WASHINGTON (CNS) — What can Catholics do to combat poverty? Pope Francis’ desire for a “church that is poor and for the poor” has them asking that question anew.

At a Feb. 3 workshop titled “Poverty as a Challenge to Family Stability,” held during the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, two panelists discussed the scope of poverty today and some ways to address it.

Amelia Kegan, senior policy analyst at Bread for the World, the Christian citizens anti-hunger lobby, shared staggering statistics on poverty, including that one in six Americans currently lives below the poverty line.


Kegan said that federal programs such as food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have blunted the impact of poverty on families. “The solutions are there. More than anything, it is about getting our political leaders to listen,” she said.

As Kegan intimated, getting leaders to listen is challenging when the groups affected by policies are disinclined to speak. Those living in poverty often feel isolated by their circumstances, and are unlikely to seek changes.

Molly Fleming-Pierre, policy director of Communities Creating Opportunities, spoke about the problem in the context of her own family’s struggle with underemployment. She described how, when the gas company recently broke her parents’ water heater, they felt powerless to seek reimbursement.

Fleming-Pierre quoted her mother as making a distinction between her daughter’s can-do attitude and her own feeling of defeat: “We are not the people that make things happen, we are the people who have things happen to us.”

The experience illustrated what Fleming-Pierre considers the “power inequality gap” of those living in poverty.

Though power, as Fleming-Pierre said, “is organized people and organized money,” gains can be made by the underprivileged. The key is in coming together.

“If we are going to move beyond (poverty), we need to build powerful groups of people,” she explained.

This can be done by grass-roots organizing, as Fleming-Pierre does through Communities Creating Opportunities and the PICO National Network, a faith-based community organizing group.

Even in the digital age, going door to door is still effective, she said. “There is so much power in being able to go to an elected leader, saying, ‘I knocked on 10,000 doors, and 8,000 say you need to do this.'”

Advocacy does not need to begin on such a grand scale. Said Kegan, “Seven letters is what it takes to get a congressional office to start tracking an issue.”

When Catholics advocate for the issues important to them, they “bring a richness of understanding and a strong grounding in faith,” added Kegan. In interacting with their leaders on the issue of poverty, their perspective “can give them hope.”

The Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, this year held Feb. 2-5, is sponsored by 15 Catholic organizations and six agencies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.