end poverty. But if collective efforts get people thinking, praying and acting in small ways, we begin to move way from indifference and toward easing, at least, the sting of poverty.
* Participating parishes in the “Year of Encounter” are Our Lady of Hope, Our Mother of Consolation, St. Francis de Sales, St. Helena, the former St. Joan of Arc, St. Malachy, Visitation B.V.M. and St. Vincent de Paul, all in Philadelphia; and Our Mother of Good Counsel, Bryn Mawr; St. Patrick, Norristown; St. Rose of Lima, North Wales; and St. Thomas, Villanova. For more information, contact Mary Laver.